Just a House
It was dark and moonless, just perfect for a Halloween night. Duo stood in the middle of the five other boys, all about his same age. Their voices droned on, telling him story after story, and though he heard every word, his eyes didn't leave the house.
He wasn't afraid. After all, it was just a house. And they were across the street from the house. And up the block some. Nothing could harm them, at least, not from the house. Duo chewed on his lip and wondered if anyone was at the house. Wondered if just touching the door counted, or if he'd have to actually ring the doorbell.
"It were three years ago." Donny Petricio, from Missus Hill's fifth grade class, was rocking on his heels, mouthing a sucker he'd taken from his trick-or-treat bag. "A kid went inside and no one's seen or heard of him since." Other heads in the group nodded, and Duo tore his eyes away from the house to look at Donny.
"How'd ya know? You seen ‘em?" he scoffed a little. After all, kids said stuff like that all the time, and they was all just trying to scare him. Not that he was scared. It was just a house.
"I seen ‘em!" Willy James yelled. He went to a private school but still liked to hang out with the public school kids. Willy's store-bought mask was pushed up to the top of his head, and the collar of his Frankenstein's Monster costume was skewed from him pulling on it all night. "It was on Christmas. I remember cause that was the year I got my new bike." Willy pointed down the street a ways. "I popped a wheelie right there, but my pants got caught in the chain. Saw the car pull up to the curb and all."
A hand snaked out of the dark crush of bodies and shoved at Willy's chest. "You're lying," the hand's boy said. "There was too much snow that Christmas. Your mama wouldn't have let you outside." Loud laughter and pushing disturbed the quiet street. "'sides, my cousin Jake told me the kid was selling candy for camp and tried to sell it to the old guy."
"He eats ‘em."
Duo turned to look at the solemn voiced boy, one he knew from the schoolyard, but not by name. "Eats kids?" Duo scratched at the black shoe polish on his cheek, wishing he could skip this part of being "the new kid" and just go home.
All heads nodded in synchronicity. "Yeah. They say he's a cannibal, and ate his wife and kid."
Across the street and up the road, a door slammed and the group jumped as one. Duo spun on his feet, ignoring the squeals and nervous teasing behind him. A car started and Duo breathed easier, dismissing the non-threat. His focus went back to the house across the street, and his fingernails scrapped more polish from his face.
It was time and he knew it. Without saying another word, without waiting for more stories he didn't even half believe, Duo stepped off the sidewalk and crossed the street. There was a sudden silence behind him and he almost smiled. The dare wasn't new; five schools in three years, he knew the routine. Testing the new kid, they called it... they all did it. And Duo never failed to dare the test. He never failed to pass the test. Barn jumping and bull chasing, gorge crossing and tombstone tilting, whatever it was his peers set before him, he accomplished it.
There were days Duo loved being the new kid. Being new meant it was all new, not boring and all the same. At least for a little while. But, even as his feet carried him steadily towards the darkened porch of the latest dare, there were days Duo hated being the new kid.
The walkway was narrow, but its edges trimmed. The hedgerow lined each edge of lawn, dividing yards and keeping prying eyes away. A bit of wind picked up, rustling dry leaves of the big tree in the yard, setting a hanging swing to rock and creak. Duo's steps slowed and he swallowed, his eyes darted around the yard, from one end of the porch to the other. He took a deep breath, puffed his chest out a little, and continued up the walk. After all, it was just a house.
The stairs were old, its wood graying and paint long gone. The porch was just as weathered. But both showed signs of recent repairs. A board creaked under Duo's foot, and he swallowed again. He skirted the center, tried for the seams of each board, tried to keep the sounds of his passing to a minimum. And then, he was at the door.
Looking back over his shoulder, Duo could barely see the small group huddled close together. His mouth was dry and that spidery-web feeling danced along the surface of his skin. But, he faced the door again, jerked on the ragged and patched jacket, and wiped his palms on the equally ragged and patched hobo pants before raising a closed fist. It was, after all, just a house..
His double knock was low and hollow sounding.
Duo forced himself to breathe, forced himself to swallow. The old man who lived in this house was probably just a nice old guy. Weird in the way old guys were, but he didn't eat kids. And even if the old guy did, he'd never get the chance with Duo Maxwell. No way, no how.
The door was opening and Duo had the sudden thought he should have grabbed a stick, or something, anything. Just in case. But, it was just a house. And an old guy. After all.
A porch light cut through the dark, and Duo threw up a hand to block it out, his eyes instantly smarting. He took a step back; the figure in the doorway was shadowy and dark. But, wait a minute...
His classmate, the one guy who didn't tease, who didn't demand the new kid pay the price of being new, was staring at him from the inside of the house. Heero seemed as surprised to see him as he was to see Heero.
"What... why...?" Duo was sputtering, stumbling over normal, everyday words.
Heero blinked and looked Duo's costume up and down. His mouth twitched in what Duo thought might have been a smile. "We don't have any candy," he said.
"Oh." Duo had left his trick-or-treat bag back on the sidewalk anyway. "OH." He glanced back over his shoulder to see if the boys waiting could see him, could see Heero. When he turned back to Heero, he saw the boy was scowling at him. "I wasn't..."
"What are you doing here?" Heero's tone was harsh, his eyes looking over Duo's shoulder to the sidewalk across the street.
"I, uh..." Duo shot a look over his shoulder and back.
Heero snorted sharply. "Go back to your friends," he was saying even as he was closing the door.
"Wait!" Duo didn't know why, but he didn't want Heero to close the door. At least, not yet.
Another hand appeared up high on the door, and Duo nearly jumped back off the porch when the old guy moved up beside Heero. "Who's at the door, boy?" Thick, metal-rimmed lens peered over Heero's head at him, and Duo knew then exactly how a rabbit felt before the fox pounced.
"No one," Heero said. "He is trick-or-treating." Heero had let go of the door and retreated further into the hall beyond the door.
"Well, then," the old guy said, his wizened mouth stretched into a smile. "Come in, boy! I haven't done the Halloween thing in years." He threw open the door, and gestured (was that a claw!?) Duo inside.
"Uh..." Duo hedged, his eyes flicked from the old man to Heero and back. The old guy was still smiling, and even if he did look a little creepy, Heero was a normal enough guy. And he hadn't been eaten. "Sure!" He grinned up at the old guy and crossed the threshold. "You can't go around inviting just anybody into your house," Duo was saying, "ya might invite a vampire, and then you'll be sorry."
The old man guffawed; Duo lost his grin and he stepped back. The old guy was creepy. "Duo Maxwell, sir, at your service." The old man clasped his hand in a very serious manner, all traces of humor gone. "I might run and I might hide, but I'll never tell a lie."
"Except when your homework isn't done." Heero snorted again, turning his back to the door and crossing his arms over his chest.
"Good to meet you, my boy. I am Professor Thaddeus Jeremiah Smith. But you can call Doctor Jay." He shut the door, and turned the lock before adding, "Heero and I were about to sit down to hot chocolate and scones. Would you like some?"
"O-kay." Duo's eyes widened and he looked toward Heero again. "Are you really a doctor?"
The old man laughed again, his hand clamped down on Duo's shoulder. "Not the sort I'm sure you're used to." He was guiding Duo down the hall, and Duo looked back at the door to see Heero followed. "What about you, my boy? What do you do, besides dress up for Halloween?"
"Uh..." Duo shot a look to Heero again. No clue there, the other boy acted as though he weren't interested. "Move, I guess."
They were in the kitchen now, and the old guy pushed Duo toward a seat at the small formica-topped table. "Sit. Heero, bring the rest of the scones and some of those sweet cakes I know you're saving."
Duo hesitated, the urge to run for the front door high, but there was Heero, glaring in obvious reluctance at the command, but following it just the same. And the old man... Professor Jay... was just that, a creepy old man. The smell of hot chocolate decided it for him. Duo sat and offered an enthused "thanks!" for the bowl-like cup.
Jay was chuckling in that old man way, sitting on the chair opposite Duo. "Move, you say? Never let moss grow, eh?"
Without pausing in slurping up his chocolate, Duo nodded. He stopped long enough to mumble another "thanks" to Heero, when a small plate of tiny confection cakes was set on the table. Snatching one up with his fingers, he popped it in mouth and bit down. His eyes widened and he grinned around the cake and filling. Jay was laughing again and this time, Heero offered a short smile.
It was warm in the kitchen, and Duo slid out of his jacket. Jay was telling them a story about when he was "a young lad" and the trouble he would get into with his friends. There was a glimmering around his glasses as he spoke of the tricks played and the dares made. Duo laughed surprised the old guy had ever been a kid like him. Surprised again when he blurted out his reason for knocking on the door.
This time, Heero laughed with Jay and Duo couldn't help but stare at him. In class as well as on the playground and in the lunchroom, the silent boy said little and seemed to ignore everyone else around him.
"A cannibal?" Jay was musing. "The tales of my misdeeds changes every ten years." He was still chuckling.
"I don't think you are," Duo rushed to say. "I mean, you're scary and all but..." He slapped a hand over his mouth. But Jay was smiling and Heero laughed again.
"You mean this?" Jay held his metal claw up, made its pinchers open and close. Duo watched in fascination, nodding in answer. "Lost the arm in a lab accident years and years ago." He let Duo touch it, even rolled up his sleeve to show where the prosthetic attached. "That was the year we put together the first functioning, self-learning robot."
"A robot?" Duo sat up straight and shot a look at Heero. Heero was nodding, his mouth lifted in a small smile.
"Yes, my boy, a robot."
"It's nothing like what he's doing now, though," Heero put in. The contents of his cup suddenly becoming very interesting when Duo stared at him.
Heero's comment launched Jay into telling about his latest venture, pulling Duo into the world of aero-robotics. It wasn't until a clock somewhere in the deeper recesses of the house chimed midnight that Duo remembered the group of boys waiting ... or not. And the fact he was two hours late for his curfew.
"Oh jeez!" he was saying, jumping from his chair and grabbing his jacket. "Missus Noin's going to tan me for sure." He was shoving his arms into their sleeves and running for the door, yelling goodbyes over his shoulder.
Heero was there before he was, and the boy followed him out onto the porch, ignoring the chill in his tank top and shorts. He held Duo's jacket sleeve for a moment, catching Duo's attention.
"Thank you," he said simply. Heero was staring at Duo and then looked away, across the street to the now empty sidewalk and back. "They always give Jay trouble. They don't understand him."
Duo offered a crooked grin and a half shrug. "Guess we have that in common, then." He glanced at the open door, his eyes softened as though he could see the old man who waited at the table, empty hot cocoa cup in front of him. "I'd... I'd like to come back sometime." His eyes turned to look at Heero and he gave another crooked grin. "If Noin ever lets me out of the house again."
Heero smiled back, but nodded. "Noin is your... foster mother?" Duo nodded shortly. Heero had heard the rumors then.
"Well, goodbye then," Duo said heading for the steps. He jumped, clearing the set of four neatly, and snuck a look over his shoulder. Heero didn't seem to be impressed. Turning around, he began to walk backwards, watching Heero watch him. "Hey, how ‘bout if I stop by tomorrow and we can, you know, walk to school together?"
"Okay." Heero was fading in the darkness, the porch light shadowing his face. But, Duo thought he saw the glimmer of white, a glimmer of Heero smiling again.
"And maybe we could walk home together too." He crossed his fingers, and hoped his punishment wouldn't mean he was grounded forever.
Heero was walking down the steps, and Duo saw another glimmer. "I'd like that." Heero stopped on the walk, still watching Duo walk backwards. "I can," his head ducked a little. "I can bring some of those sweet cakes, like we had tonight, in my lunch tomorrow."
It was Duo's turn to grin. "Hell yeah!" His foot hit the curb's edge, and he paused for a minute. "See you tomorrow Heero!" And then he was running off down the street.
At the corner, Duo jumped suddenly, and slapped a hand to the street sign on the corner. The metallic ring startled a dog into barking, but Duo was gone, the soles of his sneakers flashing in the streetlights. But, he couldn't help the laugh and the grin that followed. He had the idea that this school wasn't going to get boring. Not for a long time to come. And who needed to prove himself with all that "new kid" stuff, anyway?
It was, after all, not just any house.