The sun was getting low, and I quickened my steps. My stomach grumbled for dinner and I wondered what savoury dish Auntie had cooking up. I took the shortcut through Douglas Park, imagining for a few minutes that I was no longer in downtown Chicago. The park was thick with trees and the grass unkempt. I lowered my eyes a bit, blocking the distant high-rises from peripheral view, and imagined I was in the country. Taking a deep breath, I was ready for the smell of trees and grass and soil and instead got a whiff of diesel fuel. I looked up to see a greasy truck bounce its way down Ogden Avenue.
The street cut through the park on a diagonal and lead right to the five storey red brick apartment building that I called home. There was no sidewalk, so I fell into place on the curb and as I walked my home came quickly into view. The building stood there, awkwardly placed on a street corner with nothing else around but empty lots and a liquor store. The whole area was amazingly underdeveloped and I knew why. My family had been living in this old building for five generations, and our kind had a way of keeping others at a distance.
I was almost home. I looked up and could see the apartment, on the third floor overlooking the park. The lights were on and I thought I could see a silhouette in the window, but it was hard to tell through the glare of the setting sun. I felt a vibration in my pocket, and fumbled for my phone. It was Auntie. I thumbed the answer button.
"Hey auntie, what’s for dinner?"
"John, are you almost home?" She sounded stressed.
"Yeah I'm just coming through the park now." I looked up at the building and could see her holding open the living room curtain.
"Geoffrey’s playing in the park, get him and come inside."
"What's going on?" I asked, getting worried.
"Jonathan, now." She demanded. "And wake Emmanuel too."
She hung up. I ended the call and put the phone back in my pocket. I realized my palms were sweating. Whatever was happening, it was not good. Chicago was our family home for generations, we were safe here. Any of us could go to the seediest bar or the most uninviting back alley at any hour and never be harmed. The fact that Auntie needed us all in the apartment where our protections were strongest was bad news. The fact that she was asking me to wake Emmanuel was worse.
I rubbed the sweat off my hands and started running. The playground was near the corner of Ogden and West Roosevelt, and that's where Geoffrey would be with his friends. We don't make friends easily, our kind. People naturally avoid and distrust us, but Geoffrey was a stubborn kid and had somehow managed to lasso a couple of the local misfits into his circle. Even still, they never made house calls. They were always in the park or out beyond the liquor store or some other place nearby. If I was lucky they would be in the park as Auntie said. Geoffrey was only eight and Dad had not yet bought him a cell phone.
I ran past a tight series of trees and the playground came into view. He was there, alone on a swing. He looked up as I came running through the sand, panting.
"Hey man, what’s the hurry?" Geoffrey asked, sounding gloomy. His friends had stood him up. Somehow the normals can always tell when it’s best to stay in.
"Auntie needs us, inside. Now." Geoffrey's eyes flashed wide. He stood up without question, and we both marched in file across the road. Geoffrey glanced up at me a couple times. Once he opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it and snapped it back shut again.
As we came up on the building's front entrance, we could both feel the pressure of the place. It was stronger than usual. Our ears popped as we crossed the threshold.
"I guess Dad's home," Geoffrey ventured.
"No." I said, sighing. "He's not."
Geoffrey moved towards the stairs, but I was going the other way. He looked back at me as I started towards the janitor’s closet.
"You're kidding." Geoffrey was standing near the stairwell looking dumbfounded. He scratched his head and shifted his feet nervously. "John, what’s happening?"
I could feel tears starting to well up and I took a moment to regain my composure.
"I don’t know, but we better hurry."
I swung the door wide and started pulling out mops and buckets and large plastic jugs of who knows what. Behind it all was an old wooden case with foreign writing on it. Slapping at the thick layers of dust, I found the handle and pulled it out into the hallway. Geoffrey was beside me now, his eyes wide and afraid.
"Are you going to open it?" He asked in disbelief.
"Yup." I replied.
Before I lost my nerve, I found the brass latches and pressed them hard. They pinched my thumbs but the old mechanisms gave way and the locks popped open. I grabbed the lid by the sides and heaved open the heavy wooden top.
We both took a big step back and waited.
"Emmanuel?" I whispered, my voice shaking. Geoffrey moved behind me, frightened. There was a long low groan from the crate. A form started to rise up out of it. It was hard to make out. It was all darkness and shadows, but we could both see eyes beginning to form. It replied in a ghastly drawl.
"Where is my master?"
"I don't know,” I replied honestly. “Auntie told me to wake you." We took another big step back. If he made any sudden movements I was sure we'd both run like frightened turkeys.
"I see." It replied, matter of fact. The dark endlessly deep eyes looked around as it started to climb out of the box, odd unnatural appendages reached out towards the floor. "Very well.” It said passively “You boys go upstairs to Mistress Melissa. I have work to do.”
Before I knew it we were both in the stairwell pounding our feet on the steps. I had never heard anyone use Auntie's given name before. She and the beast must have gone way back. I wondered momentarily if there was a good story there.
We were home finally at apartment 308, well positioned in the middle of the building where it was safest. I turned the knob and pushed on the heavy door. Geoffrey ran past as it opened. I stepped inside with some effort, the air seemed thick and it was hard to breathe. I let the door slam shut behind me and as the seal closed there was a sensation like a balloon popping, and I could breathe again. I walked past the kitchen towards the living room. The makings of dinner were scattered across the counter. One of the electric elements was on with nothing above it, and I turned it off as I passed. I could see Auntie now, she was sitting on the couch and Geoffrey was sitting on the floor across from her. I went to join them.
As I came around I could see she had been crying. My stomach knotted up. She looked older, her face lean with deep lines. Even her hair, usually wild and uninhibited seemed tired and limp. She looked up at me and patted the seat beside her with her hand. She gave me a sad crooked smile, and I sat down quickly.
"Where's Dad?" I blurted out. Auntie took one deep breath, and let it out in a long sigh.
"Your dad. My brother. He's... He's gone."
"What?!" I felt myself stand up. I looked back and forth between Auntie and Geoffrey. Auntie was looking at me, unblinking, showing the truth in her words. Geoffrey was looking at the floor. He seemed frozen. I backed up to the corner of the room, unsure what I was doing. I found a chair there and fell into it. My head felt like it had been hit by a chrome bat.
"How?" I asked, barely able to get the words out. The room spun around me. I thought I was going to puke.
"It found us. Your father...“ She sighed again. “It’s here in Chicago.” She shook her head just the tiniest amount.
"But, that's impossible." I stammered. "It's never been able to touch us here! Dad..." I started to choke up, "Dad would never let It come here!"
We were all silent for a moment. Geoffrey looked like he would melt right there on the floor. Auntie’s jaw was locked and she kept staring at me with strong demanding eyes. Tears started to drip out of mine but otherwise I felt eerily calm. I took a deep breath to clear my head, gathered my courage, stood up and walked over to my brother. He seemed so tiny, so frail. I leaned down and lifted him by the shoulders. He barely weighed a thing. Holding him in a way I hoped felt reassuring, I gently lead him out of the room.
No one said anything more that night. We all knew what had to happen. All our lives we had been rehearsing for this. Of course, none of us ever thought we'd have to do it on our own. Dad was always in charge, always setting up the defences, telling us when to act, when to hide, when to run.
We would just have to do it on our own.
I lead Geoffrey into our room. We shared a large bedroom with a division in the middle. His half was all toys and clutter, mine was sterile and clean. Somehow the two never mixed, and the result looked like a before and after picture. I sat Geoffrey on my bed, and leaned down to reach under the frame. I felt around until my hand touched an old fisherman’s rope. With some effort I pulled out the wooden box it was attached to. It was not unlike the one Emmanuel had been resting in downstairs, also with strange foreign inscriptions that I could not read. I turned the box around so we could get at the handle on the lid, and looked up at my brother. He was still staring at the floor.
I leaned forward and touched the side of his head. He looked at me for a second. I squeezed his arm in a way that promised everything would be alright. He nodded, looking back down, his eyes gently exploring the child sized box. He would do as he was taught, we all would.
I left the room and started making preparations. I closed all the windows and all the shades. The sun was set now and it was dark outside. I turned on every light in the apartment. When that was done I turned on the television, the microwave, every stove element. I even opened the fridge door. Electricity was good, light was good, these things wouldn’t stop It, but they made us harder to find. Just like whatever that beast downstairs was doing would weaken and slow It. For a moment I considered going downstairs to see. What would an immortal preparing to defend his master's castle look like? I was sure it would be spectacular, as would the battle to follow. I shook my head, we all had a role to play and mine was here.
When I was done I returned to the living room. Auntie was still seated on the couch, her eyes closed. She looked asleep, but I knew better. Her hair was buoyant, charged with the powers gathering around us. I took a seat by the window, shifted the curtain a bit and looked out at night time Chicago. Skyscrapers loomed in the distance, growing up behind the park as if to shame the trees. At times I wished we could live in the country, all trees and wildlife and fresh air. At other times I wished we could live in one of those monoliths downtown. A hundred stories of concrete and wires and lights and electricity, keeping us safe.
The truth was we could only live here, in our oddly underdeveloped little pocket of the city, the park on one side, empty lots all around. Our small red brick building only half occupied. For five generations my family had lived here, safely hidden from those who would harm us. Now, finally that was coming to an end. My brother would survive, as was always the plan, but without Dad here the rest of us would not.
I thought about what the night was about to bring. The sand would be first, blotting out the light of the city, searching. Before long it would find us. Emmanuel would do his best to keep it out, as he was sworn to do, but ultimately he would fail and be destroyed. Finally the windows would smash and we would be sucked out into the night... The great darkness pressing down on us, removing our sanity, our secrets, our lives.
But Geoffrey would survive, and through him our kind would continue. I didn't know where the box would take him, exactly. That was part of the failsafe of course, but he would find friends there who will protect him. In our last moments It would no doubt try and rip that knowledge from us. Where Geoffrey went, how he got there, who was protecting him, but it would be too late. He would be gone and we would know not where.
It was going to be an unusual night in Chicago. Commuters the next morning would feel strangely well rested. The news would report an odd amount of storm damage, and simultaneously millions of people would think it peculiar that they slept through it all. Millions of people would also go about their day while somehow feeling as if the city had changed in some small, unnatural way. They would be right, but they wouln't know it was because for the first time in a hundred years, we were no longer among them.