We were five teenage boys within a boulder’s throw of sixteen, so we didn’t call it a sleepover. There would be video games, junk food, nonchalant pissing contests, and accidental slips into meaningful conversation. Girls would be mentioned in some capacity, and we’d be sleeping in the same room. We wouldn’t have dared call it a sleepover.
The host, Nick, was a friend of a friend. I can’t remember why I was invited, or why I accepted. His family lived in the woods, their house located after the road turned to dirt but before the power lines stopped. It was a neighborhood of three, each house spaced about a football field apart, and I touched the brakes to admire the houses as I passed. Unlike most of the houses residing that deep in the woods, they were modern-looking abodes. The middle house in particular seemed new, a For Sale sign jutted out of its front yard. Nick’s house was the last, and pulling into his driveway, I saw I was the first to arrive, promising a few awkward moments for us to better acquaint ourselves. I got out of the car and stretched. The houses shared a clearing for a backyard that spanned a few hundred yards before the trees reclaimed the sky.
A small barn broke the flat clearing. I hadn't seen it from the road because it sat behind the second house, about fifty yards from its back door. Even from that distance I could tell it was older than the houses. The paint was washed by the elements and the doors were open. Behind the barn stood a bone white tree. It was the middle of summer, but the tree was bare as autumn.
"It’s even creepier up close." Nick said. I hadn't heard him come up behind me and I jumped. “Wanna take a closer look?”
"That's okay," I said. I didn't want to go near the tree.
"Nobody’s living in that house,” he started walking. “It was just remodeled because of the cult, but they haven't torn the barn down yet."
I fell behind him, curiosity putting one foot in front of the other. "Cult?"
"That's what my dad said. An old couple used to live there. I mean, old-old. White hair, wrinkles. You never imagine old-old cultists, do you? Dad said they were strange. I didn’t meet them myself.”
Up close, the barn looked scratched off, like someone had painted it into existence and then ripped into it with their nails. It was preferable to the tree. I tried to stay towards the front of the barn, but Nick must have sensed my discomfort because he smirked and pulled me to the tree.
"I’ve never seen a leaf on it," he said. “No flowers in spring, no greens in summer. Always white. A tree suitable for coffin wood and not much else. Here,” he pulled out a pocketknife, snapped it open, and handed it to me. “Carve your name in it if you want,” he dared me. "Mine’s been there since I was ten,” he pointed to the engraving, the letters savage and straight. Even armed with the knife, I hesitated to approach the tree. “Go on,” he pushed me forward. I panicked and lashed out, slicing a vertical line into the trunk. He laughed when I held the knife out to him, but he took it without a word.
We went back to his house and played video games as Jonathan, Max, and Steve arrived. Dinner consisted of five pizzas Nick’s father brought home. His father was a big man. Neither rotund nor muscular, he filled a door frame from sheer size; a brick wall of a human being. Gentle inhospitality must have flowed in the genes; Nick’s father spoke mostly in grunts, but not unkind grunts. Nick’s mother, however, spoke hearty words, and poured us homemade sweet tea with honey. After we inhaled the last pizza slice we went back to playing video games. We took turns, four on the console while a fifth provided rude commentary. When it came Nick’s turn to take a break, he decided to start another sleepover tradition: ghost stories. We ignored him at first, but one by one our attention shifted to the storyteller.
“My dad said a cult used to live in the house closest to us,” he said. “They got busted for drugs, but they were using them for rituals. Trying to raise demons. He said the basement was coated in blood. Some of the cops went outside to vomit because of the smell.”
“Bullshit,” Jonathan said. “Maybe the owners were doing drugs, but there’s no way cultists lived next to you.”
“There was too,” he said. “My father caught them at it. Performing a ritual. He got drunk one night and told me the story.”
“What’d he see?” I asked.
Nick told this story:
The couple moved into the house not long after my mom and dad moved into this one. They were old, even back then. They seemed like any sweet old couple. Baked a meat pie for mom and dad, invited them over for dinner anytime they wanted a free home-cooked meal. Dad couldn’t remember their names, maybe because of the beers, so he just called them Mr. and Mrs. Cult. Mom was pregnant with my older sister at the time. Dad tried to be understanding, but sometimes mom drove him crazy, so one night he decided to take the old couple’s dinner invitation by himself.
He knocked on their door around seven or so, politely at first. Nobody answered so he knocked a little harder and a little harder and a little harder until he was banging on that door like a madman. Finally, Mrs. Cult flung the door open. Dad was out of breath and flushed from pounding on the door, and Mrs. Cult’s eyes were wide from fear or anger and her apron and hands were stained red. They stared at each other for a few minutes, dad shocked by the red stains and Mrs. Cult probably a little scared of the flustered man who’d been attacking her front door.
Finally, dad coughed his way through an apology and explained he was there to take up their standing offer for dinner. Mrs. Cult looked behind her and nervously told him they already had company. Dad confessed that he was trying to get away from his pregnant wife, which made Mrs. Cult laugh. She seemed to relax and told him to come in, that he was going to have to wait for a while. They were hosting a club meeting in their basement, but they’d be serving dinner afterwards and he was welcome to join the feast.
She led him into the kitchen and sat him down in a chair. She placed a hand on his shoulder and told him it’d be about fifteen minutes, then vanished into the adjacent living room. Dad can’t sit still unless he’s got a beer in his hand, so five minutes later he was going through their refrigerator looking for a bottle. It was stuffed with various meats, but no alcohol. He didn’t think about it then, but the kitchen was clean, no signs of cooking, and his shoulder had a red handprint on it. He wandered around the house, looking for his hosts. He found the basement door in a hallway leading off the living room. Dad said he’d always remember that door because it was perfectly normal. Nothing at all to distinguish it from a bedroom door or a kitchen door or a bathroom door. He said that’s what the door to Hell looks like. Like any closed door.
Everything was cold past the door. Every step a cold stone, every inch of wall a cold slab, every breath a cold gasp. Some instinct stopped him from calling out, from asking the cold: Hello? At the bottom of the steps a cold light flickered on the concrete walls. The shadows in that flickering light resembled no shape dad had seen before or since. He didn’t hear the chanting until he reached the bottom of the steps, but they provided only a white noise. Dad doesn’t know how big the basement was, the corners and walls were swallowed in darkness. The flickering came from a few red candles scattered around an altar, which he saw in glimpses between the silhouettes of robes. On the altar something writhed. Dad heard the beating of many wings.
He ran, not caring if they heard. He ran and didn’t stop running, through the front door and past his pregnant wife until he was in his bed with the covers over his head like a child. Too frightened to cry, beneath the blankets of his bed, he laughed from fear. The next day he saw the red handprint on his shirt and burned it in the backyard. He never stepped foot near that house again.
“But what happened to them?” Max asked.
“Mr. and Mrs.,--” Max cut himself off. “The old couple.”
“Kept to themselves, far as I know,” Nick said. “They were busted for drugs, like I said.”
“So they moved away,” Jonathan said. “Or died. Or wanted a change of scenery.”
“No. They were forced out,” Nick said. “Because of the drugs.”
“And the house was renovated because a cult used the basement for their rituals,” Jonathan said. “Not because the new owner’s didn’t like the decor.”
“Dad knows what he saw,” Nick said.
“He was probably drunk,” Jonathan said. “That’s why your mom kicked him out that night.”
“She didn’t kick him out, he--”
“Uh-huh,” Jonathan unpaused the game, and our attention snapped back to the television.
“Fine,” Nick pouted. “Y’all probably didn’t want to hear what the new owners added to the house anyway.”
“What’s that?” Steve asked.
“A pool,” Nick said. The game was re-paused.
“Can we?” Steve asked.
“We’ll have to sneak out after my parents fall asleep,” Nick said.
“Is it fenced?” Steve asked.
“Yeah, but it doesn’t look too tall,” Nick said. “We can probably jump it.”
“I didn’t bring a bathing suit,” I said.
“You wearing boxers?”
“There you go.”
“When do your parents go to bed?”
“What time is it?”
“Soon, then,” Nick said.
I wanted to object, to be a voice of reason against trespassing. But a vibration filled us. We were connected by this deed we knew we shouldn’t do, and that knowledge hummed in our chests. It silenced our rationality, any hints of trepidation. We couldn’t even continue playing video games, we were too hyped about our grand, minor violation of the law. Nick’s mom yelled a goodnight, asked if we needed any snacks. He told her we were fine, wished her a goodnight in return. Fifteen minutes later we were sneaking out the door in our boxers and swim trunks.
The night was warm and the grass was short. Fireflies glowed in staccato bursts and a full moon lit the clearing. We crouched for no reason as we scurried to the fence. Anybody could have seen us beneath that full moon but we crouched anyway, the vibration shooting between us. The fence was chest high, no real detriment. We clambered over it, and stood next to the pool.
The water was an impossible, shifting blue. A breeze unsettled the pool's surface, stirring the waters so that the submerged light rippled across our faces. If there is a road to heaven and hell, then its stones are that blue.
“Cannonball!” Nick screamed. He leapt into the air, clenched himself for impact. He met the face of God with a resounding crash. The spell was not broken, but made familiar. We hooted and howled to the stars and leapt in after him. We swam for what felt hours in that pool, in those waters, in that blue. The clumsiest strokes were graceful, our harsh laughter rang like bells. Our souls were our own, and they stretched in that blue.
A demon burst out of the house, screaming in a language that chilled our teeth to the roots. Its many wings beat the night air. We clambered out of the blue, skin tearing off our fingers and knuckles and knees. We leapt the fence as the demon leapt into the pool with a soul-wrenching crash as if it meant to open a portal to hell behind us. I ran without looking back. A fear overtook me so powerful I started laughing. I sprinted aimlessly in the dark, laughing from terror. I ran headfirst into the bone white tree.
On the ground, blood running down my nose, I gasped for air between bursts of laughter. I heard the other boys’ tearing through the clearing in various directions, all lost in the dark. I floated in fear beneath the bone white tree, blood dripping down my cheek. It was peaceful, to be so taken by terror that I didn’t need to feel it anymore. Calmed, I stood and brushed grass off my bare legs. I walked up to the bone white tree and, gazing up, saw the stars through its branches. Unable to remember why I had been so afraid, I brushed a finger along the gash I’d embedded in the trunk. It was warm. A drop of pool water ran down my arm and under my finger, twisting down the wrinkles of the trunk’s strata. The branches creaked gently in a night breeze. I put my lips to the bone white tree, and kissed the gash. Turning away, I located Nick’s house and walked towards it as the sound of the demon’s splashing subsided.
We returned the next night.
He was face down in the pool. That terrible blue rolled over his body in waves of light. The police would tell us, later, he was a homeless man who lived in the woods. Someone who’d spent his life in and out of mental institutions, harmless to everyone but himself. He must’ve had an episode and ran outside. I still don’t know whether he was looking for help or trying to scare us away so he could be left alone. We thought he was a demon screaming our sins. In that blue, his hair and clothes undulated, the rags silhouetted into a robe. Though our heads were bowed to see him, it felt we looked up at him in awe and trembling.
That’s the color of your eyes. Please try to understand. It’s a good thing. That's what I wanted you to get from the story. Tomorrow I’ll hold your hands, I’ll repeat what the priest says, and I’ll be transfixed by your eyes. Cause they’re that blue. I’ve thought it since we first met. Your eyes are the blue of that pool. A terrible blue that makes angels of demons. A blue that means nothing without those boys and that cult story and that barn and that bone white tree. It’s all there, in your eyes. Please, don’t cry. I love you. Don’t cry.
Keith Frady is a short story writer living in Atlanta, Georgia. He hopes to publish a collection of his work in the near future.