[Boy] your head is haunted; you have wheels in your head! You imagine things... - Max Stirner
The pale blue house with the gambrel roof at 31 Coyle Street sat at the far end of an immense treeless lawn seemingly big enough to accommodate a football field. Spruce trees rose behind the house like rockets set to launch. It struck twelve year old Brendan Quinn as the loneliest-looking house he'd ever seen. His perspective was compounded by the fact that he'd never noticed a single soul around the solitary dwelling. It seemed as if the place had been abandoned, except that it was well maintained. Its shrubs were always neatly trimmed and bright flowers filled its window boxes.
On one occasion, Brendan had dared to check its mailbox and found it empty. Someone was getting the mail, unless none was being delivered. He was convinced that the differently shaped structure - his neighborhood consisted almost exclusively of raised ranches and capes - was occupied, if not by humans, then maybe by ghosts. Someone or something lived there, he concluded. But who or what, he regularly wondered, as he passed it on his way to and from school.
"Mom, who lives in the house with the big lawn in front of it?" asked Brendan.
"What house are you talking about, honey? On our street?"
"Yes. It's number 31. You know, the blue one down there with the weird roof," said Brendan, pointing behind him.
"Oh, that house. I think there's an elderly couple there... the Gastons, I believe. They've lived there forever. Long before we moved here. Why?"
"Just wondering. I never see anybody there. It looks so lonely."
"Lonely? That's an interesting way to put it. They probably never go out, Brendan."
"Maybe they died."
"No, I don't think so, sweetie. We would have heard. When you're their age, you don't venture far."
Despite that reasonable supposition, Brendan's fascination with the house grew. He felt drawn to it for some inexplicable reason and spent long stretches of time just watching it in the hope of sighting its occupants. The house even made occasional appearances in his dreams, and he'd wake up feeling unsettled. On weekends, Brendan would stroll by it with binoculars for a closer look inside, but there was never anything to see other than a large picture on the wall that hung above a gold couch. It depicted a tree full of black birds... or maybe bats, he thought.
Walking to school on a snowy late November day, it occurred to Brendan that while everything had turned brown and barren, due to the deepening winter, the flowers in the gambrel's window boxes remained bright and fresh looking.
"You know, Mom, there's still flowers at the Gaston's house."
"Yeah, they're under their windows and really pretty. How come?"
"Well, they're probably artificial, honey. When you get their age, gardening gets difficult."
"They don't look artificial."
"They'd have to be. Flowers couldn't exist in this weather."
Brendan resolved to check them out and on his way to school the next morning, he crept up to a window box for a closer look. When he reached the house, he peered inside and was surprised to see the tree painting no longer held countless black birds. They're gone, he thought, how can that be? The birds were there. I know they were there. He felt an icy shiver move up his spine.
Finally, he directed his gaze to the window box. They look alive, he thought, and touched the petal of a bright orange marigold. It was soft and supple. They are real. They're not artificial. Mom won't believe it.
Suddenly, he was struck by an irresistible urge to knock on the door. He wanted, needed, to make contact with whoever lived in the house once and for all. His heart racing, he clacked the gold knocker on the front door several times. When it finally opened, he was pulled inside with such force that his neck snapped.
When her son had not appeared home from school over an hour after he usually did, Brendan's mother began to worry. By the time her husband got home from work, she was beside herself with concern for her absent child.
"He probably went to Jamie's house. He does that sometimes," said Frank Quinn, trying to assuage his wife's rising anxiety.
"No, I called Jamie's house, and Brendan wasn't there."
"He'll show up. Give him another hour."
But two hours later, Brendan had not appeared, and the Quinns scoured the neighborhood for him in their car.
"There's that Gaston house down the road. Brendan was obsessed with it. Maybe we should check it out," suggested Casey Quinn.
"No, we can't bother them. They're old. What would they know? Brendan wouldn't be there, babe."
After another hour passed without any results in their search for Brendan, Frank called the police and reported his son missing.
Twenty minutes later, Sheriff Maynard was at their house. Two very anxious parents greeted him.
"He never does this. We've checked with everybody, and nobody's seen him. Something happened," said Casey, gulping back tears.
"Has he behaved differently in recent days? Anything out of the ordinary?" inquired the officer.
"No, not that I've noticed," replied Frank.
"Well, there is one thing. He's been fixated on the Gaston's place. He was curious because he never saw them there. Thought the house was empty. Maybe haunted or something. Just a kid's imagination, I guess, but maybe you could question them?"
"Of course we will, and everybody else around here. I've got a deputy on it already, and I'm getting on it, too. I'll keep in touch. Don't worry. Kids usually show up."
Sheriff Maynard parked in front of the Gaston's house and ate the fried chicken his wife had packed for him when he was called away to investigate Brendan's disappearance. Why the hell would a kid be in there with those old fogies? he thought. When he finished his postponed meal, he approached the house and knocked on its front door.
"Hello, Mr. Gaston," said Sheriff Maynard, when the door swung open.
"Oh, Sheriff, is there a problem?"
"Yes, the Quinn boy from up the street is missing, so we're checking to see if anybody in the neighborhood has seen him."
"Sorry, no. We don't get out much."
Sheriff Maynard was struck with how robust the octogenarian before him appeared.
"My... you're looking great for your... Have you found the fountain of youth, Mr. Gaston? What's your secret?"
"Thank you. No secret, really. We have a mini-gym in the basement, with a treadmill and stationary bike. Don't miss a day down there."
"Well, hello Mrs. Gaston," said Maynard, as a small woman looking younger than he recalled appeared at her husband's side. "Wow, the two of you really are the poster seniors for good health."
"We do our best to stay fit, sheriff. Mr. Gaston makes sure of that, don't you, dear?"
"It's sure working for you folks. Jeez, you don't look that much older than me. I turned 60 last month. Course, I'd look better without this gut," said Maynard, clutching his bulging mid-drift.
The Gastons made no further comment, and the sheriff bid them goodbye.
"If you see the Quinn boy, please let me know."
Several days passed and Brendan remained unfound, despite the considerable efforts to find him by all the available members of the sheriff's department and several community volunteers. Meanwhile, Casey Quinn's suspicions about the Gastons had grown. They know something. Maybe they're keeping him captive in their house for some perverse reason, she thought. Brendan knew something wasn't right there. That's why he was so drawn to that house. He had a premonition. Again, she asked Maynard to search the Gaston's house, and it was with great reluctance that he agreed to do so.
"They're nice old people. Don't think they'd hurt a fly. But if you insist, I'll go over."
"Please look closely, sheriff. Check every room."
Maynard complied with the distraught mother's wishes, inspecting every corner of the Gaston's house.
"Sorry, Mrs. Quinn, but there wasn't any sign that Brendan had ever been in their house. They were more than willing to let me look into all their closets and their basement and attic. Even checked their shed. Was embarrassed to do that to those folks, but they were very gracious about it."
"What about the girl who vanished from the neighborhood 28 years ago, sheriff?" asked Mr. Quinn.
"What girl, Frank? There was another child from here that disappeared? You didn't tell me."
"I just learned about it a couple days ago from Gil at the Texaco station. He mentioned it, and I checked it out. The girl was 13 years old. She lived the next street over. They never found her."
"Why didn't you tell me, Frank?"
"I thought it would just make things worse if you knew. I should have..."
"You knew, too. Didn't you sheriff?"
"Sorry, I just didn't want to add to your woes, and it was so long ago. Can't be any connection... believe me"
"How do you know that?" blurted Casey, abruptly leaving from the room.
There's a child killer in this neighborhood, she thought, while staring at herself in the bathroom mirror, and I'll find him... or them.
Just as her son had done, Casey took up a vigil on the road in front of the blue gambrel. Each day she spent time gazing at the house for any sign of movement from within or without. This she did to the chagrin of her husband.
"Please, Casey. You can't do that. The neighbors understand what you're... we're going through, but they'll think you've gone over the edge. What you're doing is called stalking. The Gastons could file charges against you. Get a restraining order," said Frank Quinn.
"Let them. I'd like that!" snapped Casey, who continued her surveillance as the days and weeks passed.
Finally, on an early spring morning, she rose from bed having decided to confront the occupants of 31 Coyle Street herself. She would demand to search the house and do so even if they objected. Casey stepped up to the door and clacked the knocker as hard as she could.
"Yes, can I help you?" responded a familiar looking middle-aged man.
Casey was momentarily at a loss for words. Who is this? This isn't... But he...
"Is there something I can do for you, Miss?"
"Is Mr. Gaston here?"
"I'm Mr. Gaston."
"No, I mean the old..."
"Oh, my father?"
"Your father? I guess."
"I'm sorry. My parents moved to Florida to get away from the cold. My wife and me moved in. It's all worked out quite nicely. We really love this house."
There was something very off-putting about the young Gaston's expression, and Casey's resolve began to waver. Nonetheless, she managed to forge ahead with her plan.
"Would you mind if I looked through your house?"
"Why? Oh... you're the mother of the boy who's missing?"
Yes, my son was... is Brendan Quinn."
"You know, I would mind. You had the police bother my poor parents about this. I'm sorry about your son, but that has nothing to do with us. Good day."
Casey stood before the shut door for a moment and then walked slowly down the long driveway to the street. Suddenly, she experienced a strong feeling that she was being watched. When she reached the street, she turned and peered back at the house.
It seemed utterly devoid of life. The words of her son echoed through her head:
It looks so lonely, Mom.