“The Ritual,” a short story for Haunted Passages by Paul Rousseau

Haunted Passages:
Paul Rousseau

The Ritual

The sky was unflinching judgment, set ablaze. Holy shades of red and yellow in acrylic smears. Clouds scrambled to hide behind treetops where they could peek through branches and parted leaves. Night was close. The lights were about to dim.

I was getting some final jumpers in at the elementary school playground just down the street from my house. Three neighborhood boys kicked a soccer ball around the large field in front of me, cursing at each other beyond their years. My little brother, Lucas, would be about their age now. I tried to imagine him calling someone Captain Cock-Ring, but couldn’t.

It was near impossible to see the rim from anywhere farther than ten feet. Darkness camouflaged the rusted burnt-orange paint, cracked and flaked. A chunk of its outer metal shell was missing, revealing an inner layer that looked like a bloodied sponge. A bone and it’s marrow.

Every basket made was more a product of rhythm and muscle memory now, navigating the already lopsided stanchion, the unique bend to the rim. A chilling, atonal clang threw itself against the back wall of the school by the dumpsters after a rare miss. The whole hoop trembled like some sacred spire, begging to be worshipped by a circle of slender figures in black hoods. I wondered what kind of entity something as ordinary as a basketball hoop at a children’s playground could summon. Only me, so far. A solitary wayfaring soul.

The errant ball rebounded off the heel near the backboard, hit the pavement just right, and hurled toward the grass before settling in a small ditch just below where the kids were playing. I jogged over to retrieve it.

“Turd fucking sandwich,” one of the boys cheered triumphantly after a successful pass between the legs of his defender. They were now playing a game of Pickle in the Middle. The smallest of the three, of course, was the Pickle. Again, I thought of Lucas.

His death, horrible as it was. The guilt turned self-hate. Wishing more than anything that I could trade my life in for his safe return. Then the hours and hours of questioning cooped up in a dreary police station. The confusion turned resentment. I was just a kid, too. And there was this big scary man in a suit screaming at me that I killed my little brother. I killed him. I killed him. It devastated me.

My parents were on their way home from work, but there was construction or a car wreck, so they were running late. Lucas and I were alone. He wanted to play hide and seek, but I had to get ready for basketball practice. Mom called one of my friend’s parents to give me a ride. I promised Lucas one quick game. I’ll count to thirty. You go hide. Make it good.

He did. I genuinely couldn’t find him anywhere. I looked for ten minutes straight until I heard a car horn outside. You win Luke, I called out, hands cupped around my mouth. I gotta go to practice. Mom or dad should be home soon. And I left.

Dad discovered the body first, crushed under the dresser in my parent’s bedroom. Luke’s sweatshirt sleeve was abnormally stretched and frayed. Police deduced that it got stuck as he closed the drawer from the inside, where he was hiding. His efforts to free himself jostled the dresser to the point where as soon as he tumbled out, the whole thing collapsed on him.

I held the ball under my arm and imagined Luke at my side. My arm loosely wrapped around him instead. I stood there until the last crescent of sun faded behind the suburban skyline.

“I can’t see fucking shit,” one of the kids said. Just then, a burst of white light flashed in my peripheral from a source somewhere behind me. I instinctually turned, ready to confront the paranormal. Ready for any hex, possession, attachment, or damning. Ready to be dragged below to an eternal torment of sulfur and ash. On cue, as if manifested by grief, a wraith-like apparition cloaked in shadow slunk toward me and the kids.

To brace for the brunt of it, I puffed out my chest. Flexed until my whole body shook.

“Run,” I told the kids, almost inaudibly. My hope was that they’d get a decent head start before I was attacked.

This: my burden of inevitability. This: my chance to offset horrors past. This: my festering toll, in the form of a demon, now approaching to reap whatever payment it saw fit.

I knew someday, somehow, I’d be punished for Luke’s death. The state prosecutor told me so. Criminal negligence, he said. The case was eventually dropped. We never went to trial. The whole thing was chalked up as a terrible accident. But I’ll never forget the way that man in the suit screamed at me.

“Boys, it’s getting really late, time to go home,” the wraith called. It was using a cellphone as a flashlight.

“Aw come on, just one more game. We’ll be quick,” one of the kids pleaded. Those words, the same thing Luke told me the day he died. A dreadful incantation. More heinous than any insult.

“No way,” said the wraith. Their mother, in actuality. “I’m going to count to three. Pick up all your stuff. Trash too.”

The kids gave her grudging looks.

“One,” she said, then turned her attention to me. She shook her head, spoke with a half-smile. “I swear. Sometimes, I could just strangle them.”

The boys scrambled to collect empty Gatorade bottles, torn Rice Crispy Treat wrappers, bunched up socks, a stray flip flop.

“Two,” she said, more firmly.

The smallest was tasked with lugging their soccer ball. Falling behind, he hurriedly threw the duffel bag strap around his neck. The bag flopped and dragged like a corpse in tow as he ran to catch up with his brothers.

“Don’t let me get to three,” their mother said.

Paul Rousseau is a disabled writer with work in Roxane Gay’s The Audacity, Catapult, Jellyfish Review, CRAFT, Necessary Fiction, Pithead Chapel, and Wigleaf, among others. You can read his words online at Paul-Rousseau.com and follow him on Twitter @Paulwrites7.

Image: pinterest.com

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