Hours later, I'd packed an overnight bag, bought some more smokes, and had attached a case of lager to the back of my bike. Bit of Dutch courage never went wrong.
The mess that was my living room was made passable; in that it had been tidied to the point where immediate danger of breaking one's neck was no longer present.
It was habitable.
I did my last few checks, locked the door, and left.
The moment I revved the engine, the curtain twitchers were there. I'd had enough sleep that I wouldn't crash my bike, however the temptation to hole up in the spare room of my brother's home was damn near overwhelming.
My brother had also tidied. While my attempt had been undone by the weirdo in the mask, my brother finished what I had started. All sharp objects were in their rightful place, coffee cups gone, though the mountain remained on the draining board at the sink. Batteries were moved, torches returned, however I spotted a few burnt out matches here and there.
I could hear him on the phone in the other room. Seldom did my brother raise his voice, unless it was regarding his children.
Fresh out of divorce caused by the untimely death of his daughter, my brother found himself battling his now ex-wife, her lawyer, and the court. Each one vied for a piece of his salary to look after his remaining sons, though none would move an inch when it came to his requests. My daughter saw her cousins more than their father did. Something his ex-wife knew, and I could swear, revelled in it.
I held my tongue and sat on the couch, waiting for the phone call to finish. It took another fifteen minutes before he appeared at the door, face red, a scowl on his face.
"How long's it been delayed this time?" I said.
He groaned in response. "Don't even ask." He covered his face with his hands and leaned forward with a loud sigh. "A few hours a week, that's all I'm asking, just a few hours. Not a day, not a weekend. A few fucking hours." He pressed the ball of his hands into his closed eyes until I moved his hands away from his face. "You'd think she'd be glad I want to see them. I am not abandoning my boys, I'm not. I need to see them."
I nodded and reached over, gave his shoulder a rub. "I know, kid. Your kids are your life, always have been. Sooner she realises that and lets go of her damn paranoia, the better."
Her paranoia was understandable. My brother had been in the car when it crashed, killing their daughter on impact. His ex-wife, distraught at losing her baby girl and almost her husband, reacted with anger and lashed out at anyone and everyone. My wife and sister tried to talk to her, tried to convince her a divorce was not the answer, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. His wife went through with the divorce and it came close to destroying them both further.
"I'm not a kid," came the mumbled reply.
"Of course, you are," I said and clapped him on his shoulder. I stood up, made my way to the kitchen and raided the cupboards. "Have you eaten yet?"
"I'm not five!" came the indignant reply, followed by a quieter, "I can make my own damn lunch."
I poked my head around the kitchen door. "Have you?"
He rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, no. But..."
I cut him off. "Kid. Have some beans on toast for fuck sake. You're no use to anyone if you don't bloody well eat."
My brother sighed. "Yes, mum."
I smiled. "Shove it up your shit pipe." Then continued my search. "You can have cheese on toast, French toast, toast and meat paste..." I heard him get up and he appeared by my side a few seconds later. "Damn creeping Jesus."
"Please. You're just jealous you could never beat me at hide and seek." He too opened a cupboard. "Why am I having toast?"
"It'll fill you up," I answered. "There's...ugh. A tin of macaroni if you like that sort of thing. Still looks to me like cheese coloured vomit."
He rolled his eyes. "Shut up. Might as well get cheese on toast. You always made it better than mum."
I snorted. "Don't tell her that, she'll take mortal offence."
I retrieved the loaf, picked out the fattest slices from either end and began the search and rescue mission for the cheese. I returned to the living room once it was done, plate piled high, steam billowing from the top. I half expected the smoke alarm to go off at any moment.
My brother threw it down his throat and I wondered if he wanted me here to feed him rather than playing bodyguard.
"What's the plan? There's been no sign of them yet?" I said. I'd already taken my smokes out of my pocket it and I noticed two new packets awaiting me. A grand gesture considering how much my brother disagreed with my habit. There was a box of matches, an ash tray and a notebook with a phone number written down on it.
He shook his head. "It's been quiet all day; dog would've been acting up." He put the plate on the table. "I'm guessing you've slept?"
I shrugged. "Somewhat. I got enough hours that I wouldn't die on the road here."
"Go get a few more then. I'll stay up, keep an eye on things."
I couldn't help but raise an eyebrow. "And how much sleep have you had?"
"I'll sleep later. You need it more, you're terrible when you don't." He frowned at me. "Don't give me that look. You're irritable as all hell and fight with everyone."
"Like you're any better. Find you passed out on the couch after you've not slept for days."
It was always a sore point, both my own and my brother's sleeping patterns.
"Everyone knows my sleeping pattern is non-existent at this point."
I couldn't counter this one and he knew it.
Deciding this was not the hill I died on, I went without further argument.
I left my bag in the corner of the room, I was in no mood to start pulling out clothes and put them neatly into drawers. I lay down on the bed, feet hanging over the side, shoes still on. It was a single bed; smaller than the king size bed I was used to. The moment I moved out on my own and was no longer sharing a room with my brothers, I made a point of buying a king size bed all to myself. My wife laughed at me, still does to this day, at my one indulgence that I'd allowed.
Nonetheless, I found this bed uncomfortable to even attempt sleeping in. Although, sleep I did.
While listening to my brother wander back and forth from room to room, at some point I dozed off. I awoke to being prodded and poked, my hazy mind thought it was my daughter and I swatted a hand blindly then turned onto my side. I expected more bed to be there and I rolled off the bed onto the floor with a thud.
I heard a snort before I was pulled to my feet.
"What the hell?" I said, rubbing my leg which had taken most of the impact.
"They're here," my brother told me. His face had a frown, deep set lines that betrayed just how young he was. "It's weird."
I too frowned. "They're weird. You'll need to elaborate a bit."
"They kept hiding before, when I went to look for them. They're not moving now. They're just there."
My stomach dropped to somewhere on the ground floor. "What, they're just standing there even if you go outside?"
I marched out of the room, now on the warpath. Mess with my little brother, would they. Oh, they'd seen nothing till they met me.
I went down the stairs, my brother at my heels, and went straight to the front door. I threw it open, sure it was going to come off its hinges.
And there they stood, necks at an unnatural angle, dead eyes behind the masks. My brother was right, they didn't move. They continued to stare through the window, completely ignoring my presence at the front door.
"See what I mean?" He gestured to them. "Nothing."
"Back in, before we tempt fate by standing here," I answered.
I locked the door behind me and double-checked it to make sure. We went to the living room and I made a point of shutting the curtains. Their faces would've unnerved even the bravest, and they made me shit bricks.
I took a cigarette out of the packet, lit it, and took a long draw. I ignored the look I received for doing so and began my ritual of blowing smoke signals till it was done.
"They're making me nervous," I said, glancing to the close curtains.
"They're making me nervous too but I'm not about to turn my lungs black," my brother answered. He glared at the box of smokes, the new ones he'd bought and the ones I'd brought with me.
I rolled my eyes. "It calms me down."
"No it doesn't, you're a grumpy bastard when you don't have them."
I resisted the urge to light another. "Fine, fine! I'll sit here without."
Before my brother could argue, I reached down into the box of Dutch courage I'd brought and handed him a can. He took it then I took one for myself.
"You know I shouldn't," he said and looked at it, as if it were about to sprout teeth.
"I won't tell if you won't," I told him, cracking my can open.
This at least brought a smile to his face, something I was briefly glad to see. I hadn't seen a genuine smile from him in so long. Between the divorce proceedings, court dates, and not being able to see his kids, it was taking its toll on him. He was exhausted, mentally, emotionally, physically, but still he carried on. It worried me to no end.
There was a knock on the window.
I put my finger to my lips then crept to the front door. I pushed the letterbox open and peeked out. A mask met me.
I cried out and fell backwards. "Fucking Jesus Christ!"
"What's it done?" my brother called. He rushed to my side.
"It's on the other side of the bastard door!"
My brother shook his head. "Why don't you yell a bit more, make sure it knows where we are?"
"Can it." I got to my feet, took a few steps back from the door. My brother went to the door, kneeling to the letterbox and opened it too. I heard his breath catch.
"Where'd you put my keys?"
"Are you psychotic? It's on the other side of the door."
He nodded. "I know. I saw it." He glanced back to it. "I want to try something."
My stomach lurched and plummeted. It churned while I watched him retrieved the keys, unlock the door, and open it. On the other side stood the weirdo, head tilted, that ghastly smile still on its face. This was the one with the blood smeared across the mask, it made me even more nervous to have it standing there, mere feet away.
"Offer it a beer, make itself at home," I said, though the lightness I tried to add was noticeably absent.
My brother ignored me. "What do you want?" he said, somehow managing to keep his voice steady.
"Peace…" it answered. Its voice was like nails on a chalk board, unearthly, and simply not right.
My brother frowned. "Peace?"
"Peace…" it said again. It tilted its head and reached for my brother. I grabbed hold of his shirt and yanked him back, away from the thing. I slammed the door, snatched the keys out of my brother's hand and locked it.
I heard him heave a sigh. "I was getting somewhere with it!"
"No, you weren't! You were about to get yourself bloody well killed!"
"Oh for Christ's sake. You're paranoid, you know that?"
I rolled my eyes. "Of course I am! There's masked people hanging around outside your house, one of them with blood over their face, and you want to invite them in!"
"So now what? Since you've probably offended them." He stalked back to the living room and flopped onto the couch. He grabbed the can of lager I'd offered earlier and took a large gulp of it. "Bloody drive me to drink," he muttered.
"And you turn my hair white."
Our tried and tested method of diffusing a situation or to prevent an argument: Call one another names until it the tension had ceased.
I sat down on the couch, took a drink of my own can then lit up another cigarette. This time, I did not receive the usual chiding or protest. My brother simply looked at me, then the packet of cigarettes on the table.
I sat back on the couch and there we waited.
Throughout the day, the blood-covered mask passed each window. It would pick one window, then move, appearing at either the front or back garden. When it appeared, there was more blood on the mask.
Between Bloody's appearances, the others seemed to back off and leave it to it.
Day turned to night, and they got closer once more, now disregarding their previous caution they showed.
By this point, my brother and I had made our way through both the case of lager, and Netflix's horror offerings. We argued, as always, over film choice. We finally agreed to disagree, despite I was right and his film taste was non-existent, and put any old shite on for background noise.
That was when the voices began.
I frowned. "Did you say something?"
My brother shook his head.
He had spent the last hour texting one of his sons, glad for at least some form of contact. It was only now he abandoned his phone on the coffee table.
He reached for the remote and turned the tv volume down.
It was coming from the hall.
I looked around for something to take with me, preferably something heavy, and made do with a pair of scissors from the table.
I went first, gesturing for my brother to stay where he was, and knelt at the letterbox. I lifted it and pushed the other side open. What met me, was Bloody. The eyes were level with the letterbox and stared through me. I might as well have not been there.
As if this wasn't bad enough, the worst-case scenario happened.
Bloody's hand reached through the letterbox, feeling its way toward the door handle.
I fell back with a cry of surprise and horror, my brother by my side in seconds.
He took the scissors from me and stabbed them through the hand.
The damn thing didn't even react.
It reached further and further, feeling around for its prize.
My brother tried stabbing it again, tearing the skin open from the previous wound. This time, it did react. It withdrew entirely, while my brother pulled me to my feet.
"Peace?" I snorted. "That was anything but peaceful."
My brother shushed me.
"Give us the peace of the grave, and we shall return them to you."
"Return who?" my brother answered. He knelt and pushed the letterbox open.
"Your greatest desire," Bloody continued, "For ours."
His face hardened. "She's dead."
Bloody's hand reached through the letterbox once more, this time holding something. It dropped it on the doormat and my face went pale.
His daughter's bracelet.
My niece had been buried with it, both her parents ensuring she had it in the coffin. My brother had bought it for her when she was very young, a gift for starting school. After this, my niece was never seen without it.
My brother's hand shook when he reached for it. It was indeed her bracelet.
"How?" he managed, staring at the small silver chain in his hand.
Bloody only repeated its words from earlier: "Give us the peace of the grave, and we shall return them to you."
I took hold of his shoulder and guided him away, sure I could hear a laugh from the other side of the door.