“I’m going to miss you soooo much! You kept all the kids entertained but of course, you’re sixteen now and old enough to live off on your own… but...do you have to move out?” Miss Isabel practically squeezed Martha to death while hugging her goodbye.
“That’s because…” Martha watied till Miss Isabel let go of her to listen to what she had to say.“It’s because I know that you’re having a financial crisis. You’ve been receiving less charity from the people for a few months and Nora’s monthly income isn’t enough to keep the orphanage running. That’s why I’d started taking double shifts. I want to help improve the orphanage conditions while at the same time… I–”
“You don’t want to be a burden to us… I know. I always know what you’re thinking, Martha. And even though what you're doing isn't necessary, I know I can't stop you once you've made up your mind.” Nora, Miss Isabel’s daughter walked calmly out of the building, blue eyes narrowed at Martha. She stopped right in front of her and without a single word, kissed the top of her forehead gently and then handed her an envelope. “Take it. It’s not going to be easy living off on your own especially since you rented an apartment with your own savings. This much should give you a head start.”
Martha hesitated at first but Nora stubbornly placed it in her hands so that she wouldn’t refuse.
“Thank you… I’ll work hard and send moneyevery month.”
“Don’t ever forget us…” Miss Isabel said in a hoarse voice and then blew her nose into a handkerchief. Martha just looked away while Nora breathed out in irritation.
“For the sake of the kids inside, mother. Please, act a bit more mature,” she spoke while guiding the old lady inside the building. She waved one last time before closing the door. Martha stood there staring at the old orphanage she’d always considered her home. After onelast mental goodbye she was on her bicycle and paddling down the street. The place she’d rented wasn’t far from the orphanage. She only had to ride to the far end of the street where she took a left onto a dirt road that ran through the woods. The apartment was just ahead which she reached in about ten minutes.
Martha ruffled her windblown short, red curls with one hand while staring at the sinister looking house. “Maybe I should’ve mentioned to Nora that I didn’t have to pay for it. The caretaker of the house knows me as I often take this route to the graveyard to visit my parents’ grave. He insists that I don’t pay until I am fully able to support myself… but I was afraid that Nora would never let me go if I’d told her something like this…”
She hopped off her bike, letting it rest against a tree trunk and marched towards the front steps. The autumn leaves had clearly never been raked before since they were scattered everywhere. “What a mess…” she whispered under her breath while taking out a key from her jeans pocket and inserting it into the keyhole. The door clicked open without a single creak. Just as Martha stepped in, hermouth hung open in surprise.
The wooden floors were perfectly polished and the furniture seemed in good shape. Even a chandelier hung from the ceiling. Looking at the house from outside, she would’ve probably never guessed that it would be so grand on the inside. The odd thing was that the caretaker was kind enough to let her stay here for free.
Her suitcase was already waiting for her on the floor. Martha smiled and picked it up, wheeling it all the way to a neighboring room where she found a bed and a few occupied shelves. The fact that they were dust free was one thing but why were they still occupied? And with suchstrange books. Martha’s gaze rested on a fat leathered book with the words Beasts of the Dirt imprinted on it. Another one said Pits of Pests. The third one was in a completely different language, one she’d never seen or heard of before.
Martha shook her head, “what’s with you getting all distracted when there’s so much work for you to do.” She went to check out the closet. Just by looking at the empty thing, relief flooded through her, although she didn’t know why she was getting so nervous. After everything was right where she wanted it to be, she thought about exploring the house a bit. Unfortunately, her plan was cancelled when her cell phone started to buzz. She took it out. It was a text message from her coworker Anna.
WHERE R U? BOSS FURIOUS. U LATE! COME QUICK.
Realization bombarded into her head like some meteoroid as she quickly tossed her uniform into her school bag and dashed for the bike outside.
“I got so caught up in the moving that I forgot I had the evening shift at the restaurant.” Martha’s heart raced faster than her bike on the street. The sun had already set by the time she reached the restaurant. The sign ‘Lunch. D. R’ was illuminated in bold letters and bright lights. She peeked through the glass to see that it was crowded tonight. Darting into the alleyway right the building, Martha opened the backdoor and got in.
“You’re late!” were the head chef’s first words as he saw her dash through the kitchen and head for the bathroom. “No time to change now, just put on your apron and start cooking. We’ve got lots of customers tonight like we always do on every Saturday. And it is compulsory on Saturdays not to be late or absent.”
“Yes chef…” Martha murmured while quickly wrapping the apron around her waist.
That night, Martha worked quite late and was forced to dine there due to hunger, having skipped her mid-day lunch. An hour later, Martha was finally permitted to leave. She was the only one who left early as she was also the youngest of the kitchen staff. But she always managed to cook some surprisingly tasty dishes.
That night, when Martha reached home, she collapsed on the sofa. She was asleep before she knew it. Cooking dishes non-stop and then riding all the way back home would always be tiresome. And she was too worn-out to notice an extra figure standing nearby. It was only when she heard a loud thud from the floor above her that her eyes flipped open and she bolted up straight with a gasp. Blood rushed to her brain as she held it to lessen the pounding somehow. Another thud was heard. Martha jumped up from the couch, startled until she realized that she was the only one who owned the key to the house besides the caretaker.
“Must be the caretaker then…” she murmured to herself and was about to sit down when her eyes finally caught sight of someone standing a few feet away from her, staring at her like she was crazy. The person looked to be about her age, dark brown hair and hazel eyes that bored into her sapphire ones skeptically. Martha was speechless for a few seconds, trying to take in the situation. A boy was standing there with both hands stuffed in his pockets.
“Who are you?” he spoke in an even tone while taking a step towards her.
“Who are you?” Martha replied in a panicky voice.
“How did you get here?”.
“How did you get here?” More panic was recruiting inside her.
“I live here.” He stopped and folded his arms across his chest.
“Well I–” Martha stopped when she realized she was about to say the same thing again. Her brows creased slightly as she made sense of what she was going on. Not taking her eyes off the stranger, she took out her phone and started punching in the numbers furiously.
“What are you doing?”
“Calling the police to take care of pests like you. You think you can rob this place just because no one used to live here but I’ve rented this house now and I–” Martha didn’t even get time to complete her sentence because the next second she was thrown off the floor and pined to the couch in an instant. The phone slipped from her hands and hit the cushion. She blinked at him, color draining from her face. A total stranger had just completed a distance of three feet in a single second and pinned her arms to the sofa.
“Not till you spill the truth. The caretaker couldn’t possibly have rented this house when he knew that I owned it.”
“You’re the one who’s lying! I did rent the house and he gave me the key. When I first came in, the place was vacant!”
The boy stared for two whole seconds before bursting into peals of laughter and backing away. Martha stared at him blankly, not knowing what she’d done to make him laugh like that.
“I know! I know! I was just messing with you. I couldn’t help it. When you woke up, you looked so startled…” The boy took a minute to stop laughing and said, “but I wasn’t lying. I do live here.” He sat back on an armchair so comfortably that it was hard not to believe that he lived here.
Refraining herself from punching the guy in the face, Martha asked in a terribly controlled voice, “then why did the caretaker let me rent the place?”
“Because of your parents. They owe us demons a great debt that has to be repaid by someone. And that someone is you.”
“And don’t go blaming the caretaker for anything because I’m the one who asked him to do this.”
Martha simply picked up her phone again and punched in the rest of the numbers. Just when she was about to hit the call button the screen went blank; so did her expression. She looked at the boy whose stare was now creeping her out. Was he the one doing this? Martha shook her head slightly. She had to think straight. Her head was still pounding due to waking up so suddenly and no matter how much she tried to calm herself, her heart just wouldn’t stop hammering inside her chest.
“Look, I don’t know who you are–”
“I’m Shade,” he cut her off again and then smiled as if mocking her.
“I don’t care what your name is! You have to leave before…” Martha trailed off. Shade stood up lazily,
“Before you call the police… right. I sucked your phone’s battery. You can’t call anyone for the time being,” he said and vanished in the blink of an eye, appearing right beside Martha on the sofa with his hands resting behind his head.
Martha shouted, springing up and scampering towards the door. She tried the knob but it didn’t budge. Sweat prickled down her forehead as she fumbled through her pockets for the key.
“You won’t find it there. I took the key from you when you were asleep. You can’t leave until the debt has been repaid…” Shade announced, resting his head on a soft cushion and closing his eyes with a deep sigh.
“This isn’t fair!” Tears welled up inside Martha’s eyes as she banged her fist on the door. She slumped down in a sitting position with her head leaning on the door.
Suddenly there were several more thuds as someone else stormed down the stairs.
“Quiet down Jack, you’re way too noisy,” Shade said without opening his eyes.
Jack stopped dead in his trail when his eyes lingered to the tiny figure sitting with her back turned and head leaning on the door. “Who’s she?” he said, pointing towards her.
“That’s Martha. Careful not to wake her up.”
“You mean she’s asleep?” Jack’s eyes widened.
“Seems like it. Otherwise she’d never be sitting so still and peacefully over there.”
“But… don’t you think she’ll hurt her back sleeping like that?” he said innocently. He was younger than Shade and a little chubby. His height made him seem like a little boy, not to mention that he always acted like one.
Shade finally opened his eyes and sighed. He pulled the cushion from under his head and threw it at Jack who caught it expertly. “Take it and put it under her head after laying her down. And then put a blanket over her. It’s cold tonight.”
Jack obediently did as he was told. He covered her with a soft, warm blanket until only a mop of red curls was visible. Then he turned to Shade, “You’re still capable of moving. Why don’t you go sleep in your room?”
“Because the she-devil kicked me out. She’s decided to sleep in my room all of a sudden now.”
“Maybe she sensed the girl and was restless.”
“No, it’s not Martha. Something else is creating this unrest. And the devil’s only five. She can’t control her emotions that well…”
“So that’s what all that loud thudding had been about,” Jack said as if realizing something, “she must be causing a havoc in your room–ow!” Shade sent a cushion flying, slamming right into Jacks face.
“Just shut up and let me sleep for once.”