"63 Sequoia Lane" by Lauren A. Forry

Dwayne Stokes lay dead on the attic floor, surrounded by spilled cardboard boxes, arms stretched above his head as if he’d been dragged, a trail of blood leading from his legs to the attic stairs. Archer kicked a bagged artificial Christmas tree.

    “This is not what I asked for, Pratt.”

    Pratt huddled near an antique sewing form, tapping on his tablet. “I know what you asked for, but despite what the police report said…”

    Archer chucked a mouse-chewed Cabbage Patch at Pratt’s head. It missed and knocked over an empty DVD player box. “And I’ve told you people are expecting us to mimic the original case. I’m not interested in your armchair detective theories! We open this weekend and those slasher hacks over at Gore Grotto are already killing us in ticket presales. They have zombies with lasers. Laser zombies! And what do we have? A misplaced body and faulty AR glasses.”

    “The glasses aren’t faulty!” 

    “Then why do they keep flashing red?”

I’m not sure what I found more amusing – the way Archer’s face bloated like a steamed tomato or how Pratt’s voice kept increasing in pitch. They argued for another ten minutes at least. When they finished, Archer looked like he had a permanent sunburn and Pratt sounded like a castrated songbird. 

“Pratt, you’re my brother, and I love you, but Jesus Christ, if you want to solve the Staedlar murders, do it on your own goddamn time.” Archer picked up the Jurassic Park compound playset he’d kicked over in order to reach the stairs. “I want the overlay matching the police report before you leave tonight. Get Stokes hanging from those support beams!” He disappeared down the steps.

“But the police reports are wrong,” Pratt muttered. It gave him pleasure to talk back to his brother, even if said brother was already downstairs and out the door. Pratt watched from the attic window as Archer climbed into his new Ford F250 and drove off toward the highway. Pratt’s hatchback looked like a bug in comparison, parked alone in front of the old Staedlar farmhouse. He turned away and started picking his way through the cluttered attic.

“And the glasses aren’t faulty.” Just as he said that, the light in the corner of the screen turned red. He glanced around the attic but saw nothing unusual in its dark corners. He removed his AR glasses, and the red light vanished, along with Stokes’ body. The attic was just an attic.

“I’m going downstairs, Mellie.”

I followed him out. I could tell Pratt was uncomfortable. Ever since he and Archer bought the Staedlar house last year, I’d always felt more drawn to him. The brothers were only 18 months apart in age, but where Archer was loud and impulsive, Pratt was quiet and thoughtful. 

Pratt walked down through the old, shell of a house – no decorations, minimal furniture – all the way to the basement, a converted cellar and the only place not open to the public. Archer and Pratt kept their offices here, along with the control panel, hard drives, and central computer terminal. Last year’s augmented reality glasses, already outdated, sat in a plastic tub, while all boxes of the new models, except one, were still waiting to be unpacked. Pratt perched his own AR glasses on his head while he booted up the terminal.

I stood in the kitchenette and thought about making Pratt some coffee. Coffee is my second favorite smell, even though I don’t drink it. It’s one of those smells that can really transform a house into a home.

Once the program was running, Pratt started scanning lines of code. I didn’t know what any of it meant, but I liked seeing the numbers and symbols flying across the screen. I’d listened to Pratt explain so many times how it worked, but still had trouble comprehending how all those numbers translated into images that people could interact with. 

“Archer says I’m obsessed with the police reports? He’s the one refusing to deviate from them. And Mellie, we both know those reports don’t detail exactly how it happened. I knew I should’ve demanded a fifty-fifty split. Then he’d have to listen to me. My version makes a better story anyway.”

 Except you don’t know what your version is, I thought.

“If I could only figure out exactly what my version is,” he sighed and continued typing away at the keyboard.

I loved watching Pratt work. His tongue would stick out the corner of his mouth, like a lizard’s, and sometimes he wouldn’t notice and clench his teeth and bite down by accident. I’ve always found it cute, how someone can lose himself so much in his work that he doesn’t realize he’s hurting himself. When the old grandfather clock upstairs, one of the few pieces of real furniture, struck twelve, Pratt spun around in his chair and leaned his head back.

“You know, Mellie. You must have seen everything.” He was looking right at me as if he could see me. Then, he spun back to the computer and continued his work.

Pratt started calling me Mellie about three months after he and Archer bought the farmhouse. It was short for Melanie – Melanie Amelia Hecht – who was here long before the Staedlar’s took up residence, long before computers or electric lights or even indoor plumbing. Mellie Hecht, the very first murder at the farmhouse on 63 Sequoia Lane, rumored to still haunt her old family homestead. But those rumors didn’t stop the Staedlar family from buying the house in the 1990s or the Gower brothers in 2039.

“There.” He hit a button on the keyboard and all the code disappeared. “We can do a walk-through in the morning before Archer gets in.” He yawned.

I didn’t want him to leave, so I turned on the coffeemaker. The water heated instantly and, with no mug underneath the spout, coffee began spitting onto the counter. 

“Crap,” Pratt ran to the kitchen and unplugged the machine then gathered a bunch of paper towels and soaked up the mess. “Thanks, Mellie. I guess you think I should do the walk-through now?” He glanced at the clock – half-past midnight. “Well, it won’t take long. But any glitches I find can wait till tomorrow.”

He tossed the wet paper towels into the recycling bin then grabbed his AR glasses off the desk. He cleaned them off with a wipe and went upstairs to the beginning of the Staedlar Family Horror Experience: a full sensory, interactive augmented reality entertainment event fun for all ages, 17 and up! I, personally, don’t see why people consider it fun to be scared to death. In my experience, when someone is about to have his life taken from him in a brutal and terrible way, fun has nothing to do with it. True fear is anything but. But I guess everyone is different.

Pratt went outside onto the bare front porch. Without the overlay, the Staedlar house looked as empty and abandoned as it did when the Gower boys first saw it. They’d patched some holes, cleaned the dust, and brought in an exterminator, but other than a few props, there was nothing in that house. That was the magic of the overlay, how it could bring the Staedlar house to life just as it was that night on October 27, 1999. 

Once Pratt put on his AR glasses, adjusted the speakers, and activated the overlay, the original porch became decorated with pumpkins on a hay bale by the door, a hanging wicker wreath, and orange-red leaves scattered around a welcome mat marred by a single drop of blood. If the system could create smells, there would be the scent of damp air and a wood burning stove. Those are nice smells, too. Pratt turned the brass handle and opened the front door, which was unlocked, same as the police had found it. Pratt stepped inside and closed the door behind him. 

Now that the experience was running, all the interior lights were dark. Guests would have to find the switches themselves. Pratt found the hall light easily and proceeded into the living room which, thanks to the overlay, was now filled with a brown sofa and loveseat, marble coffee table, framed Thomas Kinkade prints, and a Compaq Presario desktop computer that sat in the corner on a dark brown entertainment center. The computer didn’t really work – it was only a hollow prop – but because of the overlay, when Pratt looked at it, instead of seeing a black screen, he saw icons scattered over a Windows ‘98 desktop background. 

Saved on the desktop, next to an article on how to protect your computer from Y2K, was a folder marked ‘Tiff.’ Pratt stared at the icon and blinked to open it. Inside were folders marked Homework, College Apps, and AIM. He opened the AIM folder and scrolled through the list of saved conversations until he found the one dated Oct. 26, 1999.

Stokesy81: hey babe can’t w8 to see u

    TiffGrrl84: me 2 luv u lots

    Stokesy81: sure ur parents b ok?

    TiffGrrl84: plz they do whatev i say & i say i want u

    Stokesy81: luv u babe

As Pratt closed the conversation, a chat window popped up. Stokesy81 was typing a message.

Stokesy81: Tiff, u at ur grandparents house?

    Stokesy81: talk to me. i see ur logged on

    Stokesy81: srsly Tiff. where are u?

    Stokesy81: we need to talk

    TiffGrrl84: i need u

    Stokesy81: im here babe

    TiffGrrl84: i need u to kill them

Then the screen went black. Pratt checked the overlay, but it appeared to be working correctly. Yet, he hadn’t programmed that conversation. He’d never even seen it before. Pratt decided Archer, for all his ‘we must match the police report’ griping, must have added it. It did make for a nice touch, as loathe as Pratt was to admit it, so he stopped worrying and continued to the kitchen.

    Archer, of course, hadn’t added anything. That would’ve taken work. No, that conversation did occur. It just wasn’t in the police report because it had been deleted before the police arrived.

    Guests could explore the rooms in any order they pleased before moving up to the next floor, but Pratt only needed to check his adjustments to the kitchen. The Staedlar’s old coffeemaker was set ready to brew at 7:00am, though there would be no one left to drink it. Pictures of Tiff and her younger twin brothers decorated the refrigerator, held in place by magnets for pest control, home alarm systems, and realtors. Next to the fridge sat a butcher’s block with one large knife missing. Since the kitchen appeared to be in order, Pratt headed to the staircase, passing the family room on the way. The red light began to flash. 

The red light was a warning. It meant something was wrong, and the guest should be afraid. But, it should not have been set off by the family room. 

“What is it now?” Pratt crossed the threshold as the red light continued to blink. Everything looked to be in place until he glanced at the old RCA television. The screen glowed as Channel 6 broadcasted a local news report. A female reporter in a branded Channel 6 winter coat stood in the driveway, a clear view of the Staedlar house behind her. The audio played in Pratt’s ear:

“No one can say for certain what happened here at the Staedlar home, and perhaps no one ever will. All we know is that another bloody chapter has been written in the history of the Hecht Farmhouse, a home locals are calling their own Amityville Horror…”

The cameraman zoomed in on the house where figures could be seen inside. One was a man with Pratt’s hair, wearing Pratt’s blue jacket, bent over, staring at a television while, on the floor above, a dark, motionless figure stood in the master bedroom. It raised a finger to its lips.

    Pratt jumped back from the TV, and the glasses fell from his face. Without the overlay, the TV went black and most of the room’s furnishings disappeared. Pratt listened but heard nothing over his own heartbeat. The adrenaline made him giggle as he retrieved the glasses from the floor.

    “Don’t be idiot,” he told himself. 

Speaking out loud makes people feel better when they’re alone, as if filling the silence with their voice can make the world whole and safe. It doesn’t really do anything.

    It was now long after midnight and no one can think straight at that hour after working all day. Pratt probably should have gone home. Instead, he perched the glasses on his head and returned to the kitchen. The coffeemaker and fridge decorations had vanished but not the butcher’s block. He retrieved the second-largest knife, slid on the glasses and went to the staircase.

    “What do you want me to see, Mellie?”

    Why you should get out of the house would have been my answer, but Pratt continued up the stairs. The children’s rooms and attic stairs were to the right. Bloody boot prints, exactly like those in the crime scene photos, led out of the master bedroom to the left.

    “Hello?”

    Of course no one answered. Despite that, Pratt continued towards the parents’ bedroom. Though Steve and Louise Staedlar’s bodies were covered, nothing could hide the extremity of the violence. Feathers from the stabbed down comforter stuck to the damp bloodstains. Blood sprayed the headboard and the wall opposite. It was nearly impossible to walk in without stepping in blood. Across the room, Steve’s work computer, a Gateway, switched on by itself. A website popped up on the screen. Like the AIM conversation, this was not part of Pratt’s program. He tiptoed around the bed and blood. The website listed the name of a child psychologist. Steve Staedlar’s Hotmail account was open in a second browser. Pratt maximized the screen, and a draft email appeared:

    Dear Dr. Miller, 

 

My name is Steven Staedlar. We met briefly at the Spring drug conference in Philadelphia. (I am a representative for Merck.) However, I am contacting you now regarding a personal matter. I am concerned about the behavior of my twin sons, aged 13. They

 

The red light flashed, and the screen went black. Reflected in the glass was the image of two young boys standing in the bedroom doorway. Pratt spun to see the backs of the boys as they ran from the room. He didn’t move. Like Tiff’s message downstairs, the information on Steve Staedlar’s computer couldn’t exist. It wasn’t in the police report. But it was here now. I was showing him the way, and Pratt finally realized it.

    “Oh my god, Mellie. It was them?” he whispered. The red light switched to green, confirmation for Pratt. “Then who killed the boys? Stokes?”

    Pratt’s desire for the truth overwhelmed his survival instinct. For nearly a year, he’d been convinced that Stokes wasn’t solely to blame and now, here was confirmation. With Mellie giving him exactly what he wanted, how could he leave? He gripped the knife tightly and headed for the boys’ room.

    Tiffany Staedlar’s dislike for her brothers was well documented. When the police interviewed her friends, they all said how much she complained about them. The twins read her diary, stole her things, broke her stuff. When she found her parakeet decapitated on the front lawn, she finally put a lock on her door. But, despite all this, the police wondered, did she really hate them enough to coerce a troubled teenager like Dwayne Stokes to kill them? A teen who, with a fresh lust for blood, then turned on Tiff, murdering her and her parents as well?

    But the police didn’t know how much the Staedlar parents covered for their boys – the increasingly strange behavior that began to tear the family apart. No one spoke of it outside the house, not even to extended family.  The sleepwalking. The insomnia. Their violently fluctuating emotions. The bloodied clothes and dead cats in the trash can. And the boys? Well, no one knew what kind of pressure they were under because they didn’t tell anyone. They didn’t think anyone would believe them. And they were right.

    Their bedroom door was cracked open. Moonlight illuminated the room. Pratt adjusted the grip on his knife and pushed in the door. Just like that night on October 27, the boys were dead in their beds. The Airfix models hanging from the ceiling twirled lightly from an invisible breeze. The knife used on their parents lay bloody on the floor by their Hot Wheels track. A dark stain of blood and brain matter marred the wall and their posters of Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen. Beside him, Pratt heard the hum of a computer. The boys had the family’s old Apple Mac. Steve and Louise let them keep it in their bedroom because they didn’t think it could access the internet. It couldn’t, but somehow the boys were able to access an online chatroom, a chatroom which now appeared on the screen:

dubletruble0228: we can’t. we don’t want to do that.

    sqaln63: you have to.

    dubletruble0228: no. that’s too much. don’t make us.

    sqaln63: you know what will happen if you don’t.

    sqaln63: you can be just like mr. peepers.

Pratt remembered the parakeet from the police report. And now he knew. The boys, alone, hadn’t murdered their parents. Something had made them. It didn’t take Pratt long to figure out what – sqaln63, Sqa Ln 63, 63 Sequoia Lane. But was it something in the house, or the house itself?

dubletruble0228: she wants to kill u

The new message popped up in the box.

dubletruble0228: she wants to kill u

It repeated itself.

dubletruble0228: she wants to kill u

dubletruble0228: she wants to kill u

dubletruble0228: she wants to kill u

dubletruble0228: she wants to kill u

dubletruble0228: she wants to kill u, pratt

Pratt pulled the computer cord out of the wall. Of course that didn’t do anything because the computer wasn’t real. It was the overlay, but Pratt forgot. And when the message remained on the screen, he ran out of the room and shut the door. He held the knob for a few seconds, as if afraid something might come bursting out.

    The front door opened and closed.

    Pratt ducked into the nearest bedroom – Tiff’s – and closed the door as footsteps echoed up the stairs. They turned towards the master bedroom, getting fainter with each step. Pratt hid himself in the closet as the footsteps ran towards Tiff’s bedroom. Her door opened and shut. The bed creaked, and the room filled with quiet, restrained sobs. The sobs became deeper and darker, morphing into an angry wheeze. The bed creaked again. The door opened and shut. Someone went into the attic then returned. Moments later, the door to the boys’ room opened. A pause. Two shots were fired. Then, all was silent. 

When another minute passed with no sound, Pratt crept out of the closet. The lights in the bedroom were on now. The pink carpet, pink bedspread, and pink walls were toned down only by posters of N*SYNC and Justin Timberlake. As Pratt passed a desk covered in AP textbooks, make-up, notebooks, and jewelry, the screen on Tiff’s phone – a hot pink Motorola Razr – lit up. A new picture message had been received. He flipped open the phone. Sent from an unknown number was a grainy shot of Pratt taken through the boys’ bedroom doorway. Pratt was about to throw the phone across the room when I flashed the red light. I wanted him to stop and look at the picture again. I kept the red light flashing until he did.

    At first glance, it did appear to be Pratt, but then he realized the jacket was black not blue, and the hair was cut too short – Dwayne Stokes. The phone buzzed. Another picture message – Stokes discovering the Staedlar parents. It buzzed again – Stokes stumbling from their room, leaving a trail of bloody footprints.

    Pratt put down the phone as voices sounded in the hall.

    “Oh my god, Tiff. What have you done?”

    “I had to. Please, baby, I had to. They killed my parents!”

    “Yeah? And how do I know you didn’t do it? You’ve been freakin’ weird for months.”

    “Please, Dwayne. It’s not me. It’s the house. There’s something wrong with this house. Dwayne, stop. Stop!” Her voice became choked. She was choking. Dwayne Stokes was strangling her to death right outside that bedroom door, and he would leave the body in the hall, just like in the crime scene photos, then go up into the attic and hang himself. The police had been right about that. Pratt listened as Tiff’s body dropped to the floor and Stokes’ heavy footsteps carried on up to the attic. 

He quietly opened the bedroom door, expecting to see a body, but only a shotgun lay in the hall. Knife still in hand, he made his way toward the attic, needing to see the final act and fearing it just the same. 

    Pratt wouldn’t have been so scared if he remembered he was wearing his AR glasses. Granted, it’s easy to forget a thing like that. But if he would’ve taken them off, he wouldn’t have seen or heard a thing. The house would have been as quiet and empty as it normally is when viewed without an augmented reality overlay. That’s what I love about technology, how it lets you reach out to people. How you can get inside its wires and its circuits and change anything you want. In the old days, it was all slamming doors and mysterious footprints, whispers in your ear and shadows in the corner of your eye. The hard part was making people believe that what they were seeing was real, being insistent enough so that they wouldn’t run screaming but wouldn’t dismiss the signs as fatigue or the flicker of candlelight or the settling of a new house. 

    But people believe in technology, have done ever since it first crept into their homes through telephones, radios, and television. The more they bound it with their lives, the easier it became to make them believe the impossible. After all, your computer can’t lie. Your cell phone doesn’t want to hurt you. Augmented reality is just a game. So why shouldn’t two young boys murder their parents, or a lonely computer programmer believe that the ghost of a dead farm girl might be trying to lead him to the truth of a very haunted house?

    Pratt went up to the attic, the red light flashing. I activated the speakers on his AR glasses and played Stokes’ voice from that night forty years ago.

    “Please, please don’t. I don’t want to die--”

    A chair fell. Pratt turned a corner and saw Stokes’ feet dangling in the air, just as Archer thought they should. I waited as Pratt thought through all he had just heard and seen. He trusted me so very much.

    “Mellie, if the boys killed their parents, Tiff killed the boys, and Stokes killed Tiff, then who killed Stokes?”

    The air went very cold, the light in the attic dimmed and, for the first time, I spoke loud enough so Pratt could hear me:

I’m not Mellie.

    It never gets old, playing with people, but it’s hard with no one living here full-time anymore. That’s why I liked Pratt so much. He was in the house so often, he might as well have lived here. Now he lay at the bottom of the stairs, bleeding out from the knife sticking into his side. Blood is my most favorite smell. It can really transform a home into something else entirely. I let Pratt’s seep into the old floorboards, joining the Staedlar’s and Mellie’s and all the others and embraced it with a sigh. Dawn had long since broken when Archer’s car came down the drive. I welcomed him with open doors.