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Worse Than Alligators

Later, Jameson wished he would remember that night for the twenty minutes spent arm-in-arm with Eddie, walking Grubb through the neighborhood. Those minutes had everything: chill, autumn air that captured their breath in little puffs; the warmth of a boyfriend pressing against you, sometimes bumping into you when one of you misjudged your next step; his dog’s curlicue tail wagging, the equivalent to a wide grin. Perfect. Tranquil. Even the moon was bright, as if the cosmos wanted to say, “Be happy, Jameson.”

Eddie happened to be a talker. Silence equaled worry, so he would break the quiet every now and then. But Jameson didn’t mind. Being chatty wasn’t a fault. His boyfriend had no faults.

If they could just keep walking, mile after mile, until they found themselves directly under that glowing moon and see everything bathed in its romantic light, Jameson would be content. Content at seventeen. That was some sort of oxymoronic thought, but as he shivered at the cold, and Eddie leaned into him more to share his warmth, even the impossible seemed so likely.

“Do you think they burnt the house down?” Eddie asked.

Jameson shook his head. “Sis was warned, on pain of lights out at eight, not to touch the stove, oven, not even the toaster.”

“If we didn’t have to go back . . . if we could just stay out . . . ”

“You’re mind reading now.” Jameson kissed Eddie’s forehead. Well, actually his long bangs, since it was an awkward and sudden kiss, but it made Eddie smile. “There will be other nights like this.”

“Babysitting is not as awful as I imagined.”

“Babysitting is one or two. Seven ten year-olds is chaperoning. Better pay. But I may fall asleep before they do. You’ll have to poke me, keep me awake.”

“I promise.”

They had circled back to his street. Jameson wanted to stop right there, in the middle of the quiet neighborhood and make out with Eddie for just a while; the unspoken agreement with Jameson’s parents had been Eddie can come over and help oversee Madeline’s sleep-over but they’d be no kiss-and-tell.

But Grubb began growling. Low, and reverberating, as if caught in the Shar-Pei’s many neck folds before being released. Both boys began looking around.

“What’s that?” Eddie asked. He was staring at the corner. Jameson saw nothing odd. Only the standard neighborhood hedges. A lamppost.

Eddie slipped his arm out from under Jameson’s own. He crouched a little, it was as if he was going to ask Grubb what was making the dog so edgy, but he only pointed down, toward the far curb. “See?”

Something pale was caught in the storm drain. Every autumn, the neighborhood’s drains became clogged with detritus of fallen leaves and twigs. As a kid, Jameson felt it was his civic duty on the walk to and from school to kick clear the grates—his duty until it became incredibly boring, which it always did by the third one.

Whatever it was looked small and thin but as white as the moon above, even stole some of its luminescence. Maybe mushrooms? White slender mushrooms? Could they even grow on layers of autumn muck?

Eddie went to take a closer look, and Grubb lunged, not at him but in the direction of the grate. The swift tug almost pulled the leash from Jameson’s grasp. When Grubb realized it was not going to follow after Eddie, the barking began.

Jameson shushed Grubb and gently tugged on the dog’s collar with one hand as they both watched Eddie stop just inches shy of the drain.

Eddie shuddered and backpedaled and whatever the wriggling white things were, they stretched in his direction a moment before Eddie stomped on the grate. It would have been comical, should have been but Eddie looked more afraid than disgusted.

“What did you see? Nightcrawlers?”

Jameson put his arm around his boyfriend, who looked pale and shaken.

“My worst day at elementary school. No matter how much your dad insists, a jar of worms is not a good show-and-tell. The nicknames I had to endure.”

Eddie reached down to pet Grubb’s velour fur. The dog whined at first but once it saw they were headed back home, its tail began to sway again.

As Jameson slipped his house keys from his coat pocket, Eddie watched their backs. “What is wrong with you?” Jameson asked.

“Think your folks would know if I snuck into the liquor cabinet?”

“Not funny. Madeline would then ask if the girls could have a sip of whatever you were drinking. And that would lead to cataclysmic grounding.” He turned a key in the deadbolt. “So, unless you feel like going to prom stag—”

“Open the door.”

The girls, led by his sister, came running. Grubb eagerly met them, and was soon being petted and rubbed and pulled by half the bevy.

“Can we make no’mores?” Madeline asked. She clutched a jar to her chest, but Jameson couldn’t see the label. Rose-colored glitter covered some of her forehead and cheeks.


Madeline rolled her eyes, as if her brother had absolutely no understanding of anything. “Better than s’mores. You don’t need a campfire. It’s toast spread with melted marshmallows—you melt them in the microwave—and then this.” She held out a jar of Nutella. The lid looked very loose, and Jameson suspected that half the jar had already been devoured.


In the kitchen, the girls had already made a mess without using anything with a heating element. Eddie sang Red Caps songs off-tune as he helped clear the center island and Jameson plugged in the toaster.

He fed it the first slices and was looking for the bag of marshmallows in the cupboard pantry when he felt a little tug at his sleeve.

One of the girls. She was a bit heavier than the rest. And her mother had permitted a terrible haircut that only made her face rounder. Jameson tried to remember her name: either Chloe or Zoey.


“Can I use the bathroom?” A dollop of glitter on one round cheek looked like a mole.

He blinked. “Sure. You walked right past it—”

She shook her head. Her voiced dropped to a whisper. “No. A different one. Upstairs.” She took a two-step to reinforce the idea she needed to go real bad real soon.

Jameson leaned down. “Oh. Yeah, it’s at the top of the stairs. Our little secret, okay?”

The girl neither agreed nor thanked him, but dashed off.

Curious, Jameson walked into the downstairs bathroom. Yet again messy but unoccupied. Madeline and the girls must have been playing with the talcum powder because a fine dusting covered parts of the sink and some of the mirror, though much had been wiped clear. He lifted up the toilet seat, prepared for the worst, but there was nothing sick there other than blue water.

Eddie was picking up toast, dropping it on to plates and blowing on his singed fingertips. He looked calm and Jameson decided not to pursue whatever shook him outside. It could have been a dead squirrel. Eddie donated birthday money to animal shelters. Yeah, a dead critter, maybe even a possum, would have freaked him out.

It took longer than Jameson expected, but finally, balancing seven plates on arms and hands, they brought into the den of eager girls the no’mores. Madeline was reading from a book and the rest were circling her. All except Chloe, who sat next to the couch on the floor a bit apart from the others. The sight made Jameson wince. Why was the heavy-set girl always the outsider? He would have to pull Madeline aside and tell her that a proper hostess makes sure all her guests are entertained.

The no’mores disappeared into sweet-tooth filled mouths. Crumbs stuck to small chins. “We need milk,” Eddie faux shouted, as if calling out for water for a fire, and he dashed off to the kitchen, making the girls laugh and redouble when he brought back the carton.

“Open your mouths and each gets a pour.”

Jameson gave Eddie first a raised eyebrow then a little stink-eye.

“What . . . I promise not to miss.” And he didn’t, each girl lining up to have a little milk poured into their open mouths. A couple wanted seconds, but Eddie refused until every one had firsts.

“What are you reading?” Jameson asked Madeline. The paperback looked ready to crumble apart, the pages the same yellow as old newspapers in the garage from last spring that had yet to be recycled.

Madeline lifted the book up to show the cover. Occult for the Parlour.

“What’s a parlour?” one of the girls asked.

“It’s where Colonel Mustard shot someone,” Eddie said.

“Zoey brought it.”

“My father has a lot of books.” She blushed at the attention.

“You must live in a library,” Madeline said. “And sleep on a shelf.”

“Be nice.” Jameson realized the finger he raised was the exact same gesture his parents used.

Madeline returned her attention to the book, turning pages, before becoming animated once more. “Oooh, can we hypnotize you, Eddie?”

“Wait—what?” he asked.

Jameson took the book from Madeline. A page tore loose and fluttered to her lap. He looked at the chapter “Entertaining with Hypnotism.” The black and white illustration showed a thickly coifed man with raised hands that shot tiny lightning bolts at a wide-eyed woman dressed like a prude.

The girls began to call out, demanding Eddie sit down and let himself by hypnotized, though several of them mispronounced the word, adding new consonants.

Jameson looked over at Eddie, who shrugged and wore a half-grin. Then he turned back to the book and thumbed through the pages, skimming the various “lessons.”

“Please?” Madeline made the single word last almost half a minute.

“It’s up to him.”

She turned and looked up at him and held her hands clasped in mock-begging.

“Okay. But don’t make me do anything stupid. And no one takes any pictures or videos. I don’t want to find a Vine of me acting like a monkey.”

The girls laughed. Jameson noticed that even Zoey seemed less anxious.

Madeline guided Eddie to sit next to her and then snapped her fingers at Jameson so he would hand back the book. She began reading and providing him instructions on how to relax, to close his eyes, to count backwards. She shushed the other girls, who were chattering about what they wanted Eddie to do once he was “under.”

Jameson tidied the room a bit but really watched. Eddie was being a good sport and listening to everything Madeline told him to do.

At one point he made a loud snoring sound that caused a ripple of laughter in his audience. Madeline smacked his chest with the book and chided him not to fake. She had him start counting backwards from one hundred. His voice grew softer as he passed the seventies until his mouth barely moved and no one could hear the count.

“You’re deep asleep but you can still hear me, right?”

Eddie dipped his head a fraction.

“Eddie,” Madeline said, “tell me your full name.”

“Edmund Mitchell Standiford.” His voice sounded distant. Jameson decided he just recommend Eddie try out for the school play next time.

“How old are you?”


“I want you to try and lift your left . . . ” Madeline glanced at a page in the book, “lift your left arm. But it’s heavy. Too heavy. Like it’s made of lead.”

Jameson watched as Eddie did seem to struggle to lift his arm from where it rested on the sofa cushion.

Grubb whined. Madeline shushed the dog.

“This is boring stuff.” She turned a few pages. Eddie still sought to raise his arm, which trembled. Madeline shut the book. “So, Eddie, you have to listen to my command.” She leaned down to whisper to the nearest girls. Her eyes went to look at Jameson.

“You have to kiss me. You have to kiss all of us.”

“Whoah,” Jameson said and put a firm hand on Madeline’s shoulder, keeping her from moving closer to his boyfriend. “No kissing.”

A chorus of pouts and boos.

“What can we do then?”

Jameson sat down on the arm of the sofa. “Eddie, why don’t you tell them what you saw in the storm drain?” Nothing like talk about worms to send the girls squealing.

“Fingers. A little girl’s fingers.” Eddie’s face looked pained. “Wet hair and her squirming fingers.” He stood up and screamed.

The circle of girls erupted, echoing his cry as they backed away. Grubb began barking.

Jameson grabbed hold of Eddie, who shut his mouth and blinked as if he really had come out of a trance. Eddie wrapped his arms around Jameson and shuddered as if trying to bring up a sob.

“You’re scaring everyone,” he said softly to Eddie. He thought Eddie whispered back, “She was horrible,” but he couldn’t mean Madeline. Bratty on occasion was her worst.

Grubb’s barking became the most annoying thing in the room, and despite Madeline’s hold on its neck, it rushed off in the direction of the bathroom. When Jameson turned around to tell the girls to stay put, he saw they had clustered together.

With Eddie, he followed the snarling and scratching sounds to find Grubb half-in the shower stall, its head shaking back and forth, something white in his jaws. He knelt down and saw it vaguely looked like a long glove but had the texture of the melted marshmallow used in the no’mores. One of the girls must have dropped her treat, maybe even a few uncooked marshmallows and Grubb had begun munching. The dog whined when Jameson took a hold of the gooey mess by one wet and cold edge. It pulled almost apart. He dropped it into the toilet and flushed. The end that resembled fingers wiggled as they went down the drain. Grubb whined and kept returning to sniff the drain in the stall. It barked once, twice at it.

“Both of you,” Jameson said, “need to stop with the scares.” He wiped his hands with a fresh towel.

The girls didn’t like hearing that it was lights-out time. Amid the whines came Madeline’s plea with the book. “But there’s more—”

Eddie stole it from her grasp. “A good magician knows when to end the show.”

“A movie at least.”

“You watched two already. Bedtime.” Jameson turned to Eddie. “Help me get all the blankets.”

Together, they helped rearrange the living room for maximum sleeping occupancy with pillows and sleeping bags and then had to redo it once more because Madeline didn’t like it that this girl was sleeping so close to her when she wanted a different BFF on her right.

Grubb lay protectively amongst them.

Jameson turned out the light. He led Eddie into the small den with a desk that was more of a work bench where his father would stay up late making ornate fishing lures that had names like garage bands. Orange Craw. Thunder Bug. They decorated cubbyholes along the walls beside mounted bass and salmon. When he was seven, Jameson had snuck into the den one morning to play with the colorful lures. More than a decade had passed, as well as several awkward attempts and father-son fishing trips, and still Jameson associated his father’s hobby with the memory of hooks catching in the flesh of his palm and a tetanus shot. He eyed the lures now warily. But the den was closer to the living room. He could keep an ear trained for the girls, who peppered the darkness with whispers and giggles.

Eddie collapsed in a beat-up recliner, the only other chair in the room and opened up the book.

Jameson swiveled to face him. “Do you think I’m boring?”

“No.” Eddie laughed the word into multiple syllables.

“It’s just that . . . I don’t know. When I was Madeline’s age, I didn’t have sleepovers. Or invented treats . . . ” He shook his head. “No’mores?”

Eddie rolled his eyes with the same precision as Jameson’s little sister, which stung rather than comforted. Eddie was more like her than him. They both were barely contained vessels of chaos, so quick to say something, anything, rarely sitting still. Eddie already had shifted in the recliner as if unable to relax.

“I wasn’t asking boys to kiss me at that age either.” Jameson suspected that Eddie had kissed a boy first. He knew stuff. Stuff that made Jameson both thrilled and worried that Eddie would grow bored of him one day.

“You can have one now.”

Flirting. Eddie was a brilliant flirter. How does someone learn that?

“Relax. I only want to kiss you.”

“That was some performance. I mean your screaming.”

Eddie paled. “Yeah. I just . . . I mean, none of this”—he lifted the book—“is real. I planned on snoring when it became boring. But when you asked me about the grate—”

“So, wait, that horror show . . . ”

He shrugged. “I thought I saw . . . someone down the drain. A little girl reaching up, fingers through the grate as if she wanted me to pull her up. Or pull me down.”

“You probably saw a kid’s doll that got washed down the gutter and stuck there.”

Eddie threw the book at Jameson. “This stuff is all too creepy.”

“Isn’t that one of the rules to having a sleepover? Have a séance or something?”

Eddie stood and stretched, noticed Jameson staring at his exposed briefs that rose above his blue jeans, and smirked. He then took the few steps to cross the room and lean down, resting a hand on each of the desk chair’s arms and trapping Jameson.

“Didn’t I mention a liquor cabinet?” he whispered while bringing his face close to Jameson’s. “That is what I think a sleepover needs.”

Flustered, Jameson lost the gift of language for several seconds. Which made Eddie laugh, loud for a moment until he cupped a hand over his own mouth, trapping the remainder of the laugh behind a smile.

“We can’t.”

“I know. I am gonna see if there’s any Nutella left, though.” Eddie stopped in the doorway. He gestured toward the living room.

Jameson didn’t understand until he heard. Nothing. They must have fallen asleep.

Eddie gave him a thumbs-up and headed for the kitchen.

Jameson sighed. He realized he’d always be the boy his parents could trust. “Opposites attract” had to have some truth.

He flipped the book’s pages, wincing in his head at what he found: black and white photographs of people with their mouths stretched wide and weird balloons coming out their mouths. He read the caption about mediums vomiting ectoplasm, white stuff that was supposed to be from the spirit world. He thought of that gunk Grubb was chewing. He didn’t like the thought it might have been something . . . eerie.

A timid knock startled Jameson. He almost fell out of the chair turning to the open doorway to see Zoey standing there sniffing. The distinct stink of piss came to him.

“Aww, what’s wrong, hon?” he said as he walked over. “Did you . . . did you have an accident?”

“N-no . . .  I-I.” She wiped her face and looked back toward the living room. “They haven’t come back yet. I didn’t want to go, I told them so. And when Madeline c-called me a baby I got scared and angry and but I peed. I hid in the blankets and they all went and now they haven’t come back.”

“What? Went where?”

“To look for Carmen Winstead.”

Eddie appeared, licking chocolate from his fingertips. “What’s wrong?”

Jameson shook his head. “Who’s Carmen?” He guided Zoey back toward the living room. The bottom half of the girl’s pajamas were soaked with urine. He saw that Grubb stood beside the front door. It glanced at him then whined and pawed at the wood.

Zoey trembled. “She’s . . . she’s a girl who got bullied at some school near here. And the kids tossed her down the storm drain and she died and her ghost . . . her ghost came and took the bullies one by one. And you can see her . . .  you can see she writes a warning if you go into the bathroom and spray the mirror with powder and say her name three times.”

Jameson remembered the talcum powder spilled in the bathroom.

“And after Eddie, what you guys talked about under hyp-hypnosis. Madeline waited until she thought you were both asleep and she dared all of us to go to the storm drain at the end of the block. But I didn’t want to.”

“Fuck.” Jameson could just imagine a half-dozen ten-year-old girls, dressed only in pajamas, standing around a corner late at night. It was a child abductor’s smorgasbord. He scrambled on his coat. Eddie did the same, but he told him to take Zoey into the bathroom—she started to wail, and begged not to go to the downstairs bathroom—and told him to take her upstairs and clean her up.

Grubb pawed more agitated and barked. He slipped right past Jameson’s legs when the door opened and dashed toward the end of the block. Jameson ran after Grubb, but he could see as he dashed off the front porch there was no cluster of girls arranged around the storm drain. Only a barking dog.

He almost began shouting their names, but couldn’t raise his voice and disturb the neighbors. Behind him, he heard Eddie’s voice, calling out for Madeline and the others. A trickle of anger flushed through Jameson’s blood with the current of fear. Why wouldn’t Eddie do as he was told?

Jameson looked around the hedges, hoping, readying himself for the girls to leap out and yell, “Boo.” But no, at the corner, there was just Grubb. And Eddie standing there, staring down.

“Help me,” Jameson said. And fell to his knees besides the grate. Eddie took out his cell phone out, was dialing the police. By the phone’s weak light, Jameson glimpsed a pale figure down in the storm drain slipping away, leaving behind the distant sobbing of girls, or was that his own? He thought he heard over the sobs a little girl laugh.

About the Author

Steve Berman sold his first short story at seventeen and has been writing ever since. He also has edited several horror and dark fantasy anthologies for Prime Books and Lethe Press. His novel, Vintage: A Ghost Story, was a finalist for the Andre Norton Award.