It was definitely a black eye.
Claude hadn’t expected to spend Halloween standing in front of his bedroom mirror, but it seemed life had let him down yet again. His left eye ached, as it had the entire day. His whole being felt sore, but now for the first time, he could really take in how bad he looked. Honestly? He looked just about as bad, too. The things Mom and Dad would say to him later echoed in his mind, but for the moment, he almost enjoyed the quiet of the bathroom.
The sound of ringing jostled him from his thoughts. His phone. Turning away from the mirror, he reached over and grabbed the phone.
The voice caught Claude by surprise. “Donnie?”
“Yeah,” Donnie replied, “How’s it going, man? I heard about what happened today at school.”
Claude instinctively rubbed his eye, feeling the ache run through him.
“What’d you hear?” he asked.
There was a brief pause before Donnie replied.
“Folks in 4th period were saying that Brayden Polk jumped you in the hallway right before lunch. And he beat your ass.”
Despite himself, Claude felt a smile crack across his lips. He and Donnie had known each other since 6th grade, and Donnie always had a way of being blunt. Something about that fact always cracked him up. “I wouldn’t quite say that…”
“Well, that’s what they told me,” Donnie chuckled. Then, his tone grew more serious. “What was that about, anyway? He must’ve been pretty pissed to fight you like that.”
Eventually, Claude found the energy for a response.
“You know Brayden,” he said, trying to sound like he didn’t care, “Could’ve been anything.”
Donnie seemed to agree. “Yeah. Hope you feel better…”
He trailed off for a moment before continuing.
“Hey, uh…So I know that it’s been a while and all since we last talked. I wanted to say I’m sorry, man. And I was wondering. Since today is Halloween and all, I invited a few friends over. I know things have been rough lately, but you wanna come, too? Maybe we could hang out like we used to.”
Claude paused. In his mind, he could already hear how his parents would react. Like Donnie said, things with his family had grown rough over the past few years, but this was the first time someone had actually called him since he could remember. Without thinking, Claude found his gaze drifting out the window. The moon shone in the sky, beckoning him to escape to the realm of the living. Maybe he could get out before anyone noticed.
“Alright,” he said, “Sounds fun.”
Donnie sounded happy. “Really? Cool! I’ll see you there. Same place as always.”
“I’ll be there.”
“Oh, and one more thing,” Donnie said, “Watch out for any monsters on your way there.”
Again, Claude found a smile creep across his face. “Alright, Van Helsing, I’ll be careful.”
When Claude opened his bedroom door, he found the house still on the other side. At this time of night, it didn’t really surprise him—it wasn’t like the Claude Walker household did much anymore—but for a moment, he listened from the doorway and heard nothing. The tv was off, and he couldn’t hear Mom. Maybe she’d already gone to bed? That’d make things easier.
He made his move. First past the bedroom, then towards the stairs. Most of the lights were off, shrouding Claude in the nighttime darkness as he inched down the stairs. At the base of the stairs, he took one more look towards the living room. No sound. Nothing he could see. Only a few more steps to the front door…
And it was a bottle that gave him away. In the dark, he didn’t notice it until it was too late, and his foot collided with it, sending the thing rolling across the hardwood floor. He also didn’t notice Mom sitting on the couch in the living room until she was there, looked up at him. Her eyes widened in surprise.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
Claude’s shoulders tightened. The irritation in her voice was obvious.
“Out,” he replied. He knew she hated succinct answers, but he wasn’t in the mood to talk. But before he could leave, she stood up from the couch and blocked his path.
“To where?” she asked.
“Just out,” he answered, “Donnie invited me over with some friends.”
“Claude, it’s Halloween,” she said, scorn etching across her face, “Why would you go out today, of all days?”
That’s when he noticed her eyes: They were blood red. He glanced down at the bottle on the floor and understood. “You’re drunk.”
She stood up from the couch, swaying slightly, and Claude felt himself frown. It was one of those days.
“Don’t change the topic, Claude.”
Yep, it was definitely one of those days. Claude knew he should be used to this by now, and yet…
“Dad wouldn’t have liked you doing this.”
Mom froze, the scorn in her eyes growing into a fire. Claude felt the words grip him in the chest, draining the air out of him, but it was too late to take them back now.
“Well your dad isn’t here, now, is he?” she replied, “If he really cared about us, he wouldn’t have left after Tom…”
The words faded off into a sea of despair, digging underneath Claude’s skin. Despite himself, he felt his temperature rising. A year ago, Claude’s brother Tom had died on Halloween. For years, Halloween was always a special holiday in the Walker household: Tom’s birthday had fallen on that day, too, and his brother used to enjoy spending his time at the town’s arcade, but now the Walker household was broken, shattered. Alone.
But maybe there was still time to change things. Though for right now he was still in the same house, stuck in the same world that’d engulfed him for the past year.
Mom was close to him by this point. Grabbing his shoulder, she studied him.
“What the hell happened to your eye?”
Claude jerked his shoulder away and took a step back. That was all the explanation Mom needed.
“Don’t tell me you got into a fight…” she said.
“So what if I did? Not like you’d care.”
Claude’s insides were reaching a boiling point. “All you do is drink!”
“Claude!” the words were growing louder now. “You can’t take your anger out on the world like this. You won’t be able to live in the real world like this. Please, just stay here.”
“The real world?” Claude could feel the anger rising as he approached the door. “What about this is the real world? I’m trying to get out of you and dad’s fake little misery world!”
With that, he opened the door and slammed it behind him as he stomped outside.
Outside, the cold fall air greeted Claude like a friend as he stormed away from the house. He heard the door slam behind him, the sound echoing through the trees, and he cringed. Looking up, he saw that a few of the houselights were still on in the neighborhood, which meant that the neighbors probably heard what had just happened. No doubt, they would be gossiping about it the next morning with their fake-ass concern, “Oh, did you hear about what happened at the Walkers’ yesterday?!” And those wine bottles… He could already feel the embarrassment incoming. All the neighbors’ judgement on them. On him.
What Donnie said earlier came back to the forefront of his mind. I know things have been rough lately…Did Donnie know about Mom and Dad? That Claude was stuck there in Purgatory? Was that why it took a fight to get Donnie to call him?
Claude didn’t even want to attack Brayden. Before his brother died, Claude never would have thought he could be as pissed off as he was then, but something took ahold of him in those moments. He felt that same feeling brewing now as he put the house behind him. Claude called it “The Beast,” and it had stayed with him in the back of his brain ever since, lashing out whenever it felt threatened. When it saw Brayden, swaggering down that hallway, it saw an opportunity. All it took was one word to leave Brayden’s mouth for it to take over. The next thing Claude remembered was being carted to the school nurse, the eyes of everyone on him.
On the Beast.
Claude flushed with shame at the memory. He tried hard to hide the Beast from the world—locked away—but it broke free from the cage and sank its teeth into him. Now Claude was left to pick up the pieces.
Donnie was a good guy, a cool guy. Did Claude really want to tell him the truth? Maybe then he’d look at him like his classmates in that hallway did, too…
But for right now, Claude couldn’t let himself care. He wanted to be alone for a while. Needed to be alone for a while. Away from it all. Away from the blame. Donnie’s house was only a short jaunt down the road, but he thought now to take the long route there instead. Because he was not going to let the Beast come with him to Donnie’s—Not with his family’s shadow looming over him.
In the two years since his brother had died, the house have grown smaller. The living room was cluttered with trash—the same as it had been for two years. At one point in time, his mom and dad used to invite people over. Claude used to have his old friends over, too. But not anymore. It was like the three of them just wallowed in misery forever.
The Halloween din in the neighborhood seemed to be settling down by then, leaving the jack-o-lanterns and decorations strewing the houses as the only reminder that the holiday hadn’t passed yet. As he walked down another one of the streets, the sound of music brought Claude to a stop in the driveway of a house. It looked to be the Henderson’s. The sound of it drew Claude towards the front door, passed the Hendersons’ garden. On the other side, he saw a bunch of people crowded on the inside. Laughing. Talking. Kids running about. Claude had been among them, once. He remembered Mom and Dad dragging him off to visit the Henderson’s every year during their Christmas parties. Their daughter Pearl was Tommy’s best friend when he was in elementary school. And now there he was, on the outside looking in.
How could the neighborhood be so happy? Claude hated the sight of it. Once Tom died, nothing in his life had been anything but dark and hollow. And he remembered how the neighbors had reacted then. He could still see the days after it happened, how they talked to his parents: I’m so sorry for your loss…I can’t imagine how you feel…We’ll be here for you…All just words. Fake. For all their “friendship,” the Hendersons just moved on, without a care in the world.
Claude clenched his fists: In his mind, the Beast raged against his temples. Claude could see it—its matted gray fur, teeth snarling. The thought made him smile. His heart began to race.
Yeah, maybe he ought to give them something to care about.
Claude didn’t even notice he’d gone down the stairs until he found himself bounding back up them, clutching a stone from the garden. The Beast knew what to do next. Claude felt it egg him on. It fed off moments like this, took primal glee in it. Rearing his hand back, Claude got ready to shatter the Hendersons’ fun, to drag them—to drag the whole world—down into his misery.
In a way, it suited him to stay in the darkness, where the streetlights couldn’t reach him. Where he could stay unseen, away from those hypocrites with their bullshit.
He saw how those same people looked at him in the days afterwards, that same look Mom and Dad had plastered on their faces all damn day. Blame.
The whole town—Mom and Dad, everyone at school, even the Hendersons—blamed him for what happened. The whole neighborhood thought it was his fault. They had to. Probably hated him for it. And yet there they were, like everything was fine. Well, he hated them back. Yeah, the darkness was just fine… It was time to drag them down there with him, too.
But then someone noticed him, and that brought him to a stop. It was Pearl. Her eyes were fixed onto him from the inside. She didn’t say anything, didn’t react. Just…stared. The rock felt cold in his shaking hands, and after a moment, he felt tears build up in his eyes, drowning the Beast away for now. With a yell, he threw the rock back towards the street, erupting the dam of his soul, and stormed off. Away from the lights. Away from the happiness. Back into the cold embrace of the night that seeped into every part of Claude’s life. Except Claude wasn’t even sure if he had a life anymore: By this point, the memory might as well have hollowed him out. He felt like a gaping shell, a suit for his brother’s ghost to wear around as a Halloween costume, proclaiming his failure as a human being. He was unalive, and his brother was dead.
The night guided his steps after that. Instead of home, instead of Donnie’s house, Claude found himself wandering in the cold. The town passed by in a haze of gray outlines against the sky. Still, the night seemed to string him onwards, towards nowhere in particular.
After a while, Claude found himself along a stretch of road he recognized, and he paused, his darkness robbed by the encroaching streetlights. This was where it happened. That meant…He looked over to the side of he road. Was it still here? Claude found himself drawn into the grass, until he found it, there in the weeds: A cross, covered in grass and leaves and weeds. The sight of it filled Claude with an emotion he couldn’t describe. Crouching down, he reached out and began pulling the weeds away in silence. A gentle wind blew through the trees, breaking his sacred quiet, but Claude remained until eventually he saw words carved into the cross’s surface:
“Thomas Walker, Rest in Peace.”
Below that, Claude made out some more words. He reached down to scrape away the leaves and was surprised to find that his hands were shaking. He took a deep breath before he finally finished.
“We miss you!
Claude and Dad.”
The memory of that moment came back to the forefront of Claude’s mind. He and his father used to come here, to this spot. With Mom, they took care of it. But now Dad was gone, and it was all his fault. The accident drove a wedge between his parents, between they and Claude, and between Claude and the world.
Claude could picture himself in Tommy’s shoes, walking down this exact road towards the old arcade. That car speeding down in the darkness… They never found the person responsible. The driver who fled the scene, leaving the wreckage of the Walker family in his wake.
Claude shook his head, a feeling of frustration building. A year, and the memory still clung to him like a stain. Was he going to spend the rest of his life like this, in the shadow of that one moment? The fact that he SHOULD have been there for Tommy like he promised Mom and Dad, instead of leaving him to do it alone? And for what? So he could go to some party and Tommy could play some stupid game at an arcade that was now long gone.
…Except it wasn’t.
This had to be a dream.
That’s the only explanation Claude could muster about what he saw before him. The brightly-colored building stood out against the darkness around it like a beacon. Claude approached it, hearing the neon sign over the front door: Joyhall Arcade. Even in the dark, the words stood out as clearly as ever. The sight of it made Claude’s chest feel tight. How was that possible? The place had been closed for nearly a year…
And yet, there it was. A layer of fog lingered over the warehouse-like building. The light from the arcade’s neon sign cut through the fog, giving the night air a florescent color—In fact, the entire building pulsated with a supernatural glow. It reminded Claude of the full moon. Cool, otherworldly. A chill ran down Claude’s spine, and he suddenly wished for that tacky Halloween din, after all. Now he was alone, on the precipice of the light. He pushed his way inside, the doors creaking slowly as he passed by and into the light of the arcade, then howling shut, leaving him inside the room. Claude looked to the side, towards the front desk, and no one was there.
But he wasn’t alone.
A spread of arcade cabinets laid out in front of him in perfect rows. They all glowed with a hard, dim blue light—that same otherworldly glow—and from that, Claude could make out figures, each seated at a different machine. Other than that, the place was dark. The lights flickered off and on as he stepped away from the door, onto the ragged blue geometry-patterned carpet. It didn’t make any sense. This arcade was closed. It had been for two years. Claude saw its empty husk almost every day. Yesterday, even! And yet, here it was. Claude felt his skin crawl, and a force within him pulled him forwards, towards the arcade cabinets. That’s when he really took notice of the players. They stared straight ahead, faces blank. Claude could see the screens move, he could see them pressing the buttons and moving the joysticks, but there was no noise. None. They were playing quietly, in the dark. People in different outfits. Some in Halloween costumes. People he didn’t recognize.
Until he did. Suddenly, the crawling feeling beneath Claude’s skin erupted into a flurry. He felt his heart hammer into his chest. The world seemed to melt around him, around what he saw.
The last thing Claude ever told his brother was a lie.
“I’ll meet you there, don’t worry.”
In the eternity since, he’d regretted that statement more than anything else. He had no intention of meeting him, and so he sent him off by himself in the dark. Now his brother’s last memory of Claude must have been of being lied to and ignored. He’d obsessed about all the words he’d tell his brother if, somehow, he could see him again. But now, there he was, and he barely managed one.
“…Tom?” The words sounded like a croak; a sound Claude had never heard from himself. It surprised him. His brother, though, didn’t appear to notice, and his attention remained on the screen.
“Tom, Tommy, it’s me, Claude. Your brother!” Claude felt the words becoming manic within him now, like water bursting from a pipe. “Oh my God, Tommy. What’re you doing here?”
That finally got his attention. Slowly, Claude saw Tom’s eyes drift away from the screen, falling onto him. “Claude…?”
“Yes!” Claude felt tears welling in his eyes. After all this time, it was Tom, right in front of him. “Yes, it’s me!”
Tom swiveled in his chair. His eyes studying Claude softly—and Claude noticed his clothes: A wolf costume. A wolf hood covered his head, the creature’s glassy eyes staring off into the cabinet. This was the same costume he wore the night of the accident, on And all at once, all the emotions boiling underneath Claude, the past year’s worth, erupted from him.
“Tommy! I’m so glad I found you. What’re you doing here?”
His brother blinked. He seemed confused. “I’ve…been waiting…”
He nodded. “…Yes. I thought we were going to play together, right? Like you said…”
The words punched Claude in the gut.
Tommy’s gaze seemed so distant. The eyes on his costume stared into Claude’s soul. Claude remembered those last few moments he had with Tommy, how Tommy had been so excited to go out. Before…
“What happened to your eye?” Tommy’s words pierced through Claude’s thoughts like a scythe. Without thinking, Claude’s hands went to that same spot on his eye. The memory of his fight with Brayden echoed in his mind, radiating through him like the pain.
“It’s nothing,” he said.
“Looks like it hurts…”
“But that doesn’t matter anymore! You’re here! That means that I—you can come with me.”
“Yes!” Claude’s mind was a flurry of words now. “I don’t know what’s going on, but that doesn’t matter. You’re here now. That means that I can take you home!”
He tried to grab Tommy’s hand, but he didn’t budge. When Claude turned back, Tommy looked confused.
“But you just got here…” he said, glancing back at his arcade machine, “I don’t want to go home yet.”
“Please, Claude.” His brother’s voice was pleading now, “Sit here…Don’t leave.”
Don’t leave…The words struck Claude like a ton of bricks. For two years, there was nothing he wanted more than to sit with his brother one more time. The world had become a harsher place since that day, and Claude only could wish he could take back the time that Void erased. But now his brother was here. Was he really going to leave him again? To go to another pointless party…?
The arcade machine next to Tom was empty, so Claude sat down on the leather barstool. Beside him, the arcade machine screen flashed invitingly. Start Now? A million questions flurried in Claude’s mind, but as he watched Tom, only one came from the mess in his brain.
“How’ve you been, Tom?”
“Good…Now that you’re here.” Tom’s attention turned back on the machine.
The words were sleepy, but Claude didn’t care. He followed up with something else—anything just to keep talking.
“How long have you been waiting for me?”
A year. Tears begam to well in Claude’s eyes.
“I’m, uh…I’m so sorry, Tom. I can’t tell you how much I regret everything.”
This seemed to surprise Tom: His attention turned back away from his screen, and for the first time, the two siblings were level with one another. The cold light from the arcade machine fell over Tom, making him look eerily pale as his tired eyes studied Claude.
The question took Claude by surprise. “Well, it’s just been so long, and there’s so much I wanted to tell you, and—and…I made you walk here by yourself, and that’s why you…”
He drifted off, the word on his mind withering away in his throat. Other than the occasional sound from one of the arcade cabinets, the place was covered in an unnatural silence. Claude found himself at a loss for words until Tommy broke the silence finally.
“Was the party fun?”
“Honestly?” Claude admitted, “Not really. I should’ve been here instead.”
Tommy smiled gently. “It was at Pearl’s house, right? Was she there?”
“What about Donnie?”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t there long enough.”
Tommy nodded thoughtfully. “I hope he doesn’t mind. I know you wanted to go and hang out.”
Even after all this time, Tommy was thinking of Claude. After everything that happened. After I let him die, Claude thought. He closed his eyes, that fact crashing down on him.
“I’m so sorry, Tommy,” The words came out of Claude like a torrent now, his voice shaky. “But none of this would’ve happened if I had just gone with you. You, and Mom and Dad, nothing would’ve happened if I’d just not been so shitty. I should’ve been there for you…”
“So much has happened, and I just kept wishing I had gone to the arcade…”
“I was a horrible brother to you. Always was, and now…”
“Claude,” Tom interjected, a smile spreading across his face. “You’re here now, aren’t you?”
Claude paused, his insides a mess of quivering. “…Yeah, I guess so…”
“That’s all I care about.” Tom turned back towards his game. “Plus, we’re always bros, right? Now come on, let’s play.”
Behind him, the arcade machines stretched into the oblivion. Some machines were occupied by people Claude didn’t know, and some were empty. He glanced out the window, but he couldn’t see outside. As if there was only one thing that existed, and that wasn’t his guilt or the harsh world, but just the arcade. He and his brother, together again. He turned his attention to his own arcade machine. Start Now?
Claude looked over to his brother. “Yeah?”
“I’m glad you’re here.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Claude saw those same wolf eyes on him again. He looked over at his brother, and he felt a smile crack across his face. “Same here.”