Two dead oak trees obscure the old Victorian. Scads of tangled limbs allude to guarding the vacant structure, sending shivers up Sophia’s spine. She stares at the Gothic Revival opposite her new home. Mossy greens and hues of gray muddle its true coloring. She reaches into the U-Move it truck to retrieve her camera.

Sophia’s hair whips in the wind and daylight dwindles. She lifts the camera and snaps photos of the abomination in front of her. Its third story turret holds a set of triple windows, each with pointed triangular tops. The decorative trim reveals more of the ornate Gothic Architecture. If nothing else, a photo of this creepy place will be perfect for our Halloween party invites. She smirks at the thought.

Her eyes catch movement in the upper portion of the house. Sophia blinks to clear her eyes, then refocuses her sight on the top story. Standing in the window is a little boy, pasty-skinned and blonde. A gasp escapes her lips. She considers running to get Benjamin, her husband, but decides against it. Sophia bolts across the street and climbs the porch steps. Her heart races as she pushes the front door open and steps inside.

“Hello? Hello? Is anyone in here?” Stillness greets her. She scans the darkening house, hesitates, then steps toward the staircase. Floorboards creak and she whirls around to observe her surroundings. Nothing revealed, she sighs in relief and continues her search for the child.

Sophia turns to proceed up the staircase. Standing before her, on the bottom step is the young child. His head and face no longer visible, an oversized black sweatshirt conceals them. The hooded boy faces downward with his arms behind his back.

Sophia raises a shaky hand in greeting. “Wwwell, hello there. What’s your name… and what are you doing inside this house?” Her posture stiffens.

The boy remains motionless.

Sophia presses a hand to her throat, then speaks. “Umm, my name is Sophia. I just moved across the street. Are you lost?”

He inhales, then lifts his head to look up at her face. Lifeless black eyes drill into her soul and terror washes over her; the fine hairs on the back of her neck rise. His lips part and a sinister smile grows. Trembling, Sophia forces a gulp down her throat, and she struggles to speak. “Aaaahhh…where…where are your parents?”

Through a baleful smirk, the child speaks. “My name is Maxen. Let’s play a game.”

The front door slams. Sophia’s heart pounds in her ears and she fights to steady her breathing. Keeping her face fixed on the boy, she scans the room with a quick darting of her eyes. Maxen cackles through a set of sharp teeth whose coloring matches the house.

He slides his arms from behind and reveals a knife within his grasp. Delight grows on his face as he turns the blade over in his hands, feeling its weight. He cocks his head to the side. “In this game, you try to escape… and… I try to stop you.”

Sophia gasps and takes two steps backward. She wonders if she can make it to the front door before he reaches her.

His honeyed voice taunts her. “I’ll walk, but… I suggest you run.” His gaunt face and inky eyes remain fixed on her.

Sophia’s chest rises and falls; she searches the darkened room for additional exits.

Maxen chuckles and steps toward her. “Ready or not, here I come!”

She whirls around, grabs the doorknob and cusses when it refuses to budge. Maxen closes in on her. She sprints to his left, toward the dining room. He grazes her with the knife, sending a trickle of warm blood down her arm.

Sophia hurries through the dining room and heads for the kitchen in search of a back door. She struggles to maneuver through the darkness and her hip slams into a chair. Locating the door, her fingers fumble for the knob. It turns, and relief floods her. She pulls on the door, then spots a series of deadbolts, squashing her joy. Damn it! She steps back and takes a moment to gather her thoughts.

“What’s the matter, Miss Sophia? You don’t like my game?” Maxen’s voice startles her.

Sophia sprints out of the kitchen then passes the backside of the staircase. She enters a darkened room and huddles in a corner. Sophia covers her mouth to stifle her panting. Silence fills her ears, and she struggles to listen for the deranged boy. She arches her neck to peek into the room toward her right. What little she can see informs her it’s likely a parlor that circles back toward the front door. With her sights locked on the parlor windows, she readies herself to sprint. One… Two…

A shadow moves in the parlor, and she freezes. Sophia retreats to the corner, her chest heaving. A thump on the staircase startles her. Maxen heads upstairs, giving her an opportunity to unlock the kitchen bolts.

Sophia edges her way out of the sitting room, slides past the backside of the staircase and into the kitchen. Careful not to run into furniture, she tiptoes along the wall toward the door. Her calf nudges a thin, metal door. Realizing it’s a milk door, she sees an opportunity to escape–if she can fit. She steps in front of the opened door and inches her way to the floor.

Maxen’s hand shoots out of the milk door and slices a gash in her calf. Screaming, Sophia propels her body away from the milk door, then jumps to her feet. The color drains from her face.

Maxen bursts into maniacal laughter. “Isn’t this game fun, Miss Sophia?” He struggles to crawl out of the confined space, giving Sophia an opportunity to run and seek a hiding place. She makes her way to the parlor windows and gives them an unsuccessful tug.

The milk door slams and a kitchen floorboard creaks, alerting her to his location. “Oh, Sophia… I can smell your blood!”

She scampers up the stairs and halts on the second story. Strong winds emit a bellow of rage, and she stiffens. Sophia scans left and right, then opts for taking the stairs up to the third level.

Maxen’s dry tone makes her skin crawl.

“Roses are red,

Violets are blue,

I am dead,

And so are you!”

Sophia reaches the third story and dread creeps up from the pit of her stomach. The large, open room offers no hiding place. She spots the triple windows and decides her only option is to break one with her bare hands and jump out. Praying she’ll land on the small porch overhang, she readies herself to sprint toward the windows.

A small door on the wall to her right catches her attention. She walks over, opens it and realizes it’s a dumbwaiter. Assessing her options, Sophia sees if it will take her down to the basement. She climbs inside and closes its door.

Maxen calls out. “You’re gonna die!” He scrapes the knife along the wall, alerting her of his third-floor arrival.

Her teeth chatter in fear. She releases small amounts of the dumbwaiter’s hand rope to quiet her descent. Figuring she’s about halfway down–and hasn’t heard Maxen in a while, her heart hammers against her chest. His silence sickens her. Damn it! He’s up to something!

The dumbwaiter door pops open, and Maxen sticks his head inside. “Perfect! That’s where I want you, Sophia! My knife will have good momentum when I drop it. It should pierce your skin quite nicely.”

Sophia sees the blade enter the opening above her. She begs, “No! Please don’t!”

A grotesque smile grows on his face. He announces, “Bombs away!” and releases the knife. It descends toward Sophia.

She jerks left to dodge the weapon, but it buries itself in the meat of her upper back. Sophia howls with pain and releases the hand rope. She plummets to the basement. The dumbwaiter crashes onto the cement flooring and knocks her unconscious. She wakes and finds Maxen standing over her wielding the knife.

“Good morning and… goodbye, Sophia.” He giggles, then swings the knife downward.

Sophia flings a leg up and delivers a wallop to Maxen’s skinny thigh, sending him backward. She jumps to her feet and derives a moment of joy at the sound of his head whacking the concrete floor. But Maxen springs up and glares at her, and her smile washes away.

“Stupid Sophia. You may be able to knock me down, but ya can’t kill someone that’s already dead.”

Sophia thrusts her arms out and takes a step backward. She remembers the lighter sitting in her jeans pocket. Smirking, she retrieves it and uses her thumb to flick the wheel. A spark comes to life.

Maxen rolls his shoulders, and his face becomes enraged. “Don’t you dare!” He raises an arm to shield his face and keeps his distance from the flame.

She sets the old insulation and wooden staircase ablaze, then heads up the stairs. She halts part way up, turns and observes. Thrusting her fists in the air, she shouts, “Burn, you psycho!”

Maxen’s angered face softens, then turns to a malicious smirk. “Thank you for playing my game, Sophia.” His inky eyes transform into fiery orbs. He raises both arms above his head, steps into the flames, then chants his poem.

“Roses are red,

Violets are blue,

I am dead,

And so are you!”

The basement door slams and he moves toward Sophia. “There’s no escape. You will burn! I’ll devour your soul and will gain entrance to your house.”

Maxen’s smile widens, and delight fills his eyes. “Benjamin is next.”