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Mulberry Street
by Paul Carmichael
©1999 Paul Carmichael -- all rights reserved

Evil can be anywhere; a children's song, a house, a father's touch, or even the games of a childhood friend. The effects of evil can last a lifetime.

"Not again," I screamed and pounded on the steering wheel as I watched the Fiftieth Street Bridge open. Inch by inch the gray concrete and metal framework rose over the traffic. Twisting first left then right, I could not even see a boat anywhere on the river. But, boat or no, I was going to be late for work, again.

A tune, familiar enough to send shivers down my spine, drifted over from the station wagon next to me. I glanced over at the mother trying to control two toddlers and shook my head. Although I couldn't place the melody, it looked like mom was trying to sing it to her kids.

I switched on my new tape of the Mendelssohn Piano Trios and settled in to wait. Eventually the bridge lowered, inch by inch, and traffic flowed once more. Still no sign of the boat that caused the delay, and I pulled into the parking lot twenty minutes late.

The receptionist, Barbara looked up from her switchboard and sighed as I walked into the building. "Good morning, Mr. Montoya. I have a package for you, and Mr. Robertson asked to see you the minute you arrived."

"It was the Fiftieth Street Bridge again. I thought there was some sort of law preventing it from rising in rush hour, but no. The boat had to go through."

I took the package and walked to elevator humming that tune from traffic. I still couldn't place it, but I did get some weird stares.

My father, the late and unlamented Herbert Montoya, created Montoya and Associates about twenty years ago. In fact, the old man's portrait still glared down at me from several points along the tenth floor corridor. As his son, and junior account manager, I couldn't afford to be fired from his company, especially since my trust fund didn't kick in for another five years, but I had been warned.

Chuck Robertson met me halfway down the hall to his office. He had two men with him, and smiled as he waved me over. "Toby," he said quickly. "Glad you could make it in today, and don't worry, I know about the bridge. Some sort of malfunction. I wanted you to meet our visitors. Gentlemen, this is Toby Montoya, the founder's son and soon to be owner of firm, that is if he keeps his job." Although he wore a wide grin, I think everyone knew he wasn't joking.

Once the introductions were over, I had a moment to toss my package on my desk before taking over the guided tour. The men, prospective clients from London were making their first visit to the States, and I could see that I would be responsible for showing them around more than the building.

Only after several days of providing entertainment did I have the chance to open the package. Alone in my office, I unwrapped the paper to find one cassette tape and three beginning readers. I couldn't find a note to go along with the books, and wondered if this was some sort of sick joke. I remembered The Cat in the Hat, and Yertle the Turtle, but I almost dropped I Saw it All on Mulberry Street. Something about that book bothered me enough to throw it in the trash can. I shuddered, and picked up the tape. No label, and I would have to wait until that afternoon to play it on the way home.

The tape proved just as mysterious. There was no voice over or explanation of any sort. It was one of those nature tapes with wolf calls over background music. I listened to the tape twice and still had no clue as to what all this was about, except on the second go round, I realized that the background tune was the same one that had bothered the other day. Only now I remembered what it was and I felt ready to slap myself silly. It was Pop Goes the Weasel, of all things. But why the wolf calls? That didn't make sense. It was round and round the mulberry bush. I took the tape out of the player and tossed it on the back seat probably never to be seen again.

Someone must know I was bothered by the thought of mulberries, but who, and why? The subject had never come up before. I pulled into my driveway and thought to have a couple of drinks then crawl into bed to forget the whole day.

Growing up I had lived in a series of houses, from cheap suburban boxes to upscale mansions, as my father's fortunes increased. Now, all I could afford was a small townhouse at the edge of town. Five more years, I thought. The old man had set it up that I wouldn't inherit a penny until I turned twenty-five. I had no college fund, or even access to the insurance money when dear old dad bought the farm.

I dragged myself upstairs to undress, and had just pulled on my slacks when I heard something at the window. I waited for a second, and this time I knew the sound: someone had tossed gravel at my window. But why? I looked out only to see a small boy on a skateboard looking back at me.

Peter? This was crazy. We had grown up together and were still best friends. That boy couldn't be older than twelve and yet he was a dead ringer for Peter back then. I opened the window.

"Toby, meet me on Mulberry Street!" the boy shouted and then took off.

"No," I shouted back, but he was too far away. I fell back on the bed, and held my head in my hands, dizzy.

This was not happening. I picked up the phone and dialed Peter's number. "Hi, Grace, is Peter there?"

"No, he isn't. Toby? I was about to call you. I haven't seen him for a couple of days. He said he would be out of town, but it's not like him to not call me."

"I could have sworn he was just here, but never mind. If I do see him I will make sure he calls you."

A second later I called Peter's mother. "Hi, Mrs. Collins. It's Toby. Have you seen Peter?"

"Toby, no. Grace is looking for him too, but I thought he was with you. He said he had some business to take care of at your old house on Mulberry Street."

I choked out, "I lived on Mulberry Street?"

"Sure, when you were little. That's where our families met. Remember? 139 Mulberry Street."

I could see the house, and I almost screamed. "I remember now. My mother died in that house. I'd better get over there."

The phone dropped back on the cradle. 139 Mulberry. Something bad happened there and it wasn't even my mother's death. In a flash I saw a wolf's head leaping for me, and I screamed until I dashed into the bathroom to throw up.

I drove down Mulberry Street, slowly, trying to remember the houses from a six year old's viewpoint. At one point I knew everyone on the street, but now that information was long gone. I stopped in front of 139 and stared at the place.

The house, deserted for many years, had not been maintained. Weeds overgrew the yard, and a faded For Sale sign lay broken on the ground. All the windows had been broken, and the front door hung from one hinge. A perfect haunted house, and I wouldn't put it past my father to do just that.

I stepped out of the car in time to see movement from an upstairs window. My stomach clenched as I walked inside and called out, "Hello? Is anyone here? Peter?" I called out again, but heard nothing but a few creaks from the floorboards under my feet. Then something rustled in the wall like rats. "Peter, this isn't funny."

"Up here."

Reassured by hearing Peter's grown up voice, I headed upstairs wondering if the stairs would hold. They each creaked a different note as I made it to the second floor. "Pete? Grace is worried about you. She wants you to call. And what in hell's name are you doing here?"

"I'm in here. In your old room, Toby."

I followed the voice to a small bedroom only to find Peter the kid not Peter the man. "Peter? What's going on here?"

"It's me, Toby," the boy said in a grown up voice and then laughed as his voice slid up a couple of octaves. "And me too, Toby-woby."

"Don't call me that, and where is Peter?"

"Gone. Gone forever," the boy said and danced around the room. "It's just me now, and you and don't forget the big, bad wolf. He's going to get you if you don't watch out."

That did it. I started shaking and my hands clenched into fists as I remembered some of the "games" that Peter and I had played. He was six years older than me, and I could still feel him holding me down, making me cry with threats of the big, bad wolf.

The boy held out a rusted Jack-in-the-box. "Here it is, Toby." He turned the crank and, to the sound of Pop Goes the Weasel, I waited for the box to open.

"This is insane," I said out loud. "I'm not six years old anymore, Peter. I'm not afraid of a wolf puppet."

The box sprang open, and I squeaked out, "No." So much for being grown up. At the end of the spring was a wolf head with large, sharp fangs. I tired to grab it, but the boy was too quick.

"All grown up?" He laughed and shoved the wolf head at my groin. "I don't think so."

"Stop it. Stop it. You molested me, you little punk. I remember that now. All these years. I did my best to forget, but this is too much." Without warning I swung at Peter's face, but he dodged.

"That will be enough of that, young man."

I spun around at the sound of my father's voice. The old man stood there, in the doorway, looking just the way he had some fourteen years ago. "No, I don't believe this. You're dead, you stinking bastard. You're rotting in hell!"

"There's dead and then there's dead, Toby," he said with a long laugh. "The expression on your face is priceless, sonny boy. Then it always was. Did you miss me while I was gone, or did you party yourself sick every night for the first year."

"It wasn't me that got you, Toby," Peter whispered.

 "I remember," I whispered back. I stared at my father's face. "You hurt me for years, you sorry son of a bitch, and now you're back. Well, they can't do anything to me for killing a dead man."

He laughed, that loud, braying Montoya laugh that so irked me as a kid. "You think you have the guts to fight me? Not you, not my little Toby."

"Screw you, old man," I said and punched him right in the face. He took the blow but caught my hand in his. I felt a prick on my finger, and he laughed again. "What was that?"

"A little present for my only son. Ask Peter why he looks so young."

"Toby, I'm sorry, but he wouldn't change me back if I didn't agree to help him get you here."

I shook my head. "This is all some sort of sick joke on your part, isn't it. The books, that tape with the big, bad." I stopped as my whole body tingled. I started gasping for air as my chest squeezed in tight on my lungs. My arms and legs pulled in on themselves and I shrank down, out of my clothes until I stood almost as tall as Peter. I kept getting smaller until I stood as tall as Peter's chest.

"No. This isn't fair. I grew up. I grew up," I repeated stressing each word. "You can't hurt me anymore." I could barely stand the squeak my voice had become. "I'm not a little kid." I pulled my clothes around me as best as I could.

"Yes, you are and you will stay that way too. My team and I have perfected the nano-technology to do this. I had this body specially made to keep me alive, and to hide my identity after my so-called death. But you, my son, will be incredibly rich, and my toy as you always have been. I think it's time for a reminder. Peter?"

"You can't make me, old man. The last time around I was too scared of you not to, but not now. I won't let you hurt him again."

"Brave talk, little man. I thought you were so keen on changing back. Oh, well, I can handle keeping two kids here. Maybe I should try you first?"

I felt a chill in the room. I looked up to see mist floating across the room from the window toward my father. Gradually the mist took the shape of a young woman. As the features formed I thought they looked familiar. Soon I could see her face clearly. "Mom?" I gasped out.

Father stared at the apparition, and I saw the blood run from his face.

My mother spoke, halting at first and it sounded as if she was speaking from a great distance. Then again, she was. "Not this time. This time, Herbie, you won't lay a hand on either boy."

"Elena, no. Go back and rest. Stay away from me." He backed away, but not quick enough.. I saw the woman's hand dart out and reach inside his chest.

A second later, she pulled out his heart, still beating as it lay in her hand. She clenched her fist as blood spurted from the heart staining her white gown, and the old man's face and clothes. The heart kept beating.

Dad screamed and turned gray as he clutched at his chest. "The nanites, the nanites will repair the damage." He bolted from the room and down the corridor, but the stairs gave out. I heard him fall as each step creaked its own funeral march for him on the way down.

Peter and I ran to the edge of the stairs to see the old man's body lying broken and bleeding on the floor below. A moment later it crumbled into so much dust.

"Was he dead after all?" I asked the ghost that had been my mother.

"Yes, and no, my darling. There is only so much the formula and his own evil nature could accomplish. I found out too late what sort of man I had married and I remained here, waiting for the chance to make things right. I never dreamed that he would try to hurt you again."

"But what about us?" Peter cut in. "How can we grow up now? He had the nanites that made us young."

She smiled. "Time, Peter, time will make you grow up again as it did before. You see the formula he developed only works one way. He never did have a way of restoring you to your adult size."

"He lied to me? That old son of a bitch," Peter said and spat down at the body. "He kept promising that if I would help him one more time. What do I tell my wife?"

"We're kids again for real?" I said just starting to catch on.

"But this time, with the formulas he has in his study, and the fortune in cash, you both will be very rich." With that she faded away without so much as a good bye.

I began to cry my eyes out. It just wasn't fair. I had found her only to lose her again so soon. Peter wrapped an arm around my shoulder and led me downstairs.

If Mom was right about the capabilities of the formulas, where did that leave the two of us? I looked down at myself. This did have some possibilities. After all, I was now dead for all anyone knew, and eight years old with a lifetime of choices ahead of me including going to college to learn how to use nanites.

Peter picked up the phone in the front hallway and dialed. "Hi, Mom," he said in his grown up voice. "It's me. Yes, Toby found me and we're over at his old place on Mulberry Street. Look, Mom, I need you to pick us up. Call Grace and tell her we're okay, but there's been an accident. No, the car is fine and I'll get Grace to pick it up or have it towed later. No, I'm okay and so is Toby. Well, you'll see when you get here. Just say that we have a great big surprise for you and a couple of little ones, too. Thanks, Mom."

I had to grin at that. "A couple of little surprises? Say, how do you do that with your voice?"

"A talent of mine."

"Okay, don't tell me, but lets go dig up Dad's cash. Looks like we're rich old buddy, or should I say partner?"

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