Mr. Cracks

cove-man

-By: J.J. Cheesman

My first big move into a new house happened when I was twelve years old. It was still in Illinois, and it was still in Danville, so I didn’t have to change schools, but man that didn’t stop me from hating it at first. The idea of moving out of my childhood home seemed wrong to me. 129 Elm Street was the home where I’d spent twelve Christmas’s and twelve birthdays, and I was trading it in for 44 High Street, a home in which I held no emotional connection. The house on Elm Street was an old home with a lot of, what I would describe now, as ‘Character’. As an only child, I spent a lot of time in that big old house playing pretend in the attic and basement, where I was free to do as I’d pleased without much adult supervision. I suppose that was another reason I initially hated the move.

Our new home on High Street was exactly that, new. It was in a recently established neighborhood on the north side, what a lot of people referred to as the ‘rich’ part of town. Maybe I should have been excited that we were getting an upgrade. Dad got a promotion to line manager at the factory he worked at. So, after a bit of saving, we were able to sell the house and move into a better part of town. I didn’t care about any of that though. As far as I was concerned it most certainly wasn’t a better house.

The house had more rooms, sure. With our small family, my twelve-year-old self didn’t see the point in a bigger home. I had no idea at the time that my parents were planning on having another baby. More rooms didn’t mean more fun. It was a one-story home. It had no real attic, and no basement. Only crawl-spaces to access the air ducts as well as the lines that provided electricity throughout the rooms. To me the house was dull and boring.

The week after unpacking, I sat in the living room, absent-mindedly flipping through channels on the television. My dad was walking through the living room on his way into the kitchen when he stopped to look at me.

“Justin, you can’t just sit in here all day. It’s beautiful outside. Don’t you want to go out and play?” He asked. I simply shrugged. He walked over and took the remote from my hand.

“You’ve done nothing but watch T.V. and play video games since we got here, and I don’t like it. There are some kids playing ball outside, why don’t you see if you can play with them?”

I sighed obnoxiously in protest. The last thing I wanted to do was go hang out with a bunch of snobby rich kids.

“But I don…” He cut me off.

“No buts. You aren’t going to waste all summer inside. Now go.” My father was a kind and loving man, and it wasn’t often he ever got upset. When he used his serious tone of voice, I knew better than to cross him. I slumped my head and defeat and made my way outside.

Like Dad had said, it was a beautiful summer day. The sky was clear and the sun shone brightly. It was hot and it may have been unbearably so, if it weren’t for the cooling breeze. Somewhere, I could hear the sounds of kids laughing and shouting. It took me a moment to gather the courage to go searching. Most of my childhood had been spent playing inside. There weren’t any kids I knew from school that lived near my old home. Finally, I walked out and stood on the front lawn, looking to my left toward the end of the street and the sound of the kids.

High Street was a Cul-de-sac connected to several others, that all ended in a circle. When I stared down the street, I saw a group of kids gathered around a basketball hoop that someone had wheeled out into the middle of the circle. I immediately considered turning back around and going into the house. There wasn’t anyone in the crowd I recognized, and I’d lost all the nerve I’d gathered before I walked onto the yard. Before I could turn around, a voice called after me.

“Justin!”

A boy in the group of kids was waving me over. It was Taylor Redman, a boy who I often sat with at lunch in school along with a few other kids, though I’d never been to his house. He broke off from the other kids and jogged over to me.

“Hey man, you live here now?” He asked, nodded to my house.

“Uh… yeah, just moved.”

He nodded.

“I knew you were moving, I just didn’t know it was here. I live in the house across the street.”

He gestured to the blue, two-story home behind him. I looked up to one of the windows on the second floor. I was green with envy.

“Why don’t you come play with us. If we have you, we can do six-on-six.” I looked over to the four boys down the road while they stared back at me, patiently waiting for Taylor to return.

“Yeah, I’ll play. I’m not very good though.”

“Neither are they, trust me.”

We made our way to the end of the circled-street, and Taylor introduced me to the kids. In near-unison they all gave their names back, none of which I really understood or remembered, and in moments we were playing. Taylor called out that I would be on his team along with a tall, lanky kid with red hair and freckles. We played three games, two of which we won, before the group started thinning out. First the red-haired kid left, saying that he had to go help his dad with something. Then a pudgy boy with glasses said he’d promised his mom he’d be home before four. Until, finally, it was just me and Taylor.

With just the two of us, we’d settled on playing a game of horse. I don’t remember which one of us it was that over-shot the hoop and landed the ball in the yard at the end of the street. What I do remember is the look on Taylor’s face when it happened. He stood still as a stone while the ball rolled through the grass. I stared at him with a puzzled look.

“What’s wrong with you?” I asked him, taking a step toward the house.

“Justin don’t.” Taylor spoke softly, as if he didn’t want someone to hear him.

“Don’t what? Get the ball?”

“Yeah, just leave it. I’ll have my dad buy me another one.”

I would have ignored him, just kept walking and retrieved the ball, but the look on Taylor’s solemn face gave me pause. There was a stillness in the air, a stifling quiet that had fallen over High Street in that moment. Despite the warm summer air, I shivered. I turned my gaze from Taylor to the house. It was a nice house, the nicest on the street, but it was also old. It was set a bit further back that the rest of the homes, so I hadn’t really noticed before, but seeing it then made me realize how much it contrasted to the other houses on the street. The style was similar to an American Colonial house. It had white-washed wooden siding, a large wrap-around porch complete with a bench swing, and a tall stone chimney that smoke was steadily pouring out of.

The basketball must have been thrown pretty hard, because it rested against the gate of the wooden privacy fence that prevented any clear view of the yard. The fence had been painted to match the house, and covered a large area as far as I could tell. If I had to guess, the back yard went was about two-hundred feet across, before ending at a small thicket of woods whose trees I could see stretching out over the other side of the fence. When I turned my attention back to the ball, I could see movement through the gaps in the fence.

“Why don’t we just go get it?” I called back to Taylor. In that same solemn voice, he said.

“That’s Mr. Cracks’ house.”

I turned to look at him.

“Who’s Mr. Cracks?”

Taylor simply shook his head, and in a low voice he asked me to follow him. He turned around and began walking down the street. Reluctantly, I followed, turning back to steal another glance at the fence. I thought I could see someone standing still beyond it, but I couldn’t be sure. The two of us made our way down the sidewalk until we were in front of my house. Once there, Taylor looked up and down the street until he was sure no one was around, then he spoke.

“No one ever goes into Mr. Cracks’ yard,” He said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because if you do, you disappear, and you’re never found again.”

I laughed.

“It’s not a joke,” He said angrily, and I shut up, “You remember Jimmy Edleton right?”

The name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place where I’d heard it, so I shook my head. Taylor rolled his eyes.

“Come on, Jimmy Edleton. He disappeared three years ago.”

That certainly rang a bell. I thought for a moment, and then it clicked. I never knew Jimmy, we weren’t in the same grade. I did remember the assembly we had after he disappeared though. Everyone thought he was kidnapped, so the whole school got one big lecture about how we should be on the lookout for strangers, and if anyone we didn’t know tried talking to us, we should find an adult.

“Okay… yeah, I sort of remember. He was younger than us, right?” Taylor nodded.

“By two years.”

“Okay,” I said, “So what does that have to do with anything, and why do you keep calling him ‘Mr. Cracks’, that can’t be his real name.”

He shrugged.

“His real name is Harold Martin. He lives all alone in the big old house, and he hardly ever comes out, but we call him Mr. Cracks.” Taylor said, stooping down to sit in the grass. I followed suit and sat beside him.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because that’s how he watches us. Before Jimmy disappeared, kids would walk into his yard all the time. It was no big deal, everyone on this street knows each other, so all the kids use the yards as a sort of big playground. My mom said everyone likes it that way, it makes everyone feel a little safer, I’m sure you noticed. Kids just go wherever.”

I hadn’t noticed, but I nodded anyway.

“Well, Mr. Cracks’ yard wasn’t any different, except for one thing. We’d only go if we lost something over there, like we did with my basketball. Frisbees or baseballs, or whatever got accidently thrown onto his lawn, we’d go get. I went over there myself a couple times, but I hated it every time.”

I sat in rapt attention, waiting for Taylor to continue.

“If any of us kids went into that yard, and got anywhere near that fence, he was always there. He would wait behind the fence, and watch us through the cracks. That’s why we called him that.”

Taylor waited a moment, and got a far off look in his eyes as he spoke.

“The last time I was ever over there, I went to get my soccer ball. I’d kicked it a little too hard, and it landed right up against the side of his house. I jogged over as quick as I could, not really planning to look up, ya know? I didn’t want to see that old man watching me. As soon as I grabbed the ball though, I heard breathing. It was really raspy and loud, like he was trying to catch his breath. I didn’t want to look, but I did. I looked up right at that fence, and I saw his eyes. The meanest, ugliest eyes I had ever seen.”

Taylor closed his eyes and shook his head, like he was trying to wipe the memory from his mind. I was a bit unnerved, sure, but I’ve heard about peeping old men before.

“So, he’s a creepy dude, it doesn’t mean he did anything to Jimmy.” I said. Taylor turned and looked at me as if I was the biggest idiot in the world. He took a deep breath, and went on speaking.

“Jimmy’s big sister Lily was watching him the day he disappeared. Jimmy’s family lived in the gray house that’s closest to the fence.”

Taylor nodded over to the ranch-style home that, as he said, stood about fifty feet from Mr. Cracks’ fence.

“Lily said she was talking on the phone while Jimmy was running around that day, chasing bubbles that he was blowing around. One minute, she turned her back and the next, he was gone. She ran around the yard calling his name and searching like crazy. when she noticed the bubble wand in Mr. Cracks’ yard, she called the police. The cops showed up and they asked Lily a few questions before going over to talk to Mr. Cracks. At this point, everyone on the street knew what was going on. All the adults, including my parents were standing on the street, waiting to see what would happen, but nothing happened. They questioned Mr. Cracks, who let them search the house, but they didn’t find anything.”

At that moment, a woman’s voice called from the direction of Taylor’s home.

“Taylor! Time for dinner!”

Taylor jerked his head up.

“Be right there Mom!” Taylor’s mom was standing on the front stoop of her home. She waved once, before heading back inside. Taylor stood and brushed dirt and grass of the butt of his jeans. I did the same, and was about to say my goodbyes when he looked at me with a serious expression.

“My dad said Mr. Martin is too old and frail anyway, there’s no way he could have any part in taking Jimmy, but I know better. All the grown-ups think we made that up. None of them ever say they’ve seen him on waiting on the other side of that fence. I think he’s too chicken. He knows that if they catch him staring he’ll be in trouble. All they would have to do is see those eyes, and they’d know. He’s a bad man.”

With that, Taylor turned and strode off toward his home, leaving me to stand there and think about his story. Harold Martin, a man that the adults on High Street thought was old and frail. A man that also seemed to watch the children wherever they went, granting him a nickname. Was Mr. Cracks really the cause of Jimmy Edleton’s disappearance? It was a question I pondered as I stared at the old Colonial-style house.

Dusk had fallen over High Street, casting a purplish hue over the house as the sun began to fall over the horizon. In that light, the house seemed more menacing, and before I even realized it, I was standing in the yard of the man the kids called Mr. Cracks. I don’t know why I did it. Some part of me imagined the look on Taylor’s face when I showed up at his door with the basketball in hand. Then there was the part of me that wanted to see those eyes that Taylor mentioned. Eyes that were so ugly and full of anger that it had left no doubt in his mind that the old man was responsible for a missing boy.

Slowly, step by step, I made my way toward the basketball that still rested against the gate of the privacy fence. I kept looking back at the front of the house and then to the fence for any sign of movement, but I saw none. I couldn’t help but pretend I was some sort of spy on a secret mission. I was a little scared, but I felt more excited than anything. Soon, I was right in front of the gate.

I didn’t pick up the ball at first, I waited for any sound that would indicate someone was waiting to jump out and attack me. Then, when I was sure I was still alone, I stooped down to grab the ball. Before my hands touched it however, I heard the sound of something tapping rapidly on glass. Startled, I jerked up, and looked in the direction of the noise. Standing at a window on the side of the house placed near the fence, was an old man.

It wouldn’t have surprised me one bit if someone told me the man was one-hundred. His face was gaunt and covered in liver spots. He was bald, with only a few white wisps of hair left on his shiny head. His eyes were sunken in and tired, yellowed with age, not at all like Taylor had said. He looked panicked, and was waving his hands frantically at me.

“Get out!” he tried to yell, but his call was meek and feeble.

I raised up my own hands.

“I’m leaving, I’m just grabbing my ball!” I yelled back at him.

That’s when I heard it. It was heavy, raspy breathing, and it was coming from the other side of the fence. My head turned back to the fence, and I knew I had made an awful mistake. There, in the gaps of the fence, I saw eyes. The outer white of them were red and bloodshot, but both the iris and pupil were black as coal. They were angry eyes, full of malice. These were the eyes Taylor had described. What he didn’t say, or more likely just didn’t notice, was whoever those eyes belonged to could not have been an adult. The eye-line was too low, just a bit shorter than I was.

He got the breathing wrong too, it wasn’t the sound of someone trying to catch their breath. It was the sound of something that’d didn’t even know what breathing was. It was broken up, and intermittent. It was like whoever was doing it kept forgetting they were supposed to be breathing.

I was rooted to the spot, mystified by what I was seeing and hearing. My breath seemed to stop completely as I was my gaze was transfixed with the eyes of the person on the other side of the fence. The person who’d watched the kids of High Street for so long. The person who couldn’t possibly be Mr. Martin.

There was movement in my peripheral vision, and I slowly turned my head to see what was causing the disturbance. My mind screamed at what I saw. There were more eyes.

Dozens of pairs of angry eyes stared out at me from behind the fence. In horror, I watched as several pallid-gray hands began to rise high above the fence and grasp the top of it, as if whoever the hands belonged to planned to climb over. That nightmarish sight finally allowed me to find the will to move. I turned and sprinted home without looking back.

When I burst into the front door, my parents were both sitting at the kitchen table. They saw the look on my face and rushed over, asking me what was wrong. I broke down and began crying, spouting nonsense about Mr. Cracks and eyes behind a fence. I didn’t know it at the time, but my dad was already all-too-familiar with the nickname the kids game to Mr. Martin. So, while my mother stayed by my side and tried to console me, my father called the police.

I don’t know what he said to the cops. I heard him scream something like,

“Something better be done about this!” but I can’t be too sure. I was in complete hysterics.

I was in the living room wrapped in a blanket when the police came, but I was told what happened later. My father waited outside as a squad car pulled up to our house and the police spoke to him before moving to Mr. Cracks’. The two officers knocked on the front door a few times, and when no one answered, they checked around the house. After seeing Mr. Martin laying on the floor unconscious through the same window I had seen him at, they forced their way inside. Moments later, they came back outside and waited for an ambulance to arrive. My dad’s brother; Jeff, works as a paramedic for Danville, and he happened to be on call that night. He talked to my dad before they took the body away, letting him know that Mr. Martin had passed away due to cardiac arrest.

 

***

 

“He was old.” I heard my dad tell my mom the next morning over breakfast in the kitchen. I was sitting in on the couch in the living room, watching T.V. After bearing witness to what my parents assumed was a man keeling over dead from a heart attack, my dad didn’t bother me about going outside for a while.

“Poor guy, he was such a freakin’ recluse, no one on this street even realized he was famous. What happens to someone to make them live their lives like that when their sitting on so much money?” My dad went on rambling to my mom who was clearly uninterested.

“I have no idea dear.” She replied, in a monotone voice that didn’t even attempt to hide her lack of enthusiasm. I, however, was listening intently. Not only was the man known as Mr. Cracks completely innocent and undeserving of the nickname the kids gave him as far as I was concerned, but he was also famous?

Whether Mom was listening or not, Dad seemed to be wondering out loud to himself more than speaking directly to her.

“No one’s even seen his art in years. People assumed he just got tired of it. If what Jeff said is true though, there’s at least a hundred of those things in his back yard. It’s insane, but I bet they’re worth a lot of money. I wish I’d known, I would have grabbed one before they carted that crazy bastard away!”

My dad laughed, and I heard him take a loud sip of coffee before he went on.

“I don’t know who the hell would want one though, I guess that shows how much I know about art, it’s what made him famous I guess.”

Dad went on his tirade for a while, but I didn’t hear anything beyond his very next words. Even wrapped in that blanket, my body became as cold as ice.

“He never did anything different. He only sculpted women with their heads carved into the center of their stomachs…”

Mr. Cracks