Charlie wished the front door ahead of him would never grow bigger, as dragging feet led him to what he believed to be his doom. His body still ached from the last visit, insisting that he turn around and run. The crumpled newspaper cutting in his hand told him, however, that he had nothing to fear.
The door flung open and out came old Mrs. Welsh, not wearing the expected expression of loathing, but one of sincere gladness at the teenager’s presence. She crushed the surprised boy with a fierce hug.
“I’m sorry about your husband,” he gasped.
Mrs. Welsh smiled. “I’m glad you could make it. Now come in! What may I offer you? Tea? Coffee?”
“Tea’s fine, thanks.”
“Tea it is. Why don’t you go through into the living room? I’ll be with you shortly.”
Charlie hesitated. The living room was where it had happened, where he had received the beating of his lifetime. Once again, his body asked him to leave, and once again he pushed forward. Upon entering, however, he froze in his tracks, a startled scream getting stuck in his throat. Instinctively, Charlie raised the newspaper cutting, holding it out in front of him as if it were a shield.
There he sat, in all his glory, lips curved up in a sadistic smile at the sight of the crumpled obituary. Mr. Welsh. Special Forces veteran and beater of children. At the sight of him, Charlie was all of a sudden certain that the little section in the newspaper was a hoax, a plan to get him back into the house for round number two. He regained control of his legs and turned to run, but bumped into his elderly host.
“Charlie, I’m sorry,” she softly said.
Charlie didn’t register it. He ducked past her and dove for the front door, expecting strong, cold hands to pull him back.
“Charlie, he’s really dead.”
The boy stopped, hand resting on the doorknob.
“I’m not crazy,” he said.
“You’re not. He’s dead, and yes, he’s still here. Please come and hear me out.”
Back in the living room, the old lady sat down on the couch next to her husband. Charlie noticed he still wore the same expression, and there didn’t seem to be any life in his eyes. He cautiously sat down in a comfy chair closest to the door, keeping his body tensed in case he had to spring up and dash.
“This,” Mrs. Welsh began, “is my late husband’s last joke. You see, he figured that since the house was his, it would be a waste to pay for a grave. So he arranged a taxidermist.” She tapped on his legs. It sounded like wood.
“You mean your husband has been stuffed?”
Mrs. Welsh uttered a small laugh. “Yes, you could put it like that. My stuffed husband, sitting on the couch for all eternity.”
Charlie felt a bit freaked out. He wanted to get down to business, and then leave. “Why did you call me over?”
Mrs. Welsh’s face took on a look that was alien to her kind features. She looked fierce. “Revenge,” she said. “My husband’s will states that he is not to be removed from this house under any circumstances. Even if I sell, he stays. So I had to think of you, Charlie.”
Charlie could see where this was leading, and he liked it. “I’m listening,” he said.
“You have certain…talents. I suppose you remember our mailbox?”
He would never forget it, nor the beating that had followed when Mr. Welsh had come home at the wrong time. Sometimes he felt the pain had been worth it, though. It had been an awesome fire. He suppressed a laugh and, straightening his face, nodded.
“Would you be interested in applying them on a larger scale?”
“You mean torch your sofa?”
“I mean burn down this entire house.”
Charlie was on his feet. That went too far. He wanted to do it, but setting a house on fire was no simple vandalism anymore. It was a crime. If caught, he would be locked away, teenager or not. “No,” he said. “It’s too risky.”
“It’s stupid! They’re good at their research. They will find traces, and they will come knocking on my door. I’m the firestarter in this neighborhood, remember?”
Mrs. Welsh seemed very calm. “What if you had an alibi?”
“Like staying over at my friend’s house? I don’t thi…”
“Like Disneyland,” Mrs. Welsh interrupted him. “One night in a hotel, we go with a rental car, it’s an apology for the harm my husband caused you.”
It was genius. “So we check in at the hotel and sneak out at night?”
The old lady nodded. “They’ll never notice we’re gone. We won’t leave any obvious traces. Everyone will agree we were sound asleep in our hotel room when it happened.”
“And nobody will come knocking on my door,” Charlie said, allowing himself to laugh.
“Nobody,” Mrs. Welsh said, and opened the door for her guest. “Just be here tomorrow morning at eight.”
“You got it,” Charlie said. He stepped out, turned back one last time, fire burning in his eyes, and spoke in a low voice. “Let’s give your husband a proper cremation.”