The shirt button in his hand was the kind of thing a collector waits a lifetime for. Small and opalescent, the thing sat in his hand, glinting in the light. The stories about it weren’t real of course, but it was something fun to own. A piece of macabre history was finally his, after so many years of looking for something he could afford online. He had seen the description and realized what it was, the item’s past being something he had followed online for awhile now.
The thing had died, he was sure of it. The seller, Maggie Dunham, had assured him via e-mail that the curse had died with her father and she had not experienced anything since she took possession of it from his corpse. The scene had been disturbing, he had seen all the pictures of it. She had been sure to disclose all details, and had personally sent him all the pictures she had taken of old Caleb Dunham’s suicide before she called the cops.
“Honey, supper’s ready,” his mother called from downstairs.
“Just a sec,” he replied. Danny grabbed the small pouch the button had come in and put it away, cinching the bag and draping the leather strap it hung from around his neck. He reached for his shirt, pulling it over his head, and walked over to the tall mirror mounted on the back of his door. He walked to the hamper and began to toss socks and underpants over his shoulder, digging for his sweater. He found the thing and held it to his face to sniff. The thing smelled a little ripe, but he could get away with it for one meal. He would find a better way to hide the button from view after he had eaten.
He shuffled down the stairs passed all the family pictures, the faces smiling at him from the frames. His mother, Mary Walker, looked joyous next to his father, Avery. The wedding photo was the only one of his father that she had been unwilling to take down, her pride in her homemade wedding dress overruling her hatred of her ex-husband. He looked at the next one down. The older Walker brothers were surrounding him, all three of them looking superb in their suits and ties while he sat in front in shorts and a sweater vest, the youngest by five years. He missed having them around, but he had enjoyed having his mother to himself.
“Daniel Matthew Walker, you get your ass in here now! It’ll all get cold.”
He jumped the last couple of stairs and turned into the kitchen, the smell of stove top pasta wafting into his nostrils. His stomach groaned and he tossed himself into a chair at the dusty, scarred old table. A bowl containing ravioli and oyster crackers appeared in front of him and he turned to see his mother’s smiling face. “Took you long enough,” she said.
“I was texting Kimmy, sorry,” he replied as he began scooping the contents into his mouth.
“What is she up to?” Mary asked, her smile waning a bit.
“Mmmwuk,” he replied around a mouthful of blazing hot pasta.
He swallowed quickly, the food burning his mouth all the way down and his eyes leaking tears. “Homework, Mom. She’s doing homework.”
“That girl does homework?”
He chuckled and shoveled down more food, trying to talk between bites. “Mom, she does it just like the rest of us do it. Mr. Patterson dropped us a shit-ton of reading for the weekend and she wants to get it done so we can go out tomorrow. I was supposed to go over after I ate and try to get some out of the way too.”
The crease was appearing on the bridge of his mother’s nose, usually indicative of her know-it-all scowl. “I was hoping you’d want to stay home tonight, maybe watch a movie and throw back a couple of beers or something.” He sighed and tried to power through the rest of his dinner as fast as he could, barely chewing in his attempt to get out off this conversation before it got worse. “Mom, come on, we’re just getting the reading done and then I’ll come home.” Her face collapsed into the scowl. “Ah,” he thought, “there it is.” She looked for a moment as though she would argue, and he was bordering on hoping she would. He would have preferred a quieter night to himself, a bit more time to check out the button. Mary opened her mouth as though to protest further, then closed it. “Damn,” he thought to himself.
“Hey Mom, maybe on Sunday, ok?” he said. “We can get some steaks and bust out the grill, it’s nice enough now. Maybe we can invite that dentist you’ve been ‘getting to know’ the last few times you’ve gone out.” At this he winked at her, and she blushed and tried to hide a small smile. He laughed at her shyness, reaching across the table to take her hand. “We’ll get some steaks, you can make your potatoes and egg salad, just make a night of it or something. You know?” She considered this. “Ok then?” She nodded at him, her face beaming. “And we’ll invite Donny, Dylan, and David. Sound good?”
At this her smile faltered a bit, confusion and interest in her eyes. “Sweetheart,” she said, “Who is David, one of your new friends from school?” He frowned at this. Talking to his mother about David was always tricky. His oldest brother had developed a bit of an alcohol problem, and Mary Walker spent a lot of her time pretending he was just white noise when he was in her presence talking about his drunken escapades. She did not, however, just pretend he didn’t exist. “Ah, Mom. Look, it’ll be fun. I’ll call everyone, get everything ready. You just kick your feet up this weekend and relax. Have a few beers, grab a movie or two out of my room, and just rest yourself.” He put on what he hoped was his most charming smile, his desire to ignore the subject of his oldest brother now desperate. “Ok,” she replied.
He picked up his empty bowl and crossed to the empty sink to rinse it out. He tossed it on the dish rack and turned to go upstairs, his mother still busying herself with her own dinner. He hoped she would remain civil on Sunday. She usually did, but if David got going he would piss her off, and that would just make a mess. The last time she had lost it there had been soda and popcorn flying everywhere. It had gotten them tossed out of the movie theatre, with David quickly pocketing his flask and stumbling to his car on the far end of the parking lot while the rest had piled in the old pickup and gone home.
He fingered the baggie absentmindedly through his sweater, feeling the button through the layers. As he walked up the stairs he glanced at the photos again, the smiling faces. The shot of him with his two brothers was his favorite, and he always loved looking…
He stopped, and stepped back down to look at the pictures. The photo contained him, young and goofy, in front of Donny and Dylan in their suits. Hadn’t this photo contained all four of the Walker brothers, with David occupying the center space right behind Danny? He leaned forward, blowing the dust from the glass in the hope that it had somehow obscured his brother. But the empty space was still there, glaring and obvious between Dylan and Donny.
He shook his head. It wasn’t even a good photo now. His mother was usually fairly bitter about David, but he must have really done something this time. She had taken down all the pictures of Avery when he had left, maybe David had been arrested or something. That seemed like the kind of thing that would make Mary Walker disown him. He sighed and turned to continue up the stairs.
Closing his bedroom door behind him, he yanked the sweater off over his head and pulled the baggie up and out of his shirt, opening it to dump the button into his hand. He lay back on his bed, holding it between his fingers to let it catch the light. He would have to keep track of it, such a tiny thing would be too easy to lose. He replaced it in the bag and wrapped his hand around it tightly, relishing the feel of it.
Danny decided to stop by his brother’s apartment on the way to Kimmy’s place. If he could smooth things over between his brother and mother, try to make sure that all the booze was dumped out, and to invite him over to talk and see if he could temporarily bring some sense of peace to his family.
* * *
There was a lot of trash blowing in the street. He was usually able to block it out, but the amount of garbage left lying around was growing noticeable. It looked like something out of a news story about a town ravaged by natural disaster, but it was just the trashy neighborhood his brother lived in. The word ‘seedy’ was never quite enough to describe it, but Mary Walker said it with enough loathing that it did the job nicely.
He saw the old, red-brick building across the street and ran across to it, glancing back and forth for cars. The dumpster, which was barely concealed on the side, reeked of rotten food and was overflowing with even more trash. Bags were piled around it and a brown, foul-smelling liquid seeped from the pile. Danny shuddered and mounted the steps. He reached for the button to buzz his brother’s apartment and received a small shock. Crying out, he stuck his finger in his mouth and sucked on it, then immediately spit at the thought of what might be swimming all over the button. Glancing around, he saw a piece of rubber tubing in the street. He picked it up and put his finger in the tip, bending it to make a point. He stuck it at the button and heard a buzz, followed by a small shower of sparks. The speaker crackled.
“Jackie? That you?” a woman’s voice asked.
“Nah, this is Danny Walker. Is David home?”
“David? Who is David?” she replied, clearly confused.
“Uh…my brother?” he said, frustrated. “Look, just have him open up please.”
“Kid, there’s no David here. Now unless your name’s Jackie or you’re dropping shit off for him I need you to go ahead and fuck off real quick.”
“Fuck you, just tell him I’m here!” he shouted at the speaker. No reply came. He took the pointed tubing and thrust it at the button, the sparks worse this time. Still nothing. He hit it again and again, till the sparks grew into a loud ‘pop’ sound and the light behind the buttons went out. Swearing loudly, he tossed the tube to the ground and jumped back down the steps. He turned to go down the alley to the side of the building, carefully jumping over the water leaking from the trash. He walked down to a black door and raised his fist to bang on it. He stopped, calming himself down. He twisted his fist and instead lightly tapped on it.
The door swung open almost instantly, a small man with wizened white hair appearing in the doorway. His walrus mustache was twitching on his face and he had the air of annoyance about him, as though he had been interrupted doing something important. His belly protruded out from his otherwise wiry frame, shortening the already skimpy robe he had on. Danny kept his eyes fixed on the man’s face, not wanting to know just how short the thing really was. The man saw him, and frowned down at him. “What? The fuck you want, kid?” he asked, his gravelly voice irritated.
“Sorry to bug you Mr. Yevheniy, I’m so sorry,” Danny replied, trying to mask his own annoyance. “There’s a chick in my brother’s apartment, and she won’t let me in. Kept asking if I was some dude named Jackie who was supposed to be dropping something off.” Mr. Yevheniy looked down at him, frowning slightly.
“Your brother’s place? Who is your brother, kid?”
“D-David?” Danny said, confused. “David Walker, up in 3G.”
Mr. Yevheniy looked bemused. “Kid,” he said, “That’s the Miller’s place. Has been for four years now.”
“Uh…ok then,” Danny said, confused. “Maybe it was 3H, or something like that.”
“Nope. I don’t have a ‘David Walker’ in my building,” came the reply. Mr. Yevheniy looked worried now. “Son, how do you know my name? Do I know you?”
At this Danny was completely taken aback. He had known Mr. Yevheniy for several years, the old man had helped them move David in after Mary had finally thrown him out. They had seen each other occasionally ever since and had remained friendly. “Yeah, you know me. You rent a room to my brother David.”
“Son,” Yevheniy replied with a look of alarm on his face, “I rent to no one named David Walker. I don’t even have a Walker in the building.” He began to shuffle back inside. “Look, kid, this chick ain’t gonna screw herself, least not without help, so you’ll have to excuse me.” Danny slammed his hand against the door, keeping it open. “Look, can you just tell me where he is?” he asked.
Mr. Yevheniy looked back, now growing agitated again. “Kid, get off my doorstep or I’m gonna call the cops,” he said firmly. He then lashed out, grabbing Danny’s hand by the wrist, and shoved him out the door. Danny fell to the ground, rolling over and scrambling back up to his feet. The door closed in his face.
“Fucker,” he muttered under his breath. He walked back to the street and headed towards Kimmy’s place, glancing back over his shoulder at the building. As he did he once again noticed something odd. There were two shadows on the wall. He spun around, looking for whoever was casting the other one. There was no one there. He spun again, looking around. Nothing to cast a shadow but the street lights. “Must have stood in just the right place,” he thought to himself.
But the shadow remained as he walked. He looked to it repeatedly, trying to figure it out. As he neared Kimmy’s building he stopped and looked at it again, trying to see what it could be coming from. He looked at the stone wall and leaned closer, trying to figure out which one was his. Then the extra one waved at him.
He stumbled back, his shadows following him. He fell back onto his hands and scrambled back from it. It was coming from his feet, his own shadow not underneath him as he pushed his back up against one of the light poles. The extra shadow now extended out in front of him, and he stood up, his back firmly against the pole. He was sweating hard, and could feel the baggie at his chest. It twitched a little bit, and he slapped a hand to it. Looking down, and then back of the shadow, he tried to make sense of it all. Then the shadow moved again. He looked at it as it held up one hand on the pavement, and it held up one finger.
* * *
“No way!” Kimmy cried out. “It actually works?”
“I think so,” Danny said. “You can see the shadows right there.”
“I know, but I just thought it was the light.”
“It’s not. Look.” Danny pointed and the girl followed his finger. They were sitting on her bed, looking at the shadows on the floor with the window open behind him. Both extended from him at different angles, equal in length. She squinted at it and shook her head.
“It’s just the angle of the light.”
She stared at the shadow. At first it stayed still, a dark spot on the grey carpet. Then, slowly, it raised one hand and held up one finger. Kimmy shot back from the edge of the bed, her back flat against the wall.
“Told you,” he said. “I think it’s my brother.”
“David?” She looked at him, confused. “Which one is David?”
“See, that’s the problem,” he said. “When I was researching this thing last year it was supposed to be this fun thing, it’s a weird curse. The button steals your loved ones, makes them disappear. I never found the particulars, everything was hearsay and rambling, but finding the actual button was my shot to be part of this exciting urban legend. But then David disappeared.”
“So, it works?” she asked. “I mean, I’ve never met any of your brothers but I don’t remember you mentioning one named David.”
“He was an alcoholic.”
“Wasn’t that Dylan?”
“Dylan is an investment banker downtown so…yeah, I guess maybe he could be a closet alcoholic. He can put it away when we’re hanging out, but that’s not what I’m talking about. David lived at Central Central.”
“You have a brother that lives in a crack-house?”
“Ok, so you have a brother that lived in a crack-house?”
“Yeah,” he sighed. “It was all he could afford. He couldn’t hardly hold a job, he spent most of his money on booze, and he was usually too blitzed to really know what he was doing so it was all he could afford. But I went there before coming over.”
“I thought you smelled like hot garbage, but I didn’t want to say anything.”
“Shut up,” he said, smiling a little. “Kimmy, I’m really scared.”
“Why? I still don’t fully understand what the thing is supposed to do. I mean, it’s kind of cool that you have a moving shadow but it doesn’t really do anything.”
David sighed, leaning back. Kimmy eased down from the wall, her eyes never leaving his shadow. Occasionally it held up one hand, the finger extended. If they looked away for too long it would wave at them, as though demanding their attention. They kept their eyes on it.
“It steals your loved ones,” he said.
“Five of them. That’s what Maggie Dunham said when I talked to her on the phone. Her father killed himself. She said that he had been rambling on about her mother, but she never remembered her mother. He talked about a grandmother that died before she was born, an uncle she never had, stuff like that. She swore up and down that the button was what he blamed it on so when she found him like that she snagged it. He had been a miserable bastard for weeks and she was angry. She sold it to me as though it was real but I don’t think she actually believed any of it, she was just trying to make a quick buck.”
“According to her father, it takes one for each finger on the hand. He apparently had stacks of research on it, stuff piled everywhere and the evidence supported that. It knows your heart and steals the five people you love the most, trapping them as shadows.”
“That’s pretty dark stuff,” she said.
“It’ll come after my other two brothers,” he said softly. “Supposedly it steals the person you love the most last, so you know it’s coming.”
“And that means…”
“That means either you or my mom are going last.”
Kimmy stood up and began pacing. She moved a lot when she was nervous or agitated, a twitchy girl that always had problems focusing on one thing at a time.
“Hold on,” she said. “You love me?”
“I mean, yeah,” Danny said. “Do you not love me?”
“I mean, I like you a lot,” she said. “We have a good time and I really think I could but we’re sixteen. That’s a lot to say right now, we’ve only been dating for six months.”
“Look, I know that, but…”
“And it’s putting me in danger.”
This gave him pause. It was a fair point, and he mulled it over for a moment.
“I mean, it’s not like I can just take it back. It’s how I feel. I don’t really know my dad, he left when I was little and we have almost no relationship. I have friends but none I’m really all that close to, so it’s just you and my mom left after Donny and Dylan.”
“What about Jack? You’ve known him forever, don’t you love him?”
“Are you wanting it to take Jack instead of you?”
“I mean, yeah,” she said. “Of course I’d rather it take Jack.”
“Well that’s kind of shitty.”
“That’s my friend!”
“Better him than me!”