Vacancy

by J.M. Anderson

 

The fog was crawling in when they heard the scream. It wavered for a few seconds then become echoes, then became silence. Krista checked her watch. 9:45. She turned to David. “Did you get that?”

David was wearing big headphones and a light windbreaker, pretending not to be cold or a little shaken. Krista wore a sweater and jeans and was cold and scared and hid both well. David rewound the tape in the recorder strapped around his shoulder; the whirring noise was the only noise around them. He finally hit play and heard the ghost (or whatever it was) scream and he didn’t like it any better the second time.

Krista motioned for the headphones and as always she got what she wanted. She listened to some woman’s scream, the sound of someone dying, that came from God knew where, out of the fog somewhere.

“What’s she saying?” asked Krista.

“I don’t know,” said David. “Let’s figure it out in the car. Down the road somewhere.”

* * * * *

Soon they were in their rented Ford and the cemetery was still in the mirror when Krista said, “‘These guys.’ I think she’s saying “‘These something guys.’” She pecked the rewind button again. “Or maybe ‘Please something guys.’” They were farther from the cemetery now. The countryside flew past them. “David, slow down.” David’s eyes were locked on the lights up ahead. Civilization. She put her hand on his and he slowed.

“Sweet Jesus Christ,” he said.

“What?”

“She’s saying ‘Sweet Jesus Christ’.”

Krista listened to the tape again and in a rare move agreed with David. Then she told him to head for the motel.

* * * * *

Their car crunched into the parking lot of the Pepperidge Motor Court at 10:00 p.m. and even at that hour the motel was noisy with tourists who were looking for a quiet time in the country. The lot was nearly full and kids ran from motel room to car to room again. TVs blared from open windows.

“There’s a spot over there,” Krista said.

David squeezed the car between two SUVs and they got out, creaking on the wooden planks leading to the manager’s office. Krista grabbed David. “This is it,” she said.

Their creaking stopped outside of room 17. David seemed to back away. Krista saw this and smiled. But she hesitated herself before she cupped her hands over her eyes and pressed her face against the window. The curtains weren’t drawn because there was nothing to hide. It was a boring, uninspired motel room with ten-year-old furniture. “Hmm,” she said dismissively.

* * * * *

The office smelled like peanuts and the man’s breath smelled like hot peanuts. “Lucked out,” said Pepperidge, the middle-aged, friendly owner and manager. “Nearly all booked up.” The skinny man turned and reached behind to his nearly empty rack of keys and palmed one. The key to room 18.

“We were looking to rent room 17,” Krista said.

“Oh, I don’t let that room out,” Pepperidge said.

Krista said: “Look, we know the room has a ‘history’. That’s why we’re here. With money.” She reached into her purse and graced the counter with a fifty. “We’ll take our chances. So if room 17 and 18 are adjoining—” started Krista.

“They are,” said Pepperidge.

“Then we’ll take them both,” said Krista.

Pepperidge pulled out a key from a side drawer and took the fifty.

* * * * *

Krista and Pepperidge were outside of room 17. “I take it you folks are some kind of investigators,” Pepperidge offered as he put the key into the lock.

“Something like that,” Krista said. “Working on a book.”

“What do you know?” Pepperidge asked.

“A little,” she said. “We got the gist of it.”

The manager snorted. “You probably got five or six different stories. Well, I was here when it happened.”

David came up the walk with the first batch of Krista’s luggage as Pepperidge opened the door to room 17. The three went in a little cautiously, as if sneaking up on something. Pepperidge turned on the lights. They flickered a little, but finally stayed on. He crossed the room and opened the window, letting the crisp night air seep in.

“Like I said, I don’t let this room out…” He looked out into the fog. “This is the thickest I’ve seen it in years.”

“So what happened that night?” Krista asked.

“Forty-two years ago,” the old manager muttered. He looked out, lost in the fog. “Nate McKee… You never would have thought… I mean, not him…” Then Pepperidge remembered he was telling a story. “My parents ran the motel back then. Anyway, I was seventeen the year Nathan McKee killed his wife and two children. He was an attendant at the station on the corner, back when they had full service. Nice guy to know, but one night he drove a stake through the heart of his wife and two kids. Girl and a boy. Girl was nine, the boy was six.”

“Did he say why?” asked Krista.

“Well it came out he’d been on shaky ground for a while. Mentally. Hearing voices and such. Turns out he knocked Jeanie, his wife, around a couple of times, but she never said anything to anybody or the cops swept it under the rug for free gas or whatever. The thing of it was one night he snapped and said the virgin mother came to him and told him the truth. Said the woman he married ten years ago and the kids she bore weren’t really his family, but demons in disguise. The only way to get rid of them was to tie them down and… Well I guess I told you that part. So he did what he thought he had to do, lot of grief in his heart they said, and he left them dead in the two-story home he built three years before.

“He killed one more person after that,” he continued. “A ‘Jane Doe’. Left her buried with a stake in her heart out by the old split tree.”

“What’s that?” asked Krista. “The ‘old split tree’?”

“Down the road from here, quarter-mile. Tree that got hit by lightning long time ago, split in half, kept growing.”

“So what happened to McKee?” asked David. “How many years is he serving? Or did they execute him?”

“Well, we don’t have the death penalty here in Maine,” said Pepperidge. “But it doesn’t matter, because they never found him. Threw himself into the river most likely. But the body never washed up.

“So how does all this tie into the room?” asked Krista.

Pepperidge finally turned away from the fog. “While he was on the run, he stayed in this very room.

“The motel was empty, going through six months of renovations. Anyway, years later, people have heard noises and have seen Nate McKee in room 17. His ghost, I guess. Not that I’ve seen anything. I make a point of cleaning this room on bright, sunny days. Nights like this, with the fog coming in, I’d just as soon have the wife bring the dog in and then crawl into bed with her. The wife, I mean, not the dog.” He looked down at the key in his hand. “Are you sure you want to—”

Krista smiled. “You just talked us into it.”

The old man let himself out. Krista shut and locked the door behind him. She turned to David. “Tomorrow we need to find out where the old McKee house is…”

“Krista…”

“Dave, don’t start. Not now.”

“For the past three weeks, we’ve been trampling over graveyards, hanging around morgues—”

“And coming up with nothing. Now we finally have something to grab onto and you want to back out? Dave, I’m afraid you’re afraid.”

“Well, maybe being afraid comes with having some kind of respect for the dead. I can’t do this anymore.”

“And what are you going to do? Who’s been supporting you for the past year? Who paid the bills when you spent nine months locked in the bedroom making bad techno music that never made a dime? Who smiled while you ran all over the state playing wanna-be-30-year-old DJ?”

Someone in room 16 pounded on the paper-thin walls. “We can do this in the morning,” said David.

“And now when I need your help,” she continued, “now when I have a chance to do something, when I need you to stand by some graves and hold a microphone, all I get is regret.” She mimicked him, adjusting imaginary glasses on her nose, “Krista, you’re pushing too hard; Krista, we should slow down…”

David moved toward the adjoining room. “I think I’ll sleep in here tonight,” he said. He wasn’t going to feed her anger; she did such a good job of it herself.

“You don’t get off that easy—” But Dave entered room 18 and closed the door. Krista snorted then took a deep breath. She crossed the room and slammed the window shut and threw open her suitcase, fishing for something to sleep in, ready to spend a sleepless night fuming.

Then she saw it. The box. She opened it.

Inside was something she recognized, saw it a week ago in that little shop in Salem. Little stupid pendant. A cartoon ghost. Saying “boo”. It was so corny, it was so him. It forced her to smile and some of her anger fell away. She looked at the adjoining door to room 18 and felt ashamed.

“Dave…”

No answer. Krista knocked gently.

“Baby, don’t sulk. I like your music. It’s just all this running around, late nights at hospitals and accident scenes and finding nothing… It just makes me crazy. I want this so bad… And I want it for both of us. Dave, talk to me… I said I was sorry. I know I keep saying that—”

Krista heard a noise and turned away from the door. It was coming from the bathroom. Her bathroom. Kling. Like metal hitting porcelain. Then the water was running.

“Hello?” It caught in her throat.

The water stopped running. The room, everything, was too silent. Then the lights flickered a little and a little more and then they went out. “Hello?” she said again, lower this time. Krista tried the light switch but nothing happened. Now everything was too quiet and too dark.

“Who’s in there?” She headed toward the bathroom.

But the door opened before she got there.

Silhouetted behind the glazed bathroom window was a man. The man looked out into the bedroom and the bed, the nightstand, the woman… The man didn’t understand. What was left of his mind was racing.

Krista backed up toward the door to the adjoining room, toward room 18, toward David. The man came out of the bathroom, slowly, unsure of every step. In the moonlight she saw he was in his early thirties, but only after she saw the blood on his shirt. She also saw the name patch stitched into his workshirt.

“Nathan,” she said. “Nathan McKee?”

The sound of his own name didn’t soothe him. He clenched his teeth. He dropped the rag he was drying his hands with.

“How do you know my name?” more exasperated than inquisitive. He advanced on her, still unsteady and she put her back up against the door to room 18.

“Nathan, you can’t hurt me,” she said, forcing herself to be calm. “You’re dead, Nathan.”

“What?”

“You threw yourself in the river. Forty-four years ago. After you killed your family.”

He threw his hands over his ears as if that could make it all go away.

“You’re a ghost and you don’t know it.”

Nathan McKee looked confused, considering all of this. “No…” he exhaled, weary.

“Yes,” Krista said.

“This… this is all wrong. Where am I?”

“You’re dead, Nathan. I guess… I guess I’m here to help you move on.”

He advanced, closer to her now and she smelled the sweat and musk and oil on this “dead man”, this ghost. Nathan shook his head at her.

“You’re one of them,” he said. “Sent by Satan. I’m not dead.”

And he grabbed her and she knew he was right, he wasn’t dead, she could admit for once in her life that she was wrong because a hand had her wrist and the other dug into her throat. She brought a knee up hard into his groin. The “specter” groaned and Krista stabbed out and grabbed an unlit lamp and slammed it over his head as hard as she could and didn’t kill him only because the plug snagged a little behind the table.

Nathan fell back bleeding and she told herself ghosts don’t bleed. Before he hit the floor, she was whacking the door to room 18, calling for Dave. Then she threw her 135 pounds against the door, grateful that she put on (just a little) weight eating crap food on the road and she slammed into the door again.

Desperate now. Again.

Finally the flimsy motel lock gave. And Krista staggered into room 18.

There was a lump in the pit of her stomach; her soul seized.

She was looking into the room and she was faced with nothing. The absence of suitcases, of the bed, of the furniture.

Of David.

The room was barren except for a scattering of loose plywood and paint cans in a corner. Uncurtained windows stared out at the infinite fog.

“Dave?”

She ran through the doorless front door and out into the parking lot. “Please, somebody—”

Then the lump in her stomach fell and kept falling.

Desolation. Silence. Not a single car, not an SUV in sight. Just covered plywood stacked along the wall. She looked around for help. It came in the form of sign on a pole barely visible in the mist:

Pepperidge Inn — Closed for Renovations — Re-Opening May 1961.

The sign in the mist was the last thing she saw before Nathan McKee fractured the back of her skull with a rusted shovel.

* * * * *

Krista awoke in pain but the first thing she wondered was what was that noise. It was a familiar sound, not a pleasant sound. Even through the pain in her head she thought it was not a sound you’d hope to hear or want to hear or—

Then she placed it. It was the sound of digging. The sound of a shovel moving wet dirt.

The next thing she realized was that she was on her back. In the dirt. Her hands were tied behind her back.

She looked up at the mist that hovered above the ground and was looking at a tree, an ugly tree. Black, or blackened. The sound of digging stopped and she realized that was worse than the sound of digging starting.

To her left Nathan McKee pulled himself out of a shallow grave. She struggled but he had tied her hands tight behind her.

“Please…” It was low, so maybe he didn’t hear her. “Please.” Louder this time. “Don’t do this.”

Nathan was out of the hole now. He looked over and saw the dawning panic in her eyes and she saw the deadness in his.

“Help!”

“Scream your head off. No one can hear you, demon.”

“Oh, God, oh. God.” Gasping. She looked up and he was standing over her.

“How dare you call on God?” He lowered himself, straddling her, kneeling over her.

As she continued gasping the Lord’s name, his dirty hand parted the tall wet grass near the tree and when she saw his hand again it held a ten-inch wooden stake.

Her eyes shut and she struggled underneath him but Nathan steadied her by putting his knee on her shoulder and all his weight on the knee.

“This isn’t happening,” she thought aloud.

Then his hand wandered nearby and he had a heavy hammer in his fist.

“I don’t belong here…”

He shoved the stake underneath her left breast. Flesh was broken.

She screamed and said “Oh, God, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”

The hammer rose into the air over her.

“I’m sorry—”

And it came down like—

“Sweet Jesus Christ!”

* * * * *

David was brushing his teeth and stopped in mid-stroke when he heard the scream again. The same one from the graveyard. Louder this time. Closer. Then the scream became echoes, then became silence.

“Krista?”

Forty seconds later he opened the adjoining door to room 17, wiping his mouth with a towel. No sign of Krista, just a broken lamp, which was weird, he thought, because he never heard it break.

A few minutes later he was outside in the thinning fog among the half-clad or robe-clutching motel guests who also thought they heard a scream or something. He asked questions, but they knew as much as he did.

Then David strayed from the Pepperidge Motor Inn, deeper into the now-clearing fog and called for Krista and kept calling. No one ever answered.

For an instant he thought he saw a man underneath a tree patting down dirt with the flat side of a shovel.

But the fog lifted and the man was gone.

* * * * *

David never learned what happened to Krista and he never forgave her for walking out on him in the middle of the night, but song #3 on his last demo was dedicated to her.

 

That’s A Lovely Ring

by Ed Helenski

 

“That’s a lovely ring. May I see it?” Johnson asked, extending his hand across the table. Mike hesitated only a moment before holding his own hand out for inspection.

Mike was used to doing some fairly unusual things in the course of a day, which was how he got into the million-dollar club, and how he stayed there. Eight percent commission was what he lived for, and if it meant schmoozing with this old fart, so be it. The guy acted a little poofy, and as his fingers gently took Mike’s hand the thought crossed his mind that the guy might be coming on to him. But Mike was prepared to do a good many things for his eight percent, and if that meant playing along with the guy’s queer little fantasies so be it. But Mike wasn’t prepared for what happened next. While holding Mike’s hand with his right, Johnson grasped his steak knife with his left, and plunged it through Mike’s hand and into the wood of the table.

Mike screamed and tried to pull his hand free, but the pain was unbearable. Mike passed out.

He had agreed to meet Johnson at the restaurant at 1:00 PM. It was not unusual for Mike to meet clients in a variety of locales, from their homes to one notable occasion at a strip club on Venice. No matter where the meeting; the eight percent commission had always been foremost in his mind. And Mike made sales. Properties worth hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars were brokered on a regular basis, which kept Mike’s bank account full, and his ego sated. He had come to meet Johnson because the man had called expressing interest in the property on West 38th Street, the hulking stone mansion that had once been the Mariner’s Club and had later been cut into apartments. Now that the neighborhood had become trendy again, the house was ripe for renovation into a real showplace, and Mike had thought he could get at least two point five million for it. You didn’t need to be a math genius to know that eight percent of that was some serious change.

Mike had never heard of Bowler’s, the restaurant where Johnson had arranged to meet him, but the address was a good one, and he had never hesitated to go. When he had arrived at the address he had discovered a small, but well maintained brownstone with no commercial markings at all. There was simply a doorbell which he had rung. An expressionless man wearing what amounted to a butler’s uniform had immediately opened the door. “Mr. Johnson is expecting you,” the man had said, and led him into a dim hallway, paneled in some dark wood. There were several small dining rooms off the hall, each with only three or four tables, sparsely occupied by men in fine suits and women with the look of great money. He had been immediately impressed with the place, which was obviously something close to a private club. If the food were good he would inquire as to reservations. There were a number of women who would be very impressed with such opulent surroundings. And impressed women showed their gratitude in the most delightful ways. That was one of the things Mike had learned since joining the million-dollar club.

Mike had been led to a table in the farthest room, one occupied by an older man with a small, precise moustache, wearing a grey suit that no doubt cost more than a thousand dollars. The man had introduced himself as Mr. Johnson, and apologized for having started lunch without him. “I simply cannot tolerate low blood sugar,” he had said, taking a bite of the very rare piece of filet in front of him. Mike understood completely. Twice a day he had to use insulin to control his diabetes. Low blood sugar was a problem he was familiar with. Then he had asked to see Mike’s ring.

Mike emerged from his lapse when the dour faced butler had thrown a glass of ice water in his face. Sputtering he reentered the world of agony, and nearly passed out again as his attempt to move his hand shot more bolts of pain through his arm. “My apologies for the water, Mr. Nichols, but I find it most difficult to negotiate a deal when one’s associates are unconscious.” He picked up his fork and then looked momentarily bewildered until he recalled what had become of his knife. The butler returned immediately with a new one, and Mr. Johnson cut another small precise bite of filet. He ate it with delight. “Excellent meat. You should really try some. But perhaps steak is a bit beyond your ability just now. Am I right?”

Mike screamed. He yelled for help. He shouted obscenities at Johnson until he grew hoarse. Johnson simply watched him and ate his lunch, finishing the filet, the rice pilaf, and a small dish of snap peas. When he was done he dabbed at his lips daintily, and leaned back in his chair. “Have you quite finished, Mr. Nichols?” The butler appeared by his side, bringing a cup of coffee and removing the dishes. Mike saw that he left the second steak knife sitting on the table.

“Please. For god’s sake. Call the police. Help me.” The butler didn’t even make eye contact with him, but simply walked out into the hall and vanished.

“I don’t think the police are needed, Mr. Nichols. Nor would it be prudent for you to call them. I think you will see what I mean soon enough. In case you have not yet surmised, my name is not really Johnson. My name is Garambald, Jacob Garambald. You do know the name Garambald, don’t you?”

Mike shook his head. The pain was beyond belief, and he was beginning to think that the only way out of this nightmare would be to play dumb, though the name meant nothing to him in any event.

“Are you quite sure, Mr. Nichols?” The man raised one eyebrow in a gesture both prissy and somehow terrifying under the circumstances.

“I’m sorry.” Mike choked out, tears freely running down his face now. “You must have me confused with someone. Someone else.”

“I’m very sorry you chose to play games, Mr. Nichols. I assume you are playing games, because if you truly don’t recall the name that simply makes your plight worse.”

The butler had materialized behind Mike, and suddenly he grasped Mike’s free hand and held it to the table in a viselike grip.

Mike shouted “NO!” and then Garambald had taken the second knife and driven it even more deeply into the polished wood of the table, going through Mike’s left hand in the process.

More ice water and several slaps had been required to revive him this time. His hands ached as if they had been plunged into liquid nitrogen, and blood was seeping out onto the dark wood around them. “Please.” he said thickly, struggling to stay awake, “I don’t know what you want. Tell me. Please. Tell me” He was whimpering and crying as he spoke.

“I hope that refreshes your memory. Surely you remember Bettina? Bettina Garambald? Dark hair, beautiful brown eyes? You met her at Nancy’s? At the bar?”

The name Bettina rang a dim bell for Mike, but he couldn’t place it. He shook his head again.

Garambald made a tsking sound. “I would really dislike having to send for another knife. And the next appendage I pierce will certainly not be a hand. You seem to be fresh out of hands. Please try and concentrate, Mr. Nichols.”

Through the pain and shock Mike tried to focus on the name. Finally a face came to him, a young girl, one he had met several months ago. She had been sitting at the bar when he arrived at Nancy’s on a day after a particularly sweet deal had gone down. He remembered her now. She had been quite a vixen. He had taken her home that night, and after he had put out numerous lines of cocaine they had engaged in some very vigorous and very rough sex. The girl had been insatiable, and he had taken her again and again in every way imaginable until he was unable to continue. She had been most indulgent to his rather outre tastes. She had left several messages for him since, but Mike made it a practice to never call a woman once he had had her. What was the point after all?

“I can see you remember. You were most unchivalrous, Mr. Nichols. A woman gives herself to you in a most passionate fashion, and then you dismiss her like a common whore. Is that the way you treat women, Mr. Nichols?”

“I, I remember her now, yes. She was a lovely girl. But…” Mike struggled to think of some spin to put on this, some way to pass it off. “But you are a man of means, like me, you must know that women are a dime a dozen if you have money.”

“I am most disappointed in that reply. The girl you speak of is not a dime a dozen. In point of fact, she is my granddaughter, and I take a dim view of nouveau riche like you behaving in such a manner. Although I suppose given your ancestry you simply don’t know any better. You are really just a very common sort, aren’t you Mr. Nichols?”

Agreement was the only course open to Mike at this point. He hoped that the man might let him go if he was repentant. “Yes, yes, I was wrong. I’m really just a stupid man. I’m so so sorry. Please. Please don’t hurt me any more.”

“I wish I could believe your sorrow, Mr. Nichols, really I do.” His face was a mask of sympathy. “But even if I did, there is the matter of honor. You wouldn’t know anything of honor, though, would you?” He paused to reach over and lift Mike’s face, now sagging as the pain got the better of him. The butler came to the table with a small bottle on a tray.

“Do you recognize this, Mr. Nichols? You have had a glucose tolerance test before, have you not? Does this bottle ring a bell?”

Mike saw the bottle through rapidly clouding vision. It was the same thing they had used in the hospital; a thick cola beverage made up mostly of sugar. It was used to test the body’s ability to digest and absorb carbohydrates. He began to moan.

“If you would, please,” Garambald said to the butler, who grasped Mike’s head and held it back, pinching his nostrils shut at the same time. The man was strong in any event, but at this point Mike couldn’t even offer token resistance. Garambald took the bottle and upended it into Mike’s mouth. Mike swallowed to avoid choking, and soon the bottle was empty. He began to feel very sick, and knew that without insulin he would shortly go into shock.

“Please. In my case. My insulin.”

The butler picked up the case and carried it off. Mike felt himself slipping away. His head lolling, he saw someone else come to the table and stand behind Garambald. A vaguely familiar voice spoke. “Are you ready to go, Grandfather?”

“Indeed I am, my dear. I think our business is concluded.” The man stood stiffly, and the girl took him by the arm.

“Don’t you think not returning phone calls is simply the rudest behavior?” she asked the old man as they walked.

“Oh, I quite agree. There is nothing worse than a rude person. Still, it is never too late to teach someone manners.” Grandfather and granddaughter walked out of the room, arm in arm.

 

Family Feud

by Christopher M. Bowers

 

If Charlie Payton doesn’t pee soon, he’s going to soak the sheets. He’s been drifting in and out of sleep for half an hour, too weary of the pressure in his bladder to dream, yet too cozy to buck the comforter and quilt and shuffle to the bathroom.

After another five minutes of debate, Charlie gives in. He peels the blankets from his body, shivering in the cool air.

I should get plastic sheets. Charlie knows that won’t happen though, even if he is half kidding. His Uncle Dillon would just love that. The out-of-work actor never passed on a chance to tease his nephew. He arrived from Orlando—which he calls “the fat roll of the universe”—to stay with them again this Christmas.

This visit went well, if well is Uncle Dillon being lit by ten-thirty Christmas morning, and tearing everyone’s presents open because he wanted to help out with the wrapping paper.

“It just gets in the way,” he proclaimed just before sloshing his spiked egg nog on Sue-Ann, Charlie’s mom.

Charlie is just thankful Uncle Dillon is leaving today. He looks at the alarm clock, 2:32 A.M. Another six hours and he won’t have to smell that breath for another year.

The wood floor of the hallway is a sheet of ice under Charlie’s feet. He passes two bedrooms on his way to the bathroom. His mom’s room is next to his, followed by the guest room with its zonked occupant.

A squeaky board covers the middle of the hallway in front of the guest room door. You wouldn’t notice it throughout the day, but at night it’s a shrieking infant. Charlie sticks to the wall, avoiding the tattling board, inching along like a spy in one of his favorite James Bond movies.

That’s all I need, Uncle Dillon coming out here to investigate. The last time Charlie’s uncle noticed him on his way to pee, Dillon leaned in the doorway jabbering how women “love a good spanking when no one’s looking.” He dreaded a repeat performance.

He aims his stream toward the side of the toilet bowl so it doesn’t hit the water directly. It splashes quietly near the rim and trickles down. Charlie is patient, making sure his bladder is empty before flushing the toilet, insuring he won’t have to do this again tonight. He considers not flushing, and just creeping back to bed, but if his mother uses the bathroom next she’ll scold him, especially since they have company.

He decides to flush, then sprint to his room. If the sound wakes Uncle Dillon, he’ll be in bed with the door locked before his uncle enters the hallway.

Charlie pinches the lever and plans his escape; flush, out the door, jump the squeaky board, into his bedroom, lock the door, slide into bed. No problem.

In the half second it takes for the water to rush in after the lever has been pushed, Charlie hears the floorboard give its loud “creeek.” The water rinses out the toilet, and swoops down the drain. Charlie looks in time to see a shadow bolt past the doorway.

Charlie stands in the bathroom, too shaken to move. Did Uncle Dillon see me? Unable to answer his own question, he decides to make a break for his bedroom.

What’s he doing up if he’s not using the can? Charlie remembers left-over cookies and fudge in the refrigerator, and figures his uncle is just grabbing a midnight snack.

He peeks into the hallway without trying to look like he’s peeking. The hall opens into the living room and dining area. You have to pass through those before you turn right into the kitchen. Charlie doesn’t see any lights on. Even if Uncle Dillon left them off, he should see light from the open refrigerator.

Screw this. Charlie steps into the hall, headed for his sanctuary. He nearly slips on his rear. The floor is wet. He thinks it’s water at first, but it feels thicker than that. It’s between his toes, making them stick together, like a few drops of Elmer’s glue on your fingers.

Turn on the light? The bathroom light would spill into the hall and illuminate the floor without immediately announcing his position to Uncle Dillon, wherever he is.

He flips the switch then wishes he hadn’t and just returned to his room.

Is that blood? It’s not, at least not all of it. There’s a thick snotty residue spread over the floor. Charlie sees swirls of red mixed in it, making blood his first impression.

He suddenly feels icky. There’s still stuff between his toes, reminding him off stepping in a pile of dog turds while running through the sprinkler last summer.

Charlie props one foot at a time in the sink and rinses off the sludge.

What is that? He steps over the gunk to the other side of the hallway. The guest bedroom door is open, the bed empty. The sludge trail starts from inside, and disappears into the dark living room.

Oh, man. I’ve gotta wake up Mom. Charlie moves to his mother’s bedroom door and turns the knob, locked. This surprising obstacle makes him hesitate. She probably locked it because she didn’t want Dillon stumbling into her room trying to paw at her. He’s been trying once a year since Dad, Dillon’s brother, died six years ago.

He leaves his mother’s room behind, creeping toward the living room, deciding to handle the situation himself, or at least try.

I’m fourteen now, gotta handle some of this stuff without Mommy.

The light switch for the living room is at the end of the hallway, Charlie flicks it up, and blinks at the harsh light.

Immediately he notices the slick carpet. The mess continues into the dining area through the narrow walkway between the furniture, and disappears again into the kitchen. He climbs over the couch to avoid getting his toes stuck together again.

Charlie turns on the dining area light as he enters it. The spillover helps to brighten the kitchen, convenient since the switch for the kitchen is next to the cellar stairway, on the far side of the room.

The kitchen’s linoleum isn’t as smeared as the rest of the house, although the door to the cellar stands open, and a mass of goop is dripping off the top of the doorway.

Charlie isn’t thrilled about entering the cellar. One reason is there’s no light fixture. His mother’s washer and dryer are there, but she always does laundry during the day, when light trickles through the cloudy ground level windows.

There’s a flashlight under the sink. He curses himself for remembering it, because he knows as soon as it enters his mind, he would have no excuse but to go downstairs.

Charlie checks the batteries, even though his mother always keeps them fresh, in case the power goes out in a storm. Better to be sure though. He has a vision of Uncle Dillon jumping out at him in the cellar. Then the batteries die.

“Joke’s on you Charlie, wasn’t that a hell of a scare?”

“Yeah, really funny Uncle Dillon. That’s a real knee slapper, clean up your snot and go to bed.”

Hoping it is a joke, Charlie flicks on the beam and starts down into the cellar. A drop of gunk drips onto his neck and he reflexively slaps at it. The stuff clings to his fingers, but the stairs are free of it, and Charlie reaches the dirt floor.

He hasn’t been down here in a while. Sometimes his mom will call him halfway down the stairs to pass him a basket of folded laundry.

The first pass of the flashlight’s beam reveals what he expected, dirt floor, concrete walls, cobwebs, and the washer and dryer. There’s actually a lot of cobwebs.

Mom must never clean down here, can’t blame her, the cellar sucks.

The washer is an old model Kenmore, the kind that opens from the top. Its lid is open. Cobwebs hang from the lid, Charlie creeps toward the washer, flashlight aimed at the opening. He stops when he hears the scraping. It sounds like a twig being dragged across metal, metal from an old model Kenmore.

Field mice occasionally find their way into the cellar. They climb into the laundry sometimes and leave their droppings on the clothes. This didn’t sound like a mouse though. It sounded bigger, much bigger.

Shaking to his core, and wondering what the heck he’s doing in the cellar in the middle of the night—following a trail of snot and looking for his screwball uncle—Charlie feels proud of himself for not waking his mom. He stands next to the washer.

He peers over the lip of the opening, shining the beam into the hole. The light reflects off a tangle of stick legs covered in short bristly hairs. Two fangs longer than his hands clatter together, it leaps.

The spider is the size of an average dog. Charlie drops the flashlight and it clings to him with eight legs around his torso, snapping at his face with its fangs. Its legs are powerful, but thin, about as thick as a thumb. Charlie’s left forearm is underneath the beast’s head, keeping its fangs at bay. One of its front legs is poking into his ribcage, but at that angle he can grab it with his left hand without moving his arm. Charlie’s other hand is free. He uses both to grip the spider’s leg. The bristles are stiff. It’s like grabbing a cactus. A few of the hairs break the skin.

Charlie grips tighter, imagining it’s his baseball bat and he’s about to hit one to the moon, like he’s nearly done so many times. The spider starts to thrash. Charlie pours on the pressure. Finally a satisfying “crack”, and the spider rips free. It scrambles into a corner, hiding behind Uncle Dillon’s body, which is hanging from the ceiling by thick webbing, covered in sludge.

Charlie doesn’t have time to scream, he’s still in shock from seeing at least eight more spiders, gathered in the corner. They converge on their wounded brother and rip him apart.

There are footsteps on the stairs. Charlie looks up to see his mother, blurry eyed and yawning, descending the staircase.

“Mom, no! Get out of here, go back up!”

“Calm down darling, it’s okay.”

Charlie runs to her at the foot of the stairs and tries to turn her around. “We gotta go, they’re almost done with that other one, go back up!”

“Charlie, now I said calm down, and you better do it before I see fit to whoop you.”

“But…”

“I know all about the spiders, Charlie. It’s okay, I raised them. They do what I say, for the most part.”

Charlie’s jaw falls from his face and smacks the dirt.

Sue-Ann turns toward the nest and speaks to her children. “Hey, stop that, all of you. Get over here.”

The spiders stop gnashing their prey and skitter across the floor until they’re a few feet away from Charlie and their mother.

“Wait, where’s Elijah?” She sees his curled remains lying behind Uncle Dillon. “Oh my god! What happened?” She turns to Charlie.

“You! You did this! Why? What where you thinking?”

Charlie, stunned, can only murmur, “Mom… it… tried to kill me.”

“Nonsense, Elijah was the gentlest of them. He would never attack unprovoked. What did you do to him?” Her hands are on her hips as if waiting for Charlie to admit he skipped school.

“Maybe the flashlight—startled it… I don’t know. Mom, what’s going on?”

Sue-Ann starts to cry. “I can’t believe you would do something like this. I just can’t…” She shatters into a blubbering oaf, covering her mouth with one hand and shoving the other between herself and Charlie, as if to push him away.

She runs up the stairs, sobbing, and slams the cellar door.

“Mom!”

Charlie is left alone with his flashlight—well, not quite alone. The spiders click their fangs together in anticipation. They surround Charlie and he can only think of how uncomfortable Uncle Dillon must be hanging upside down from the ceiling like that. He’s still proud of having the courage to enter the cellar, as the first pair of fangs closes on his neck.

Sue-Ann sets the kettle on the stove and turns the knob to “high.” She always feels better after a cup of tea. It calms her and should take care of the headache she’s suffering from the screaming rising from the cellar.

Poor Elijah, I’m so sorry baby. It’s partly my fault. I should have told Charlie about you earlier. That doesn’t excuse him for hurting you though, I can’t believe he did that.

Sue-Ann picks her favorite mug from the cupboard; a blue and white striped one with “mommy” scribbled on it. Charlie made it when he was six years old.

Oh, that reminds me, gotta call the sheriff in the morning, file a missing child report.

This wouldn’t take nearly as much acting as it did when she filed the report for her husband. Charlie is… was, a good kid. He was her only son, and she loved him, but what he did was inexcusable.

His father was a pig, just like his uncle. A grin creeps across Sue-Ann’s face. The thought of Dillon hanging down there cheers her up a bit. Also, one of her “children,” Lillian, is expecting. When the new babies arrive things will perk up again, then next Christmas will be so much better.

 

Terrible Things

by Michael Poore

 

They warned her. No one could say she hadn’t been warned.

They told her terrible things would happen if she touched herself that way.

“Terrible things will happen, Hester,” they said. They said it to all the girls in Pilgrims’ Hook. It was an old warning; it moved among other old warnings, because Pilgrims’ Hook was an old place. It was a place of few cars and many horses. It was a place of strict hair, black dresses, and burning eyes. The ghost of the Mayflower prowled its shore. The ghosts of Indians moved like smoke in the woods.

“Terrible things!” thundered Reverend Cromwell in the ancient stone church, his voice like cracking stone.

Hester did it anyway, the forbidden thing. Not until she was older, though, with a job at the train station ticket window. Not a very busy job, considering that no one ever bought a ticket. The train boomed out of the south tunnel, howling its diesel howl, throbbed past the village, and vanished into the north tunnel. Twice a day the train burst through, and it never stopped, not ever. Hester’s job was a lonely job, a boring job. The boredom often led her to indulge in daydreaming, which sometimes led to surprisingly improper fantasies. The improper fantasies led, eventually, to a wicked tingling between her legs.

One long October afternoon she did the thing she’d been warned not to do.

Nothing terrible happened, at least not right away. She felt, if anything, that she had made a delicious discovery. She whispered softly to herself all the way home, hands buried in her coat pockets against the chill.

“Taboo,” she whispered to herself.

“Taboo,” she whispered to the grocery and the gas station and the scarecrows in the fields. The next morning, Hester’s hair had become a nest of snakes.

Although this shocked her, Hester didn’t scream. She’d been warned, after all. No one could say she hadn’t been warned.

The snakes were surprisingly tame. They allowed themselves to be twisted into braids, tongues flicking at the hem of her woolen cap. By the time she’d walked halfway to the depot, between the churchyard and the hardware store, she’d forgotten about the snakes entirely. After a long morning reading magazines behind the ticket grate, she was on the verge of doing the forbidden thing again when Long Tom Hawthorn strolled up and leaned outside the window. She quickly hid the magazine—Reverend Cromwell frowned on magazines—and gave her cap a cautious adjustment.

“Good morning,” said Long Tom Hawthorn.

“Yes,” answered Hester, meeting his eyes. “Yes, it is.”

Long Tom stood looking down at her for a long time without speaking. Hester blushed, at first, mistaking his stare for flattery, but then her eyes narrowed. Something was wrong. Stumbling outside, she gave Long Tom a square kick in the knee. He didn’t budge. He’d been turned to stone.

The snakes beneath her cap gave a rattle.

“Oh, fuck!” cried Hester.

She toppled him into the grass and kicked a pile of dry leaves over him. Then she covered her eyes with her hands and ran home blind. She locked herself in her room, and put on a pair of very dark sunglasses.

Someone knocked at the door.

“Hester!” bellowed a voice on the other side. “Open up, girl, this instant!”

It was Latham Standish, who ran the hardware store and the train station. Latham Standish, her boss.

“Open up, girl!” he repeated, pounding. “There’s no one on duty at the depot!”

Hester opened the door, and delivered an expert curtsy.

“I’m not well,” she told him, trembling. “Begging pardon.”

“Not well!” he sneered. “‘Not well’ means lazy, that’s all!” He reached for her elbow and jerked her into the hall. Without thought, Hester whipped off her sunglasses and offered Standish a teary-eyed glare. An instant later he crashed down the stairs, a statue in a storekeeper’s apron.

“Well!” sighed Hester regretfully, fidgeting with her hands. But she didn’t fidget long; Pilgrims’ Hook people were strict-minded folk. They made decisions quickly, moved with conviction. Three minutes later, Hester was out the back door in an old black shawl, with a bundle of clothes and canned food on her back. She kept her sunglasses aimed at the ground, watching the cobblestone street pass by one hurried step at a time, straight as a ruler toward the woods.

“What will become of me?” she wondered.

The cobblestones fell into shadow. Two black boots appeared, boots with iron buckles. Reverend Cromwell towered over her, eyes burning the way ice burns in sunlight. He was a tall man, oddly built, as if a shipwreck had scraped itself together and creaked ashore in a black hat.

“Where are you going, sister Hester?” he rumbled. “Your chair at the depot is empty, and I’ve not seen Tom Hawthorn today. I’ve not seen Goodman Standish today. Where are you going?”

With a sorrowful sigh, Hester allowed her glasses to slip. She gazed her horrible gaze, but quick as a horsewhip Cromwell tucked a pair of mirrored spectacles onto his nose. He smiled thinly, revealing yellow teeth.

Hester growled in frustration and darted around him, up the street. Behind her, he raised his knobby walking stick high in the air and shook it after her.

“Terrible things!” he roared, then creaked off, tall and crooked, toward the church.

* * * * *

The woods enfolded Hester. Deep she went, over stony creeks and giant roots. October brushed at her in flurries of dead leaves. Indian ghosts planted ghost corn in her footsteps.

She built a lean-to in the shadow of a black oak tree, opened a can of bacon and beans, and ate and shivered and ate. The moon poured down through the October branches. By and by, near midnight, voices approached her lean-to. Excited voices, voices she knew. Fearfully, angrily, Hester stood and faced the dark. Removing her glasses, she stared her horrid stare at the ring of torches which burned through the forest, surrounding her.

“Careful!” whispered the voices. “Easy, sister!” The voices were gentle but urgent. They were the voices of women, old and young.

“My!” said Hester, slipping her glasses on. She let her woolen cap fall to the ground. She undid her braids and the snakes rose proudly, stylishly, in the moonlight.

“Teach us,” breathed the women, jack-o-lantern faces in firelight. They crowded closer. Hester told them what little she knew, and the forbidden things which were done by the black oak that night were secret beyond secrecy.

* * * * *

On a gray morning in early November, a train boomed out of the south tunnel, howling its diesel howl, and huffed to a stop in front of the abandoned depot. A single woman waited on the platform. A single woman in a black shawl, wearing sunglasses. The cap on her head writhed strangely. A crow perched on her shoulder.

“Pilgrims’ Hook?” asked the cargomaster, stepping down from the train in a cloud of steam.

“Yes,” the woman replied.

The cargomaster unloaded a pile of packages. The packages were wrapped in brown paper. They appeared anonymous, confidential, the sort of packages which might be ordered from the backs of magazines. The peculiar woman signed for the packages with a quick scrawl, and the cargomaster hopped aboard as the train heaved away.

He shivered as he surveyed the passing village, the silent village, where the figures of men stood as if frozen in arrested stride or flight. They stood in the shadows of the hardware store, the gas station, the church. It was a village of statues and unraked leaves, and when the train vanished into the north tunnel the cargomaster breathed more easily.

* * * * *

Long after nightfall, Reverend Cromwell stood at the rectory window, stroking his Bible with white knuckles. His eyes burned with a thing which, in another man, would have been desire.

He waited.

He waited, and it came. An unfamiliar hum, rising in the mist, in the dark of the new moon. A New World sound, a great battery-operated buzzing, a great sigh, a warm groan behind many dark, dark windows.

“Taboo,” muttered Cromwell, weakening, changing. The thing in his eyes which would have been desire became desire after all.

They had warned him. No one could say he hadn’t been warned.

Shadows writhed behind windows. Lone shadows with rolling shoulders, open mouths, arching backs.

“Terrible things will happen if you touch yourself that way,” they had said, down the long years. “Terrible things!”

He did it anyway. He couldn’t help it.

* * * * *

In the cold and the dark of early November, the rectory door creaked open. A snake crawled down the steps and into the churchyard, a snake in a sober black hat, burrowing among dead leaves and old roots. It curled among the roots, eyes burning the way foxfire burns, the way moonlight burns on dark water.

Here and there in the straight, sensible houses, a pot banged or a pan clattered. A train boomed out of the south tunnel, slithered past the village, and vanished into the north tunnel, leaving an echo like the ghost of an Indian drum. The village, in its wake, gave voice to a sleek, electric hiss.

 

Carnival of the Clowns

by Eric Bonholtzer

 

“Daddy, Daddy! Can we go in, come on, can we? Please?!” Ritchie Taylor was the textbook definition of an exuberant child. Short, bowl-cut blonde hair, with wide saucer eyes that seemed to take in everything about the world, and most importantly an insatiable curiously. And like other little children, Ritchie seemed to have an innate talent for getting his way, especially when he had his heart set on something. And Ritchie Taylor didn’t just have his heart set on going into the haunted funhouse, it was the sole reason for his existence. So there was no way, no way, he was not going in.

“Fine,” his stepfather grunted in irritation. Won’t this kid ever shut up? he thought to himself as he had at least a dozen times today, one time becoming so ticked off that he’d cuffed the boy across the mouth to quiet him down. Little squirt deserved it too. The man spat with disgust. Jason James Fisher, or J.J. as he’d been known in his prison years, did not look like a particularly mean man or an abusive parent, but appearances were deceiving. If anything, his bespectacled, slightly tanned presence made him look like a professor or scholar, but the truth was, J.J. hadn’t even graduated the seventh grade, taking a milling job when his father was killed in the bed of another man’s wife. Anyone who spent a good deal of time with J.J. realized that beneath his “Father Knows Best” appearance lay something dark, something wrong. J.J. didn’t consider himself to be a bad stepparent, but sometimes kids just talked too much for their own good.

“Yeah!! All right, Daddy! Thank you so much! That is just so cool!” Little Ritchie’s face split into a wide grin.

J.J. did not share in his stepson’s delight, a bad hangover still grating on him. “Don’t you ever shut your mouth? Never give me a damn second of peace, boy. Now shut it or I’ll shut it for you.” He reached his hand back as if to emphasize, but Ritchie didn’t need a second warning. He fell silent. “And how many times have I told you, don’t call me Daddy. Call me J.J.”

Ritchie was too delighted with the prospect of the haunted funhouse to let the admonishment hurt him for long. The carnival attraction stood before them like a dark blight against a setting sun sky. Some of the paint was wearing off the structure, showing the plywood and nails beneath, but to Ritchie it was at the same time the singularly most frightening and most awe inspiring sight he had ever seen. Painted jet black, the weathered frame looked as if it could have been there for ages, though the carnival had only come to town last week. So real, Ritchie thought to himself.

* * * * *

“Two.” J.J. told the girl at the ticket booth, his eyes slowly undressing her, while cringing over the three dollar fee. That’d buy me half of a sixer, he thought bitterly. Money much better spent. But Karen, his nag of a wife, had told him to take young Ritchie to the carnival. Just because she was good friends with the owner, J.J. didn’t see why he had to be the one to go. But after all, it was Karen’s money, and as long as she was supporting him, J.J. had no problem doing little things for her and her son. He considered himself a very generous man.

“Are you J.J.?” the ticket girl asked.

“Yeah, what’s it to ya?” J.J. retorted sharply.

“Well, the owner said to let you in free for a private show.”

J.J. smiled. Maybe his luck was changing.

“I wish Mommy could see this.” Ritchie said, a slight glimmer of disappointment in his eyes, but it was quickly replaced with growing wonder as they approached the funhouse.

Little brat, always whinin’ for yer mama, J.J. thought silently. Grow up and quit bitchin’ like yer mom. JasJim this, JasJim that. And when she uses that stupid pet name… she’s practically begging for it, just like her little runt. Why can’t the kid just suck it up and be a man, like me? Despite what he wanted to say, there were people around so J.J. curbed his tongue and said only, “You know she had to work, Ritchie.”

As they entered the funhouse it looked more like a house of horrors, the sign bearing the name “Carnival of the Clowns”, scrawled in fake blood. They heard the doorman, a hunchback, shouting loudly, “Be wary of the clowns! Beware of the clowns! They’re killers!” J.J. resisted the urge to give him the name of a good chiropractor. The chuckling laughter followed even as they traversed deep into the dank depths of the haunted attraction.

It was pitch black, the only illumination coming from the few torches that hung from cobwebbed sconces lining the wall. The place smelled damp and earthen. Ritchie savored every second of it, taking in every sight, every sound, every smell, and loving it.

This stuff is so fake, J.J. thought bitterly to himself as they traversed deeper into the belly of the beast. Here and there he saw things: metal cages striped with pieces of supposed flesh, torture racks and iron maidens from the Middle Ages, that looked as if they had been bought from a surplus store. Who’s this stuff supposed to scare? J.J. continued his sour, never-ending rant against the world, but Ritchie seemed genuinely entertained. They soon entered a maze of mirrors, those funhouse staples, with their wacky reflections, some big and tall, some twisted and some small. Ritchie was currently engrossed with staring at just how he would look if he was seven feet tall with arms the length of an chimpanzee. What a baby, J.J. thought with disdain. You’d never see me hoppin’ around like a stupid ape. Ritchie turned and looked at his stepfather with a look of wonder on his face, and for a moment J.J. was almost taken aback. Below Ritchie’s left eye was the beginnings of purple-black bruise. When the hell’d that happen? But then J.J. remembered, as they continued on, and his heart once again grew cold. Oh yeah, that’s right. My magazines. The good ones. Stupid boy, thinkin’ that he can go round knockin’ my stuff down and not get his punishment. Gotta learn about the real world sooner or later. J.J. was a strong subscriber to the belief that telling yourself a lie enough times somehow made it true. Ritchie was saying something but J.J. hadn’t been listening.

“Huh?” he asked, the prospect of being home with a cold one bitterly mocking.

“I said, Daddy, where are we?” For the first time since they’d entered the funhouse J.J. noticed an emotion on Ritchie that wasn’t excitement or joy. It was fear.

“We’re right…” He looked left and saw only a vacant hall stretching off into nothingness, and to his right, the same, the distortion of the mirrors making it impossible to tell the real exit from the millions of fake ones. “You know, I really don’t know.” J.J. had been too engrossed with thoughts of cold beers to have paid much attention to where he was going, the three brewskies he had downed earlier doing little to aid his short term memory. A faint tremor of fear, quickly to be erased, because to J.J. that was an emotion reserved for children, and he replaced it with anger at his stepson who had been so stupid as to get them lost in a haunted funhouse with no directions whatsoever. J.J. reared back, ready to belt Ritchie one when a powerful voice split the oppressive silence.

“You touch him, you die,” the voice was frothing with rage, yet somehow sounded familiar.

“Oh, yeah?” J.J. turned, his hatred temporarily displacing from the boy onto whatever had the audacity to interrupt him. He glanced around, seeing nothing but his own reflection refracted a hundred different ways, from fat to skinny, short to shorter. Angered with nothing to lash out at, he became even more enraged. “Why don’t you show yourself, if you got the stones, and we’ll see just who’s gonna die?!”

Suddenly, like a ghost, a clown stepped from the shadows. But in reality, it looked like a thousand clowns stepping forth in suits of red, white stripes running down one side, and a patch blue stars across the chest. “Okay. Here I am. Why don’t you say that to my face?” The clown looked small, only 5’5″ or so, nearly half a foot shorter than J.J., making his confidence soar. Seeing this slight figure, J.J. smiled. It was always so much easier to pick on those smaller than yourself. Still, something looked oddly familiar in the clown’s eyes, something knowing.

“You think I’m scared of you?! You’ll get yours right now!” J.J. charged forward, a head-long bull rush from his younger days of back alley football. He stopped dead in his tracks after ten paces when he saw the clown pull out a very real looking knife. The blade was at least six inches long and looked incredibly sharp.

Instantly, J.J. turned and ran, fleeing from this obviously psychotic monster, pushing right past Ritchie as he went by. The frightened boy was quick on his heels, needing to get away. The clown was just behind him, its wrath seemingly focused on J.J. Soon, the hunted pair found themselves lost in the huge hall of mirrors, unable to get out, the white face and cold blue eyes of the approaching killer clown just steps behind.

J.J. and Ritchie ran with all their might, ducking and dodging behind the mirrors, everywhere they turned, seeing that grinning painted face. Suddenly, Ritchie was thrown to the ground, J.J.’s foot sending the young child sprawling, thinking that a small sacrifice could give him the time he needed to get out of there. Ritchie, infinitely hurt by his stepfather’s actions, could scarcely move, hatred and sadness burning in those sweet innocent eyes. Still the clown crept closer, seeming to be everywhere, in every mirror, in every reflection, all around. Finally, Ritchie forced his unwilling legs to move, getting up and taking off once again. The clown was definitely closer now; he could feel it. Ritchie painfully watched as J.J. ducked into a niche between two mirrors, abandoning his stepson, leaving him to the clutches of the clown.

Hoping that there had been some mistake, that his stepfather would somehow protect him, Ritchie ran to where J.J. crouched. The boy would have had better luck hoping for the world to stand still. “What are you doing, you idiot?!” J.J. was frantic with panic, nearly screaming at his crying charge. “You fool, now we’re both dead.” Almost as if summoned by his words, the mirror behind the pair shattered and there stood the chalk-white ghost face of the clown. In one swift motion the knife came down, slashing J.J., dropping him to the ground, where he lay clutching his bleeding side and crying. Ritchie was petrified, unable to move, unable to even scream for help.

The clown hovered atop them both, a thin runnel of blood already seeping from J.J.’s wound, and seemed to smile sadly, “Last chance at redemption, JasJim.” J.J. looked up at the crystalline blue eyes in wonder and terror. How did this monster, this thing know his wife’s pet name for him? Was this clown really a ghost? Something worse? There was no tremor of fear in the clown’s voice when it asked, “You or the boy? One lives, one dies. Your choice.”

J.J. didn’t hesitate. “The boy.” The clown reached down and grabbed Ritchie’s hand, pushing him towards the emergency exit.

“No,” J.J. screamed, seeing his chance of survival running out the funhouse door. “I meant kill the boy.”

The clown reached up and with a fury that rivaled hell’s own, struck fiercely, plunging the knife blade deep into J.J’s chest. “Wrong answer!” The clown screamed again and again, angry cries mixed with tears of sorrow.

As J.J. faded away, he could hear something faint, but something that made him angry, angry at himself, angry at his wife, and most of all angry at Ritchie. But none of that mattered now. It was all over now, at least for him. As the clown walked towards the exit, wiping away the thick pancake makeup and taking off the clown suit, realization struck. The last thing J.J. heard was that familiar voice saying, “Ritchie, everything’s going to be okay now. Mommy’s here.”

 

A Grave Situation

by Eric Bonholtzer

 

Digging graves was not a desirable occupation. The dirt was unforgiving, cold and solid. It was back-breaking work, a bone-wearying profession. Max had known all of this before he had taken the job, but sometimes circumstances dictated the situation. He had a problem, and try as he might, his hands just always seemed to wander where they didn’t belong and return with something that was not theirs.

But Max was an optimist. No matter how far he sank, he always considered it a temporary plight. He could dig graves. He could till the earth’s surface for as long as it took because after all was said and done, it was still just a temp job. Now, almost six months after being released from the county lockup, Max began to wonder just how long this living hell was going to last. His Uncle John, the graveyard caretaker, a gruff old man with a toothless grin and a lazy eye, had told Max when he’d started off that he’d be digging graves until he dug his own, and at the time, Max could barely suppress a chuckle, but now he wasn’t so sure.

As Max’s dirt-encrusted pick split the grass, his thoughts wandered. He wondered how, for a town of only 500 people, they could manage a body or two a week. Sure, threshers hacked people to death. Farm animals killed ranchers in freak accidents. And there was a staggering cancer rate; these people smoked like the Marlboro man was riding away with the last of their cigarettes. But still, it just seemed like a bad town, a place where people came to die.

Max’s current client, though, had been a transient. A bad car accident and no one to claim the remains. Not a particularly pleasant way to go. Max paused, lit up a cigarette, and thought that, perhaps, there weren’t all that many ways that were. Inhaling deeply, Max listened to the faint rumblings of thunder just over the hills, telling of the storm to come.

He had to hurry. There was still another body waiting on the table, an old drunk named Howard Broach, who had to be interred before the storm made the ground too muddy to till. Max’s thoughts grew grimmer contemplating the enormously corpulent deceased, whose only legacy in life was to indulge in everything to excess and leave an immensely bloated corpse behind. And while there were no shortages of mourners at his funeral, when all the smoke settled, no one wanted to be stuck with the bill. Howard Broach became another county job. Max had been sour at the funeral and he was sour now. County requisitioned bodies, those with no one to claim them, were interred for next to nothing, which made Max’s cut even less. With a grimace, he snuffed out his cigarette with a booted toe, took a swig of whiskey from the flask he always kept at the ready, and returned to his digging.

* * * * *

Night had fallen by the time the two holes were dug, and with great effort, Max wrestled the bodies into their final homes, the unwieldy body of the late Howard Broach giving him more than a little trouble. Max had asked his uncle about a coffin for the body and the man had merely shrugged. The county got what it paid for.

With a grunt, Max picked up his shovel and somberly started filling in the graves. Rain was beginning to fall, making his grip more slippery with every stroke of the shovel. “Damn,” Max groaned as the spade slid out of his hand, down onto the barely covered body of Howard Broach. Max shook his head in aggravation as he climbed down into the muddy hole, cursing his misfortune. As he bent down to retrieve the implement near a bloated hand that appeared to be reaching out of the dirt for a lifeline, suddenly Max’s run of bad luck seemed to come to a dead halt. Fortune surely smiled on him as his eye caught a glimmer that could only be gold, a ring still attached to the dead man’s finger.

It was a plain gold band with ruby inlay set in a distinct pattern. Definitely valuable. Perhaps tonight had not been such a bust after all.

Curious as to why his uncle, by no means an honest man, had not thought of the same idea, Max bitterly found out the reason as he tried to wrest the ring from the corpse. Stuck tight. Judging from the frayed and torn skin on the bloated finger, Max realized his uncle had come up with the same idea and had obviously failed. Not wanting to follow in his uncle’s footsteps, Max simply seized the burial spade and hacked off the finger with a single stroke, easily extricating the ring. Prize in hand, Max climbed from the grave, tossing the finger over his shoulder with no more thought than a discarded cigarette butt.

After relishing his treasure for a few golden moments, a subtle fear began to gnaw at him, realizing what he had just done. Thoughts of cold clammy hands bursting from the grave flashed through Max’s mind with every scoop of dirt as he quickly resumed his job of interment. Max could almost feel that cold lifeless stare watching him, waiting for something. “Sorry buddy, you’re not getting your ring back,” Max muttered under his breath. “Finders keepers. You’re not going to need it where you’re going.” Sweat beading his brow, Max swore, as he shoveled the last patches of dirt over Howard “Nine Fingers” Broach, that the corpse’s eyes were wide open.

* * * * *

Max’s house was little more than a shanty, the paint peeling and the floorboards creaking, but the refrigerator was filled with cool beer and that was enough. A pile of discarded tall cans later and the grave digger was feeling A-OK. The TV, with its blurred picture, was off, but the radio bleated a bluesy tune and a newfound sense of possibility flared in the soon-to-be-former grave digger.

Max pulled out the ring and fingered his prize gently, marveling at the uncanny smoothness. Despite the glow of intoxication slowly enveloping him, something didn’t set right about it, and Max knew it wasn’t pangs of regret. There was definitely something off about the ring, and its ruby inlay, but Max couldn’t pinpoint it, and furthermore, he didn’t really care. It was his ticket out. The money it would fetch at hawk would set him up for a while until he could find something better. Tossing a discarded can to lay with the others, Max searched for another beer. Finding it, he popped the lid and spilled the drink all over himself as he heard a voice.

It was old and hollow, as if from a great distance away, calling out to him, “My ring.” Max shivered, glancing around frantically. He was alone. Or so it seemed. He tried to tell himself it was just an overactive imagination and too many graveyard stories, but he wasn’t convinced. Trying to salvage what was left of his beer, he came up with only two shallow sips. He definitely needed another one.

Max made his way to the kitchen, flicking on the light switch as he went. A little illumination and a fresh can of beer did wonders to ease the mind. He was already halfway to feeling normal again when he saw it. Muddy footprints. And definitely not his. Following the dirty trail led a bewildered Max back into his living room.

Sitting there patiently was none other than Mr. Howard “I’m Buried” Broach. A sickly pallor coupled with dirt stained his clothes.

“What… what… the.…” Max could barely voice the words, taking a tentative step back as he spoke them. “What… what… do you want?”

Howard chuckled, an animal-like cackle. “What do I want? Hmmm… now let me see?” As the unreality of it all set in, Max suppressed a scream. “Well, a coffin would have been nice.” Again that horrid laugh. “Maybe someone who wouldn’t have tossed me into the dirt. Yeah, you thought I didn’t see, well I was watching. But you know what I really want? I want my finger back.” That same humorless smile never leaving his face, Howard held up his mangled hand, short one digit.

Max took another step back, his mind unable to handle the unreality of it all. He searched frantically for a weapon but found nothing promising. “Forget it. What’s a little finger between friends, right? But you do have something I really want back, Maximillion. My ring. It’s special. You like the ruby pattern? The ancient Byzantine symbol for immortality? I know I did. It called to me Max, like it called to you. I knew from the second I saw it on that gypsy’s finger. I knew I’d kill for it. It speaks to you, Max. But you already knew that didn’t you? I feel its voice waning in me. And I need it. It does things Max… It’ll bring me back. Forever.”

Despite his fear, Max realized just how much his own future rested with that ring. It was his, and nobody was going to take that from him. If it truly was that powerful it would be priceless. Max stalled for time, “What ring?”

“MY RING!!! My ring now!”

Max took another backward step, running into a wall, his hands going up protectively. “It’s my ring now.” His eyes closed despite himself and he waited for those cold hands that never came.

Instead there was just horrid laughter. “Over your dead body, right?”

After several moments passed and Max found himself still alive, he mustered the courage to open his eyes. Nothing. He was alone again. Utterly alone this time. He checked his pocket, the ring still nestled safely inside; his eyes catching on the pile of discarded beer cans. Had he really had that many? He didn’t feel drunk, but he knew he probably was. He tried to rationalize. It had to have been a hallucination. Stress and alcohol, never a good mix. That was the only explanation. And nearly an hour later, after a few more tall ones, as Max slipped into sleep, he had a good long laugh about the whole thing.

* * * * *

Sleep didn’t last long. The peal of thunder awakened Max in a cold sweat. He was still in the throes of a waking dream, the vision earlier still all too real. For the next hour he tried to fall back asleep, but with little success. The storm had abated somewhat, but he couldn’t shake what he had seen. Every time he shut his eyes he could see cold dead hands digging their way towards him. Another two hours of restless waking, debating on the reality of his encounter, and a full bottle of Jack Daniels later, Max reached a conclusion: he knew what he had to do.

* * * * *

The rain beat down on him like miniscule needles. Max would make sure it was just his mind playing tricks on him and then he would go home reassured. He was thoroughly soaked by the time he reached the grave. It was deserted, as he had expected at this time of night, and though he had tried his best to skirt the houses adjacent to the graveyard lest someone call the cops, he couldn’t help but feel someone was watching.

There was scant illumination from the lightning, and Max was thankful for the darkness, making his secret job that much easier. Placing a small flashlight on the ground, he hefted his shovel and began to dig, taking one patch of freshly tilled soil from the ground after another. Max emptied the grave which he had just filled, aware of the lunacy of it all, constantly assuring himself that at the bottom he would find exactly what was to be expected, one very cold, very dead, Howard Broach. And then he would sleep. He would sleep the sleep of the dead, assured in the knowledge that there was no body after him.

But as he got closer and closer to unearthing, what he fervently hoped would be a corpse, Max’s uncertainty increased tenfold. And as he removed shovelful after shovelful of dirt where he was sure that he should be striking flesh, his uncertainty manifested into full on terror, complete and abject horror because the deeper he dug the more certain he became: there was no body.

Suddenly, he felt a hand upon his shoulder. Max could not even venture a scream as the hand forced him around to stand, face to leering face, with the dead Howard Broach. “MY RING!!!” the dead man spat at him. Max was gripped by panic, unable to move, confronted by a man who should by all rights be lying in the cold ground. Max’s mind reeled with the implications, the unreality of it all cascading over him.

A stroke of lightning split the stormy night sky, illuminating Howard in all his grizzly glory. The dead man did not hesitate, instead pushing Max, still clutching his shovel, into the grave. Howard followed, landing with a thud right next to him.

Max barely had time to sputter and choke, before he felt a four-fingered hand pressing his face into the mud. Relying on nothing but instinct, Max seized a handful of earth in his hands, and in a quick motion ground the soil into Howard’s eyes. Not pausing to think, seizing the opportunity, Max grabbed the shovel and swung. He connected, the blow smashing the side of Howard’s head with the sharp trowel blade. And then as quickly as it had begun, it was over.

Howard didn’t move. But that wasn’t enough for Max, not nearly enough. Howard had been dead once before. Max had to be sure this time, so he brought the shovel down, again and again, striking with unrelenting fury. He didn’t stop. Like a man possessed, he pounded Howard’s corpse into oblivion.

Lost in his rage, Max almost didn’t notice the voice of someone approaching. And even when he did, it took him a minute to pin down the sullen oaths and repetitious swearing, but as soon as he realized just what was going on, he scrambled from the hole. Taking a hiding place behind a weather-worn granite crypt, Max tightened the grip on the shovel. He had company.

Max watched as the old man stood beside the hole with a somber look of bewilderment. It was clearly not what he expected to see. Putting it all together with the pick-axe, saw, and shovel in the man’s hand, Max chuckled, stepping out from his hiding place. “I know what you want, and its mine.

“What… what?” The old man stammered, taking a step back.

“I know what you were trying to do. And I’m telling you, you’re too late. I already got the ring.”

“Max?! Is that you?”

“In the flesh.” Max advanced on the startled man, his shovel held behind his back. “I’m sure you’re a little surprised at seeing me here, huh, Uncle John?”

“Well… yes I was…” He stalled for time, his hands reflexively grasping his pick-axe. “I got a call about a grave robbing.”

“You call the cops on yourself? Is that it?” Max laughed at his own cleverness. “I know what you really want.” He approached until they were both within striking distance. “You want my ring.

“It’s my graveyard, my ring.”

“I found it first.” Max prepared for his swing. Just a little provocation and it would all be over. That was when he felt the hand. From the look on his uncle’s face he could tell that the old man was likewise startled. However, that brief moment of surprise quickly turned into abject terror when realization struck, as cold clammy hands reached out from the grave, that utter chill and fear the last thing the pair felt as they were dragged down, screaming, into the earth.

* * * * *

The town sheriff was perplexed when he saw them. Two very dead gravediggers piled into what appeared to be a cemetery battleground. The lawman stared long and hard at those two familiar faces, now so horribly distorted in death, and thought. I always wondered when those two would do each other in. Never did like each other much. Finally he shrugged impassively, telling himself to make a note of it. Guess it’s time to put out an ad for a new caretaker and grave digger. With no further ado, the sheriff picked up the shovel. County jobs, he thought bitterly, and started the arduous task of filling in the grave.

 

Doppelganger

by Bill DeArmond

 

It was the kind of quaint Texas town a movie location scout would kill for.

Pleasantdale is a small community situated about twenty miles southeast of Brookville on US 237. It is built, you might say, on two levels. Choate Gorge slices the city in half, separating the business district on the upper plateau from the rural areas on the other side of Sandy Creek. To travel from your house to the shopping district you would have to cross the lone pedestrian bridge that spans the water and climb the 147 steps that wind their way up the embankment.

The air was heavy and warm, as it always is in the early evening just before sunset in late May. The sound of rocking chairs, front-porch gliders, and children banging screen doors reverberated throughout the neighborhood.

Margaret Hobson was stretched out on the couch watching Wheel of Fortune. She was a plain, though not unattractive, woman in her early thirties. She always discounted her looks because of a prominent scar above her right eyebrow that she now rubbed out of habit. Suddenly the show was interrupted by a news bulletin.

“The Upton County Sheriff’s Department reports that they have discovered what is believed to be the body of Alma Reville, age 32, who resided on Vancouver Boulevard. She is apparently the third victim in five days of the so-called ‘Head-Hunter’, so named because of the killer’s penchant for decapitating the victims. The report we have is that there were no signs of forced entry, which could indicate that Jackson knew her murderer. Stay tuned to this station for further updates as they become available.”

Margaret had known Alma Reville practically all her life. She was a member of the “Twisted Sisters”, as their card club affectionately called themselves. Each had an official tag and another more appropriate secret handle. Margaret was the prim and proper Sensitive Sister; although the others referred to her as the Spinster Sister behind her back. Alma was the Cryptic Sister; although she was most often called the gossiping, backstabbing Sis Vicious. Helen Thompson named herself the Wyrd Sister after some cartoon series, but she also reveled in her alternate personality as the Sinister Sister. Judith Marshall, the final member of the quartet, gained a reputation early as the Wicked Sister. They had been together since high school and met every Thursday evening for bridge.

The first two victims had been from nearby Denby. They had also attended LBJ High at about the same time as The Sisters. Margaret remembered seeing them at their fifteenth reunion last year and it had brought back old memories. Still this seemed to be an odd synchronicity.

Margaret was reaching for the phone when it rang. She jumped back as if an electric shock had pulsed through her arm.

“Hello?” she asked, as if something inside the receiver were waiting to reach out for her.

“I guess we’ll have to find a fourth for bridge.”

“Helen? I was just about to call you. You heard what happened to Alma?”

“It was just on the television. Isn’t that just like Alma to go and lose her head over some guy?”

“Helen, what’s the matter with you? How can you be so insensitive?”

“She was always such a twit. Rambling on and on about what a terrible life she had since Carl took off last month. Jeez, if I’d been married to Alma, I would’ve chopped off her head long ago.”

“Helen, you don’t think her husband…”

“Why not? Toni told me a while ago that Alma had hired a detective who had caught her husband with another woman and she was going to take him for every cent he had.”

Antonia Wolff had been victim number two.

“Did Alma know who the other woman was?” Margaret asked with some hesitancy.

“The guy had some photos he was going to give her when she came up with his fee. But I don’t think she got them yet.”

Margaret paused before she dared to ask, “Do you know whom Carl was seeing?”

“I have my suspicions,” Helen said with a hint of conviction.

“Do you think these killings are connected?”

“Wouldn’t surprise me in the least.”

Margaret seemed a bit puzzled. “But why would Carl kill the other two? Toni and what’s the first one’s name?”

“Emma something-or-other. You should know her. We went to school with her.”

The mention of the woman’s name drew the darkness closer.

“What connection could she have?”

“Maybe Emma was the other woman and Toni knew about it so Carl killed both of them. Maybe she was just a practice kill—a red-herring to throw the police off the track.”

“But would Carl really kill anyone over a divorce?” asked Margaret incredulously.

“Where’s your mind today. You know people can be deranged. Especially men. Threaten their manhood and they’ll chop your head off every time.”

“Helen, that’s so callous.”

Ignoring the admonishment, Helen continued, “So what time are you going to pick me up?”

“Pick you up?”

“It’s Friday night, dummy. Are you out to lunch or what? They’ve changed the picture. It’s Scream 7: The Revenge of Alan Smithee.

“Helen, there’s no way we can go to the movies after what’s just happened. It’s not safe after dark until they catch this maniac.”

“I swear, Margaret, you’re afraid of your own shadow. I’m going whether you are or not.”

“Well, is Judy at least going with you?”

“I tried calling her earlier but I only got her machine. You know Miss Hot Pants. I think she’s gone to Wingo to spend the weekend with that Dale guy.”

“I don’t know, Helen. I’d feel funny going out…”

“Margaret, sometimes you can be so self-centered. I’m going with or without you. I saw the director on CNN and he said this Smithee flick is so bad he doesn’t want to be associated with it. This has all the promise of being one of those horrible slasher pies we love. Come on, Margaret. Don’t go weird on me now. You’ve always been my steady rock. The first show starts at eight. Come by about 7:30.”

“I guess I can’t let you go alone. Not with that nut running loose. Somebody has to protect you from yourself.” Margaret cautioned, “You know, if it’s not Jack, it could be anybody.”

“That’s my dependable girl.”

“But I’ll probably live to regret this,” her better Self sighed as she cradled the phone.

* * * * *

Margaret’s house was approximately two blocks from the bridge. Helen lived about three blocks from the top of the cliff on Fremont Street. It was another four blocks to the cinema. It was actually faster to walk those nine blocks than to drive the seven-mile 237-Bypass over the closest viaduct across the creek.

A little after seven o’clock, Margaret Hobson left her house and approached the bridge across the water. The sun had begun to set above the ridge, casting long shadows down into the gorge. When she was halfway across she paused and her heart almost stopped. For a moment she thought she could discern the outline of someone lurking in the darkness on the other side. She felt the sudden urge to turn and run back to the safety of her house. She knew it was foolish to go out on a night like this. It just wasn’t in her character. Squinting deeper into the fading light she realized it was just a curious image cast by the rocks at the foot of the stairs.

“Margaret, you are out of your mind,” she whispered to herself, afraid to utter it aloud lest it attract undue attention.

She took the steps quicker than usual and was a bit out of breath when she got to Helen’s house. Her friend was waiting for her on the porch. She was reading the twelfth rehash of the same plot by “America’s Favorite Gothic Romance Novelist.”

“What’s the matter, Margaret? You look like you’re beside yourself. Somebody chasing you with an ax?”

“Very funny.”

* * * * *

The flick was as bad as they expected, so neither had been disappointed. It was as wretched as the director’s Bloodsucking Pharaohs in Pittsburgh, but a cut above his Ghost Fever. Neither woman was in a talkative mood as they headed back towards Helen’s house in the now oppressive darkness.

“I don’t think it was an ax,” Helen finally remarked.

“What?”

“The murder weapon. I don’t think the killer is using an ax. You can’t get a good, clean cut with it. You’d have to hack at the head several times to get it off. I think the police are wrong.”

“Helen, now you’re beginning to freak me out.” After a pause, “What would you use?”

“Something with more heft and cutting surface. Like a saber or samurai sword, like the one my dad gave me. You know, the ‘souvenir’ he took off that Jap he killed?”

“But how would you conceal such a thing?”

“You’re right. I’ll bet the killer gets into the house when the victims are away and has enough time to find a weapon there.”

They walked on in silence, one or both lost in contemplation.

“Do you think some people have a death wish?” asked Margaret.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s like some people are idiots and deliberately put themselves in dangerous situations.”

“Like they’re psyche’s unbalanced… courting danger?”

“More like they’re just deluded about the evil that’s all around them. Like they’re blind to the dark side of things. Of that aspect of themselves even. They don’t see the bizarre lurking below the facade of normalcy.”

“You mean they don’t see a threat until it’s too late to avoid it?”

“Something like that.”

Helen thought about this for a long time but decided it was just idle chatter on Margaret’s part to cover up the awkwardness of the evening.

They neared Helen’s house and the point where they would they take their separate paths.

“Do you think all of this is just a coincidence?” Helen quizzed her friend.

“That we knew the three victims?”

“Yeah, and that we were all at LBJ High together. You don’t think there’s some other connection do you?”

“Like Carl or somebody else we knew in school?”

“Or something someone once did to somebody that hurt them so much that they never got over it. Think about that.”

Margaret didn’t have to. She knew.

They stopped at the gate to Helen’s house.

“Do you want me to go inside with you?” Margaret inquired.

“To see if the Bogeyman is lying in wait? Don’t be daft, Margaret. I don’t have any skeletons in my closet. What about you? You’ve got to cross the gorge alone. You want me to go with you?”

“No, then I’d worry about you going back home alone. Besides, I’ve got to stop at the Jiffy Mart. I’ll be okay.”

“Margaret, promise you’ll call me the moment you get home.”

“I will.”

“You trust too much. That could be your downfall.”

“I understand.”

“Take care, my faithful friend.”

“I will.”

She watched as Helen bounded up the stairs and into the house. She noticed that Helen didn’t have to unlock the door.

“I’ve told her a hundred times not to leave her door unlocked,” Margaret mused with an ironic smile on her face.

* * * * *

Later she entered the Jiffy Mart to stock up on the staples she’d need to get through the weekend: milk, apples, bread and cheese. When the checkout girl stared at her, Margaret reached up and concealed her scar.

Leaving the store she passed the remaining few houses, now brightly lit against the evils of the night. Soon she arrived at the top of the steps leading down to the bridge.

“Across three streets and I’m home-free.”

For years, residents of Pleasantdale had complained about the lighting at Choate Gorge. There was but a single streetlight at the top of the stairs and one on either end of the walkway.

Margaret stared down into the dimly lit ravine, trying to discern if anything malevolent might be lying in wait. When she was fairly certain her path was clear, she began the slow descent. To give herself something to occupy her mind, she began to count each step as she alighted upon it. She paused at the first landing and something deep in her subconscious thought it detected the faintest echo. Her conceit shook off the feeling and assured her, “One-fourth of the way home.”

She resumed her plunge into the murky, black pit. After a few more steps she stumbled and nearly tumbled over the railing. Catching herself and her bag of groceries, she was now certain she had heard a scraping sound from above, as if someone had shuffled their feet to a stop.

Margaret turned back to look at the head of the footpath. Was it her imagination or did she see the slightest movement of something in the shadows?

She proceeded forward a few more paces and stopped.

“There it is again!”

Another step—another echo, just a fraction of a second later.

“Someone’s following me! Someone… or something… is right behind me.”

She took the last several steps in frantic leaps until she hit the base of the incline. This time the echo failed to pause but continued to plummet towards Margaret.

“Don’t turn around and look,” her psyche cautioned. “If you do, you’ll be frozen and unable to run.”

She hit the edge of the bridge in full stride. She picked up her gait but still her pursuer kept pace.

“This can’t be!” she almost screamed. “It’s like a scene from a bad movie.”

Her feet thundered across the wooden planks of the overpass, the echo still following… closer now… too close.

She bounded up the incline, leaving behind a trail of apples any psycho could follow, and hurried down Maple Street.

“Just one more block,” her Ego urged her on.

She wanted to scream for someone to help but she needed all her strength to continue running.

“The keys… oh… the keys!”

As she rounded the bend of her own lane, she began awkwardly fumbling in her purse, but she couldn’t find them.

She threw herself onto the porch, tore open the door, tumbled inside with her remaining purchases splayed out on the floor. It registered on her that something wasn’t quite right about this, but she was too concerned about locking the door against the terror outside to raise this thought to consciousness.

Margaret paused momentarily with her back to the door and sighed, trying to catch her breath and stop her heart from pounding so heavily. Slowly, cautiously, she crept through the darkened living room to the curtains and peered out into the yard. From the corner of her eye she thought she saw a Shadow pass around the side of her house, but it made no sound.

“Why, there’s no one there at all,” her Self reassured her. “It was just the sound of my own footsteps resounding in the ravine that frightened me.” Had she bothered to consult her Unconscious it would have told her that her fears were the product of a guilty mind.

She reentered the darkened living room, located the remote, and flicked on the television—a familiar noise to scare away the demons. She caught the news bulletin in the middle:

“…who was decapitated just like the previous four victims. An ornamental sword was found near the body. A neighbor had been awakened by a scream coming from the house and alerted the Pleasantdale Police Department. This appears to be the second such murder today. To repeat, the body of a woman has just been found, less than thirty minutes ago, in her home on Fremont Street. Authorities are withholding the name of the victim until the next of kin can be notified. We have a crew at the scene and will bring you a live update on our ten o’clock newscast.”

A tear rolled down the cheek of Margaret Hobson for yet another of her lost friends.

Behind her in the room she heard a familiar voice call her name.

“Margaret.”

She turned around and approached a shape dimly illuminated in the mirror by the flickering television image.

“Who’s there?”

Quietly the scarred specter of Maggie Hobson emerged slowly from the reflection.

“Poor Helen,” her Ego sighed.

“Just Judith left,” whispered her Shadow.

 

One Long Night

by Daniel Dean

 

1.

The smooth voice of an alto sax drifted over and around the people milling about on the River Walk, the easy flowing sound which had become the theme for sunset in New Orleans.

John stood with Nell, his thirteen-year-old daughter, her long brown hair twisted in a pony tail, the few wisps that had escaped being tugged playfully by the evening breeze off the river, and watched the water turn purple, then slowly deepen to red, as it reflected the light above in brilliant contrast to the darkening world around them.

Nell was crying softly, the tears running down her face were as red as the river, giving them the disturbing semblance of blood.

Nell buried her face in John’s shirt, her arms wrapped around his waist, her hitching sobs against his stomach seeming in tune with the fear which had settled there.

He knelt and wrapped his arms around her comfortingly, but only part of his mind remained to perform the task, the rest, back in February of 1998, was watching his wife as she paced angrily at the foot of their bed, purposefully not looking at him in the way she always did when trying to control her temper…

* * * * *

“I thought we were happy where we are. What on earth makes you think we should even consider moving after all the work I put into this house?” she said, still not looking at him.

“I’m not happy here. It’s an hour and a half commute to the hotel each way, and with the schedule I have to keep; I never even get to see Nell anymore.”

“Don’t you make this about Nell, don’t you dare.”

She turned her blazing eyes on him and he took a couple of steps back involuntarily.

“But I have always—”

She cut him off before he could finish, but not with words. Her right hand rose almost of its own accord, grasped the front of his shirt, and pulled him forward while the other cocked back to the side of her head.

He realized suddenly in a blaze of realization what she meant to do an instant before the back of her hand exploded against the side of his face, his left eyeball feeling as if it had been jellied by her wedding ring.

She let go of his shirt and quickly supported him in her arms, the look of anger disappearing from her face.

“John, I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me. Oh gosh, you’re bleeding. Let me get you a towel.”

She sat him down on the edge of the bed and went into the bathroom to get a towel off the rack near the door.

He picked up the little mirror sitting on the side table. The eye she had hit was not popped or jellied, but it was swimming in blood, the lid split open by the stone in her ring.

She came out of the bathroom and held the towel out to him, the back of her hand smeared with his blood. He took the towel and pressed it over his eye.

“You should go wash your hand before we go to the hospital.”

“Why should we go to the hospital?” she asked sharply.

He almost gasped, but he controlled it and attempted to make himself sound unconcerned. She had been close to him, her eyes staring right into his, and when he had mentioned the hospital her pupils had changed for a second, expanding and elongating slightly then returning to normal.

“I am going to have to get this gash stitched up, but we can tell the doctor that I fell in the shower and cut myself on the faucet,” he said, hoping she might be assuaged.

She was.

Jane called the babysitter and, after agreeing that an extra ten dollars was in order because of the late hour, Jane loaded him into the car and they made the two hour drive to the hospital in relative silence.

After that night Jane ended all of their fights in the same way, by slapping him in the face, and later by kicking or punching him in the balls, but after that first night she never hit with her left hand, always with her right, which was unadorned by rings which might require another visit to the hospital.

John hid his bruises pretty well, claiming that a drinking problem caused most of them, and no one questioned the claim.

It just goes to show the mentality of the time we live in, he thought more than once. When a man can fall down the stairs drunk three times a month and no one questions, but a woman falls down the stairs once and her husband is automatically a suspect.

He preferred the story, would rather have people think him a lush than know that he was being beaten by his wife, a woman who weighed forty pounds less than he did and stood five inches shorter.

It was something he couldn’t let people know, especially Nell.

After awhile John stopped fighting with Jane in hopes that without an argument she would have no reason to become angry, but without the direct stimulus from John she began finding things to become angry about. Every time Nell fell down, or Jane had a bad day in her little basement studio and a picture she had been trying to develop went bad, she would accuse John of being unfaithful, or claim that he didn’t spend enough time with her and Nell, and once had not said a word, just walked into their bedroom and hit him across the face as hard as she could as he lay in bed reading, then calmly went into the bathroom to take a shower.

While the changes in Jane’s temper were disturbing the changes in her physically were even more so.

These did not show when she was calm, but each time she became enraged her face would change, taking on an elongated appearance, the skin going white, as if bleached, and the pupil’s of her eyes would become either vertical or horizontal slits.

At first John thought the changes were only some strange mental image he imposed on his wife when she boiled over, but as they became more pronounced with each successive change he realized that what he was seeing was no illusion, but a real change.

The breaking point had come in mid-March, and John had just gotten home from work.

His key clicked as he inserted it into the deadbolt, but the sound was hollow this evening, and though his intuition told him to turn around and leave, he turned the key and opened the door.

The only light in the main hall came from upstairs, through the open door of the room he and Jane shared on the third floor.

He sloughed the jacket off his back letting it drop down his arms, catching it in his hands before it could drop to the floor. He tossed it over the seat of the old rocking chair near the door and started up the stairs, tucking his keys into his pocket.

He stopped on the second floor landing, the light from the bedroom door cloaking half of his face with yellow, and leaving the other half in a strange mask of shadows that moved slightly even though the light was steady.

Jane’s form had appeared in the lighted doorway.

She was completely nude except for the long brown hair hanging around her shoulders and covering most of the firm curves of her breasts.

She still has the breasts of a teenager, he couldn’t help thinking to himself, even while staring into the black holes where her eyes were hidden by shadows and knowing that the pupils would be slits, either vertical or horizontal; it didn’t really matter which.

She took a step forward, most of her features hidden in shadows, only the curve of her buttocks and the shiny skin of her legs showing in the light from their bedroom.

“Do I frighten you, John?” she asked in a low seductive voice with a shivery undertone John knew to be both anger and mocking cynicism.

“Yes,” she said, then paused, looking not just at him, but into him in some unfathomable way that felt like a slime-covered worm crawling inside his skull.

She had come to the top of the stairs now, and was looking down at him. At this distance he could see that more changes had occurred; these even more disturbing than her eyes.

Her skin had become a milky white, and he could see a pattern beneath moving as if her skin was just a piece of tight-fitting clothing worn over something more substantial.

She continued after giving him a moment to inspect her.

“I can smell the fear wafting off of you like the smell of shit stuck to the bottom of a shoe.”

“You aren’t my wife,” he said, his voice unsteady and unsure.

“Oh, but I am.”

She spun around, showing off her lithe form, her breasts bobbing up and down slightly as she did.

“I am Jane Talibith.”

She smiled, flashing pointed glittering teeth.

“Your wife.”

John felt a chill move up his spine, and when he spoke next his voice was not quite steady.

“You might have been Jane once, but you’re not anymore.”

Without another word she flew at him, leaping down the short flight of stairs that separated them.

He was frozen in place as she came, her hair fluttering out behind her like a banner, then she was on him.

Her right hand wrapped around his neck like a vice and he thought, she is going to strangle me on the stairs and leave my corpse here to rot.

It was the last thought he could remember having before the pain, which filled his whole world for…

…well, he didn’t know just how long, but he could remember the ambulance, the sound of the sirens, the voices almost shouting but the words still unclear, and the endless hum of honking horns and running engines overlaying it all.

These snatches of memory recurred to him later, but he wished they wouldn’t, wished it could be like it was in television shows like Criminal Justice and NYPD, where getting attacked made the screen go black for a few seconds before depositing you in a hospital bed.

His first real memory after the attack was waking to find a doctor standing beside his bed shining a penlight into his left eye.

“Welcome back, John,” the doctor said, clicking off the penlight and dropping it into the pocket of his white lab coat.

“Do you know where you are?”

“The hospital?”

His voice was weak and his throat felt like it was coated with a layer of coarse sand.

The doctor nodded, taking the chart from the end of the bed and folding back some of the sheets to make a small note on one of the lower pages.

“Yes, Mr. Talibith, you are in the hospital.”

He read something off the chart and grimaced as if in pain himself.

“My name is Doctor Hutton. You suffered a severe trauma to your testes, which caused a subarachnoid hemorrhage in your brain.”

“What is a subarcnoid hemorrhage?” he asked.

“It is the rupture of one or more blood vessels in your brain. The effect is bleeding inside your skull which puts pressure on the brain, causing—in your case—respiratory failure.”

He paused, searching the chart for something.

“We removed a small section of your skull and drained the blood to relieve the pressure and repaired the vessels which were causing the bleeding, but you may experience continued symptoms due to minor brain damage.”

“We were able to save your right testicle, but the left was too severely damaged and had to be removed.”

John looked up as the doctor finished and grimaced slightly.

“That’s strange, doc.”

“What’s strange?” Doctor Hutton asked.

“I don’t feel like a man with one ball.”

 

2.

John shook off the remnants of the memory and saw that the sunset was over. The sax player was gone, likely moved to Bourbon Street for big tips from the drunks who wandered from bar to bar all night.

“I didn’t realize it was so late,” he said, out loud but to himself, and lifted Nell into his arms.

She had stopped sobbing, but it was his first day back after being in the hospital and he had just picked her up from the foster family she had been staying with for the past two months, and she clung to him like a barnacle to the face of a sea cliff.

She was heavy, and he was still weak from his ordeal despite the physical therapy, and though he was able to carry her a few feet, he was forced to put her down long before they reached the edge of the River Walk.

“You will have to walk on your own. Daddy just can’t carry you right now.”

She continued to cling to him, her arms around his neck.

“No.”

“I can’t carry you Nell, you are just too heavy. But I will hold your hand while we walk if you want.”

He pulled her arms from around his neck and took her hand, then started down the road to the Grand Plaza Hotel.

It was a fairly large hotel near Bourbon Street, just far enough away that the crowds weren’t a bother, and had been one of the few holdings of John Talibith Jr., John’s father.

He had died when John was seventeen, and had left him a legacy consisting of three broken down cars, fourteen dollars in change, and this hotel.

The suite he had procured was not lavish, only serviceable. The main room was large, with a cabinet in the corner which John assumed housed a television and perhaps a VCR, a couch the color of egg yolks, a round table, and three chairs.

Also in the main room was a small kitchenette equipped with a stove, oven, microwave, and mini-fridge that he could stock with whatever he wanted.

The walls of the room were, he was sure, once white, but had been stained a sickly orange-yellow from cigarette smoke accumulated over the years.

“Well, here we are.”

He flicked on the lights in the main room and led her inside.

“It isn’t much, but it will do until we can find a place in town.”

“Are you hungry, honey?” John asked as he led Nell to the table and pulled out a chair for her.

“I could eat,” she responded, her voice still choked with tears.

“There isn’t much here, but I can always call downstairs for whatever you would like and have it brought up.”

“How ’bout some ice cream?” she asked.

She still loved ice cream, and she always wanted some after her feelings had been hurt by a boy at school, or if she had a fight with a friend, and had even once eaten almost an entire half gallon by herself when her pet goldfish, Goldy, had died and she had caught her mother about to flush the unfortunate creature down the toilet.

“Sure,” he said, removing the carton of chocolate-covered cherries ice cream from the small freezer.

“Want some whipped cream with that?” he asked, removing the can of spray whipped topping from the door of the fridge.

She nodded.

Taking a spoon out of the drawer he opened the carton, jabbed the spoon in and handed the entire thing to her.

He sprayed a mountain of whipped cream onto the top of the ice cream in the carton then went back to the fridge and opened the door.

After a seconds hesitation he closed the door again, and set the can of whipped cream next to the carton of ice cream.

He knelt down beside her and pointed to the door across the room.

“That will be your room. When you get done wash up and get on to bed. It has its own bathroom, so you won’t have to share one with me.”

He smiled, straining against his mood to hold it while he spoke.

“Things will be strange for awhile, but we will make it.”

He hugged her and she hugged him back, her mouth full of ice cream, and the spoon dripping both ice cream and whipped topping down the back of his shirt, but he ignored it.

“I promise.”

He pulled away and stood.

“I’m going to take a shower. If you get scared or you need something just knock.”

He looked down at her questioningly.

“Alright?”

She nodded and scooped another huge spoonful of ice cream into her already overstuffed mouth.

* * * * *

John took a hot shower then dressed, and though his aches and pains felt much improved, his nerves were on edge; a strange feeling settling over him like a shroud.

The little apartment was quiet when he came out of the bathroom, the empty carton of ice cream sitting on the table, the spoon next to it, and the can of whipped cream sitting on its side near to where he had left it.

The strange feeling magnified.

He rushed to the door of the bedroom and opened it slightly to peek through the crack.

Nell lay on the bed, the covers tucked around her, her face hidden under one bent arm.

He closed the door gently, sighing with relief, then went to the couch and began searching for the remote, the strange feeling now subsiding but not completely gone.

After a moment of fruitless searching he looked up and saw that the remote had been left on top of the cabinet.

He got up and retrieved it, but thought for a moment that putting the remote that close to the TV was pointless since the whole purpose of the remote was so you didn’t have to get up.

He pushed the power button, and the television made a small popping sound as the power kicked in and the picture began to light up the screen.

For just a moment he could see a picture filling the screen behind the remaining blackness, but he couldn’t make out who the photo might be, then before the black could fade away enough for him to make out the picture it was replaced with a picture of a large sign reading, “The Dallas-Fort Worth Psychiatric Institute for the Mentally Disturbed.”

He sat forward, suddenly recognizing the name, and turned up the sound slightly so he could better hear the anchor talking in the background.

“Three prisoners escaped from the Institute this morning after a guard, identified as Kate Benigan, 32, entered the ward where the three women were being held…”

He stopped listening as understanding dropped down on him like a half-ton weight.

The feeling he had been having since he got out of the shower came back, but now it was accompanied by a splinter of fear sinking deep into his gut.

He rushed to the bedroom where he had peeked in to see Nell sleeping soundly, the smell of Jane’s perfume becoming stronger with each step he took towards the door.

The smells of shampoo and soap had covered it before. The scent was light and fruity, much like that of his favorite shampoos, but now he could almost feel its presence in the air as he flung the door open, no longer worried about waking Nell, and tore the covers off the bed to reveal the rubber sex doll, its partially deflated body posed to look like a sleeping child, its rubber arm bent up to cover its gaping horrible hole of a mouth.

Seemingly without thought he hurried from the room, and turning left he pushed through the door at the end of the hall marked DO NOT USE, EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY, in large red letters on the door, and in smaller more polite looking letters on the unlocking bar was printed, Warning Alarm Will Sound.

The alarm blared out as he pushed through the door and into the dimly lit street.

People turned to look in his direction, but he paid no attention, just ran around to the front of the building where the baggage carts stood.

A Toyota Corolla was the only car parked at the curb, the trunk open; a man standing behind the car with two bags in his hands staring at John as he brushed past heading for the driver’s door.

The man dropped the two bags and raised his right hand to point at John, waggling his finger impotently.

John dropped into the driver’s seat with a plop and slammed the already running car into drive.

The front wheels spun for a moment sending billows of white smoke from the tires, then caught, the car jerking into motion, its front swerving back and forth as he raced away from the hotel in the direction of the house he had so wanted to leave behind.

Of course she would take Nell to the house, there wasn’t much logic to this he knew, but somehow he knew it was true, she would take Nell to the house and would do something to her.

She might not kill her, but as most people knew, there were worse things than death.

He drove without being reckless, trying to avoid the time delay of being pulled over for speeding or reckless driving.

Once he was out of the most populated section of the city however, he floored the accelerator and the little Toyota’s engine whined almost pitifully as the odometer needle jumped to around ninety and hovered there.

It was dangerous to go so fast along the dark country road, a twisting one lane blacktop that ran west through the swamps and bayous, but the faster his heart beat the more his foot seemed to want to press down on the accelerator.

The house he and Jane had shared for most of the years of their marriage was an old plantation house built sometime after the Civil War, though he wasn’t sure of the date since he had never really been interested in the history.

At some point most of the land around the large house had been sold off to other farms or was given to children and grandchildren of the original owners, and by the twentieth century a small town had sprung up around the place.

Witchinia was what the locals had named the town, though in truth there wasn’t all that much to name, just a small filling station, a pool hall and bar, and one stoplight which stood at the corner between Evans and Albertson Streets and blinked yellow most of the time.

He had only been driving for ten minutes when the car began to decelerate rapidly, not screeching to a halt, but seeming to lose power.

He raised one hand and looked down at the panel of electronic instruments behind the steering wheel and saw that the gas gauge read zero miles.

That’s a new feature, he thought with a touch of irony and cursed himself for a fool.

He had just passed a small gas station a couple of miles back, but it had been closed, and he had not thought to check how much gas was in his stolen ride.

He cursed again and banged his left hand on the steering wheel while using his right to guide the car to a slow stop on what passed for the shoulder but was really just a few inches off the road and as close to leaving the embankment as he ever wanted to get.

He looked in the rearview mirror to see if the gas station was still within sight, but found his view blocked by the raised trunk. Hope surged through him for a moment as he flung the door open and stepped out, his sneakers crunching the small bits of loose gravel dotting the road.

He knew that many people carried a gas can on long car trips just in case.

He rounded to the back of the car and peered in the trunk but found no can lying there in red aluminum splendor as he had hoped.

Instead he saw the staring eyes of his wife, unchanged, nothing about her was any more or less than human now, but she was dead, her mouth twisted in a half grimace, half scream, showing her jagged and broken teeth.

The eyes were glazed, and the murder weapon, what appeared to be a normal everyday claw hammer, was still buried in her skull. Her right hand still grasped the handle of the hammer, and a clear mental picture of Jane smashing out her own teeth with the thing flashed through his mind.

The form of his dead wife sat up, her glazed eyes turning to look at him, his hand rose to cover his mouth, the expression there feeling like a grin beneath his fingers.

The apparition raised its mangled and broken left hand, the fingers twisted unnaturally as if someone had repeatedly smashed it with the claw hammer.

Her wedding ring, crushed and buried into the flesh was just visible as she pointed the nub of one twisted finger in the direction he had come.

She spoke silently, her lips forming out words that they did not seem able to speak, but John could understand them anyway.

“Go back. She is mine now. You are already too late.”

He backed away in horror, the blood seeming to rush into his head with a roaring sound he could hear in his ears and feel in the back of his eyes.

His sneaker scuffed the ground harder than he had expected and he fell, his arms pinwheeling as he tried, too late, to recover his balance.

He heard the crack as his head hit the pavement, but did not feel any pain, only saw many pinpoints of light form in his vision, and the floating image of his wife’s face above him, almost transparent in the moonlight, her mouth now twisted into a horrible sneering smile.

Then the darkness closed in.

 

3.

John woke to the sound of running water, his head pounding like a hammer on an anvil, the spray of water cold on his naked back. He rolled over and raised himself to his knees in front of the toilet.

A shadow of memory flitted in his head for a moment, then was gone, something insubstantial and odd, but after a bump like that, he could feel a throbbing on the back of his head that he knew would be a large purple knot before long. You couldn’t expect all your mental faculties to be working perfectly right away, he thought.

He took a washrag from the rack next to the toilet and, pressing it to his head, he got to his feet a little unsteadily and got dressed.

He opened the bathroom door, intending to get some ice on the back of his head before the knot got too large, and stopped, his nerves firing up and making him want to jitter.

The carton of ice cream he had given Nell sat empty on the table, the spoon on the floor beneath the chair, and the can of whipped cream turned on its side near where he had left it.

A strange feeling came over him, and though he could not identify its cause, he looked from the table to the bedroom door, which stood slightly ajar.

He walked quickly across to the door and pushed it open just a little more, enough for him to look at the bed inside.

Nell lay on the bed, the covers tucked around her, her face hidden under one bent arm.

He closed the door gently, sighing with relief, then went to the couch and began searching for the remote, the strange feeling now subsiding but not completely gone.

Looking up after a moment of fruitless searching, he saw that the remote had been left on top of the cabinet.

He got up and retrieved it, but thought for a moment that putting the remote that close to the TV was pointless since the whole purpose of the remote was so you didn’t have to get up.

A thought so powerful and disturbing that he could not ignore it went through his mind.

This has happened before! You have done this before!

He sat forward, his mind suddenly on alert, and the first thing he noticed was the light fruity scent of Jane’s favorite perfume lingering in the air.

 

4.

Jane stood at the bedside, the doctor beside her holding a clipboard, his frazzled red hair standing on end, giving him the look of a mad scientist.

“Your husband suffered a severe rupture of blood vessels in the brain during the psychotic episode and he has shown no brain activity since.”

The doctor ran one hand through his tousled hair before continuing.

“He is living without the help of machines, but it is not likely that he will ever recover from his condition.”

She took the clipboard without him first offering it and flipped back the first few pages.

“What are these again?”

“They are just legal forms concerning your understanding that your husband’s condition is not the fault of this hospital or any of its personnel.”

Jane nodded and took the pen from the doctor when he held it out for her. She signed each of the forms then gave the clipboard and pen back to the doctor.

“I can’t afford to pay for long-term treatment or hospitalization,” Jane said.

The doctor took the chart from the end of the bed and flipped through it to the insurance information page, then shrugged.

“The health insurance will cover it for a short time, after that he becomes a ward of the state and will be transferred to a state mental facility.”

She nodded.

“Doctor, could I have a few minutes alone with him just to say goodbye?”

The doctor looked from Jane to John then back, nodded, and left the room, the clipboard tucked under one arm, leaving Jane standing at the side of John’s bed, her hand slightly touching his, her red painted nails looking like blood against his pale skin.

She waited until the doctor’s footsteps had disappeared, then turned to the head of the bed and smiled, her pupils becoming vertical slits, and her face seeming to drain of color and elongate, the nose melting away, leaving only smooth reptilian features.

“Pleasant dreams, John,” she said, then turned to leave.

“You will be having them for a very long time.”

She left his room smiling, her face now just like any other person’s.

In his bed, John did not move, and but for a single tear running from the corner of his eye, he might have been taken for a corpse.

 

Old Lady Moirer and the House on Crow Street

by J.E. Phelan

 

The scariest day of my life occurred when I was eleven years old. It began on the day of Halloween. My classmates and I were at recess. The clouds in the sky were white, puffy and all together un-intimidating. But toward the west, dark, fierce, threatening clouds were quickly chewing their way toward my elementary school.

While the other schoolboys were busy playing soccer or basketball, I was on the playground spinning in circles on a rubber tire with my best friend, Lauren Baliano. She was a gorgeous-looking girl with shoulder-length strawberry blonde hair and small, mushroom-shaped ears. She had ocean blue eyes and a smile that made my stomach do backflips. For years I was in love with her, but never had the courage to pursue a more intimate relationship. My friends often teased me for spending so much time with her, but I didn’t care. I did whatever she wanted and almost always enjoyed myself. That is why when she suggested that we swing on the rubber tire that particular afternoon, I instinctively said, “Sure!”

But spinning in circles, going faster and faster, watching the schoolyard liquefy into a series of greens and browns, I began to regret my quick response. Round and round we went. My stomach began to churn and bubble. I looked across at Lauren who was busy throwing her head back and giggling joyously. A forced smile was the only sign of delight I could muster. I tried to say “Stop” or “Slow down”, but every time I went to speak a stream of vomit would travel up to the middle of my throat, almost daring me to open my mouth. I had to get off.

Thinking quickly, I leaned backward, allowing myself to fall off the tire and onto the pebble flooring below. I had heard some giggling from the nearby schoolgirls, but I couldn’t concentrate on anything other than my wishy-washy insides and throbbing brain. My forehead was sweaty and my pulse was racing. Trying to reduce the feeling of nausea that was quickly mounting, I tried to stand up, but it was too late. As Lauren came over to see if I was all right, I threw up all over her new pink and white sneakers. Oops.

A nearby lunch lady patrolling the playground area had heard all the schoolgirls screaming in disgust and pointing in my direction. Before I knew what was happening, the lunch lady had helped me to my feet and took me to the nurses’ office. The nurse took my temperature and immediately called my mother at work. Soon, off I went, going home sick on the day of Halloween.

As soon as I walked into the house, my mother followed me up the stairs and helped me into bed. She quickly made me a bowl of soup. After I was finished eating, she mentioned that my father and her had plans to go out for the afternoon. I was a little disappointed. I was hoping to have the services of my mother that afternoon.

Twenty minutes later, my father pulled into the driveway and honked the horn. I watched from my window as my mother walked out to the car. The weather outside was getting worse. The dark clouds were growing thicker and closer to my house. The ground was already wet from the drizzle that was quickly building into rain. I watched as the car backed out of the driveway and took off down the road. I was about to walk back to my bed when I caught a glimpse of the Georgian-style house across the street.

Irene “Old Lady” Moirer was the original owner of the house. She was a mean old woman who loved to yell and curse at the local children in the neighborhood. All day long she would sit by her bedroom window in her rocking chair, waiting and watching.

On my block there were a good number of children, which meant that playing outdoors was a common occurrence. Every spring all the boys would gather around to play either baseball, soccer, two-hand-touch football, street hockey or any other kind of sport. Either way, Old Lady Moirer would watch everything like a guard dog, waiting for a passerby to overstep their boundaries. Every time a puck or ball had to be retrieved from her yard Old Lady Moirer would bark nasty words and phrases at the unfortunate child.

Nobody in town liked Old Lady Moirer, not even the grown-ups. That is why when she passed away seven years earlier, no one seemed to notice, or care. The biggest tip-off that she had died was that no one had to listen to her scream and shout in the local supermarket that the fruit wasn’t fresh enough or that her coupons should have been doubled, or that she wanted her groceries all packed with paper AND plastic!

As traditions are usually formed, each year the younger children would purposely avoid the old lady’s house during their candy crusades. But for some of the older, more daring kids, they would walk up to her house and knock on the front door as a testament to their courage. Each time, Old Lady Moirer would come to the door with a broom in hand. She’d scream and threaten the older kids to leave her be. Neither scared nor intimidated, the older kids would just laugh in her face and casually walk away.

Now according to local legend, one Halloween night, seven years earlier, Bradley Hollenberg, the high school football teams’ leading receptionist became the first, and only, teenager to enter the house where Old Lady Moirer lived. But it came at a terrible price.

Trying to impress Amy, his girlfriend, her best friend, Trisha, and his two closest buddies, Bradley took up a dare to knock on the door of the old woman’s house and ask her for candy. As he walked up toward the house, Amy and his friends hid in nearby bushes. Bradley, riding on a wave of confidence, knocked on the front door and waited, but to no avail.

He knocked a second time. Again, no response.

A third time. The same.

On the fourth attempt, Bradley began pounding on the door. The door suddenly opened a crack, giving only the slightest hint of the Darkness within. He immediately walked back to his friends and informed them that the door was unlocked and open. Filled with a rush of confidence and adrenaline, he took up another dare to walk into the house. Bradley’s buddies were both excited about the idea, while Amy and Trisha were not quite as impressed.

“What are you rolling your eyes about?” Bradley asked Amy. “You’re coming with me.”

Shocked to have been volunteered, Amy replied, “Um, no. I don’t think so.”

“Oh, come on. We’re just going to walk into the house for a sec and then walk out.”

“A second?”

“Yeah.”

“You promise?”

Bradley smiled, grabbed her hand and led her across the lawn to the front door.

Pushing against the door, a soft screech let out from the hinges, echoing throughout the house. Stepping inside, the house was almost completely filled with Darkness. The only light that streamed into the house was a combination of the delicate orange from the street lamps and the soft grayness from the moon. Deeper and deeper into the house, Bradley and Amy went. Each step they took, the heavier and more rapid Amy began to breathe.

“Brad, I don’t think… I don’t think this is a good idea anymore. I wanna go back.”

Amy turned to leave but Bradley grabbed her by the arm.

“No, no, don’t go.”

“It’s dark and cold in here,” she said.

“So? You scared?”

Yeah,” Amy admitted.

“Well, don’t be. That bunch of losers out there’ll be beggin’ us to tell ’em the story. We’ll be the talk of the school.”

“Why’re we here anyway?” Amy asked, eyeing the Darkness around her.

“To see if the old lady’s still alive.”

Bradley began heading toward what looked like a staircase at the far end of a hallway. Amy suddenly grabbed him by the shoulder and stopped him.

A bit nervously, “What if she is still alive?”

“Then we leave. No harm done.”

“Yes, but what if she’s…”

Amy paused, afraid of finishing her sentence. Bradley turned to her. Despite the shadow cast over his face Amy could tell that he was smiling underneath.

“You mean… what if she’s dead?”

“Yeah. What if?

“We’ll just have to find out, that’s all.” Bradley turned back toward the staircase. “I’m going upstairs. You coming?”

“I’ll wait down here.”

“Fine.” And before Amy could say any more, Bradley began to head across the room.

Reaching the staircase, Bradley felt around blindly for the banister. Finally getting a hand on it, the wood felt surprisingly cold under his palms. Bradley slowly began to climb the stairs, being conscious of each step he took, but eyeing the top of the staircase to make sure that nothing or no one jumped out at him.

Not realizing that he was at the top of the staircase, Bradley went to climb a step that was not there and tripped. Quickly gaining his balance, Bradley straightened himself up and saw that there were three rooms ahead of him. Each one stood out, despite the lack of light. It was as if a layer of Darkness had been cut out, revealing an even darker layer below. There was also another unexpected element at the top of the staircase: a repulsive odor that smelled of old, dry feces and decaying flesh. As if some small animal or rodent had died in the house and Old Lady Moirer never bothered to dispose of it.

Not wanting to turn back, Bradley picked the room to the far right whose window undoubtedly looked out onto the street below.

Maybe she’s asleep. Bradley thought to himself. Maybe she’s dead.

A chill shot down Bradley’s spine, momentarily paralyzing him in his path.

No. She’s not dead. If you think she’s dead, you’ll chicken out. She’s not dead. She’s-Not-Dead.

Finally regaining his composure, Bradley began walking toward the room. The closer he got, the lower the temperature in the house seemed to drop and the stronger the odor grew.

* * * * *

At the same time, Amy was still standing in the living room, slowly edging her way toward the front door. She paid close attention to every sound the house made. She had heard Bradley trip going up the stairs, but could only force herself to smile. A masked smile to hide the fear that was growing within her. She too felt the temperature drop in the house. She tried to keep her smile, but a masked expression has no use in the Darkness. And soon her smile faded, giving way to a new sensation. Not a sensation due to the coldness, but of a Presence from within the room itself.

* * * * *

Bradley took a couple of steps toward the door, finding himself in the doorway of Old Lady Moirer’s bedroom. Sticking out his hand, Bradley searched the nearby wall for a light switch. Finally finding it, he flipped the switch, sending a blinding stream of light into the room.

* * * * *

Downstairs, Amy’s eerie sensation was diverted by the light up the stairs. Part of her wished that the old woman was asleep. That the turning on of the light would wake up and she’d start screaming. That she and Bradley would be forced to leave the house. But that wasn’t the case. Not another sound was made. Except one.

* * * * *

Bradley looked inside the room. An assortment of candles were arranged ritualistically throughout. A rocking chair was positioned toward a window with its back to Bradley. Taking a step toward the chair, the light bulb suddenly burnt out, bringing the room back to Darkness.

Despite the Darkness, Bradley slowly made his way into the room. Halfway to the rocking chair, a nearby candle suddenly ignited, sending an aurora of orange light into the room. Bradley froze momentarily. Taking a second step, another candle ignited. Then another. And another. And another. Soon the room was filled with orange, flickering light. A tribe of shadows danced along the walls of the room. Round and round they circled, bouncing, almost child-like about the walls. But the candles did not stop Bradley from reaching the rocking chair.

* * * * *

A slight breeze picked up and began circulating within the room. Amy—senses keen—felt something lightly brush up against her shoulder. She quickly turned around. She saw nothing but the Darkness.

Although she couldn’t see anything, Amy still scanned the room for any signs of movement or sound. The breeze picked up and again circulated around the room, brushing up against Amy’s body. Fear seemed to melt away from Amy’s mind as the breeze caressed her body in an almost seductive way, but then, from the circulating wind, came a voice.

* * * * *

With one hand, Bradley positioned himself next to the rocking chair. There, indeed, was the old woman sitting in her rocking chair, sleeping. He determined that the foul odor was indisputably coming from her body.

Is she dead? Or is she sleeping?

Bradley was unsure, but determined to find out.

* * * * *

Amy listened closely to the breeze. With each gust of wind, the sound of a soft voice grew louder. Finally, Amy was able to make out the words.

“Ammmy.”

Amy’s eyes opened wide in fear. Voice quivering, Amy replied, “Who’s that?”

The breeze died down. Within a moment’s time, it began to pick up again as if the old house was taking in deep breaths in order to speak. As the breeze gained strength, the voice rose with it.

“Ammmy, beeehind yooou.”

Amy felt her heart sink to the bottom of her stomach. Her first thought was to run from the house as quickly as possible. This was no longer a silly prank. This was truly terrifying. But a second thought soon entered her mind and a sense of curiosity overcame her.

What could it be? Who could it be? Why not take a look and see?

* * * * *

Seeing too many mystery movies perhaps, Bradley figured he’d try to read Old Lady Moirer’s pulse to determine whether or not she was alive. Bradley slowly was moving his hand up to her neck, half expecting her to reach out and grab him at any moment. He prepared himself for this, but all for nothing.

His fingers brushed up against her skin. Bradley quickly snapped back his hand, but Old Lady Moirer did not move. He put his fingers back on her neck. Her skin was ice cold, much like the room. For the first time, Bradley realized that he could see his own warm breathe in front of him.

How cold is it in here? he thought. To him, it was as cold as Death.

* * * * *

Amy began to slowly turn around. The Presence in the room was even greater now. When she finally turned the full 180 degrees, Amy saw where the voice was coming from.

In the mirror, across the room, stood the ghost of Old Lady Moirer. In place of what was once her eyes were now two burning blue flames, staring at her with an icy gaze. Freeing up her voice, Amy immediately let out a scream and ran from the house. The front door slammed and locked behind her.

* * * * *

Still inside, Bradley heard Amy’s scream and turned his attention toward the hallway. With Bradley’s attention diverted, the eyes of Old Lady Moirer’s body suddenly opened. Bradley was about to run out of the room when the old woman reached out and grabbed his arm with an icy-cold hand. Horrified, Bradley turned back to Old Lady Moirer who was now glaring at him with the same burning blue eyes. Throat paralyzed, Bradley was unable to breathe, let alone scream.

* * * * *

Tears were flowing down Amy’s face as she fled from the house. Amy’s friends who had been waiting patiently in the nearby bushes immediately ran up to her. Fear and concern were on all their faces as they tried to find out what had happened. Trisha finally broke through.

“Where’s Bradley?” She asked.

Suddenly, from the old lady’s bedroom came a shriek of horror and then, crashing through the window, Bradley’s body plummeted toward the driveway below. He was twenty-one days shy of his seventeenth birthday.

* * * * *

I never knew what parts of that story were true and what was fabricated. All I knew was that Bradley Hollenberg, a kid who lived in the house behind mine, was dead. And so was Old Lady Moirer.

After her death, the house was immediately boarded up and put up for sale. No one ever wanted to live in that house after the incident. Even out-of-towners, looking for a quaint house to raise a family, quickly reconsidered after hearing the stories. Without a buyer, the house remained un-kept. The gutters became clogged with leaves and dirt and the lawn was left uncut.

As I snapped back to reality, I realized that I had been staring directly at the house the entire time, imagining the story in my mind and picturing Bradley’s body being thrown out of the window. I shut the blinds and crawled into bed. As I lay there, looking up at the ceiling, I wondered if the house really was haunted like everyone in town said it was.

I closed my eyes and tried to forget about the house. Within a few minutes I had fallen asleep. That afternoon I dreamt of weird, terrifying images. A werewolf chasing a rabbit through a moonlit field. The rabbit soon transformed into a dog. The dog into a fawn. The fawn into me. Soon, I was the one being chased. Running naked through the field with tears streaming down the sides of my face, fearing for my life. Then, suddenly, I was alone. Lying out in the field, I was looking up at the clear, star-sparkled sky.

Within an instant I was no longer in the field but standing outside Old Lady Moirer’s house with Lauren at my side. We stared ahead at the front door that was wide open, inviting us into the Darkness, but instead we stood on the lawn. Lauren reached over and grabbed my hand.

In a flash, I found myself inside the old woman’s bedroom being pushed by invisible hands toward the window. Unable to stop, I crashed through the glass and fell, topsy-turvy toward the blacktop driveway below.

As I lay on the ground, bleeding from the fall, I did not feel any pain. Instead, I felt numb. I struggled to get to my feet, my bones cracked into place as I rose. I looked around for help, but Lauren was no longer with me. In fact the entire block was deserted. I was alone again… or so I thought. That’s when I heard it. The voice.

“Taaaylor… Taaaylor…”

I quickly looked around, but saw nothing. I was about to walk across the street to my house when I caught a glimpse of the old woman’s’ window in the corner of my eye. Turning my attention toward the window, I saw the old woman sitting in her rocking chair, staring down at me with her burning blue eyes. Her lips didn’t move, but I could still hear her voice.

“Wake up, Taylor. Look out your window.”

She repeated my name.

“Taaaylor.”

When she called my name the second time, I immediately woke from my sleep. The voice was so real it seemed as if it had been whispered into my ear. I immediately turned toward my window. There, to my horror, I saw that my blinds were wide open, but my window was still locked. Outside, the storm was fierce, darkening the streets as though it were night.

Suddenly, the front door of my house slowly opened. The sound of the squeaky door hinges that my father had sworn he’d fix months earlier reverberated throughout the house.

I called out for my mother, but there was no response.

I called out for my father, but received only the same silence. Then, without warning, the front door slammed shut. Nervously, I looked out into my Darkened hallway.

Damn, I thought. Why didn’t my mother leave the hallway light on?

I then remembered something I had heard in my dream. Old Lady Moirer had told me to look out my window.

Why? What was out there? What would I see? Just the storm, perhaps.

Frightened, yet oddly curious, I got out of my bed and walked over toward the window with lead feet and weak knees. I looked out at the storm tearing up the trees, sending leaves and branches up and down the street. It was then that I looked across the street at Old Lady Moirer’s house. To my horror, the boards were no longer on the doors and windows. The house looked exactly the way it had seven years earlier. I then looked toward the window where the old lady usually sat and the hair on the back of my neck stood up on end.

There, in the window, the rocking chair faced out toward the street, rocking on its own. I watched as it continued to move back and forth, back and forth. The last thing I remembered hearing was…

“Taaaylor…”

Seedling

by Michael Natale

 

This story is a continuation of Awakening, by Michael Natale, and contains mature themes.

 

Vanessa lay in her bed, shivering. Her heart thundered in her chest. A cold trickle of sweat formed around her temples and raced down her neck. Gooseflesh dotted her arms.

If sleep took her, she would be alone with—it—in the room. It watched her from the darkened corner of the room. She knew it was there. Whatever “it” might be, it was waiting for her to succumb to the Sandman’s kiss.

The room was gloomy. Heavy velvet hangings draped across the windows kept out the moonlight, which was always so full and bright. Only a splinter of silvery light fell from the crack where the drapes met. It wound its way across the floor like some mystical, glowing river across the cold stone masonry of the castle floor.

There was no electricity in this entire wing, so her father had grudgingly placed an oil lamp on the nightstand next to her bed. When she asked for it, he had remarked that at fifteen years old, she shouldn’t be afraid of the dark.

The small sphere of light that it shed barely held back the approaching darkness. The blackness seemed continuously on the edge of trespassing the halo of dim light the lamp cast. The shadows in the room were hungry, and soon they would feed.

Then it wouldn’t just sit there in the corner. It would come for her—again.

The chamber her parents had given her as a temporary bedroom was her least favorite place in the entire sprawling, Victorian castle. The cell-like room filled her with a numbing sense of anxiety, the four walls glaring at her with a palpable malice that was unmistakable. She always felt like she had just walked in on something secret and dreadfully private.

Vanessa’s heart hammered in her chest with fright. She wished more than anything that she were back on Anderson Avenue in New Jersey, safe in her tiny little bedroom just down the hall from her parents. In her real bedroom, she had a CD player, a TV and a computer. Thinking of familiar things made her feel better.

New Jersey was all the way on the other side of the world now, though. They had arrived in Sussex, England two months ago, and were scheduled to be here for at least six or eight more.

The thought made her stomach twist and squeeze. It made her feel like she had to pee and throw up at the same time. She didn’t think she could take another night of this, let alone six months.

What troubled Vanessa so much was that she knew this was no dream. She had nightmares before, and knew what they were like. Nightmares withered under the bright scrutiny of consciousness. The feeling that something was in the room with her was not as insubstantial or fleeting as that.

It was real.

Her parents couldn’t see or feel it; somehow it remained hidden from both of them. It could be that their minds were so closed to even the possibility that what Vanessa was telling them was the truth, that they could see no part of it at all.

She really didn’t know how these things worked, but she had seen enough Saturday morning horror movies on the SciFi Channel to know it really didn’t matter. Eventually it would get her.

Just four nights past, she had woken up from the middle of a deep sleep with the clear feeling of being held down by strong, insistent hands. She had gone from a deep slumber to utter panic in the space of a heartbeat. She hadn’t been able to move her body even the slightest bit, no matter how hard she struggled.

Panic washed through her like an ocean of ice water pumped into her veins at high speed. Her fear had brought her fully awake, it was no hallucination. The hands were real, not phantom appendages that vanished when you turned on the light.

It had taken her a moment or two for lucidity to rescue her and remind her that she could still breathe. If she could breathe, then she could scream.

The shriek she let out echoed through the stone corridors and empty chambers of the uninhabited castle. It woke her parents, and brought them running. When they opened the heavy oaken door and practically fell into the room, the feeling vanished at once. So did the presence.

Vanessa had felt it go.

Each night before she fell asleep, she relived that experience. Every one of her traitorous senses happily obliged her with an instant replay every bit as bad as the real thing. It kept her from sleep some nights, regardless of how tired she was.

Squinting, she stared into the blackness, sending her eyes slightly out of focus and trying to watch the entire room at once. If she blurred her vision, perhaps if it moved she would at least see what direction it was coming from.

Nothing.

Still, Vanessa could feel a vacancy when they left a room, always moments after she entered. She could feel it on the other side of the door right before she opened it. She knew that whatever the presence was that remained in this castle, its home was the darkness and shadows, and it preferred to stay out of sight.

Talking with her father hadn’t helped at all. He was a realist and had no such room in his methodical, tidy psyche for such silly notions. He dismissed her fears as the wanderings of an unfocused mind with entirely too much free time.

He had told her that no one had lived in Bellingham Castle for over two hundred years. For him, the matter was closed, and any further conversation was a waste of time.

Suddenly a new sensation tore through her like a serrated blade made of pure hatred. Oh no, she thought, it’s here, it’s here… it’s really here!

She could feel it—the cold, dark presence, there! RIGHT THERE, in that corner. What was it? Why did it come and watch her like that?

Was it toying with her, waiting for her to wet herself with fear before it lunged at her and… and what? Kill her, rip her apart, and drink her blood? If it wanted to kill her, surely it would have done so by now—and what could she have done to stop it anyway?

Then it was gone.

As quickly as the dread washed over her, it was gone. She exhaled deeply. She was alone now, she was certain of it.

Still, she did not move. Her mind and body were on Condition Red and Vanessa knew it would be a while before sleep claimed her.

As she lay there, Vanessa thought about her parents. She knew her father was wrong to reject all the evidence to the contrary that something was here other than the three of them. But she also knew better than to argue.

Her mother and father had done enough arguing over the past year. He had been out of work for a long time, and they fought about money more and more as the months drew on.

Her father was one of the foremost experts in the field of ancient languages, particularly cataloging and transcribing ancient texts from thousands of years ago. When the letter from the University came, he was a new man around the house. He was so excited about what he called a “unique opportunity to see what no living man on Earth has set eyes upon for thousands of years.”

Whatever he was doing in this musty old castle, it was important enough that he accepted the offer without discussing it with Mother. Without mentioning the important detail that they would be gone for the better part of a year, and that Vanessa would be pulled out of school.

The fight they had that night was legendary. She remembered the living room fondly, even though that was where they had their “high level discussion” about the job offer.

It was home.

If only she didn’t need to sleep.

A sudden yawn overpowered her, and her eyelids grew heavy. It became more of an effort not to close them. The terror she felt still lingered, but it blurred with her fatigue, creating porridge of her conscious mind as she tried to focus.

Sleep took her.

* * * * *

Vanessa staggered down a long passageway filled with doors. She cast desperate glances behind her as she ran. Her pursuer was a shapeless horror that kept barely outside the light cast by her small hooded lantern.

She could hear something slick and sticky sliding across the stone floor, almost overtaking her. Its shadowy bulk filled the corridor as it shambled behind her, like a herald of some dark and primeval god. It flowed, boiling like a fog of pure shadow; the mass of the cloud merely hinting at the shape of the thing within.

Vanessa slowed only enough to desperately try the handle of a door on one side of the corridor. It would not open, so she ran on.

She tugged the iron handle of another heavy oaken door but it wouldn’t budge either. She tried another. Like the others, they were locked. Either that or the castle itself was defying her, purposely refusing to open its doors in her time of need.

The thing behind her gained.

It was almost upon her as she spotted a large door up ahead. It was crafted of a black type of wood like polished oak, reinforced with bright steel bands.

Strange symbols had been carved into the wood of the door and were filled with what looked like a brilliant silvery metal. All at once they began to give off a soft glow, which turned into a dazzling shine. She had to throw up a hand to shield her eyes. As she turned her head slightly, she saw that the light caused the shadowy thing to recoil briefly.

A thin yellow line of light beneath the door told her someone was inside. Mother and Father were the only other ones in the castle; it had to be one of them.

The thing pursuing her was still coming, but moving cautiously. The rank odor of rotting meat filled her nostrils as a thin strand of shadow left the rolling mass and barely brushed against her arm.

Instantly, her shoulder and arm went numb. Searing pain ripped through her body at the unearthly cold of the darkness.

So close!

She grabbed the silver handle on the strange door and threw her shoulder into it. If the door refused to yield to her, then the thing would devour her. It would tear her flesh and crack her ribcage and pluck out her heart, then gobble it down.

She knew it; she could hear its thoughts ringing in her head like some kind of weird echo. It wanted her.

To her relief, the door flew open, and she stumbled into the largest library she had ever seen, just out of reach of the thing in the corridor. It vanished with a shriek of alien anger at being deprived of its prize, and the door closed behind her with a deep thud. Thin, snake-like tendrils of shadow retreated back into the corridor from underneath the door.

The chamber bulged out in a great circle as far as she could see, the heights of the ceiling lost in shadow. Two rows of lengthy, decorative chains hung down out of the darkness above. Affixed to the end of each were small, softly glowing circular orbs.

For a moment, Vanessa wondered if they were skulls. They were too far above the floor to get a good look at, but she was almost certain some of them were grinning at her.

Rows upon rows of bookshelves lined the circular chamber. They grew upwards out of the floor like a forest of oaks, their topmost shelves almost kissing the layer of shadows that hung in the room like storm clouds. The shelves were filled with volumes of every shape, size and color. There must be thousands of books here. Tens of thousands, she thought.

Off near the far end of the spherical room, a set of iron stairs could be seen going upwards, spiraling round and round and vanishing towards the darkness hanging near the ceiling. A single handrail matched the curve of the stairs.

Two rows of writing desks were neatly arranged down the center of the room. Crouching over the desk nearest her with his back to her was her father. The workspace was littered with books, small, thin volumes and large tomes whose age she could only guess. He had several stacks of smaller manuscripts piled next to him on the floor.

“Father?” Vanessa said, her voice cracking with relief as a sob escaped her lips. “Something was chasing me, father. Something horrible!”

He bent over the largest tome Vanessa had ever seen. A large white candle thick as a baseball bat was burning in the center of the table. The spent tallow dribbled down the sides of the shaft like a viscous, ivory waterfall frozen in time.

The scratching of the ancient quill he always used to make notes with sounded like the scrape of a knife across bare bone as it raced across the parchment.

Her father placed the quill in its holder without comment. With an effort, he shut the heavy book and turned slowly to face her. She heard several soft hissing sounds come from near where he stood.

“Father?” Vanessa asked, her voice cracking with fear.

Then she screamed. Her voice echoed madly in the empty chamber as she saw his face.

When he turned, it was not the loving, bookish man who she knew as her father. His face was a clutch of spitting, hissing snakes, all of them snapping and biting and baring their fangs at her. The sharp, tiny needle-like teeth dripped venom which sizzled and smoked as droplets of the gummy, purplish fluid struck the stone floor.

She backed away a step, dropping her lantern. It seemed to shatter in slow motion, the glass hood splintering and the flame violently struggling to stay lit—and failing.

She screamed again in utter horror.

Before the darkness overpowered the dying pool of burning oil on the stone floor, her father bore down upon her.

As one, the cluster of snakes reared back as if to strike, then hissed a single word at her: “Loagaeth!!”

* * * * *

Vanessa woke up hysterical. Her arms were flailing about her face, as if she were fending something off. Her father and mother were both in her room. Her father was sitting at her bedside, while her mother drew the heavy curtains. As she did, she let the hazy orange of the morning sun slide into the room.

Vanessa backed away from them both, still mad with fright, her heart pounding frantically. Suddenly relief washed over her as she realized she was safe, and it was just another dream. She hugged her father tightly and sobbed into his shoulder.

“There, there, Vanessa,” her father stroked her hair gently. “We’re here; it was just a dream, darling.”

Her mother came and sat upon the other side of the bed and rubbed her back. “It’s morning now, honey. It was just a dream and we’re here with you. My god, Roger, she’s shaking all over.”

“Let’s get you some breakfast, what do you say?” her father said with a firm hug. “We can talk about it over some eggs and toast. Everything always seems brighter over breakfast, hmm?”

Breakfast filled her belly, but her mind was still vacant. She needed answers and her parents had given her empty reassurances that she knew meant nothing.

They both meant well, but they were both too busy to really hear her. Her father was occupied with his work for twelve to fifteen hours every day. She wondered if he even slept anymore.

Her mother, on the other hand, was kept busy almost as many hours a day simply taking care of everything else. Vanessa’s home schooling, meals, even helping her father with some basic translations on some of the work he was doing here.

Vanessa knew the sad truth was, both of them were all too eager to pat her on the head and hug away her bad dreams. That might have worked when she was five years old and had come wandering into their bedroom in the middle of the night, teddy bear in hand looking for comfort.

This was different, and Vanessa wasn’t a child anymore. She had learned long ago to rely on herself rather than her parents when push came to shove. They were decent people, but each was too involved in their own affairs to give her much attention. Sometimes she wondered why they bothered having a child at all.

She looked at the clock her mother had hung in the breakfast nook. It was eight o’clock in the morning; she had roughly twelve hours to find the answers she sought before nightfall.

She was determined not to live through another nightmare like that again. For her, dreams always blurred afterwards, becoming indistinct and hard to remember. This dream had been too real, too vivid. She remembered every grisly detail.

The most shocking was the ghastly image of her father and the snakes hissing at her with malice and strange intelligence. She remembered the peculiar word they spoke, and she was sure that it was something important, though she had no idea what.

Where to start? The castle was enormous. She wished now she had paid attention when her father, in his attempts to convince her what a great adventure this would be, had detailed how many rooms and levels the castle had.

She couldn’t remember any of it now.

As she sat finishing her orange juice, the comfortable silence her family was so familiar with at the breakfast table seemed oppressive.

Then she remembered something. When they first arrived, her father had told her to stay out of the basement levels. Insisted upon it, in fact.

Why had he been so firm? She figured at the time it had something to do with his work, but since then hadn’t given it a second thought.

Until now.

What was it he was really doing here anyway? Transcribing ancient texts, she knew, but for who? If no one had been living here for two hundred years as he claimed, why all of a sudden had the place been opened to them and her father charged with translating its secrets?

Who would have the power to authorize such a thing? Certainly no ordinary university could. This castle was too big, took up too much land, and land meant money no matter what country you were in. It must have something to do with the government, either here or back home in America.

What mysteries did this ancient castle’s library possibly hold that would be that important, anyway?

Did her mother know? Would she tell her if she did? Vanessa abandoned that line of thinking immediately. Even if she did know, her mother would never betray anything her father decided was secret.

Vanessa felt a pang of guilt as she realized the subconscious source of the questions that tugged on her conscious mind. The nature of what she felt bit her painfully, like one of those snake-heads she saw in her dream last night.

Something was just wrong with the image of her father that she saw in her dream. It was just a dream, yet she couldn’t put her finger on it. Something wasn’t right. It felt like all of a sudden she mistrusted him.

Was that it? Really? Just like that, fifteen years of being her dad and all of a sudden she didn’t trust him because of a stupid dream?

Her father had always been more than kind, a gentle man incapable of raising his voice to her, let alone ever raising a hand to her. Guilt gnawed away at her heart like a rabid tapeworm.

Vanessa’s subconscious argued with her conscious mind. The conscious reminded her of all the virtues her father possessed.

He was a pioneer in his field, and for years provided a comfortable living for the family. He lectured often and traveled quite a bit, that was true, but he always took the summers off. He always made sure they had lots of family vacations together.

The feeling that she was betraying her father turned her stomach. There it mixed with the nostalgic memories and guilt gnawed at her.

The dream had scared her, but he was still her father. That creature she saw in her nightmare was simply that—a figment of her imagination and nothing more.

Wasn’t it? Her subconscious insisted there was more to it.

She looked up over her glass at him and caught him staring at her. He looked as if he were trying to figure out what she was thinking, and could somehow do so through the simple force of his gaze. He had a powerful look on his face. It was an expression that Vanessa had never seen before on her father’s usually expressionless face.

She excused herself, cleared her place and put the dishes in the sink for her mother to wash. Vanessa told her parents she was going to her room to read. In truth, she set off to explore the castle and find the library she had entered in her dreams.

* * * * *

She had spent most of the morning and the better part of the early afternoon searching, but found only dust and cobwebs in the ancient, empty castle.

There were no chambers that were as large as the library in her nightmare. None on the upper levels anyway. She had hoped to avoid the basement, and was looking for an excuse to procrastinate going down there.

The guilt at suspecting her father of being up to something gave her ample excuse to dawdle. Besides, she had enough true dread associated with actually finding the chamber to keep her search half-hearted.

Well, that and she was hungry.

She went to the kitchen to make a sandwich and on the way through the great dining hall, she found her mother seated at the massive oak table.

Bundles of parchment lay before her, scattered all about the table. She sat in front of a laptop, its plug running into a long extension cord that crossed the width of the room and plugged into one of the few wall outlets installed anywhere in the castle.

Her mother was concentrating on her work, typing away with amazing speed. Vanessa moved up to stand next to her, looking at the scrawled symbols on the parchment. They were in black ink and she was sure these were her father’s notes, but they were in a language she didn’t understand.

Her mother sensed her presence and stopped typing. She put an arm around Vanessa. “Hi, honey. Having fun today?”

Vanessa shrugged. She knew her mother only half-consciously wanted an answer. Vanessa could have told her she just discovered a dismembered body in her bedroom, and her mother would have just smiled and nodded.

Instead, she said, “What are you doing, Mom?”

Her mother sighed and ran a hand through her long, blonde hair. “Your father never did like this thing,” she indicated the laptop with a nod. “So I volunteered to transcribe his notes for him. He’s written everything in Latin, of course. You know your father.”

Vanessa smiled weakly. She thought she did.

The tiny little voice—the one that suspected something was not quite right—was back. Why would her father write his notes in a language only he and her mother understood? Was he trying to protect the contents of his notes from her in the event she found them somewhere?

“I haven’t read Latin in years, you know,” her mother said, unaware that Vanessa’s smile had vanished to be replaced by a deep frown. “It reminds me of our days at university, your father and I. He really was the most handsome man back then.”

Vanessa wasn’t really interested in listening to that kind of lovey-dovey dribble from her mother. “Mom, I was going to make a sandwich. Do you want one?”

Her mother stood. “Let me get it, dear.” She closed the laptop’s display and kissed Vanessa on the forehead. She turned and walked the length of the hall into the kitchen.

A minute or two passed before Vanessa mustered up the courage to lift the display on the laptop. Quickly, she scanned some of what her mother had been transcribing. She began to frown as she read.

None of it made any sense. Though transcribed into English, she still couldn’t understand what it was all about. Spidery symbols seemed to coexist on the same line as characters of a language she couldn’t read. It was like Latin meets Algebra.

Math never was one of her strong suits.

She knew she only had a few more minutes before her Mother came back. Feeling a surge of daring, she took the mouse and opened her Father’s email program. She knew the laptop was offline, not like at home where they were connected all the time thanks to a DSL line her father had installed two years ago.

She also knew that his old email—both sent and received—was stored on the laptop’s hard disk. She was the geek of the house, even at fifteen, and knew her way around the computer better than both her parents. Her father really didn’t count, she reminded herself. He hated computers and used them only when forced.

She went immediately to his Incoming Mailbox and began scanning the SENDER column to see if she recognized anyone’s name. She stopped halfway down on a name that she didn’t know. The subject line caught her eye too. She opened the message.

It read:


——- Original Message ——-

From: “Trevor Harrington” [tjh@sstech.edu]

To: “Roger Mulcahey” [roger.mulcahey@njonline.com]

Sent: Friday, July 12, 2001 2:37 AM

Subject: RE: Translation Contract Requirements


Roger,


You are correct. The basement levels were cleared years ago when we took ownership of Bellingham’s grounds. It has been locked down tight for about six years now. Our people tell me there is nothing there to be concerned with.


On to specifics. We were unable to decipher the cryptogram needed for entry into the room in question. We are certain your talents here will bring us closer to what we all seek. To be quite frank, we aren’t even sure where the entrance is located, they destroyed too many of the handwritten documents outlining how to find it before we caught up with them. Good news is, our people here are pretty confident that once you decipher the key, you’ll get the location.


With regards to your last question: the funds are being transferred to Munich on the 20th of this month. The figure is four, and I’m sure you are aware of the number of trailing zeros. Another four will arrive one week after successful delivery of the manuscript.


Good luck, and keep me posted. We will not communicate again until you return to the states. We have people in reservations and security at both Atlantic City Airport and Newark, so be sure to return on a flight bound for one of those ports. The Covenant will contact you to collect the package on your way back through customs.


I must remind you to delete this and all electronic correspondence between us as soon as you memorize the content. You know our adversaries will be moving fast, and they are not as physically restricted as we are.


Yours in Faith,


-TJ

Vanessa re-read the message twice. Her frown deepened as her heart sank. Well this certainly didn’t make her feel any better about her father’s business here. She felt her throat tighten as her eyes filled with tears.

She could hear her mother approaching. The sound of her heels on the stone floor produced an echoing click-click-click sound she hadn’t been aware of until now. Quickly, she closed the mail program and shut the laptop’s display. She brushed at the corners of her eyes quickly to dislodge any tears that might have been dangling there.

“Tuna fish on wheat bread with lettuce, tomato and cheese,” her mother said, proudly presenting Vanessa with the plate. “Potato chips on the side for when you finish the sandwich.”

Vanessa thanked her mother for lunch and ate in silence. Though pretending disinterest, she was watching her mother continue her work and wondering if she were in on it too. Her mother wasn’t the type that would stand for anything like what she just read. Secrets and vague innuendos weren’t her style. There was also the matter of the fight her parents had before they left.

No, Vanessa decided. She couldn’t be part of it. Unless that fight was staged to fool her? All this suspicion began to make her head hurt. These were her parents!

“Mom, I’m going to the library to read for a while. It’s raining anyway, so there’s nothing really for me to do.” She put the sandwich back on the plate, and scooped up the chips in both hands.

“Okay, honey,” her mother said, not looking up from the laptop, already reabsorbed in her work. “See you at suppertime. I’ll be here the rest of the day if you need anything.”

Vanessa hugged her mother quickly, and left the dining hall.

* * * * *

She entered the main floor’s library and sank into one of the musty couches against the wall. It was backed up against large, sweeping windows that overlooked the grey, fog-filled meadows of the castle’s expansive front lawns. She ate the chips and stared out the window.

She loved books, and came here to read all the time. One of the books, a novel entitled To Kiss a Stranger lay half read on the couch next to her. Right where she left it the last time she came to read. She picked it up in case her parents came in, she could pretend to be reading it.

But all she could think about was the content of that email message. What exactly was the Covenant? What were they paying her father to do? Who were the “adversaries” mentioned in the message?

Most of all, if her father knew there was some danger to them, why had he brought them all here? What could be so important he would risk their lives to come halfway around the world?

Suddenly she felt her flesh grow extraordinarily cold, as if she had just walked into a meat locker. The tiny hairs on her neck stood stiff at attention. An unmistakable sensation of trepidation pulled at her like a fish hook, growing stronger by the second. Dread mutated quickly to terror, coursing shark-like through her body.

“Hello,” a soft voice said from behind her.

Vanessa yelped and dropped her book, scurrying back on the couch, away from the speaker.

A pretty young girl stood between tall bookshelves, not five feet away. Clad in an ancient-looking dressing gown, she looked as if she were sleepwalking. She was maybe ten or twelve years old. Her hair was long and blonde, and had the look of being freshly brushed for bed. Her skin was incredibly pale.

Vanessa had not heard her approach, but she knew that this girl was the source of her fear. “Who are you?” Vanessa asked. Her voice shook.

“Don’t be afraid of me,” the girl said in a delicate English accent. She was looking around the room as if just noticing where she stood. “I’m here to help you, Vanessa. I’m not the one you should be afraid of.”

“H-How… how do you know my name?” Despite the strange chill, Vanessa felt a heat spread through her chest, as if she were gently easing into a warm bath. It calmed her and dissipated the fear with uncanny speed. She was rapidly filled with a kind of raw courage she had never felt before.

Had the girl just done that?

She did have a weird luminosity about her that told Vanessa that she was not a physical presence. Could she herself have fallen asleep and this was another nightmare?

“This is the library,” the girl said with recognition in her voice. “Not the right one, but the library on the guest’s level.”

Vanessa said nothing. The fear she felt was too real. This was no dream. Who was this girl? How did she get in here? Could she really be… a ghost?

“I miss this place most of all,” the strange girl mused. “I would spend hours and hours and hours in this room when I lived here. Books were my most loyal companions, in the end.”

Vanessa shuddered. She was rooted to the spot, but it was not with fear any longer. The strange feeling of calm kept her from running. Despite that, her mind was somehow aware that the serenity she felt seemed to be radiating from the little girl.

She took a step closer to Vanessa. “Your father is going to do something very, very bad,” the girl said. “We have to stop him. I was sent to help you. We have to go to the library; the one from your dream.”

Vanessa’s head swam. Her father? How did the girl know about the library? She was desperate for answers now. “How do you know about my dream? Who are you? Please, tell me what my father is going to do. I want to help him!”

“My name is Sarah Cushings. I used to live here a very long time ago,” she said. “Your father must be stopped, not helped. He has already crossed too many lines to turn back now.”

Okay. Fine. Deal, Vanessa, deal. “Sarah,” Vanessa began, unsure how to continue, “are you a… a ghost?” She felt foolish even asking that.

Sarah fixed her with an interested gaze. “I don’t know what I am. I remember that I had a fever in the summer of 1842. None of the doctors could cure it. I remember one afternoon becoming very sleepy… it was impossible to stay awake. Now I am here. I’ve been watching you for a long time now, Vanessa.”

Vanessa sat stunned, realizing she should have been screaming, should have run from the room and not looked back. Again the flood of calm buffered her impulse to run. “At night,” Vanessa said. “You were in my bedroom.”

“That was my room first,” Sarah said with a disdainful sniff, turning to examine the bookshelves. “Yes, I watched you sleep, but I wasn’t the only one. Sometimes there was something else there, watching you. Something not very nice at all. I tried talking with you a few times but you always screamed and screamed. You didn’t want to see me then. Now you do, so here I am.”

“Alright,” Vanessa said, trying to be rational. “I can see that you aren’t like me… you’re not… alive. I can feel it, actually. I’m not sure how that’s possible, but I can. You’re definitely dead.”

“Yes,” Sarah said. “It’s important that you trust your instincts. They will never lie to you. That’s why they’re afraid of you.”

“Afraid?” Vanessa was taken aback. “Of what, me? Who is?”

“Our enemies,” Sarah said, turning to stare at her again, her tiny blue eyes cold and serious. “They fear you.”

“What enemies? I don’t have any enemies.”

“Yes, you do. You are special,” Sarah said. “Your soul has been kissed by God.”

Vanessa sank back down onto the couch, feeling as if she were pushed there. What was she saying? “I don’t understand.”

“Do you believe in God, Vanessa?” The girl turned and tiny blue eyes—dead eyes—locked with her own. Vanessa felt an icy shiver run through her bones.

Her grandmother used to say that to stare into a dead person’s eyes was like feeling the breath of winter blow right down your throat. Vanessa used to think her grandmother was just superstitious but now had to wonder how her grandmother had known that. The breath of winter—that was exactly what it felt like.

“Yes,” Vanessa answered. “I do believe in God.”

“Good. God believes in you too. You have been called to make a choice. Tonight, all over the world, others like you are being visited. There are dark days ahead, and some of the events of this evening will shape the future of the world.”

Vanessa swallowed. “What does that have to do with me?”

“Your father is about to perpetrate a great evil upon the world worse than the sin of Adam and Eve. Theirs was original sin and could not be helped as the Serpent deceived them. Your father knows exactly what he is doing. Free will was always God’s biggest mistake if you ask me. Makes very smart people do very stupid things more often than not.”

“My father?” She didn’t want to believe it. Her own suspicions were one thing, but to hear it from the mouth of this… this dead girl…

“Yes. He seeks to finish work that my father so foolishly began over a century ago. You have the power to stop him.”

“No,” Vanessa said, about to protest. She closed her mouth and began to weep. Suddenly, she knew the creature that stood before her spoke the truth. She could feel it right down to her bones. The words the girl spoke reverberated through her as simply being right.

“You can sense the truth of my words,” Sarah cocked her head, examining her. “That’s part of it. God has blessed you with talents that have been labeled magic by some, witchcraft by others. The faithful call them miracles. He has gifted you with abilities that have been absent from the daughters of Eve for a very long time. Until tonight.”

“What do you mean?”

“The gifts you have been given are to be used for the glory of God, to serve Him in the days ahead. The Lord calls out to the faithful, to those whom He has blessed. You are to champion His cause and help stem the tide of evil that may be unleashed upon the world this very night.”

Vanessa had always known that her instincts were more than simply accurate. Very often she knew what people were going to say before they spoke, or who it was on the telephone before picking it up.

One time when she was eight, she was playing outside with one of her friends and her mother had appeared at the back patio doorway, calling her inside. Vanessa was able to see with her own eyes that her mother was upset, crying. But she knew without being told, in a moment of panic and fright, that her Uncle Bobby had died.

She never mentioned that to anyone, but now felt a surge of strange energy within her, like a heat that set her senses tingling. It was a familiar feeling, one she had before but was not fully conscious of. She had it the day her uncle died. She had it now.

Everything was amplified. Her body was like a spiritual tuning fork, vibrating with strange, unfamiliar forces. The tingle grew stronger now, turning into a hum within her.

Her mind was waking up.

All at once she could hear her parent’s thoughts echoing in her head. Although they were both on opposite sides of the castle from where she stood, she could feel both of their emotions from here. Both of them were anxious.

Her mother had noticed that she didn’t finish her lunch, and was suddenly concerned about Vanessa not eating enough. This led to other guilty feelings; she felt horrible about having dragged her away from her friends in New Jersey.

Her mother was also worried that her father was working too hard, and was becoming more and more curious as she continued translating her husband’s notes. Vanessa could tell that beyond the simple translations, her mother didn’t understand their contents any more than she had.

Her father’s thoughts on the other hand, were almost ablaze with an anxious, frustrated sort of anger. He was concerned about Vanessa’s dream, the focus of intense internal struggle right on the surface of his mind. He suspected that she knew the real reason he was here. His thoughts were chaotic, a churning mixture of fear, anticipation and an all-consuming purpose that he could not turn away from.

Instinctively she probed a little further at the consciousness that she somehow recognized as her father’s mind. He offered no resistance to her probing; she could tell he had no clue she was even probing.

He was worried that she was going to prevent him from finding the Liber Loagaeth…

There was that word again! Vanessa snapped out of the dream like state. “What does ‘Liber Loagaeth’ mean? What is it?”

Sarah looked at her suspiciously out of the corners of her dead blue eyes. “Loagaeth means ‘speech from God’ in the language of the Firstborn. It is known by many other names, but you may have heard of it as the Book of Enoch. Within it is recorded the secrets of miracles; the language of magic. All that was lost to the peoples of both our times is hidden there, waiting for the day that God chooses to give the secrets back to us.”

Vanessa shook her head thoughtfully. “That time is now?”

Sarah nodded. “Yes. Within the Liber Loagaeth there is also a mechanism for decoding the speech and language of the Firstborn—the angels. That is what your father seeks, for if he unlocks that secret, he will be able to read the book and the words contained inside.”

Vanessa sank back onto the couch. “I take it that would be bad.” It was not a question.

“The book contains the actual words God spoke when he created the universe,” Sarah answered. “It contains the true names of all things in Heaven and Earth. If a mortal were to decipher that which God passed on to the prophet Enoch, then they would potentially be the most powerful person on Earth.”

A long silence passed between the two girls. Finally, Vanessa said, “Why does my father want that? He was never that type of man. Never power hungry or mean or… he was always decent… always nice. His work was all he was ever interested in. Ancient languages, that sort of thing…”

“Other forces are in motion, Vanessa,” Sarah answered. “The Second War is almost upon us, and this time the battlefield is not confined to Heaven alone. The Fallen want the book, they need the power it contains. Most of all, they need the book to stay out of the hands of the faithful. They employ mortal agents—like your father—to do work they themselves cannot deal with directly.”

Vanessa frowned. She felt energized with a holy power, a force she had never fully realized until right now, but what it boiled down to was—her father was on the other side.

“I know you’re right,” she said, “but it is very hard. I love my father. I don’t know what I should do.”

Sarah took a step towards her. “In the Book of Enoch it is written that God will raise a prophet in the darkest of times,” Sarah said, “to reintroduce miracles to the faithful. This prophet will bring miracles back to the modern world. You are to be that prophet, Vanessa.”

Vanessa shook her head, “I can’t be,” was all she said, though she knew it was true. “I’m not even an A student… I…”

Tears began to roll down her cheeks but the pain that caused them was distant, muffled. It was like it was happening to someone else and she was watching it from the outside.

Sarah shrugged. “You need not do anything, Vanessa. The choice is yours. As I said, free will was the one gift God gave mortals that he forbade the Firstborn. The Host cannot interfere with your salvation—or your damnation. You can choose to ignore His call, or you can do what you know in your heart that you were born to do. The choice is yours.”

Sarah continued after a moment of silence. “No matter what you choose, the world is changing. All over the world, the Fallen are experiencing an awakening. They are remembering who and what they are. Even now one of them haunts these halls much as I do, whispering the darkest of secrets into your father’s ear. They will stretch the limits of their power to influence the course of things to come. They feel the pull of the Last Battle, much as you do.”

“How do you know what I feel?” Vanessa snapped.

“I was meant to know,” Sarah said simply. “Just two days ago, one of the Fallen called Astaroth awoke and murdered fifteen people at a train station in Connecticut. The item appeared on the evening news as a curiosity piece, nothing more. But the creature is clever. He used the mortal media to send his message out: it was a message to those who follow the Fallen that he had returned. It was also a warning to us. He was a creature of utter and complete evil, an assassin among creatures whose power is nearly limitless. He will not stop, and the world will bleed if he stands unopposed.”

“And I am supposed to stop him somehow?”

“No,” Sarah said. “Even you do not have the power yet to stand against one of the Host. You are to be a conduit; a bridge between the ancient world and the present. Man has become a faithless creation, godless and lost. But God has not forgotten them, nor will He turn away while they destroy each other—or are consumed in a second war between opposing factions of the Host.”

Vanessa turned and looked out the window over the rolling green hills of the lawns. She sat silent for a long time but could feel the ghost’s presence still there, waiting.

She could feel another presence inside her too—a deeper, more spiritual presence. It bathed her in a peaceful serenity that her true parents never could provide. It centered her; embraced her and made her feel complete.

After what seemed like hours of contemplation, she finally said, “Do you know where the library is and how to get in?”

Sarah extended her hand for Vanessa to take. “Yes.”

* * * * *

Vanessa stood with the spirit of the dead girl in the library from her dreams. At the writing desk where she had seen that horrible visage of her father she saw the large, leather-bound volume. It was at least two feet wide by three feet high, and probably eight or ten inches thick.

A soft light shone down on the book from the darkened ceiling. Strange, Vanessa thought. She could not see the source of the light shining on the book, but she knew it was a marker that only her eyes could see.

“Where on the castle grounds are we?” she asked Sarah. “You lost me after we entered the storerooms.”

A hidden entrance had been built into one of the wine cellars ages ago. Sarah had told her that powerful wardings sealed the portal to prevent entry to any but those marked as God’s own.

The portal had opened for Vanessa with a touch.

“Don’t worry,” the ghost answered, “you’ll find your way home.”

She became sad then. “That portal we came through. My father hasn’t found it yet.”

“He knows where the door is,” Sarah corrected, “but he hasn’t finished deciphering my father’s notes on his own attempts to dispel the warding. He has made considerable progress, so he must be getting help from one of the Fallen.”

Vanessa felt a pang of betrayal in her heart. She couldn’t believe that her father was helping those who thought to bring about a Second War between God and… who? Lucifer? She supposed it was. The thought made her furious. Even more so because she knew without question that it was true.

How she wished this could somehow turn out to be just another nightmare.

She took a few steps forward towards the book. “That’s it, then? That’s the book that I need to take?”

“Yes,” she said. “All you have to do is reach out and take it.”

“I’m not even sure I could lift that,” Vanessa protested.

“Reach out with your mind, Vanessa. You have the power to alter the book’s physical composition. It is a manifestation of part of the essence of God; the physical characteristics are unimportant. It is energy, at its most basic, and energy can be reorganized if you only know how. Ask for help. All of the eyes of Heaven are upon you now. You will not be forsaken.”

Vanessa closed her eyes and concentrated, asking silently for help. She didn’t know what to ask for, only that she wasn’t sure how in the world she’d lift such a huge volume and carry it out of there. She wasn’t sure what she’d do even if she could lift it. She knew that her father couldn’t be allowed to take the book. But how would she hide such a giant thing from him?

When she opened her eyes, she saw that a small book the size of a library hardcover was in place of the hefty volume. It had a bright pink cover, and a small strap with a brass clasp that was meant to lock it shut against prying eyes.

She felt the weight of a thin, metallic chain materialize around her neck, and she knew without looking that at the end of the chain was the key.

“It looks like my journal,” she said to Sarah.

Sarah’s voice became suddenly urgent, her eyes wide with a strange expression on her ghostly face. “Take it now, Vanessa! You must take it before…”

She vanished in mid sentence. What could cause a spirit to flee in terror?

An explosion from the top of the stairs sent tremors through the room. A multicolored flash from above with strange, thick smoke sent pieces of wood and metal and clouds of ancient dust tumbling down the iron steps.

She raced forward and grabbed the book that now looked like her journal, and held it defensively against her chest. She heard footsteps clattering down the stairs through the smoke and dust and saw, to her horror, that it was her father. She hadn’t actually wanted to confront him, and felt doubt and fear creep into her resolve.

Following him down the stairs, a tall, figure swathed in a dark cloak followed more slowly. A piece of the night walked slowly down the stairs, its footfalls making not a sound.

Her father held a hooded lantern in one hand, and had a leather satchel thrown across one shoulder, its contents overflowing. Vanessa recognized some of the scrolls and parchments her mother had been translating for him. He had a wild gleam in his eyes and a desperate, victorious grin that terrified her.

The figure following him held nothing that she could see, both its hands were buried in voluminous sleeves. The strange apparition radiated something—a familiar feeling slithered over her flesh, sending a chill through the marrow of her bones.

Hate. Recognition. Evil.

“Vanessa,” her father’s voice had an edge to it that frightened her, even with her newfound spiritual armor. “Put down the book and step away from the table. Darling, you have no idea what you’re dealing with; it’s very, very dangerous.”

“No,” she was firm as she perceived his words for the lies they were. “I can’t, and I think you know that. Who is that with you, Father?”

“I am no one,” the thing behind her father hissed, but no sound issued forth from the darkened cowl. The words rang in her mind.

Her father shook his head, dismissing her. “You’ve been misled, Vanessa. I should have warned your mother and you about the castle, it’s genuinely haunted as I’m sure you are aware of by now. I’m sorry about the dreams and everything else, but you understand, don’t you Pumpkin? I couldn’t tell you, I was sworn to secrecy. There’s something in that book that the spirit fears, and I am so close to figuring it out.”

Even without her newly acquired abilities screaming in her skull that he was lying, she could tell. She didn’t need any spiritual energy for that. She wasn’t five years old anymore after all where every word he said was revered as the ironclad truth.

She could feel her father’s words sliding like an oil slick into her mind, slithering like a mercurial serpent. The filth of his emotions were right there, floating on top like some sulfurous foam on a polluted river. The outright deception sickened her. He expected her to simply listen and do what she was told.

“You’re lying,” she said. Her voice was flat, emotionless. Her tone spoke volumes about the certainty of her statement, and that continuing the lie was no longer necessary. She knew the truth.

“Give the book to him, child,” the creature whispered in her brain.

Her father bent slowly to put the lantern on the floor and raise his hands in a gesture of supplication. “No, honey. Listen. You don’t understand. That book is very, very important. It’s why I was hired to come here. You don’t understand how important. I have to have it, don’t you understand that? Do you have any idea what the people I work for will do to me if I don’t deliver that!?” He was reaching slowly around behind his back with his free hand.

“He will kill you, child,” the thing said. “Give it to him and save yourself.” It occurred to her then that her father might not be able to see this creature. He gave no indication that he did, and after all, the creature was talking to her, not to him.

Drawing her attention back to her father, she could see the desperation in his eyes. A gun? He was reaching for a gun! She never even knew her father could fire a weapon, let alone that he owned one. Would he really shoot her? Was he capable of murdering her down here where her body would never be found?

Was he that desperate? That he would murder his own child to gain this silly book? She looked at him and saw nothing behind his blue eyes except cold, grey death.

Would he take the book to this creature—one of the Fallen? Turn over the secrets to the dark, rebellious angels that defied God? What would the world be like if they used the power the book contained? What would they do with the very words that God spoke when he created the universe?

She didn’t want to find out, and wouldn’t allow that to happen. And strangely, she knew that she now had the power to stop him. She steeled herself and stepped towards her father slowly.

The creature behind her father hissed in anger, the sound like a thousand serpents drawing back their fangs to strike. Perhaps unlike the image of her father’s face she saw in her dreams, there really were snakes beneath this creature’s cowl.

Her father pulled the gun out from behind his back and cocked it with one deft motion. In her mind, she could feel the practiced ease with which he handled the weapon fill him with confidence. How comfortable he was with it and how emotionless he was right now with the prospect of having to shoot his own daughter. She could feel how many times he had killed and the thrill, the rush of power it had given him each time.

Ten? Twenty? Even he had lost count. But he had done it over and over in his fifty-three years chasing down this book. Suddenly the roster of murders flew past her conscious mind—he had killed strangers, friends and even a cousin of his back when he was a little older than she was now. There was no reason to think that he wouldn’t kill her too.

“Don’t take another step!” he shouted, his face no longer even pretending to display the mask of fatherhood. Now, he was a snarling madman, who saw only an enemy before him. An enemy who had something he wanted. “I’ll put two bullets right in your head unless you bend down and slowly put that book on the floor. NOW!”

“When he kills you, you can have my place in Hell, child,” the thing hissed in her mind.

Vanessa ignored the creature’s taunting. Vanessa figured that if it could physically interfere, it would have already.

To her father, she said, “Shoot me then! Kill me like you killed all those other people. You’re going to have to shoot me! That’s the only way you’ll ever get this book from me, Father! You must know I can’t let you have it!”

The creature slid back away from her father a few feet. “You are nothing to him,” it cackled. “You never could be anything to him, I saw to that. I have been with your father since the day he was born, whispering to him the secrets of the universe. His soul was particularly weak, and his mind—though quite intelligent and orderly for one of your kind—was a simple thing to break.”

“Liar!” Vanessa shouted at the thing, realizing its words were making her angry.

It hissed something that might be a laugh. “Your blood will stain the stones here forever and ever and ever…”

Her father’s mouth distorted from a threatening grey slit into a vicious snarl. “You were nothing more than an accident, Vanessa! We never planned on having children, but I’m sure your mother never told you that did she? No, I see that she didn’t. My life’s work led me to this moment. My entire life! Becoming a father was nothing more than an inconvenience! How many years I pissed away trying to make you and your mother happy, but it was never enough, was it? THIS was my first priority and took me more than forty years to complete! So you see, I have no problem shooting you dead right here, right now. And after that, I take the book, and the whole world changes.”

Vanessa steeled herself against his words. “Fine. Then what? Do you think evil can possibly last?”

“We have waited forever and ever,” the creature whispered.

“It has lasted thousands upon thousands of years, Vanessa. Waiting and biding its time. Waiting for someone like me to come along and do what countless others before me couldn’t do! I deciphered the key, I found the Liber Loagaeth. And when the world is remade in HIS image,” he shouted, pointing down at the floor, “then He will reward those who prove faithful!”

Vanessa shook her head in defiance. “You’re so blind!” she said softly, but firmly. “You say that I was an accident, yet it never occurred to you in all your years of plotting and scheming that there might have been a reason I was born?”

“The key!” her father gasped, suddenly staring at the key hanging from the golden chain around her neck. She could feel it growing warm against her skin as it filled the library with a purifying brightness.

“Kill her now!” the creature shrieked in her head, throwing its cloaked arms up to defend itself against the strange light. She could feel the alien panic in the creature like a magnetic pulse.

Her father raised the pistol and took aim. “I should have done this a long time ago.”

He pulled the trigger.

The bullet exploded into Vanessa’s chest, knocking her off her feet. The shot sent her airborne before she struck the floor hard, the force causing her body to slide a few feet towards the circular wall behind her.

At first she felt nothing, but then the pain burst within her. Through shattered breastbone and ribs, she felt her lifeblood begin to seep out onto the cold, stone floor. She could hear herself cough and gurgle blood as she tried to keep breathing through ruined lungs.

It rapidly became impossible. Dark specks polluted her vision, rapidly swarming to overtake the light. Somehow she didn’t lose consciousness, though she knew that any moment now she would.

She heard her father’s footsteps drawing closer. His footfalls were measured and deliberate. He was in no hurry. He was totally calm. She could still sense him in her mind clearly, though her own conscious thoughts were becoming fragmented; slipping away as if she were trying to hold water in her hands.

The metallic chu-click as her father cocked the gun again and prepared to fire the shot that would surely kill her. It was strange how detached she had become from the entire process. It almost felt as if she were already dead and had stopped breathing.

She could feel the weight of the book grasped in her right hand, slick with blood, but still there. She felt her father’s lustful delight at being so close to what he had sought all his life.

She felt the creature’s presence leave her mind, but she did not know if it voluntarily left, or if she was losing consciousness.

There was a bright light coming from somewhere. She supposed it was the one people who claimed to have been at death’s door and came back always talked about. It was such an impossibly untainted brilliance that she couldn’t stare at it any longer. Even with her eyes closed, it burned through her eyelids.

She felt something else besides the glow of the light and the aching, burning agony of the gunshot wound. This was not a physical sensation though—at least not her own. She felt her father’s terror explode in her mind; sudden and fierce, like the gunshots he had fired at her.

He started to scream.

She felt the bones in her chest moving, there was no mistaking the sensation. They were beginning to mend with supernatural speed. She felt the bullet wound burn as if someone had funneled gasoline directly into the cavity and lit it afire.

Her blood stopped pumping out of the punctures in her body onto the floor. New flesh grew in milliseconds on both the front of her body where the bullet had entered, and the gaping exit wound out her back. Her breathing evened out, and became regular in the space of two heartbeats.

Her father’s screams grew in a crescendo of horrible, torturous pain. Vanessa’s mind recoiled from the sound, unable to cope with the noise that a human throat was never designed to produce.

It was a preternatural scream, an instinctive shriek. It was a scream that echoed in her skull as she began at last to lose consciousness.

* * * * *

Vanessa and her mother boarded Lufthansa flight 1341 bound for Philadelphia at 6:00 in the morning, local time. The plane would land nearly ten hours later and they would take a train from there back to Metro Park, New Jersey.

Her Aunt Rita and Uncle Steven—relatives on her mother’s side—would be waiting to take them back to Tom’s River. It was only about an hour from Metro Park, but Vanessa was eager to be back in the familiarity of her hometown. Her aunt and uncle were good people, and would help her mother cope with her recent loss.

Her father’s “disappearance” had shattered her mother. She sat in the adjacent seat in a tranquilized stupor, barely able to maintain consciousness for more than a few minutes at a time. Usually when she did, she would be reduced to slow, sluggish sobs.

Vanessa told her mother nothing of what had happened down in the secret library. She would allow her mother to learn to live with the assumption her father had just picked up his things and left them both. It would hurt her for years—maybe forever—but it would be easier to face than the truth.

Down in that shadowy library, nothing more than a wet scorch mark on the stone floor remained of her father. She woke some hours after her father shot her, to find herself alone and the bullet wound in her chest very nearly healed. A few hours later, and she couldn’t even tell that she had been shot at all.

The sinister presence fled when its tool had died.

She still couldn’t understand what happened, or how she survived. Ever since waking, she felt a raw energy, a power flowing through her veins that made her feel—almost superhuman.

She had taken the winding, circular stairway up to the wine cellar, through the wrecked door of iron and brass, and watched as the portal sealed itself behind her. Now, it appeared as it did when Sarah led her there—just another stone wall.

Vanessa had gone to her bedroom almost immediately, and waited for her mother to notice that her father wouldn’t be returning.

By dinnertime, her mother was almost hysterical. She had called local authorities on her cell phone. They had resisted opening a missing person’s case at first, saying it was department policy not to get involved until someone was missing for twenty-four hours or more.

Her mother, however, had kept the detective on the phone for almost twenty minutes in a near hysterical rant. In the end, they agreed to send down a few officers to conduct a search.

They arrived within the hour. One of the detectives speculated that he might have had a heart attack or suffered some other medical emergency somewhere alone in so vast a castle. There were literally hundreds of places a man might lay unlooked for in a place that size.

They searched for hours, but did not find a body.

The detective in charge asked if they were having marriage problems, and her mother got the subtle hint. She didn’t answer, or maybe couldn’t. She saw the officers to the main entrance and politely bid them goodbye.

Over the next four days they packed up all of their belongings and prepared to head back to the United States. They completed the sweeps of the castle and created inventory checklists of their belongings to be sure they missed nothing. It was during a review of one of the lists that they saw that some of her father’s things were missing.

His laptop. One of his overcoats. All of his notes.

Vanessa had taken most of these things and disposed of them before the police arrived that first night. She removed the laptop’s hard drive and hid that away among her belongings for later inspection. Everything else got burned in one of the six walk-in fireplaces the castle boasted.

It had taken her three or four fires before the things she had taken from him had been reduced to their base components. Once cooled, they had been stuffed into a double-thick Hefty bag and lobbed in the garbage bins with their other trash.

She stored his notes in the pages of the odd little book that she kept with her everywhere she went. Strangely, the “journal” seemed to swallow each piece of note parchment as she put it in, never growing in size.

The only conclusion her mother had been left to draw was that Roger had left them. Though her parents did fight a lot, her mother truly had loved her father, so Vanessa felt sorry for her.

She felt her mother stir at her side as the plane ran into some turbulence shortly after takeoff. Her mother roused to semi-consciousness and looked around, surprised. It was as if she didn’t know where she was. The tranquilizers, Vanessa knew.

“We’re already in the air?” she asked finally. Her voice was thick and groggy.

Vanessa closed the pink book in her hands and put one hand on her mother’s knee. “Yes, we took off about thirty minutes ago.”

Her mother reached up and pressed the button for the flight attendant. She was trying to fight the sedatives. “Do you want a drink, dear?”

“No thanks,” Vanessa said. “You aren’t supposed to have any alcohol, Mom.”

“What are you reading?” her mother asked, ignoring her comment.

“My journal,” Vanessa said. “It’s private.”

Her mother smiled weakly. “Don’t worry dear, I was fifteen once. Keep your secrets.”

A long moment of silence passed after the flight attendant took her mother’s order for a Bloody Mary. “What kind of things do you write in there, Vanessa?”

Vanessa eyed her mother curiously. She felt a hazy, probing interest radiate from her mother, but nothing more. She knew what her mother wanted to hear. “You know… the usual. Hopes, dreams, movie stars, boys, what I’m going to be when I grow up… you know.”

Her mother closed her eyes, settling back into the plush chair and smiled. It was the first genuine smile she had seen on her mother’s face since they left England. “What are you going to be when you grow up?” she asked, patting her daughter’s knee playfully. “That is, unless that’s too personal.”

Vanessa was silent for a moment or two. The flight attendant returned with her mother’s drink. To answer her mother’s second question, she decided not to just tell her what she wanted to hear. She’d have to hear the truth. “I don’t know. I was thinking about maybe becoming a nun or something.”

Her mother’s bloodshot eyes popped open at that, the thin crimson spider webs that ran through whites the only evidence that she was full of tranquilizers. “Really?”

Vanessa probed. She felt genuine surprise from her mother, but not disapproval. “Maybe not the ‘dress in black have no fun’ kind… I don’t know. I’ve been thinking a lot about God lately since Dad left.”

She risked a glance at her mother. Her eyes were still closed, but she could feel the pain in her mother’s mind at the mention of her father.

“Maybe I could do something that would teach people about God… do some good in the world,” she said. She watched for her mother’s reaction, but none came.

Silence was all that passed between them for a long time. Finally, when Vanessa thought her mother may have fallen back into her sedative-induced slumber, her mother said, “What brought that on? I mean I know you like church and always did well in Sunday school classes, but you’ve never talked about making it a career before. Ever.”

“I know,” Vanessa began, “but don’t you think it’s important?”

Her mother didn’t answer immediately. She sighed unhappily. “I didn’t used to, to be honest with you. A long, long time ago—back when your father and I met—I didn’t believe in anything.”

“What changed your mind?” Vanessa asked.

“You,” her mother smiled a thin smile. “When I became pregnant with you I started to believe in miracles again. Round little chubby miracles that I never thought I wanted in my life.”

“So I guess you’re my first convert then,” Vanessa said smiling.

Her mother leaned back into the chair and closed her eyes. She found her daughter’s hand and held it tightly. “Yes, I suppose I am.”

Vanessa settled back in her own chair, and reopened what appeared to the world to be her journal. The pages within were filled with strange, flowing verse that she found to be too much like prophecy to make any sense. The rest of it was grids and grids of the strange symbols she had seen her mother translating.

She didn’t understand any of it.

A strange call from the book seduced her into re-opening it every time she put it down though. Somehow she knew that if she stared at it enough, she would begin to understand.

The strange, spidery characters that Sarah had called the “language of angels” were fascinating. The symbols tugged at her, insistent and desperate for their message to be understood.

Understood and passed on.

She looked out the window at the mountains of voluminous clouds and the brilliance of the blue sky. She would understand sooner or later. It might take her years, but she would figure it out. And then she’d teach what she learned to others.

For now, though, she was tired. And it was still a very long way home. She glanced again out at the clouds, and wondered briefly if this is what Heaven itself looked like.

A very long way home, indeed.