It was the age-old story: one girl stuck in bed over winter break in an ancient sorority house. Sandra curled liked a shrimp under her layers of quilts and granny-square blankets and listened to the house creak with a sort of fascinated terror. Despite the coiled heater that split the room between her and Cindy’s beds, despite the layers of fabric and polyester batting and goose-down she could feel the cold leak in from every corner of the room. Snow pattered against the windows with every new gust. She had to wonder whether it was very much colder outside than it was in.
Cindy’s side of the room was as empty and neat as a magazine spread, her David Cassidy poster lined up perfectly to the edge of her nightstand. Cindy was a snowbird. Unlike other girls she hadn’t fled south of the equator for the break, she was in the Poconos. Imagining her skiing down a white mountainside sent Sandra into a coughing fit. It was, she reflected, pretty unfair to blame the other girls for being rich enough to afford getaways. Or having somewhere nice enough to go back to. It was all bad luck. Bad luck that she caught this from Brent, who was probably agonizing alone in his studio apartment across town. Bad luck that the blizzard blowing in made any potential trip to the store a trek like the Scott expedition. Just a series of random happenstance piling one upon the other until it weighted her chest like mucus.
Sandra hocked a little.
The house groaned like it was tired of the wind. Sandra didn’t trust a house this old. It talked too much. It sang when they descended the staircase for breakfast, it shrieked in the pipes in resentment of their hot showers, it hissed when they tried to start fires in the ancient chimney.
It would prove an unhelpful ally if she ever had to sneak away from anything…
Sandra sat on that thought and smothered it. She’d already had to endure countless jokes from the others as they packed and left, like she had any choice in the matter. She wasn’t becoming a cliche, she wasn’t—
There was a squeak and hiss as a faucet came on downstairs.
Sandra tried to force herself to breathe normally, because hyperventilating brought on a coughing fit. It was winter. Probably someone forgot to leave the tap on just a bit and the pipe burst. She would have a mess in the morning, but that was it.
The faucet turned off.
Okay. It was probably something that sounded very much like water flowing. Perhaps the scrape of a tree against a frozen windowpane, followed by the cool rush of wind. She wasn’t used to old houses. The sound she heard could just as easily be the crack of joists settling as someone creeping one by one up the stairs—
“Sandy?” The voice was young and female. “Sand? You still up?”
Sandra tried not to let her voice crack as she answered: “yeah.”
Miranda opened the door, poking her head in. Her long, blonde hair tumbled in like an afterthought.
“Man, you look like death warmed over.”
“Well, I feel fan-tucking-fastic, Randy.”
The girls laughed over an in joke.
Sandra spoke quickly to cover her relief. “Thought you’d gone already.”
“I was. I did. Came back because I forgot some things.” Randy looked over at Cindy’s side of the room. “Man, what a pigsty.”
“I wish she’d mess my side up sometimes.”
Randy clicked her tongue. “You should talk. The dud I got stuck with hasn’t said two words to me since she got here.”
“Oh right, you got the foreign girl, Svil…Svet…Svetlana?”
“Yeah, Svet-head only told me her grandma was coming over after the house mom left.”
“Grandma?” Sandra entertained visions of some old babushka creeping up the snow-crusted sidewalk.
“Yup. But get this, just a month ago she got out of classes because she said her grandma was dead.” Randy picked up one of Cindy’s magazines, thumbed through a bit, then tossed it untidily down again.
“That…that doesn’t sound right.” With effort, Sandra sat up. “Does she mean the same grandmother? Where is she, anyway?”
Randy shrugged. “Be honest, I thought she’d be bunking over break, like you. But I woke up one morning and she just…” Randy shrugged again. “Who even knows. Anyway, who invites their grandma over and then leaves?”
“Something I’d do if I could get away with it.” Despite the brevity, Sandra felt miserable. There was something here, something she couldn’t quite untangle in the flu-fogged depths of her brain.
Randy sat on the end of Sandra’s bed. “Anyway, kid, I’m checking out of here in a minute. You sure you’re okay? Got tissues? Water?”
Sandra held up the ancient delft pitcher that was probably original to the house.
Sandra held up a mesh wastebasket. Randy laughed, giving her hair that little flip that drove the boys wild. “Far out. Well, don’t invite anyone inside and you’ll be set.”
As Randy stalked out into the hall again, Sandra called out, “wait, invite?”
“Vampires, baby.” Randy was shouting from the bathroom. “If granny’s up and around after her own funeral, it’s the only logical explanation. You think Tara will notice I swiped her toothpaste?”
There. That was the irreconcilable thing. Sandra tried to picture Svetlana. It was hard, the girl was shy and barely even spoke to the house mother. Had she ever spoken of her family? All Sandra could picture was the girl studying at breakfast while they chatted, white-blonde hair sheltering her face like an iced-over waterfall.
“Also, I think she ordered something for her granny. Some kinda food. Wark—Were—Wurdulak? She said ‘the wurdulak is on its way.’”
“When did she say this?”
“Tuesday, I think. Right after she asked when I was leaving. I think she didn’t want to be alone when it came here.”
“Weird.” Sandra frowned.
“Anyway, if someone buzzes the intercom, just ignore it. No one’s supposed to be here, right?”
Randy sang a Dolly Parton song as she rooted through the bathroom. Sandra took a drink of water, which had gained an unpleasant earthy tang from the pitcher. The pained half-consciousness that passed for sleep was setting in. She wanted nothing more than to take a dose of medicine and knock herself out, but couldn’t bear the thought of being unconscious if someone visited the house.
“Randy?” Did her voice carry very far at all? Randy still sang. Maybe she’d try again in a minute. She just needed to lie there and rest, just for a minute.
Like any good thief, Sandra didn’t know sleep had robbed her of time until it was over.
The house temperature had plummeted even more than normal. Utter black filled every window. Sandra woke with her whole body aching and her mouth dried from breathing in her sleep, nose firmly stoppered by mucus. She spluttered and coughed and tried to budge the obstruction, finally managing to gain one nostril’s partial function.
The boards between their rag rugs were icy. The space heater might as well have been off. Had a window broken?
“Rand—” Sandra coughed at the thinness of her voice. Something cracked downstairs.
Even sitting up took too much effort. The room swam and her back ached as Sandra threw off the covers and set one unprotected foot on the floor. Maybe Randy had turned the heat off before leaving, following force of habit. Dumb, but understandable. All Sandra had to do now was travel the cold distance to the thermostat and give it a bump.
Sandra stood and found herself falling backwards quickly. She grabbed on her bed and half-slid to the floor, where she sat in an untidy heap. She could not walk.
Hands numb with cold, knees aching in protest, Sandra crawled.
The distance from bed to door was the worst, until she had to cross the hallway. That was the worst, until she came to the head of the stairs. Gathering herself like a child going down a slide, Sandra bumped her way down to the first bend in the steps, where she could get a clear view of the front of the house.
The front door was wide open.
Panic overtook Sandra and she half-slid, half-tumbled to the first floor. Snow had blown in to dust the front hall, it crunched and squeaked as Sandra pushed her body against the door to close it. By steadying herself on the doorknob, she could just get up enough strength to throw the medieval-sized deadbolt that crowned the door.
How could Randy have left the door open? Turn the heater off, sure, a momentary oversight bred by weeks of routine. But to leave the door swinging wide open like that…and how long had she been gone?
Sandra peered at the den clock, which had stopped at 10:20. Great.
Well, at the very least, the door had hung wide open for hours. Anyone walking along the sidewalk could have seen it and come right in.
What kind of a person would be out walking in the middle of the night during a snowstorm?
Sandra tried to picture that and then quickly tried not to.
Get upstairs. Brace the bedroom door (the ceramic knob had no lock) and pray for the morning to come.
The tinkle of something falling in the kitchen startled Sandra. She crawled up the stairs two at a time, fear giving her a speed boost. There was someone in the house. No there wasn’t. But then what made that noise? Had Svetlana lied about going away, and just hid out until the others were gone? But if it was Svetlana, why hadn’t she revealed herself yet?
A metallic crackle made her hands slip on the last step. Sandra fell, chest-first, onto the old oak stairs. She was too winded to scream when the crackle sounded again.
“Hello?” The female voice drifted through buzzing interference. Sandra crawled elbow-and-knee up to the second-story hall, where the house’s doorbell intercom lay. “Hello?” The voice had a slight slavic tinge to it.
Sandra crawled to the intercom and hit the button. “Svetlana?”
There was a long, empty static as if the winter wind blew through the wires. “…yes.”
“Crap, I just locked the front door.” Relief flooded her. “I’ll be down to open it in a sec. You have to come up to my room, chick, it’s too damn spooky out here.”
Sandra was halfway down the stairs when she heard the low groan of a deadbolt bending out of shape, and a creak as if a massive amount of pressure were being applied to the thick oak door. She wondered, in her terror-scattered brain, how long the door would hold against the inhuman strength of whoever was outside. But in the long run, it didn’t really matter, did it? It would be weeks and weeks before anyone came back to the house.