Tag Archives: gothic horror

Dream Journal

July 1st

The falling dream again.

 

July 8th

A flock of roaches took the shape of a man in a trenchcoat and begged me to extend them a line of credit. They would not leave, not even after I threatened them with fire and the lash.

 

July 10th

My brother’s death. In this one I arrived in time to hold him in my arms as he drew his last breath. I am never earlier than that. I suppose part of me will go on blaming myself for it.

 

July 15th

The lake dream again. I’ve decided to give up bathing. The thought of being submerged in anything makes my skin crawl.

 

July 20th

A series of dreams where I woke up and checked behind the door. Each dream ended the second I touched the knob. Each new dream started a second after that.

 

July 27th

Phillips started stocking the violet pastilles again. I dreamed the round I bought was porcelain and an unchecked bite broke my molars. Phillips refuses to special order anything for me.

 

August 1st

I was descending a ladder into the sewers. I did not dream of entering them, and I never reached the bottom. Simply descended, rung after rung. My arms began to shake and my hands tired, but I could not stop myself descending. I think my reasoning was that I had to hit bottom eventually. When I woke, my shoulders were sore from my sleeping position.

 

August 3rd

That girl, Bettina Kane, I had a crush on in grade school. Her skin broken out in spider bites, her hair a nightmare web. She slavered as she told me she was ready to elope. Her mouth was a jagged hole of blackness.

 

August 7th

I was in Phillips’ store, and the lot of them were trying to convince me my name was Bachmann. I’ve never even known a Bachmann. Could this have something to do with my indecisiveness on the new art exhibit?

 

August 10th

I took a long, cold walk to the edge of town. There I stopped and stared at a rock no different than the one either side of it. Then I dreamed the long walk back; every footfall, every dull breath. I had to check my sheets to make sure I hadn’t tracked in dirt.

 

August 13th

I did not get to sleep until after 1 am. My alarm somehow defaulted to the chime it came installed with, and the song crept into my dreams. It was part of a piano recital I could not leave. I woke at 6 and could not lay down again. I cannot nap.

 

August 16th

In-between dreams I have a black expanse of nothingness. I like it less than even the worst dream.

 

August 19th

Dreamed I walked to Phillips’ store and bought a pack of saltines and a new pen nib. Woke up to a half-eaten cracker on my pillow. I don’t know what to believe anymore.

 

August 20th

Phillips swears I came by. He also swears my appearance has changed. In my dreams last night I wore a hat as I hunted my doppelganger through the city.

 

August 23rd

My brother died again. He had miraculously resurrected and while out looking for me, he fell from a building. I did not cry in my dream, but my pillow was damp with saltwater this morning.

 

August 24th

Phillips claimed I ate his last round of Gruyere. I think he’s just trying to offload his odds and ends and blame me. I did not dream last night. I don’t even like Gruyere.

 

August 30th

The lake dream again. This time there was no land. I tread water and let the chill steal the feeling from my body. Maybe I’ll die soon.

 

September 2nd

I did it again. It wasn’t until Phillips called me Bachmann that I realized I was in a dream. This morning I have a new pack of cigarettes and some mints he swears he sold me. I will tie my ankle to the bed and get to the bottom of this.

 

September 3rd

My brother came and untied my foot. He explained that it was my job to wander out into the world because I was the last member of our family left alive. Sleep was immaterial. My ankle was still tied when I woke.

 

September 8th

I had a dream of being cognizant through my own funeral. It was very much like an interminable headache.

 

September 14th

I dreamed I sat down at this very desk and wrote all these pages, all these entries, one after one. This morning I turn each crisp page spotted with my handwriting and I just wonder. I can’t prove it one way or the other, can I?

 

September 21st

After weeks of no dreams, Bachmann came. He looked like me, but he was not me. He thanked me for holding this place for him, but now it was my time to go. I denied his agency after seeing how he cast a distorted reflection in my mirror. I took up this journal to write, and he stares at me as I inscribe these pages. We shall see who bends first.

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Corpse Blue

Tanner stood at the basement door, seeing or imagining he could see all the way to the bottom of the unlit basement steps. A damp miasma breathed out at him, bringing the earthy smell of mold and an undertone of something metallic. He tested his weight on a step, feeling it accordion beneath his foot. The oval ceramic doorknob(original to the building) felt firm to his grip. If he were to plunge down into that lightless interior, could the door act as an anchor?

The buzz of the intercom cut into his thoughts. He looked down into the darkness one last time before shutting the door.

Angelika was on the steps. She wore a felt artist’s beret cocked cheekily to the side of her head. Her coat was a tapestry cut up and put back together piecemeal, a batik chicken head peeking up from beneath her lone backpack strap.

“Hey mister Tanner.” Her smile put a dimple in one cheek. “Sorry it’s been a while.”

“It’s no problem, Angie.” He stood to the side of the door. “You’re the only one to humor this old skeleton anymore. Come on in, have a glass of formaldehyde.”

She laughed a laugh that crinkled her nose and squeezed past him, bringing with her the scent of ylang-ylang and citrus.

The entryway of the apartment was taken up by a series of brown-wrapped squares and rectangles that Angelika shamelessly poked at.

“Yours?”

He loosened a corner. “Mine. from my blue period.”

Beneath the paper, the canvas ached blue. A blue sun mourned over a blue chevy parked at a blue honky-tonk in a blue desert. The brushstrokes were thick and loose, running out roughly ¾ down the frame.

Angelika grinned. “It’s so raw. Why don’t you have these up?”

“I ran out of materials. Everything’s so hard to come by, you know?” He scratched the canvas with a nail. The cheap linseed oil flaked beneath his fingertip.

Angelika didn’t notice. She was already through the door and in Tanner’s studio. Doffing her beret and shedding her coat, she marveled at the much smaller canvas currently huddled on the easel.

“Is that one of yours too?”

Tanner laughed. “I wish. That’s a special painting. I actually got on loan in hopes of showing it to you.”

The palette was mostly warm tans with the odd spot of Payne’s grey. Six journeymen worked away in some sort of guild workshop, floor littered with wood shavings as a dog gnawed on a soup bone.

Angelika turned this way and that. “What’s so special about it?”

Tanner was looking at her, not the painting. “Tell me.”

“The composition? No, wait, it’s the dog.” Her finger stabbed at the canvas. “Wait, those tools…is it a freemason thing?”

Tanner burst into his first genuine laugh of the day. “No…it’s the color.”

Angelika bit her lip. “Is it…ochre?”

“No.”

“Umber?”

“Nope.”

“Sinopia?”

“No.” He was watching her so carefully. “It’s called mummy brown.”

The smile dimmed a few notches. “Is that what I think it is?”

Tanner smiled now. “Exactly. Mummies, so cheap and plentiful they burned the limbs as train fuel back in the day. For a time, mummy brown was very popular as a pigment. It’s got a nice, rich tone from the body’s natural iron. But this is really just the tip of the iceberg, Angie. I really wanted to talk to you about anthropigments.”

“Anthropigments?”

“Pigments from the human body.” Tanner gently took the canvas from the easel, unwrapped another and placed it on. “See this? Bone white. Fusili. He actually painted this on Poveglia island as he was dying of consumption. Took midnight trips to the burial pits for supplies. Look—” he brushed the eggshell-and-ecru composition with an owlfeather broom. A pale young priestess was borne along on a palanquin by her retinue. Save for her jewelry and a sliver of sky, the painting was all beiges.

“And here’s Beaufort.” The little pasteboard square barely bigger than a TV tray. “Parade along the Rue de Bac. Iron red pigments. Blood. Not colorfast enough” He dragged a hand sheathed in a white cotton glove down the chocolate-colored brickwork. “It’s livered, you see. At the 1912 Paris salon, I’m told it created quite a stir. Now look at it. Muddy.”

Angelika spoke in a very careful voice. “Sounds like you know a lot about these.”

Tanner looked like a man surfacing from a deep well. “Oh…once I was doing my master’s thesis on them. Once. Still have Heymach’s vial of bilirubin in here, somewhere. He was doing a series on the body’s humors. Never got past bile.”

Angelika was spellbound by the pictures. Her expression stuck halfway between disgust and fascination. Tanner admired her from this angle. He could bust her face down to a series of trapezoidal shapes and match a color to each section. His brush fingers ached with cravings.

“There’s one I don’t have to show you, though,” he said, circling around to fumble through one of the haphazard piles behind the easel, “I’ve never found anyone who worked with it. Even with all the devotees this artform has, it’s never been done.”

He retrieved a small glass vial from beneath a bag of oak galls. The vial contained a few grains of a dusky blue pigment. From the mouth of the vial flew a tag that read “R. Disick, 1956.”

Angelika took in hand. “There’s no blue pigments in the body,” she said, now more curious than horrified. Good.

“Not in,” Tanner said, “but of. This is Vivianite. It grows on corpses.”

Angelika’s eyes lit up with wicked fire. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“Not surprised.” He took the vial back. “It only happens in very specific conditions. First, the grave has to be damp. Then you have to have iron present. There was a train engineer, died back in the 1800’s. He had a cast-iron coffin with a viewing window, it was the style at the time. The window leaked. His family watched him turn blue over the decades.”

“Wow.” Angelika followed the vial raptly with her eyes. Tanner felt sure, now.

“I’ve got something else, if you’ll care to follow me,” he said, walking over to the basement door and putting a hand on the knob.

Angelika started to follow, then the smile ran away from her face as she slapped at her back pocket. She ferreted the phone from the depths of her levis and swore when she saw the screen.

“Oh jeez. I am so rude for saying this, but I have to be somewhere else ten minutes ago.”

Tanner felt his hand tighten on the knob. “But—just a quick look?”

“No.” Angelika was tossing on her beret and coat without care to how she looked. “I set an alert for my plein air club meeting and totally missed the first warning. I’m so sorry, trust me, I’ll make it up to you.”

“It’ll just be—”

“I’ll make it up, I promise!” Angelika was already dashing for the door.

“Just make sure and come back!” He called after her. He heard the door slam in the middle of his sentence, but kept talking. “Come back. You’re the only one who does, now.” His hand slid from the knob. A damp breeze from the crack beneath the basement door washed over his ankles. “It’s been so long since the last one. So long…”

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Amy on the Train

Amy was thirteen, and had been thirteen for a very long time. The train car she sat in was an overnighter, meant for people who couldn’t afford a sleeper car. The night dimmed the windows to opacity, so Amy used the glass as a mirror to watch the compartment door open. A nicely-dressed man and three children hustled in, chattering before they even got the door open. There was a teenage girl, a boy with glasses who looked a few years younger, and a little red-faced boy in a sailor suit who immediately set to kicking the seat opposite his.

“Jack,” said the man without much heat or conviction, “stop that.”

The boy made no such motion. The family immediately spread out, capturing so much of the seating Amy was forced to press against the window. Her breath didn’t steam the glass.

“I don’t see why we couldn’t get a sleeper,” said the girl, tossing her hair. It was quite voluminous and chased with ribbons so that it looked almost like a cake.

“Amelia, dear, I have explained this,” said the father, not looking up from his papers, “we will be in at your grandmother’s stop within a few hours. It would be a waste of money.”

“But we have to share compartments with any dirty old stranger!”

Not once did any of them look over at Amy. The little boy bored with kicking the seat and began bumping the makeshift desk his father held on his lap with his knees.

“Jack, stop that,” said the man, pulling away. Jack turned his heels up to his sister Amelia, who gave him a withering glare.

“Father,” said the glasses-wearing boy, “Amelia’s right, to a certain degree. These compartments are made to fit four comfortably. By rights we shouldn’t have to share.”

“I suppose you’re right, Thomas.” The father turned to Amy, not looking at her but in a direction that happened to hold her. “Would you mind getting out, terribly? We’re all very tired.”

Amy looked the group over once. “Yes, I see.”

The older boy slammed the door behind her with a loud snap. Amy stepped slightly to the side and leaned her back against the wall, listening.

“Well I don’t see why I have to mind the smelly little beast, he’s old enough to—”

“Amelia, please stop arguing with me. If you don’t learn now what will you do when you have children?”

“I’ll have nannies and maids to look after them. Really, daddy. You think I’m as malleable as that silly girl who trespassed in our car. Dirty little thing. She’s probably one of those war orphans.”

“Now Amelia, children can’t help how they appear. It’s the fault of the parents, most of the time.”

“So who can we blame that hair on, eh Ames?”

“Shut up, Thomas.”

Amy crept off. Not to another compartment, but to a quiet place where she could conceal herself. She had boarded without a ticket or bags, because she was not traveling but looking. And the family had looked quite promising.

 

11:30. The little boy Jack had escaped the compartment, or been allowed to escape to give his father some measure of peace. He throttled the external door like a pet bird’s neck, kicking the bottom panel with his heels. Amy watched the scenery pass by indifferently, gauging their speed. They were on a flat plain. Soon there would be a hill.

“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” she asked.

The boy jumped, then his face turned mean when he saw she wasn’t an adult. He sneered at her and resumed kicking at the door. Amy watched the restraining bolt as it rattled in its hinge. Too much force would make it vibrate free.

“I don’t believe that’s safe.”

“I don’t believe that’s safe,” the boy repeated back in a mocking tone. He reared back and gave a mighty kick, edging the bolt a millimeter. Amy could feel as the train slowed, starting up an incline.

“Are you traveling on holiday? Perhaps we’re going the same way.”

The boy kicked faster, eyes gleaming from his red face like bits of bottle glass. The bolt did not move.

“Does your sister have any friends where she’s going? Perhaps we could become acquainted.”

At mention of his sister, the boy doubled his force. Amy could feel their assent slowing. Soon they would be at the peak. The bolt was only halfway loose.

“Shall I tell your father you’re here?”

Shall I tell your father you’re here?” Kick. Throttle. Kick. The train was beginning to pick up speed.

“I only worry, because you’ve been left unsupervised.”

“Stupid girl.” Kick. Throttle. The train slipped faster down the incline.

“Something terrible could happen to a small child left alone.”

“Ugly girl.” Kick. Throttle. They were nearing the end of the slope, hitting the pinnacle of the train’s speed.

“I don’t believe this door is safe at all,’ Amy said, letting her eyes flick to the bolt. Jack followed her gaze and crowed in triumph. He yanked the bolt back and gave a final kick. The door bowed open from the force of the kick and Jack went with it, disappearing into the rushing night air. As the door bounced back, Amy caught it and latched it securely again.

 

12am. On her way down the hall, Amy ran into the older boy, Thomas, waiting in her path with a smug expression.

“Are you lost?” he asked.

“Not particularly,” Amy said. Thomas tapped the thin book in his hands.

“I’ve been reading the train regulations. Father says I’m to take over his business one day, so I read everything I get my hands on.”

“How nice for you,” Amy said.

“It says that those without fare can be charged with up to five years in debtor’s prison.” Thomas tapped the book again. “Tell me, do you have train fare?”

Amy slowly looked him up and down.

“I read all sorts of books,” Thomas bragged, having departed the real world for his own head, “read one recently that revealed the poorer classes have no choice but to continue to be poor. Bad breeding, you see. I’m sure you can’t help your lowbrow criminal behavior, but it is my duty as a paragon of good breeding to correct you. I’m going to tell the conductor and he’s going to throw you off the train. Seeing as you’re a lady, he might be tempted to go easy. But I will remind him of the rules and regulations.” Thomas tapped the book again.

Amy smiled at him, so long that he began to shift uneasily.

“Tell me,” she said suddenly, “have you ever read the riddle of the Sphinx?”

The boy colored slightly. Apparently he had skimped on the classics.

“The sphinx of greek legend sat outside a city and asked a riddle of every passer-by. If any of them got it wrong, she would tear them to pieces. Want to hear a riddle?” Amy asked sweetly.

Thomas turned slightly pale. The train ride had become bumpy, the lamps in the corridor were flickering.

Amy smiled wide and white as she leaned forward until their faces were inches apart.

“What’s black. And white. And red all over?” she whispered.

Thomas trembled. “The financial times?”

Amy laughed as the lights flickered and then went out. “No,” she said.

 

1 in the morning. The girl Amelia was in the lavatory, petting her own face listlessly. She gave a little scream when she turned around and found Amy standing very close behind her.

“You startled me,” she said, fanning her face.

Amy clustered in, preventing her from turning back to the mirror. “Oh dear. How sorry I must be. What’s keeping you up so late?”

Amelia donned a haughty look. “Looking for my horrid little brothers. You haven’t seen either of them?”

“Not recently” Amy said truthfully.

Amelia sighed and then daintily pushed her out of the way. “Then you’re of no use to me.”

“Amelia.”

The girl stopped part-way down the hall. Amy had shut the lavatory door, so the car was lit only by what little light bled from outside.

“Do you know my name is Amy? It’s quite like yours, isn’t it?”

Amelia wrinkled her nose. “Amy is cheap substitute for a real name. Is it short for something?”

“Several things.”

Amelia shook her head, which made her hair flap like a circus tent in a breeze. “A cheap name for gutter trash. I told daddy to book us a sleeper, nothing good comes from interacting with common folk.”

“Wait.”

Amelia’s hand was on the door latch. Amy walked closer, pitching her voice so that Amelia had to lean forward to hear it.

“Your brothers are dead. They died while under your watch.”

Amelia, disturbed, took her hand off the latch. As Amy drew closer, she backed away.

“There was nothing you could have done to prevent it,” Amy whispered, drawing her feet along the carpet so her steps made no sound, “but more importantly, nothing you did prevented it. You feel that your father’s money affords you a comfortable measure of safety? But that measure means nothing if it’s not enforced.”

Amy paced, slowly chasing her to the end of the car.

“You feel that if anything happened to you, it would raise a mighty furor,” Amy continued, “and you think that guards against misfortune. But it doesn’t. Collaring the burglar does not fill the safe back up. Damming the river does not un-drown the flooded. An ounce of prevention is worth much more than a pound of cure, wouldn’t you agree Ames?”

Amelia’s back hit the connecting door. She pressed her lips together so they turned white.

“Daddy,” she whispered, barely loud enough that Amy heard her over the train.

“He’s not here,” Amy said, petting her head like one would a dog, “but I am.”

 

2 and a bit. Amy closed the compartment door snugly behind her. The man(she never had gotten his name, had she?) dozed in the corner. Amy shook his arm, looking deeply into his eyes as he woke.

“Your children are dead,” she said.

“Yes, I see,” he said back.

“You no longer have any reason to travel to your original destination.”

“Yes.”

“Shall you accompany me, then? I’m getting off at the city.”

“Seems only logical,” the man said.

 

The passengers disembarked around five in the morning, which was still dark at this time of year. Amy stepped confidently off the train, looking like a girl who knew exactly where she was and where she was going. Still, she waited until a blank-eyed gentleman stepped off the train, linking arms with her so that it looked like he was escorting her and not the other way around.

Because Amy was thirteen, and would continue to be thirteen for the foreseeable future.

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Ends

“For some people, Halloween is a holiday. For others, it’s a way of life.”

Leonard wasn’t looking at Kyra or the box that held her dead cat. He was looking down the hill to the street where Marybeth was strolling along with her new friends, decked out in a dress that looked like a black wedding cake.

Kyra didn’t reply, she was still digging the hole. She only had a hand trowel to do it. Toonces had been a big cat towards the end of his life.

The shoebox that held her cat’s body was tied giftwrap-style with twine. Leonard had done that. Leonard had also said he’d show up with a flatnose shovel and help her dig the hole, but he hadn’t done that. He stamped his feet against the cold and looked after Marybeth.

“Are you going to her party later? Could you get me an invite?”

Kyra used the measuring of the hole as an excuse to not answer right away. It was wide and long enough, but was too shallow.

“We’re not really hanging out much anymore,” she said when enough time had passed.

“Oh really? Thought you two were tight.” Leonard looked at her for the first time since Marybeth hove into view. Kyra bent so that her hair hid her face.

“That was the beginning of the year,” she said carefully, “she’s made new friends. A lot of them.”

The earth mounded over Toonces’ box. Leonard lifted his boot to stomp it flat. Kyra winced.

“Toonces was a good cat,” she said by way of services, “I always had to hide him right around this time of year. My dad said people hate black cats. They think they’re the devil. He wasn’t all black anyway. He had that white spot on his chest.”

Leonard finished stomping and scraped his boot sideways to get rid of the dirt. “You have a headstone?”

Kyra held up a chunk of feldspar. “I didn’t paint it or anything. I don’t want to attract attention. You’re not supposed to bury pets, you’re supposed to have them cremated.”

“Too bad, you could’ve done some cool things with the ashes.” Leonard was looking down at the street. “You sure you don’t want to mark it?”

“I’ll remember the shape.” Kyra crossed her arms. She wanted to flick or hit Leonard so he’d look at her, just so he’d stop drifting his attention away.

“You going out tonight?”

“Dunno.” Kyra thought of the black dress she’d been working on since July, identical to the one currently occupying Marybeth Andrews’ person. “Aren’t we getting old for Halloween?”

Leonard didn’t deny it, like she hoped. He did a single-shoulder shrug and left after more forced small talk.

Kyra crouched by the grave. Toonces had not made a very big impact with his passing. She remembered coming home from trick-or-treating, feeling his body wind between her legs, his cold, curious nose pricking her ankle.

She looked away from the street.

Where the hill ran into farmland, she spied a bit of movement. Old man Deakins was in the pumpkin patch, among the withered vines. The pumpkins had long since been harvested, set out on hay bales or clustered together by the tin shed that served as a produce market. Kyra watched as he took a funny little sideways step, kicking loose dirt over a vine. There was someone else dealing with the dregs of the season.

Kyra rose from her crouch.

“Hi, Mr. Deakins!” She called to him from the white fence that separated his farm from the empty land parcels that were carved from the neighboring farm.

Deakins looked up. His hair and mustache were still brown, but there was such an air of ancient-ness to his demeanor that they all reflexively called him “old man.”

“Well hey there, sweetie pie.” Kyra would have bet dollars to donuts that he didn’t know her name. That was fine. At least he was talking to her and not at her.

“Boy that sure looks tedious.” Kyra nodded at the pumpkin vines. Her voice sounded fake, even to her ears.

“Ah, no job that’s worth doin’ is boring to me.” Deakins went back to his procedure. Step-step-scrape. “Some folk burn the fields.” Step-step-scrape. “I like to give back to the earth.”

“Oh.” And because she needed to tell this to someone, anyone, she said, “I buried my cat today.”

Deakins nodded. “Oh boy. I remember putting my first cat down.” Step-step-scrape. “Called him Pudditat. Helluva mouser.” Step-step-scrape. “Fell afoul of a neighbor dog. Not a year goes by I don’t think of him, actually.” Step-step-scrape. “Buried plenty of cats, but none like him.”

“I got him when my mom—when I started living with my dad.” It was nice, commiserating like this. Even when it was with someone so far out of her social phylum he might as well have gills. “He was going downhill for a while, but that doesn’t make it any easier.”

Deakins shook his head. “Nope. I hear yah.” Step-step-scrape.

Kyra watched his peculiar dance for a moment to build up her courage.

“Do you feel—disappointed?” she blurted out.

Deakins stopped what he was doing to squint at her.

“I mean, I used to love Halloween. But as I’ve gotten older, it’s like, well, um, everything leading up to it just really psyches you up for it and then the day comes and it’s like—I don’t know,” she rambled, heart hammering. She had never said this out loud before and Deakins’ face lacked any clues as to what he thought of it.

Deakins cocked his head and looked at her. One boot heel sat on a vine that curled as if beseeching for escape from the soil.

“Sure,” he said, “think I do.”

Deakins beckoned her off the fence. Despite their rapport, she was shy about approaching him.

Deakins gestured to the farm. “You see my farm? I’ve got these fields.  Some I’ve got crops going year round. I take out the alfalfa, and suddenly it’s time for the safflower. But then there’s some I only plant but once a year. Like this one.” He kicked his heel into the brown earth. “I don’t make much on the pumpkins. Matter of fact I think I lose a little each year. But the feeling when those orange bastards come out, when the little ones come up with their faces all lit up—boy!” Deakins chuckled. “No feeling like it.”

“But when it’s all barren, like this?”

Deakins looked out over the field, scanning to and fro. “There’s a pang, I won’t lie. That’s why I’m out here. Got to give the boys a sendoff.”

“Doesn’t it make you sad?”

“Sure—a bit. But proud.” Deakins smiled, face creasing like a leather wallet. “You wanna see somethin’?”

He crouched to the ground, beckoning. Kyra came as close as she dared.

“You gotta realize every end is a beginning. I clear the wheat, the clover goes in. I butcher the cows, I feed a family. I plant the pumpkins—”

Deakins’ gnarled hands unearthed the stem of the pumpkin and dug deeper. It took a moment for Kyra to make out the stump that the vines projected from. Even then, she took a moment to process if she was truly seeing this, a purple twist of scarf around a neck. Deakins continued scraping the earth away, uncovering a vest, a jacket, a headless body with vines spewing from the throat.

Kyra did not scream. She backed away, vocal chords stilled by shock. Deakins smiled proudly, as if displaying a trophy.

“See, sweetie pie? Everything gets buried, eventually.”

Kyra ran, vaulting the fence in one go. She kept up a gallop past Toonces’ grave, already birthing a green sprout. Deakins called, his voice chasing up the hill after her:

“Come back in November—butternut squash’ll be ready!”

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Prelude to an Exorcism

An older, stocky man opened the front door. “Dr. Elliott, I presume?”

Elliott offered a small, formal smile and a limp handshake. “Sure. Father, doctor, whichever you feel comfortable with, Mr. DeLuca.”

“I feel much more comfortable with you here now, father.”

Elliott had trained his senses to pick up on minute, ephemeral details. Was Daniel DeLuca a bit too enthusiastic? Did his smile match the reflex-crinkle of his eyes? Was his handshake firm, too firm, or phoned in?

DeLuca nodded crisply, though no one had said anything. “It’s so good that you’re here.”

He went in for a hug. Elliott chose to dodge nimbly around his other side, as if he had mistaken the gesture. Families under stress were more inclined to be physical with strangers, seeking the comfort denied them in their own home. Elliott tried to avoid undue familiarity whenever possible.

DeLuca took his coat, hanging it up on a coat rack that also held a white woman’s duffle and a brightly-colored child’s parka. The parka had a light layer of dust on it.

The front hall was sparse in both furniture and decor. There were a few nonthreatening landscape paintings, the customary bowl of random wicker balls on a table, but nothing besides that. No clutter. Few human touches.

DeLuca had come to stand just a little too close to his right flank.

“Father Corsey tells me you were a newspaper editor?” Elliott said politely, using pretext of turning to face DeLuca to put some distance between them.

DeLuca nodded. “The old St. Louis Spirit. Deader than disco now. They have an online component manned by a skeleton staff.” He leaned forward, negating the distance Elliott had bartered. “Right around my severance was when the troubles started.”

DeLuca’s face changed from an excess of enthusiasm to sorrow so quickly it was almost farcical.

“Fiona was very…affected by the change,” he related in a whisper. “To see her father fall from primary breadwinner of the household must have been quite a blow to her delicate constitution.”

Elliott made a note on his mental notepad and then underlined it. “So around….”

“Four months ago. It’s been horrible.” DeLuca seized Elliott’s hand in his own, suddenly clammy grip. “She won’t even let me touch her anymore. She won’t eat. She says such…horrible things.”

Elliott cleared his throat. “Well, the diocese has sent me here to evaluate your situation, to see that an exorcism is indeed the best course. We do not make these decisions lightly, Mr. DeLuca—”

Daniel, please.”

“—and only advise it as a last resort.”

For a few moments, there was only the barely-audible rasp of Mr. DeLuca’s breathing. He smiled with glazed eyes.

“Once you meet Fiona,” he said, “I am sure you will advise the best course.”

As they struggled up the narrow staircase, Elliott saw a woman flit ghostlike down the end of the hall. DeLuca stopped just before the top of the stairs, his back a solid white square like a limestone block.

“Margerie,” he said under his breath. Then, in a louder voice, “he’s here now. Get back to your room.”

Elliott swiped his tongue along the bottom right corner of his mouth. “Your wife?”

DeLuca made a dismissive motion with his hand. “She’s not taking it well, either. Possession is hardest on the mother. Maternal instinct demands you bend to the child’s demands, but giving the demon what it wants only serves to prolong the possession.”

Elliott sifted the statement, storing certain parts in their own bins. “So, is your wife providing primary care to your daughter?”

DeLuca chuckled low, shaking his head. “She’d give her the moon if I let her. No, the only one with a key to Fiona’s room is me.” He held up a brass key from the lanyard on his neck.

Elliott frowned thoughtfully. Something he had picked up on during the course of their walk was the lack of church memorabilia. Usually families stocked up on crosses, Christ figures, anything they could. DeLuca’s key hung where a crucifix normally would be. He held off on remarking on this.

“Could I see her, please?” he asked, “I would like an interview, if that’s okay.”

DeLuca took the key from his neck and twirled it on his finger. “Ask and ye shall receive.”

He stuck the key in the knob and turned it slowly, keeping eye contact with Elliott the entire time. As the door swung open, a draft played around their ankles.

The lack of memorabilia in the rest of the house was compensated for. In spades. Someone had scratched crosses into the wall, gouging them deeply into the plaster in a variety of sizes and lengths. Someone else had sloshed a bucket of white paint over them, sloppily, so that the room still smelled of latex and acrylic.

The sole piece of furniture was a bed pushed against the wall. Leather restraints, the kind used in mental institutions, crowned each bedpost. A slip of a girl lay in the middle of the bed, limbs stretched to meet each restraint. Her hair was greasy and her pale limbs covered with scratches. She wore a white, stained shift and a rosy gold crucifix hung around her neck.

All in all, Elliott mused, a picture straight out of Hollywood.

The girl on the bed stirred, flesh of her throat flexing. Her eyes rolled down to display the whites above her iris, much like a startled horse.

Elliott turned and found DeLuca looming in the doorway like a disproving stormcloud.

“I would like to conduct the interview alone, if it’s at all possible.” Elliott said.

DeLuca didn’t move. His gaze was pinned to the girl on the bed.

“Please,” Elliott said, lightly pushing his chest.

DeLuca backed out of the room, still facing the bed. He left the door ajar. Elliott gently pushed it closed.

The girl on the bed lay perfectly still as he approached, putting him in mind of a fawn trying to look like dappled sunlight on leaves. There was no chair, so he crouched by her side.

“You’re Fiona?” he asked.

The girl swallowed, nodding gently.

“Can I ask you some questions?”

Her eyes strayed to the door. He nodded without following her eyes.

“We can talk quietly, if you like,” he whispered. “Have you seen a doctor recently, Fiona?”

A headshake.

Elliott motioned to her scratches. “Did you do this to yourself?”

Another headhsake. “He did this.” her voice was like the flutter of a moth’s wing.

“He?”

“The demon. He comes to me at night.”

Elliott nodded, tentatively turning her wrist in his hand. There were lacerations from the restraint, some old enough to be scars, some fresh and red.

“When did this…demon manifest itself?”

She blinked.

“When did you first notice it?”

“When daddy got fired.” Her eyes flicked to the door again. “He showed up. It left a space for him to squeeze through.”

Elliott frowned. She hadn’t said anything about her crucifix. Usually, even the people undergoing a mental collapse in the guise of religious mania discarded the cross.

“Who made these scratches on your wall, Fiona?”

“I did.”

“And who gave you that lovely necklace?”

Fiona said something under her breath. Elliott leaned closer.

“Don’t let him know you can hear me,” she murmured. “He made mom tie me down.”

Elliott rubbed her arm, mindful of her scratches. “I’m going to try to get you some help, okay Fiona?”

Fiona blinked. She did not seem especially sad or happy to hear the news. She seemed as if all the energy had been drained from her, through some monumental effort. Elliott clasped her hand.

“I will be back,” he promised, “with more men like me. You will get help.”

Fiona blinked. Her eyes were the clear blue-green of thick bottle glass. “That’s what he wants,” she whispered.

Elliott rose, knees creaking. He shot one last look at Fiona before he opened the door. Her eyes had risen heavenward, or perhaps only ceilingward.

Elliott slowly turned the knob, mindful of a series of creaks suddenly starting at the door and ending at the hall. DeLuca stood at the stairs as if he had always been there.

Fiona’s mother poked her head out a side door. Her eyes carried such heavy bags they looked bruised. The marks on her neck were not bags, however. They were purple-green and clearly finger-shaped. DeLuca shifted on his feet and the woman darted, shutting the door behind her.

Elliott did not disguise the fact that he saw her. “I’d like to speak to the girl’s mother, as well.”

DeLuca shook his head. “No use. She’s too close. Wouldn’t provide anything useful.”

“Still…” Elliott let the  statement hang in the air.

DeLuca did not answer. Instead he turned and ambled over to the banister, looking down over his first floor. Elliott joined him.

“I don’t like to make decisions based on such small crumbs. I’d like to hold a series of interviews. With her, her mother, some school officials, perhaps another medical official. Has she seen a psychiatrist or someone like that?”

DeLuca made a noncommittal motion of his head.
“Then, of course, I will review the information gathered here with the diocese, possibly consulting—”

With a single, deft motion, Daniel DeLuca reached over and broke Elliott’s neck. He held the body while it spasmed. Then, with calculation and care, he tipped the body over the bannister so it landed head-first on the floor.

He listened for a moment, nodding as if agreeing with something  inaudible. Then he calmly went to the hallway telephone and dialed a number.

He smiled placidly as the phone rang six times.

“Hello?” he forced distress into his voice. “This is Daniel DeLuca. My daughter has—has—oh my God, I think it was an accident! She just ran and pushed—” his voice broke. “Please, can we move the exorcism up? I’m at my wit’s end, I don’t know what to do. She won’t even let me near her anymore…”

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A Portrait of the Leith Family

[John Alan Leith. Silver gelatin print, taken by a Zeiss Ikon camera. Leith poses with five business associates, cigar held up to his mouth. Leith does not look directly at the camera, but at a focal point to the left]

John Leith made his fortune in oil. He quickly became known for his business tactics of sinking a massive amount of money into a well and then selling it at what appeared to be the zenith of its production. Buyers would be astonished to find that not only were the wells tapped out, but that the yields had been inflated on paper.

Leith was a fixture at gentleman’s clubs and social events. He bragged of touring the world and going on frequent safaris, though his escapades were easily debunked due to his complete lack of geographical knowledge. When Leith built Montbello, the 120-room house in the Catskills, he populated it with hunting trophies he purchased overseas.

[The Ladies’ Auxiliary, group photo. Silver gelatin print, taken by a Kodak “brownie” camera. Margaret Cornelia Van Allan stands seventh from the right, third row. She is wearing an empire-waist gown with a frilled lace collar capped by a pearl pin, and her hair is loosely marcelled. Margaret does not smile at the camera, only squints as if caught between expressions.]

Margaret Leith was almost 30 years her husband’s junior. The decade between their union and the birth of their first son led to gossip about her inability to produce an heir. Whispers abounded about Leith’s infidelity, unspeakable illnesses caught in his youth rendering him sterile, or even Margaret’s own illness. Whatever the cause, Margaret produced only two children and then retired from motherhood, choosing instead to busy herself with various goodwill societies. When John Leith died in 1954 of a stroke, he left her several business debts that ate into what little personal wealth she had left. Margaret set up a trust with an oddly vague purpose: “to maintain the household.” The named trustee was Abigail Reyes.

[A candid moment: Margaret Leith, mouth open, hand pointing to a place somewhere out of the frame. Abigail Reyes, in a white headscarf and maid outfit, is nearly invisible due to the poor exposure of the film. A penciled message on back proclaims this photo the work of John Alan Leith, jr. This is the only known photo of Reyes.]

Abigail Reyes had been born in a small village outside of Manila. Her parents sold her to the Leith household with the understanding that she would get an American education. Abigail never set foot back in the Philippines, never learned English above a sixth-grade level. Associates of the prickly Margaret vouched that the maid was the closest thing she had to a friend. Indeed, something deeper seemed to bind them together. Even after dismissing most of the house staff due to lack of funds, Margaret retained Abigail at cost. Reyes would outlive most of the Leith family, dying in 1989 in a hospice.

[Black and white, tinted by hand. Taken with an Argoflex. John Alan Leith and son both shoulder rifles that would never be fired. John jr wears a coonskin cap and a rawhide jacket two sizes too large for him. Beneath a smattering of freckles, his smile is cocky.]

John jr. always expected to come into wealth on the day he reached adulthood. It was often said that he was the biggest casualty of John sr’s lies, for he was the only family member who believed them. After an idyllic youth filled with surprise gifts and long holidays, John jr. found that his 18-year vacation was funded by his father raiding the inheritance set up by his maternal grandfather. Dreams of living the high life in Monte Carlo and other such exotic locations evaporated, and John jr. found himself living at home well past thirty. After several ill-advised business ventures, John jr. died running his cherry-red mustang into an embankment. His death was ruled a traffic accident, though absence of brake marks belied that.

[The first color print, taken with a handheld Kodak. Maretta Jane Leith sits atop a Shetland pony in jumping gear. Maretta sticks her tongue out at the photographer. The buttons on her red hunting jacket are unbuttoned.]

It was always said that what little love remained in Margaret Leith was squeezed out in her second birth. Maretta was a rebellious second child. Ignored by a father who favored his only son, and shunned by a mother who palmed her off on a revolving series of nannies, Maretta was the most ambitious of the Leiths. From an early age she set her hopes on Olympic competition. Her father indulged her by building a show-jumping arena and purchasing a number of horses for her. However, her career was cut short by a pelvic fracture at fifteen. Like her brother, Maretta turned her hand to a series of unsuccessful bids to reclaim the Leith fortune, increasingly stymied by her mother spending all available cash for the upkeep of the Montbello house. Ironically enough, Maretta had purchased IBM stocks that, had she not died of cirrhosis of the liver at 45, might have replenished all her money and more.

[Montbello. Taken by a professional photographer for a magazine spread that never materialized, the photograph captures the house in its most endearing light. The architecture is based on French chateau style, with extensive manicured lawns and a carriage house just visible beyond the side of the house.]

Montbello’s future was uncertain. Margaret Leith had outlived both of her children, but not her husband’s debt. After Margaret was given a city funeral at the Leith family plot, Abigail Reyes retired to live a life of quiet anonymity in the Los Angeles suburbs. After her departure, she left a cryptic note reading, “all this and no more.”

Executors of the Leith estate found little of value in the late John sr’s paperwork. Forged checks, doctored bank balances, and a birth certificate of Margaret Helen Leith, a stillborn from the early days of their marriage. The furnishings and architecture of the house, save for a few repairs, still held value. An estate sale was in the works. However, two hurdles remained before the sale could be complete. The first was more minor: the house had an odor that would not go away no matter how they cleaned. The second was an architectural error: one room had a wall far thicker than normal. It was the maid’s quarters.

Examination of the wall found a loose patch of wallpaper. When peeled up, it disclosed not bare wall, but a door.

[Taken by a police camera. The wide shot completely discloses the metal cot and crude toilet structure in the corner of the room. The ceiling, glimpsed in the upper-right corner, is abnormally low. The cot holds a woman. She has been shackled at her wrists to the bed and wears a crude rope harness. Her unkempt hair and long fingernails speak to a long-term imprisonment. Though she has been dead for some time, the  drawn nature of her flesh tells that she died not from any illness, but dehydration. She wears a pinafore in a child’s size, one that barely fits her stunted frame. Closing the neck is Margaret Leith’s pearl pin.]

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