Tag Archives: psychological horror

The Shambling Detective 5: The Oculus Institute

Mahoney lay on the murphy bed with a wet washcloth over his eyes. Operating entirely by touch, he fumbled for the glass at his bedside table and brought it to his lips, sloshing bourbon on his unfastened collar in the process.

“So the pillar turned into a recess?” Chick Henshaw said. He sat at the card table Mahoney used in the dining room/den, ashing into a juice glass. “Sounds simple enough. A guy makes somethin’ round, halfway through he dents it in. Nothing to lose your lunch over.”

“No, it wasn’t like that. It was…it was just both at the same time. In and out. If you could have seen it—”

“Yeah, yeah.” The studio chair creaked as Chick rearranged himself. He had helped himself to some of the deli chicken in the ice box, the smack of him chewing made Mahoney nauseous. “I getcha. I was at one of those sideshows a while back with my girl, Gertie. We see one of those human knots, you know, and the way he was all pretzeled up didn’t seem possible.”

The door slammed and Dooley stalked in. “Chick, quit boring the detective with your love life. Mahoney? I’ve got the paper.”

Mahoney eased his feet off the bed and slowly sat up, keeping the washcloth to his eyes until the very last minute. As the wet cloth fell from his eyes it disclosed Dooley, shirtsleeves rolled up past the elbow and tie askew. He held an accordion-fold pamphlet printed on sickly green paper.

Mahoney gestured. “That it?”

Dooley pulled back a little. “You shouldn’t go there.”

“But I’m going.”

Dooley sighed. “Stubborn ass.”

“I got no choice, Dooley.”

“Yeah, if he don’t go, who will look after the kids?” Chick said through a mouthful.

Dooley glanced back. “Hush.”  To Mahoney he said, “look, I’ve got guys for this. Gimme a day or two to arrange something. This place is bad news. Why you need in there so badly anyway?”

Mahoney glanced beyond him to Chick. “Hey, check the drawer there for me, the one second from the right?”

Chick opened it with a rattle of silverware.

“What’s in there?”

Chick took out a small slip of paper. “The yellow sign.”

Mahoney looked back at Dooley. “I’m going in. I can’t quit because it won’t quit me.”

Dooley hissed air over his teeth. “Hell. Take this, I’m on a union break.”

He thrust the pamphlet at Mahoney and stalked over to the window, lighting up one of his hat-band cigarettes.

The pamphlet read “THE OCULUS INSTITUTE” in lettering only slightly more welcoming than barbed wire. A crown of laurel leaves  graced the front page. Mahoney sniffed. Laurel wreath. Brotherhood of leaves. Ha. So much for academic wit.

The pamphlet spoke as if singling him out as a misunderstood genius. The institute knew how society had failed him, how the disorder he struggled with was the fault not of him but the people around him. He needed to swim with like-minded individuals to recover. He needed the Oculus Institute.

Mahoney lowered the pamphlet. “Guys, I think I might be the second coming of Isaac Newton.”

Chick snort-chuckled. Dooley smoked irritably, not bothering to make sure the smoke successfully reached the slit of the kitchen’s hopper window.

Mahoney sped through the rest. It was rote, offering tennis courts and Olympic-sized swimming pools in the same breath as operating rooms and shock therapy. Basically a cush hamper to dump your unsightly relatives in until such time as they were ready again for polite society. The pamphlet was signed by one Thurgood Orroft, MD.

“And what do we know about the good Dr. Orroft?”

“Well, for starters he isn’t an MD.” Dooley flicked the ash off his cig with a pinky. “He isn’t M-anything. He’s what you might call a guru. They let him put that on the pamphlet because he’s got rich friends in the right places. I looked into this guy, Mahoney. He’s scary. You remember that senator’s daughter, the one who tried to stop a trolley with her mind and ended up smeared down seventh street?”

Mahoney nodded. The throb in his head was dulling, but it was being replaced with a general tension all over his body. He took another slug.

“He was her ‘therapeutic consultant’. Same with that Olympic diver who aerated his wife with buckshot. Or that chessmaster who took a knife to his handlers to see if they were real people or life-sized chess pieces. All graduates of the same laughing academy.” Dooley drifted over to the bed. “Look, whatever I can say to convince you this is a bad idea, I’ll use it. Religion, money, anything. I’ve been in the same room as killers and dictators and this guy scares white into my hair. Say you’ll wait. Say you won’t go in. What fare are you getting that’s worth all the trouble?”

Mahoney squeezed his eyes shut. “Nothing you’d understand. I just…I have to. It has to be me, and it has to be there.”

Dooley growled through his nose, stamping the life out of his latest cigarette. “All right, Mahoney. All right.”

 

Like all good supervillain lairs, the Oculus Institute sat atop a seaside cliff. Mahoney, his hair slicked to the side with borrowed pomade and wearing a suit he’d only worn once before, to a funeral, drove a dummy car up the front drive. There was no gate, an oddity in such a place. Mahoney tried to contain his sense of foreboding as he drove past thick cypress hedges and up to the front of the white stone building.

A female attendant was waiting for him. The uniform for the place was the same green as the pamphlet. The girl’s set came with a headdress that brought to mind Red Cross nurses from the war. Her eyes were at half-mast, her unsmiling face held no makeup.

“Mr. French?” Her voice was flat.

Mahoney tried to smile like someone else and ended up thrusting his chin out awkwardly. “That’s me, Harold French. Friends call me Harry.”

The girl said nothing. Mahoney realized she was waiting for him to get out of the car, so he scrambled.

“You are here of your own free will, yes?” Her diction was stilted, as if English wasn’t her first language and she had memorized her script by rote.

“Committing myself? Boy howdy. The office tells me—”

“You will be apprised of our going rates,” the girl continued smoothly as they crossed the threshold and into a very spartan hallway. It was as if someone had put a hotel front on a prison. The hall was unglamorous and identical to any number of buildings in the city, save for a series of canvases that hung the length of the hall. Mahoney tried to contain a rapidly blooming sense of unease as he walked past them. Even before he saw the cursive dash of “R.Rousseau” in the corner, he knew they were the late artist’s product by the sheer anarchy of the brushwork. These were cruder, possibly done early in his manic period. One canvas depicted an empty sidewalk that looked very much like the front of the Jackson Memorial hall. Another showed a bungalow crouched among weeds and creepers like a fleeing crab. Another showed a lonely house on a hill, Miss Bianchi’s mansion. Mahoney realized with a jolt that they were all places he had visited. He swung around to look at the others, got a glimpse of a lonely alley populated by an overturned trash can and an empty refrigerator turned on its side and used as a makeshift house, before the buzzer for the interior door sounded. The girl was through and gone before  Mahoney realized he’d lagged, and skipped to catch up.

The girl strode down the hallway as if she ran on a greased track, smoothly and efficiently so her green smock didn’t so much as crease. There was art on the hallway walls in here, too, every three doors or so. All the same portrait. Unlike the front hall, this painting was done by an artist who seemed afraid of its subject, and not without reason. The subject of the painting, a man with thick-rim glasses and a glowing bald pate, seemed to stare through the canvas. His face was empty of human emotion in a way that made the air around the painting seem a few degrees colder. It was the kind of face that could watch an opera or an execution and be equally unmoved. A brass plate below the frame read: “our founder.”

“The pamphlet listed our facilities,” the girl spoke monotonously, indicating the doors that lined the hallway with a hand. None of them were marked. “We have much more than what is available at the surface level, of course. All will be revealed in time. But not before your test.”

Mahoney spoke up. “Ah yes, I brought the results of my last physical, three months ago. No need.”

The girl looked at him, and the look knew things. Mahoney slowed his pace. A sudden bolt back down the hallway was only stymied by the automatic door, which had closed on his heels.

“You will be tested,” she said flatly.

Mahoney hunkered down and tried to breathe calmly. When the hall t-boned, the girl went left. Mahoney ran right.

Of course, escape was all but impossible. The windows he had seen from the outside didn’t seem capable of opening, and he doubted the place had a laundry chute handy for sliding down. He jogged around another right turn and met with an identical stretch of hallway. Thurgood Orroft glared down at him. Maybe this was why the grounds were unfenced, the place was practically a fortress. Each patient suite a cloistered cell accessible only from the outside, soundproofed, with a drain in the floor for easy cleaning. He rounded another right turn at a slightly quicker pace. If he could only get his hands on something sharp, maybe he could take a prisoner and negotiate his way out.

Mahoney slowed, stopping in the middle of the immaculate hallway.

He had turned right three times. Jogged about the same distance the every time. By all rights, he should be back where he started.

Mahoney started to perspire.

Easing into a light jog, he vowed to turn left at the next junction. That never came. Instead, he was stuck jogging down a series of identical right turns. When he finally ran back into the girl, flanked by burly young men in green scrubs, it was almost a relief.

Mahoney crouched and put his hands on his knees, winded. “Mulligan?”

The girl blinked. The men surged from around her like a green river and converged on Mahoney. He was seized in several places and carted bodily off down the hall.

“Your test lies this way, Mr. Mahoney,” the girl said flatly, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

Mahoney tried not to show shock. “Why are you calling me that?”

“We were told to expect you.” The girl stopped at a door identical to the ones around it and took out a large ring of keys. “Your vision test will be in this room.”

What lay behind the door was not a sterile white examination room as he’d expected, but a cold bare-stone interior about as homey as the face of the moon. Something he couldn’t call anything besides an altar sat in the middle of the room. A lens of thick, mottled green glass sat in a fork of carved soapstone, a strange sort of cradle just in front of it. Mahoney was given one blissful second of ignorance at its function before he was thrown, bodily, over it.

The girl watched with hooded eyes as they shackled his limbs beneath the cradle, leaving him lying prone on his stomach with his chin in a leather sling. The lens gleamed just before his face. The girl gave the glass a slight tilt, making all the shadows on the other side of it reverse. And suddenly he knew. He knew.

Mahoney fought. One of the wrist restraints pulled out of the stone after a few wrenches. This earned him a haymaker to the shoulder and a dizzying moment of pain. An orderly sat on his arm.

“We usually save the seeing glass for brothers of the leaves,” the girl continued, “they must graduate through several levels of mindfulness and discussion. Their minds widened before the glass helps them to truly see. You are the exception.”

Mahoney clenched his eyes shut and turned his head. A thick, muscular hand forced him to face forward. Two sets of fingers pried his eyelids open.

Above him, emotionless, pitiless, the girl stared down. Mahoney realized he hadn’t seen her blink the whole time he’d been here. His own eyes burned.

“Look into the glass Mahoney. It’s what you’re here for.”

Mahoney looked.

Mahoney screamed.

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The Day It Rained Rats

Joseph lived on a farm. His eyes were the same faded denim blue as the sky, his skin was the white of the weathered silo wood, and his hair was the dark gold of wheat stubble left in a field. He had lived on the farm all thirteen years of his life and knew all the moods of it. Often, he could tell by the color of the sky at dawn how the day was going to go; If it would rain, if something had got into the chicken coop, how many visitors they would have. It seemed no significant trick to him, so he never devised a language with which to discuss it. He felt this deficit sorely the day he woke up and the sky was crystal.

What did that mean? Even in his own head, he struggled to define it. The sky had a peculiar crackling quality to it almost like a lightning storm, but not quite. The air tasted like a tornado, yet none of the animals in their pens had the telltale restlessness that preceded such storms. The sky simply wasn’t right, and he couldn’t explain how or why.

So he didn’t.

The day was unremarkable from sunup to about two-thirty. Ma and Pa and baby Sadie went to town to see about some business. Uncles Carl and Curt, identical save for Curt’s bristled-straw mustache, were left on hand to mind everything. Joseph did what he normally did: weave in and out of chores to grab the odd lonely moment where he could be by himself. Instead of whittling or playing marbles, he put his ear to the sky. The atmosphere had turned an innocuous blue, but the air still tasted wrong. Earthy. Like the ground after a lightning snap.

Uncle Curt was on the roof chasing one of the chickens back to ground-level. Carl had availed himself to replace the rope-winch to the well and had Joseph on standby to hand him tools. It was all so shockingly normal so when the change came it was as sudden and terrible as a thunderclap.

Carl tied a quick blood knot as a stay and grunted as he got up from a sitting position.

“Awl’s in the house,” he said, ambling across the yard, “lent it to your daddy for his leather.”

Joseph followed not out of duty, but simple inertia. He floated like a fishing bob behind his uncle as they met Curt, walking perpendicular with a chicken under one arm.

“‘Bout to get the mallet,” Curt said. Carl grunted.

The brothers parted, Carl to the house, Curt to the coop.

“S’funny,” Carl began, “I ever tell you—”

Whatever anecdote he began was lost, never to be found again. A meaty thud of impact reverberated across the farm yard. As one, uncle and nephew turned.

Curt stood angled oddly, as if frozen in the middle of a dance. He held his arm in one hand, face ashen grey.

“Okay,” he said, spitting. “Oookay.”

His right shoulder was oddly lumpy and grey. No. As it began to move, Joseph realized the impact had been the sound of a rat hitting his shoulder. The rodent lay draped over the dislocated joint, no bigger than a loaf of banana bread. Whatever height it had fallen from had stunned it momentarily. The moment was over almost as quickly as it began, when the rat righted itself and screeched. Joseph got a flashbulb impression of mad black eyes and yellow teeth before it buried itself in Curt’s shoulder, screaming.

Carl unfroze. He drove the boy before him with a firm hand, saying, “go on, get,” as he shoved Joseph towards the house. They reached the safety of the porch as another rat screeched from the sky to wind up denting the hood of the old Ford truck. They gaped as the rodent shook off the fall and scampered away.

From the safety of the front steps they watched Curt make it halfway across the yard until another rat beaned him on the head. He’d been tearing at the rat who’d been tearing at his shoulder, now his hands fell away and he dropped to one knee. The rat that bounced off his head scampered to his ankle, followed by three new arrivals.

Curt looked up just once, making eye contact with Carl. Carl nodded grimly and shoved Joseph inside the house.

Curt only screamed towards the end. Carl wouldn’t let him look outside, but Joseph still heard the battered sound of Curt’s throat trying to make words, along with the desperate slaps as he tried to beat them away.

Carl was breathing heavy. Perspiration formed a mustache on his clean-shaven face.

“They just bounced,” he said, not to Joseph or anyone alive. “They fell outta the damn sky and ain’t even dead!”

The tin roof of the farmhouse became a deafening drum, continuous gong sounds echoing through the house as rats hit the metal. Carl went to great aunt Sadie’s sewing desk and got some cotton wool for their ears and then put Joseph to work barricading doors. The icebox went in front of the back door. The china cabinet before the front. One window was broken by a sideways-sleeting rat that Carl threw out by the tail, he nailed the tea-tray over the hole.

Joseph stood at the second-story window in his parent’s room. The rain had been going on for an hour, now the fall of bodies was cushioned by the other bodies. A fat carpet of rats swarmed the chicken coop. He could hear the cows in the pasture, bellowing as they swatted fruitlessly with their tails. The barn cat was nowhere in sight, but more than likely a loss.

Carl came into the room panting and perspiring. “Damn fine thing it isn’t raining cats and dogs right now,” he joked thinly. He noticed Joseph and waved. “Come away from the winder. Nothing worth seeing out there, anyway.”

The daylight turned black as the inside of a cow’s stomach. Storm clouds deposited rat after rat on the dusty ruin of the farm. The air smelled thick and sharp, the earthiness turned to the smell of a rat’s den. Joseph imagined the clouds roiling with all the debris that comes with rodents; perhaps a musky rain of rat’s piss would fall on them next.

Carl deposited Joseph on the settee and looked at him hard. “I don’t like your eyes, boy.”

Joseph turned robotically to look at him. “Ma and pa. Baby Sadie.”

Carl failed to hide his dismay quickly enough. “I’m sure they’re fine. Lots of buildings downtown, good hard brick.”

They both knew it was a lie.

The rats knocked out the single line that ran to the farmhouse, so they had supper by candlelight. Leftover beef, new potatoes that grit in their teeth, and stale biscuits. Joseph saw an upside-down cake his mother left in the icebox and said nothing. Carl kept up a regimen of bright, brittle conversation that did not succeed in drowning out the screech of rats.

“I’ve heard of fish rain afore,” he said, cotton wool all but muffling his voice, “frogs one time, too. Up in Heckville. That was in your great-grandad’s time.” His hands shook as he sawed the meat. He cut the webbing between his thumb and forefinger and swore through a gritted smile.

“You’ll see, Joseph,” he said as he swaddled the cut with a cloth napkin. “A little rain like this is nothin’. Not at all. Probably just some tornader pick them up from elsewhere. Nothin’ at all.”

Joseph sat and watched his uncle with dry eyes. Part of him had cracked and fallen away when the first rat fell. His uncle’s desperate babble washed over him like a weak tide. He smelled the crackling odor of the sky and heard the rats and felt nothing.

Joseph would have liked to sleep in his own bed, but Carl dragged him into the cellar. There amidst the damp and the jars of preserves, Carl spread a single quilt over the both of them.

“You’ll see, bluebird,” he kept repeating. Bluebird had been his nickname for Joseph a long time ago. “You’ll just see.” What Joseph would see and what it would do, Carl did not say. He only repeated the phrase over and over.

The cellar floor was hard under his spine and Carl had only thought to bring one pillow. Somehow sleep found Joseph. He cracked an eye open at dawn.

The air smelled…normal. He could smell the color of the sky as clearly as he could see from the kitchen window that it would be the same flat blue as any other day.

The farm was in tatters. The dirt of the coop was churned up, not even a feather left. The rats had gnawed a hole in the silo and gorged themselves. In the pasture, only the metal tags from the heifer’s ears remained. Of the rats there was no sign.

Carl woke with a start when Joseph touched his arm.

“It’s clear. We can go now,” Joseph said.

Carl dithered an hour before he could even bring himself to look out the window, but once he did he fell into a manic frenzy of packing supplies. Though he swore they would return, Joseph watched him pack the government bonds and great-grandma’s golden brooch, along with every stitch of cash they had in the house.

The yard was empty of birdsong. The click of the front door closing echoed against the outbuildings. Carl gripped Joseph’s arm tightly as if he were blind and the boy was guiding him and set off down the long dirt lane up to the county road, a sad concrete tongue more full of potholes than cement.

Long hours they walked in the blistering sun. They passed other farms, other empty houses. Carl jumped every time something shifted. Joseph’s eyes were dry as he tracked the sun. The sky was bruise-purple before they came upon another sign of life: an old Chevy sputtering down the track. Carl dropped their burden and waved, screaming and yelling. The car kept on coming right toward them. A sharp smell hit Joseph’s nose.

“Y’see bluebird? It all works out.” Carl was chanting. He waved.

The impact of a fallen object shattered the windshield, sending the car drifting into the wrong lane before it collided with a fence pole and stopped. Both uncle and nephew held their breaths. There was a long, still moment before they saw movement from the car’s cab; but it wasn’t the injured driver or even a sky-born rat. It was a thin tabby cat that extracted itself from the crater before neatly grooming its tail.

“Bluebird,” Carl said meaninglessly as impact thuds started up all around them. “Oh, bluebird.”

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The Dangerous Adventures of Mutt & Mike

I can paint you an exact picture of where I was when The Mutt & Mike Thanksgiving Special aired, even though it’s identical to countless other Saturdays from my childhood. I was sitting at the dining table at an angle so that I could still see our old two-dial Magnavox, shoveling sugary cereal into my mouth. My mother worked the night shift back then, so she was still snoring away on the pull-out couch. I could describe the rip in the wallpaper from when I tried to put up a tent in the living room. I could tell you how many pillows we had (five) and how the birdcage at the window held not a bird but a yellowed peperomia, that the front curtain was not a real curtain but an old sheet from my bed bearing characters from an old scifi show.

But of the cartoon I can tell you so little, so very little.

Mike was a pink blob, Mutt was yellow. The background was cyan, maybe. They lived in a house, or perhaps a formless void that was the home of so many other cheap cartoons. It’s a blur. The cartoon left a vaguely pleasant film on my mind, like the fuzz the cereal left on my teeth. I’m not sure what compelled me to get down from my chair, push in the tape that was mainly used for recording Night Court episodes, and hit the record button halfway through the special. The end result was that a whole 28 minutes and forty seconds of Mutt & Mike was preserved that day due to my childish interference.

And it should not exist.

The lost media wiki has no entries on it. I’ve dipped my toe in forums that call its existence a hoax, a delusion, an attempt to spread viral advertising for some upcoming movie. Promotional stills have been dissected by internet experts who call a matter of pixel blurring hard proof.

I’m not the only one who’s seen the show. Believe me, I would be only too happy to chalk it down to a misremembered event, if not for the others. A user calling himself xXterrytoonsXx claimed to have fifteen of the first season’s episodes and made plans to upload them to youtube. He ran into increasingly high hurdles as his video capture equipment broke down, as he accidentally damaged some tapes in the process. The vlogs he released in-between upload attempts showed his deteriorating state. He slurred words, mumbled, moved increasingly like a broken marionette as his coordination went. His last contact with the outside world was a badly-misspelled plea for a competent video editor and then…silence. Not one of the thousands of internet sherlocks were able to dig up a family or even an acquaintance. He had never even answered one of my messages begging him to respond.

I check my email first thing: 94 new messages since I checked before falling asleep four hours ago. Angry missives from trolls who want to see the tape. Skeptics quizzing me on exact details. People who claim to have seen Mutt & Mike too and want to reach out to me. Those are the hardest to deal with. I want to share this with someone else, I want to commiserate with other people, but I’ve been through it all before. These people are the wooden horse left by a retreating army. Once they’ve breached my defense they’ll start asking if I remember this or that, and can I describe this scene exactly, trying to loot the cursed treasure of my memory.The concept of people who want to contract a virus on purpose is entirely new to me. I say this because Mutt & Mike is exactly that, a virus.

My mother gave me the tapes when she moved down to Florida with her husband. Most of our TV things had been damaged in a flood, only this little box had remained snugly upstairs because it held the auxiliary remotes. I received a whole lot of tapes with nothing but Night Court, Murphy Brown, and THE tape bearing my childish scribble. I couldn’t make out the words I had written down so long ago, deciding to plop it in my VCR/DVD combo. Maybe if I hadn’t been so eager to hold on to the past, none of this would be this way. I could have gotten the solo DVD player, or just dumped the tapes on a thrift store. I popped the black plastic lozenge into the mouth of my VCR instead. Halfway through Harry Stone’s legal antics, the picture changed. Familiar and garish colors filled my screen and I was transported back to our old apartment for a brief moment.

I woke up four hours later to a blue screen and a screaming headache. I had urinated on myself.

Before he fired me for failure to show, my boss had often told me I always seemed like I was searching for something. When I was on the phone to clients, my eyes didn’t go off into the middle distance but glanced around me seeking something or someone. I didn’t seem like I’d be happy, he said, until I found the thing I was looking for.

Was Mutt & Mike that? God, I hope not.

Why don’t I dispose of the tape, you might ask? I’ve thought hard about it, believe me. VHS tapes are practically engineered for self-destruction anyway, wearing out with each successive viewing. I’ve thought about eviscerating the tape’s guts and pouring acetone over them. I’ve considered fire, hammers, even the garbage disposal. But…

And this is where I get stuck. I don’t know why I stop there every time, but I do. I look at this plastic rectangle and realize I am the only person in the world who has this. My hands stop and my body fails and my mind goes blank. It would be very easy to attribute this all to the tape but it’s me. I know it’s me. I want to look away. I can’t.

I haven’t gone outside in a while. I get my groceries online, have them delivered. I have triple locks on my door and a doorbell camera. Multiple threats on my life, you see. Some people are so eager to see the abominable they feel entitled to it. As if I’ve stolen something of theirs. I didn’t even know. I stumbled into a TV forum, innocently asking if anyone had heard of this cartoon. My head was still buzzing (perhaps I had hit it in the seizure) and all I wanted was to make sense of my situation. I didn’t know. I’d take it back if I could.

One of the more threatening emails I’ve gotten pledges “you can’t keep this secret forever.” And they’re right of course. I know I am not enough to hold it back. I am Pandora, and each night as I lay in bed I feel my fingertips burning with curiosity. Perhaps, the worm whispers, perhaps it’s not as bad as all that. What if I’m wrong, just this time? What if this has all been a dream and I’m simply choosing to stay here?

Back then, on that Saturday, I had no notion that things would ever be anything but the way they were. That we would lose the apartment and that television. That I would wind up sleeping on that pull-out couch with two step brothers that came too quickly and too close together. That my mother would lose job after job, that I would relinquish the last of my childhood in a misguided effort to ease her suffering. Perhaps the cartoon knew all this, knew I would push myself to revisit that time, knew I had never abandoned that moment despite the years.

Perhaps I really am insane.

The tape sits on the last table left in my apartment. As my savings go, I must sell off the other furniture, but the table must remain. And the television. And the VCR. And the electricity to run them both. And who knows, some day when everything has been sold that can be sold, when I can no longer keep the bills at bay, I will take that black rectangle and put it into its slot and hit play. I will watch the bright shapes bounce across the screen, I will hit all the same beats one last time and just…let it be the end.

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Ascension

“Daddy, is grandma in heaven?”

Megan had the window seat. The blue glow of the sky outside the plane sucked the warmth from her skin. Her eyes looked too big in her face.

“Of course.” Just one of many uncomfortable exchanges Dwight had fielded during their journey. He had expected and prepared for it.

“Because mommy said she’s down below.”

In the ground or in hell? Dwight stopped his tongue short from asking that. He’d have words with Susan when they got back. “Grandma’s in heaven, right next to grandpa. We’re just going to see them put her earthly body in the ground.”

“Oh. But then her ghost flew up?” Megan explored her nose with an index finger.

Dwight captured it and pulled it away. “Her spirit. Honey, did mommy say anything scary to you?”

The girl’s eyes strayed to the window outside. “No.”

“Because sometimes mommy says things without thinking, and I want you to tell me when that happens.”

Megan continued looking out the window. Petulance or fear of her father, he couldn’t fathom which.

“Do you remember your cousins,” he said, hoping the change of subjects would distract her. “Clyde and Emmy and Robert?”

The girl was looking deep into the clouds. “When people die in plane crashes, what do their ghosts do?”

Dwight bit his lip thoughtfully. “Did mommy say we were going to crash? Did she talk about plane crashes with you?”

“No. Just wondering.”

Dwight sighed. She’d never implicate her mother, not ever. “Well, sweetie, planes hardly ever crash. Do you know we’re safer up here than we would be in a car down there? Cars crash all the time.”

“Yeah, but you can live through a car crash.” Megan hadn’t moved her eyes. “Anyway, you didn’t answer me. Where does your ghost go when you die on a plane?”

Christ, how morbid. But she wasn’t wrong. For a moment Dwight couldn’t stop his brain from exploring that scenario, what the black box would say when it was found. If it was found. He forced himself back to the moment.

Spirit, Megan, ghosts aren’t real. Your spirit goes to heaven just the same as if you…on the ground.”

“I don’t think so.”

Dwight growled, then caught himself. “Mommy is very mean, sometimes, Megan, and she’s very sneaky about it. If she talks about sad things while you’re in the room—”

“Mommy doesn’t talk about spirits. I’m talking about it.” Megan seemed more estranged to him the longer she gazed out the window and the blue sky gazed back at her, the light and unnatural  stillness making her look like the pupa of something alien to him.

“So all spirits go right up to heaven?”

“Abso-tutely.”

“Are we in heaven?”

Dwight jumped slightly. “No, baby, why do you say that?”

“‘Cause there’s a spirit out there.”

Megan’s blunt little finger pointed out the plexiglass window to the clouds that surrounded the plane. The sun was beginning to descend; by the time they reached the airport it would be night. Right now the sky was a play of light and shadow, and Dwight almost said to his daughter that she had seen a cloud shaped like something and spun that off into an anecdote about finding shapes in clouds to coax her away from her morbid turn of mind when a small swirl of activity caught his eye.

For a moment something had curled, ribbonlike, in the corner of his vision. For a moment something had moved not like a bird or a cloud or another plane but something that hunted underwater, something fast and fluid.

Dwight craned his head at the window, over Megan’s protests that he was squishing her, and panned the limited view the porthole afforded.

Nothing. Nothing and nothing and nothing.

Dwight shifted back into his seat. “Baby, that’s not funny.”

“It wasn’t a joke. I saw a spirit.” Megan was puzzled. “Why aren’t they shaped like people?”

“How was it shaped?”

She drew a descending curlique with her finger. Dwight gulped.

“The gulf stream—sometimes clouds—” he looked out the window again. “Almost nothing flies at this height, honey.”

“I know. Just spirits.” Megan turned to the window again. She scrunched her face up. “I wonder if it’s angry. It was moving fast.”

Dwight realized his finger was hovering over the call button and pulled back. “Honey, your imagination—”

“There’s another one!” The girl jumped up in her seat, excited. A passing attendant gave them a benign smile. Dwight returned it, sliding down slightly in his seat.

“Megan, honey, lower your voice.”

Megan’s face pressed hard on the window. “Two. Three! Dad, there’s a bunch.”

Other people were looking over at them, a mix of irritation and exhaustion. Dwight turned to yank the window shade down and caught movement. Something cloud colored and textured but moving like a leech swimming through a muddy stream. Dwight pressed his face so hard against the window he cracked his forehead.

“Daddy!” Megan shifted against the pressure from his shoulder. Dwight was aware she was talking, aware of her discomfort, but could not spare space in his head at the moment.

The clouds boiled and burst in small increments as a smokelike wraiths seesawed through their particulate mass. They were too quick to take in details: no faces, no limbs, just white blurs.

They were no longer the sole witnesses to this miracle. A woman 12 seats up the aisle burst into a scream. A man behind them pounded on the glass as his wife snored on his shoulder. Through the eddys of panic, the attendant waded, making motions of appeasement with her hands.

The plane began to rock. The ‘fasten seatbelts’ sign lit up.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot,” the intercom burbled. Dwight’s hands were shaking as he tried and failed to fasten his daughter’s buckle. “We seem to have hit a minor patch of turbulence, nothing to worry about, but you will need to buckle up.

At the head of the aisle, an attendant demonstrated proper fastening etiquette. It was ignored in the anarchy. People were screaming, vomiting, seething with all the angst of a mob that had nowhere to go. Dwight found it harder and harder to breathe with every successive lurch. He chanced a look out the window and then fumbled for his airsickness bag. The plane’s wing was circled with serpentine bands the same color as the clouds. Most of the passengers stopped screaming as the plane’s flight evened out, some gasping thanks to various gods. Dwight felt no relief. He watched the clouds sink beneath them further without fully comprehending what was happening. They had stopped shaking, didn’t that mean the pilot had regained control? Senselessly, he put his hand to the glass and tried to wipe the tendrils from the plane wing.

“—can’t, I mean, we won’t stop climbing.” the intercom screeched to life, probably from the pilot having bumped up against it. “Don’t touch the comms until we can figure out what’s wrong.

Some people mumbled prayer. Some screamed theirs out loud. Dwight looked over them, deaf and blind from panic.

“What’s going on?” he asked no one in particular. “Where are they taking us?”

“That’s easy.” Megan sat stoic, blue light deepening on her face and making her eyes look black. “Heaven.” In the window beyond her face, stars began winking into view.

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The Little Stranger

With the way things ended up, you might have expected Lucy Sullivan to kill her mother on the way out. They thought her a stillbirth initially, shocked by the sudden resurgence of heartbeat at 28 weeks. But no, Lucy was born at 6am on a Thursday, 8 pounds 5 ounces, to Dolores and Danny Sullivan. Ghost pale, even then, with hair that turned invisible in strong light. Dolores wanted to name her Angelica for obvious reasons, but Danny put his foot down for the first and last time in his marriage and the baby was named after his mother. After that there were no arguments, no disagreements. The house belonged to Lucy, and everything  and everyone in it. One look from her melted even the most contrary heart. The other girls in school would secretly snip locks from her blonde-white head to keep as lucky charms, snipping more and more as the hair from their own heads began thinning mysteriously. The Sullivans had no end of babysitters, which turned out lucky because they were prone to frequent bouts of colic that left them bedridden. With a townful of attention, their daughter thrived.

It was a mystery. On paper, Lucy was an unremarkable student. She never quite learned her times tables, grammar continually eluded her. Yet Lucy was provided enough to pass every exam by sympathetic hands, some belonging to the school staff. Lucy was not stupid, they could see it in the blinding brightness of her smile and the inquisitive tilt of her head. She simply needed more help, fragile creature that she was.

The Sullivans lasted until her sixth year, and then they died in a house fire. As the story went, Dolores had fallen prey to a wasting sickness and, in her weakness, had failed to right a fallen lantern. The townsfolk could see the sorrow behind Lucy’s smile, the cornflower blue of her eyes. Fostering was a fierce competition, it was only by pulling rank that the town pastor won. His own children had long since grown, he and his wife’s house sat empty and neat as a museum. Lucy made it live again, if not with the melodic sound of her laughter then her constant stream of visitors. Everyone in town found excuses to come visit the orphan in her new roost. The pastor’s only visitors were his children, who noted more and more grey in their father’s hair as months went by. Their concern went unvoiced. Who cared if the old man walked with a stoop now, or that his wife was too weak to manage anything but peas-and-barley porridge? They took care of Lucy with the fervor of a saint, and that was all that really mattered.

The pastor keeled over mid-sermon one Sunday. Visitors to his house found Lucy weeping at the foot of his wife’s bed, the hearth and the woman both stone cold. Edward Murray, the richest man in the county, swooped in. His only son needed a wife, and so he paid for Lucy’s boarding school. Four years tuition wasted on a girl who came out knowing no more than when she came in. That was enough for Murray. His son, John Davis Murray, was joined in holy matrimony to Lucy when he was twenty-seven and she the tender age of sixteen. The marriage lasted a year.

John Murray, on his deathbed, swore his wife the sole heritor of everything he owned in the world. His chest collapsed from coughing and his striking auburn hair went grey, but it only made stark contrast to the pale beauty of Lucy, sat at the foot of his bed, embroidering. Inherit she did, but only a token sum once Edward Murray’s lawyers got hold of his will. Edward became ill shortly after his only son’s passing, ranting about his son’s widow and turning himself into a pariah among the townsfolk. In the scourge and scandal, Lucy remained unblemished as a rose petal.

Care of the girl became a civic concern. Let it never be said that the townsfolk left such a tragic orphan to the poorhouse. Lucy moved from home to home, borne up by many hands. The town paid into a pension for her care as she turned nineteen, twenty, twenty-one years old. That year a blight struck the crops, a grey mold that shivered with the wind until the fields looked full of smoke. With the last of the town’s coffers they sent Lucy to the city, to a convent of some repute. She never reached it. A rich stranger’s eye caught on her white-gold hair and suddenly she was in society, where her lack of education mattered as little as dandelion fluff. She was engaged to a playboy who raced cars in his leisure time, widowed again when he fell asleep behind the wheel. She became a companion to a factory heiress, inheriting some of her nicer jewelry when a social disease the girl contracted turned septic. Lucy rose up the ranks buoyed by tragedy. There was always room in the heart for such a victim of circumstance, you see. Her smile was unweathered by despair, her eyes clear and blue and free from messy tears.

When something really, truly happened to Lucy, it came as quite the shock. She had spent years teetering on the edge of illness, but now she fell well and truly sick for the first time in her life. The prognosis was grim.

“You’re pregnant,” a doctor told her.

Lucy’s face was flat as a tombstone. “That can’t be.”

“I’m afraid so.” The man’s handsome face smiled at her, for her. “I’m sure you and the father must be delighted.”

“You don’t understand, this can’t happen. This mustn’t happen.” What color remained in Lucy’s face drained. “Not to me.”

The doctor held her as she fell into hysterics, called for laudanum to calm her when he couldn’t. Lucy spent the last months of her pregnancy in a hospital bed, alternating between fear and denial. Her white-blonde hair thinned and her veins showed dark under her skin. Nurses pulled double shifts at her bedside, fearing for their pretty young charge. Straps were installed after the poor girl clawed at her stomach in a bout of hysteria. Despite every reassurance that her child was healthy and in fact thriving in the womb, Lucy’s fear could not be assuaged.

On the day of the birth, Lucy made one last plea to the doctor before she was wheeled to the operating room.

“Please,” she said. Her gums had retreated from her teeth and her eyes threaded with veins, her white hair nearly gone from her head. “I’m not meant for this.”

The doctor, who had fallen deeply in love with her despite her fading appearance, clasped her hand tightly. “Don’t worry, I’ll do everything in my power to make sure the baby survives.”

Lucy died on the operating table. Cardiac arrest from the strain, they said. The babe was delivered; ten pounds, seven ounces. Hale and healthy. So healthy, in fact, that it was the sole survivor of the influenza outbreak that leveled the infant ward the next day. The baby was given the name Victor, and he cooed charmingly as he was introduced to his new adoptive family. His mother, a barren woman past her prime, openly wept at the story of his circumstance.

“I promise you a long and full life,” she told the little one.

Victor smiled.

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Night Light

It’s hard to sleep.

I have chronic migraines. The slightest hint of a glow sets off this piercing tone in my head, which makes my eyeballs throb in their sockets, which makes my jaw clench until it aches, which makes my scalp pucker and bristle, on and on in a domino effect. You can imagine the work I had to do to eliminate light from my room. No electronics. Blackout curtains. I even wear a sleep mask for good measure. It worked.

Until the street light.

I rolled over one night and found a new needle of agony driven into me. Bright, halogen-white light leaking through my blackout curtains no matter how I adjusted them. Even turned to my other side with my sleep mask firmly tamped down, I could still see it or imagined I could. The glow shuttered shortly after sunrise, and I managed to catch a few winks out of sheer desperation.

After too much morning coffee, I walked up and down my street, trying to determine the position of the usurper. If I could find the culprit, I could call the city service number on its base. Hours later, I despaired of any solution. None of the street lamps were positioned closely to my house (and this had been a selling point for me) or at such an angle that I could easily see it from my window. It looked like another night of agony for me, and it was.

I didn’t even try to sleep, but it didn’t lessen the pain. I tried pushing the curtain aside, but the deluge of light shot through me like a bullet and I had to fall back. I had seen flood lights with less wattage. What possible bulb could the city be using in the lamp?

I admit, I must have sounded like a raving madman on that service line. I was out days of sleep, and my already fragile nerves were shot. I think I begged them to come and take the bulb out because the light was too sharp. I sat on the porch sipping endless rounds of coffee until the city worker came out. He looked sideways at my disheveled appearance, but walked me through the plan nonetheless.

There were six lamps in my neighborhood block, he said, three on my street, three on the street behind my house. He brought out the block blueprint and talked about light pollution, power saving, and many other topics I was too exhausted to untangle. It was nearing sundown and he held up a hand.

“Now watch,” he said, “and see if you can tell me which one shines in your window.”

One by one, the bulbs flickered on. Orange. The same dull sodium orange that shone from every other lamp in the city.

I thanked the worker for his time and walked home. The second I closed my bedroom door behind me, the light returned. Of course.

Even with my prescription sunglasses, I could not determine the source. It was as if the light was a solid block against my window. What’s more, I found something else as I pushed the curtains aside. Despite the harsh power of the rays, I noticed the vase on my desk did not cast even a thin shadow. Nothing did.

So now I sit here, sleepless. In the diffusion around my blackout curtains, I can see the light staring into me relentless as an x-ray. The source, purpose, and means of it are all mysteries I have given up on. I no longer fear that it will keep me from sleep.

I fear the day I will be able to sleep, and what will happen then.

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The Diabolical Book

The bookmaker sat on a blanket in the open air market. His front teeth were worn to nubs from gnawing at linen thread. His hands were deeply callused from generations of papercuts. He alone merited the shade of the market’s lone tree, for he could not afford a canopy.

His ears picked up the tap of shoes arriving at his blanket. The old man wiped patiently at a book. Nine times out of ten, footsteps approaching meant merely he was an oddity being observed.

The stranger spoke: “you are Prindl, yes?”

“That is what most call me.” Prindl’s face tracked the root of the voice, tilting like a sunseeking flower.

“You are blind?” The stranger sounded oddly delighted. The mild scent of tobacco hit the bookmaker’s nose. Nothing else. How odd.

“Too many nights working over tallow candles.” Prindl straightened his charges, running his hand over covers as if caressing sleeping children. “My output is not what it once was, but please take your pick.”

The stranger did not hesitate a moment before saying, “you have nothing that strikes my fancy here, my good man. I have a special order in mind.”

Prindl grimaced. “I only make custom books on rare occasions now. Please, I’m sure what you want must be here.” He proffered a red leather-bound Octavo volume.

“In truth, nothing of what I want exists in tangible form.” The stranger squatted on his heels. His shoes creaked oddly, as if his feet did not fill the soles. “I have need of a book to write in. I have many things to write.”

“Suna near the entrance is a journal-maker.” Prindl was irritated now. “Complete with pens. Her wife makes the pretty marbled endpaper. Those should suit you.”

“Now now, not every record is a journal. This would be massive.” The strangers voice had a kind of charm that picked at one’s head. “May I at least tell you of the book I want?”

Prindl said nothing.

“It must be a volume of nearly infinite capacity. Therefore the spine would have to be a core of 360 degrees. Each page must be as thin as you could get it, and fold out to another, even thinner page. No cover would be needed, of course.”

Even in the daylight, Prindl grew cold. “No such book can exist. Here—” he pushed a maroon volume forward. “A birds-nest binding, very popular with lovers back in my youth. The pages are good rag linen.”

“That won’t do, I’m afraid.” The stranger was mildly amused.

“Well then here—” Prindl picked more books up. “A ladder binding. The cover is dolphin leather. Gurt the embosser did the interior before he died. Anything you’d see on the market now is his son. Or how about this?” He held up a small, sleek quarto. “Tuck-fold binding. The cover itself could be a writing surface.”

“My man, no other book will do. No other artist will do. I’ve asked around, and only you seem to possess the skill I need.”

Prindl frowned. “A circular volume is…blasphemy.”

“I didn’t take you for a believer.”

“And I’m not…save for a few select areas. This is one.”

The stranger clasped his hands together. They were covered in kid leather gloves that squeaked oddly. Prindl had to wonder at the shape of the man, like a profane volume bound in plain leather. What did the other bookmakers see, he wondered?

“It goes without saying your reward would be handsome.”

“And it goes without saying that I am old and earned my right to be contrarian. Goodbye, sir.”

Prindl stood and limped to the refreshment stall, not waiting on his potential customer.

 

The next week’s market. Prindl sat on his blanket. His hands were puffy with the sting of errant pinpricks. His sightless eyes wept with exhaustion. His hunched back ached as he sat on a cushion he’d brought from home.

There was the lopsided creak of a familiar set of shoes approaching.

“God damn you,” Prindl said without preamble.

The stranger, at least, had the good manners not to laugh. “I told you I chose you well.”

“You knew my curiosity would not let me rest.” Prindl stifled a yawn. “You didn’t ask around, did you? I was your first and only choice.”

“Curiosity is about the only reliable thing with people, I find.” The stranger’s body now carried the scent of lit tobacco. Nothing else. No meat, no eau de cologne, not even a hint of body odor.

“I have not even begun work on the signatures, I cannot find satisfactory material for the spine.” Prindl held up his shaking hands. “I know I am not up to the task. No mortal hand is. But I cannot stop.”

“Your reward will be handsome.”

“What good will handsome rewards do me in my grave? This book will be the end of me before I end it.”

“Ah, well put.” The stranger’s smile was evident in his voice. “Most folk don’t even get to that level of reasoning. They can only calculate the measure of wealth offered them. Do you know, my man, that for every ounce of surplus there is a slightly larger amount of deficit offered? One of the unsung rules of the world, I’m afraid.”

Prindl sweated. He had come late to the fair, and some beggar had taken his spot in the shade. “You won’t be back.”

“I will not need to collect the goods in person, no.”

“Neither will I.”

“Well, ask yourself this.” The stranger squatted before Prindl. With his fingertips, Prindl could pick out the leather tip of a shoe, collapsed and empty as a glove. “Were you fulfilled sitting here, hawking books as all your talent fled your fingers? Perhaps not a dozen men in the history of the world have had your skill.”

Prindl retracted his fingers. “It wasn’t fulfillment I was chasing here.”

The stranger laughed. It was a merry laugh that beckoned you to join in. “You have it by the right end. Goodbye.”

 

After no one had seen his blanket at the market for weeks, the other book sellers and binders and printers began to worry. They had always looked out for Prindl, of course.

Prindl, being a taciturn man, kept his home secret, but it did not take the world’s best minds to figure out the small shack leaning up on the fore side of the derelict paper mill was his.

Prindl lay on the floor, posed as if he still intended to fetch just one more thing from the workbench. His tools were scattered around, along with the skeletons of half-formed books he had abandoned.

On his bench was a strangely ellipsoid globe that rustled with the passing breeze. It was a circular book bearing hundreds, no, thousands of pages from a spine that sat like an apple core in the middle. If it was one or two signatures shy of completion, they were unable to see before a stray elbow knocked the globe from the bench and it plummeted right through the floor. Such weight, they said, was unheard of for a book, and a few uncouth figures joked that the book probably punched a hole right down to hell.

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Thirty Rules for Dating Our Daughter

  1. You will be chaperoned always. No exceptions.
  2. Do not touch her bare skin.
  3. She eats only what we give her.
  4. If she is cold, do not offer her your jacket. She cannot be warmed.
  5. Do not pick at the stitches. Her voice is not for your ears.
  6. You sacrifice your time to us from now on. Your waking hours are no longer your own.
  7. There will be no photographs, etchings, portraits, video recordings, or any other attempt to reproduce her likeness.
  8. Sometimes she will go away and return with the blood of some small animal on her face. It is on you to clean it.
  9. Her hair must be brushed every day.
  10. Her teeth must be picked every day.
  11. Her nails must be clipped on the hour.
  12. Don’t cry. The salt of your tears is harmful.
  13. Other women, even those in your family, are now forbidden you. Walk veiled through the town.
  14. Daylight is a privilege. Privileges can be revoked.
  15. Tell her you love her, right now.
  16. And again.
  17. Her eyes can no longer stand sunlight. You must smoke the glass from now on.
  18. At times, her shadow will gain features and make sounds. It is on you to burn it back.
  19. There will be a yearly toll. We will instruct you which animals to bring.
  20. You cannot go back. Not ever.
  21. If she shows you the pit in her chest where her heart once beat, do not stick anything inside it.
  22. You cannot mourn the man you once were.
  23. If you ever feel the urge to flee set in, remember: we can only dig one hole.
  24. Occasionally you will bleed. It is because she cannot, and you must provide for her.
  25. You are her sustenance now.
  26. You will love her, even as you begin to hate her.
  27. You will love her long after the spark fades.
  28. You will love her long after your body withers to dust.
  29. Your love will be a flower sprouting in a sea of black sand.
  30. If you even manage the miracle of children, this list will be passed on to you.

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Bedtime Rituals

“Check the closet,” the young boy said.

His mother rattled the knob and flapped the door open and shut. “Clear.”

“And the chest.”

She lifted the heavy cedar lid and led it slam down on its own. “Clear.”

“The curtains.”

Mother twitched aside the floor-to-ceiling drapes, revealing only empty window panes.

“Now the bed.”

She approached her son, bent over, fingers curled into claws. She gave a little play-growl. The boy was not amused.

Down on her knees among the toys, she only found errant dust bunnies beneath her son’s mattress.

“Clear.”

“Are you sure?” Which he said every night.

“Sweetheart, there’s nothing.” She kissed his forehead. “Lay down and go to sleep. Morning will be here before you know it.” Which she said every night.

She tousled his hair and hit the switch for his bedroom light and left the door to the hallway ajar. But this time her foot was stayed halfway down the hall by a piercing whistle-shriek of  “mom!

She broke land speed records to get back to her son’s doorway. “What?”

Silence. She could see by the hall light that the bedclothes still lumped in the same way, she could see a vague silhouette of a head (or was it another pillow?) if she let her eyes adjust a bit.

When her son finally spoke, it was not a attitude of panic. It was a flat, dead tone that sounded too adult for him. “You missed somewhere.”

“Where? I’ll start again.” She flipped the lightswitch, fruitlessly. The hall still shed its insufficient light through the doorway, so it wasn’t a power outage. The light in her son’s room had just decided to burn out.

“No. It’s too late.”

“Not for mommy.” Flick, flick. Her finger was getting tired. “Tell me where I missed. I checked in the closet.”

“You did.”

“I checked behind the drapes for nightmares, didn’t I?”

“Yes, mommy.”

“I checked in that box for the pop-up monster.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Is it the bed?” she sighed. “I can check under the bed. Just let me get the flashlight.”

Her son’s “no!” stopped her in the doorway.

“It’s too late for that. Anyway, that’s not what you forgot.”

Mother looked to her son’s bed, where the bedclothes rose and shifted just beyond her range of sight. “What?”

“You forgot to check on top of the bed.”

Her hand went to the lightswitch, where it flicked up and down, up and down. The room remained dark, her son remained an ambiguous mass of shifting dark shapes, but still her hand flicked up and down, up and down. Surely if she kept trying, surely, surely

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In a Dark House

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.

“Puke bucket?”

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.

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