My new short story “The Mother of Foresight” (inspired by the severed foot dream I posted about a while back) will be appearing in an ebook anthology published by Play With Death! Tentative publication date is late March or early April, so I will keep everyone updated!
It is the eve of the day of looooove, my dears, and to get you in the proper mood for the big red-drenched event, here is a properly horrific love story I wrote called “Here Comes the Bride.” It’s as fitting as a wedding dress on a rotting corpse; I think you’ll agree. It is also available in my short story collection Hopeful Monsters, which you may purchase if you so desire. Also remember that I still have that Patreon campaign going, so if you’ve any love left over after your V-Day load is spent, spare a drop or two for the Goddess, and you will be amply rewarded. And now, on with the dripping red love…
“You’re not bringing that girl here.”
Troy’s father was yelling, and even though Troy curled his body down as small as it would go, burrowing under the covers and clapping his hands over his ears, the man’s voice still resonated through his head like the toll of a great bell.
“Your father’s right, Troy.” Mother had gotten into the act too, and even though Troy couldn’t see her from his position, he could imagine her glossy pursed lips, her deeply furrowed brow. “We don’t even know this girl. And you know what happened those other times.”
Troy had a feeling his older sister would chime in next, and he was not disappointed. “How could you even get a girl anyway?” Sue sneered as Troy pressed his palms harder against the side of his head, trying to block out the sounds. “You sure you didn’t pay this one?”
Troy felt a single tear trickle down his cheek, and in its wake came a hatred made stronger by the knowledge of his fierce love for them—his family, his eternal tormentors. Their voices were all mixed together now, raining down on him from above, hemming him in with their ridicule until he was closed into an atom-sized box that he could see no escape from. He might have screamed, but because of the din of mingled shouts he couldn’t be sure. He pushed at his temples as hard as he dared, making flashbulbs of white light explode into the darkness behind his eyes. He knew they would stop berating him eventually, knew there would be blessed silence after they’d exhausted their vocabularies of disgust for him; but in the meantime there was only noise and pain, infinite in its intensity.
He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when the voices finally started to dwindle—perhaps only minutes had gone by, perhaps lifetimes. Slowly, Troy removed his hands from his ears; the fingers were numb and sluggish, feeling as though they belonged to someone else. He pulled the covers away from his face and opened one eye a crack, peering into the gloomy dusk of his bedroom. Everyone was gone, and quiet reigned at last; the only sounds he could hear now were the reassuring hum of the central air conditioning and the distant buzz of a plane passing overhead. He sighed and fell back against the pillows, letting the cool air from the vents dry the layer of sweat on his skin. His family was upset, he knew, but he also knew that they would soon get over it. They would have to; Sonja was coming tomorrow. And when they met her, all their negative feelings would evaporate. They would love her, just as Troy loved her, and perhaps in her glow they would come to see Troy himself in a different light.
“She’s already on her way,” he whispered to his empty room, hugging himself with his long, pale arms. “Wait until you all see her.”
Candy Rattner, otherwise known as Sonja Andropova, threaded her way through the airport, a large duffel bag slung over one shoulder. She’d just flown in from Cleveland, but she had to hustle over to the international terminal, where the sap was picking her up. She’d told him she was arriving from Moscow, and of course he’d bought it. Why shouldn’t he?
As she walked, she practiced some Russian phrases under her breath, paying special attention to her accent. In her experience, Americans were generally not very observant about languages as long as she sounded suitably exotic—hell, most of them wouldn’t know a Russian word if it bit them on the ass. But each new scam was different, and one could never be too careful.
Candy hopped on the tram that ran between terminals, holding on to the silver bar with both hands and ignoring the appreciative glances of the rumpled businessmen leaning against the back of the car. She knew she was beautiful—her body tall and lithe, her olive skin flawless, her abundant black hair swept dramatically back from her sculptured face. She supposed she enjoyed the attention to a point, but deep down she understood that her appearance was simply a tool of her trade, a means to an end. She stretched, catlike, giving the businessmen a show, then switched her bag to her other shoulder.
The tram shuddered to a halt and Candy disembarked, moving smoothly through the crowd on her long legs. Her dark eyes scanned the signs, and when she saw one pointing toward the main terminal, she headed down a carpeted gangway, her jeweled sandals—shabby and a few years out of style—slapping against her heels. She glanced at her watch and frowned. Her flight from Cleveland had been delayed, but she still thought she could make it to the meeting point before Troy did.
Sighing, she thought of her latest mark. She had never met him before, of course—their most in-depth conversations had occurred over the Internet. She’d never even heard his voice. He had emailed her pictures of himself, though. He was a handsome young man, a little intense; not that it particularly mattered to her what any of them looked like. He had also sent her pictures of his house, and these she had scrutinized with great interest. The guy was clearly loaded, or at least his parents were. She remembered sitting in front of the computer in her two-room Cleveland apartment, grinning from ear to ear as she stared at that marvelous spread. If she could pull off this one gig, she had thought to herself, then maybe she’d be able to retire from the racket for good.
There was a large fountain in the middle of the terminal, its blue waters spewing foam high above the heads of the passing travelers, its rushing roar muffling all sound within a hundred-yard radius. Candy scanned the fountain’s marble lip, searching for a lanky, sandy-haired figure whose facial expression would suggest expectation, desperation, and perhaps just the faintest touch of shame. She saw no one, and her tense muscles relaxed a little. She felt around in her pants pocket, coming up with a crumpled five-dollar bill, then ducked into a nearby Starbucks for a latte to drink while she waited.
Troy spotted his beautiful bride at once. She was even more radiant than he had hoped, her taut figure perched gracefully on the edge of the fountain, her demure profile seeming to shimmer against the dull gray backdrop of the passersby. She was drinking coffee and peering down at an open book in her lap; a closer inspection revealed it to be an English phrase book.
For a moment Troy was loath to approach her, afraid she would twinkle out of existence like the crystalline falls of water that framed her angelic form. So much was riding on this meeting—what would Mother and Father say? They hadn’t come with him, but he could still hear their scornful voices echoing in his head. He clenched his fists by his sides and straightened his back, quickening his pace. He would make his family accept Sonja as his wife, that was all there was to it. She was right there in front of him, like a dream become flesh. She was perfect.
Candy felt his presence before she saw him.
When she looked up, he was standing no more than two feet from her, leaning slightly forward, his expression a little dazed. She was taken aback at his sudden nearness, but managed a quick smile. “You are…Troy?” she said in her practiced, broken accent.
There was a longer pause than was warranted, and Candy’s inner alarm seemed poised to jingle, warning her to abort the mission, which was how she always thought of these deals. But finally, after what seemed like an eternity in which the pounding water of the fountain served as the only distraction, Troy answered, “Yes.”
She smiled again, more broadly, hoping to conceal the uneasiness that had sprouted in her stomach. She couldn’t give up on this one, she thought; it might be her ticket out. She felt like she should say something more to him, but she couldn’t think of a single thing. “We go?” she asked at last, not wanting to sound too eager but wanting to fill the pounding silence up with words, however meaningless.
“Yes.” Troy seemed to snap out of whatever trance had held him, and he began looking around at her feet. “Do you have any other bags?”
Candy scowled prettily, as if trying to parse the sentence he’d just uttered, then brightened as pretended understanding dawned. She patted the duffel bag by her side. “This is only bag.”
Troy’s face seemed to sag a little at that, but he quickly recovered, holding out his hand. “Here, I’ll carry it for you.”
She let him take it, then got to her feet. She was nearly the same height as he was. As he headed for the signs marked Parking Garage, she kept a few steps behind him, smiling brilliantly whenever he glanced over his shoulder at her, which was unsettlingly often.
Candy studied him as they made their way out of the terminal. He was a little thinner than his pictures had suggested, but clearly in good physical shape. He was clean and well-groomed, his slacks and white dress shirt freshly pressed. He’d given his age as twenty-five, but to Candy he seemed a little younger than that, earnest and eager to please.
They reached the parking garage, neither having spoken. Candy gazed admiringly at the pearl gray Infiniti as Troy loaded her bag in the trunk. He came around and opened the door for her, which she thought was very sweet; as she got into the passenger seat, she rewarded him by lifting her skirt with a subtle hand motion, exposing a few inches of smooth upper thigh.
They exchanged few words on the drive; Candy was afraid of giving too much away, of slipping up in her finely crafted persona, and Troy, for his part, simply seemed nervous. He adhered strictly to the speed limit, she noticed, and his knuckles were white on the steering wheel.
After about forty minutes of silence, with not even a radio playing softly to fill the gap, the uneasy feeling began creeping into Candy’s stomach again. She opened her mouth to say something, anything, when suddenly Troy flipped on his blinker and turned off the road onto a narrow paved track surrounded by thick, overhanging trees. He turned toward her in the ensuing dimness. “Almost there,” he said.
She smiled and nodded, forgetting about making small talk in her eagerness to see her new surroundings. She leaned forward a little in her seat, peering intently through the windshield.
The house, when it emerged from the dense foliage, was far more fantastic than she had imagined. It was a palace, plain and simple, comparable to those sprawling English country estates she’d always lusted after in those old Merchant-Ivory movies. There was an enormous pond in front, grown over with algae but still dazzling, with a stone statue of a cherubic boy in its center, frolicking under a fountain of water that no longer flowed. The gardens were extensive, if a little overgrown; the flowerbeds needed weeding and some of the hedges were due for a prune, but otherwise the expanse was magnificent.
And then there was the house itself. Candy couldn’t help gaping at it as Troy guided the car around the circular gravel driveway. The main structure was made of a softly glowing stone of a speckled caramel color that blended organically with the surroundings. There appeared to be a massive center hub flanked by two wings, each with an octagonal tower topped with distressed castellations. There were numerous small square windows, many of them bearing intricate stained glass designs. The entire spread bore the unmistakable aura of vast wealth and power.
After a few moments, Candy became aware that Troy had stopped the car and turned in his seat to look at her with his rather unnervingly open expression. She could see that he wanted very much to please her. That was good, very good. “Do you like it?” he asked.
Candy was so overwhelmed by her unbelievable luck that she almost forgot to speak with a Russian accent. Catching herself just in time, she said, “It is so…beautiful. I did not know America looked like this.”
Troy laughed, and there was a hard edge to it that Candy didn’t like. “Most of it doesn’t. But this is your home now. Your life.” He smiled widely, and his teeth were very white in the shadows of the car’s interior.
If the outside of the house was beyond imagination, then the inside was almost surreal. As she entered through the carved wooden doors, she felt like an ant who had just stumbled over the threshold of Notre Dame—the ceilings soared high above her, inlaid with complicated tile patterns and alternating colors of polished stone. She held her breath, afraid that even the sound of a sigh would bounce back to deafen her.
“I’ll take your bag upstairs,” Troy said, his voice coming from all directions at once. “You can look around some if you want to. Don’t get lost, though.” That predatory smile again.
“I will just sit in here,” she said, gesturing to a sitting room on her left. She didn’t want to admit it, but the sheer vastness of the house frightened her. She had targeted quite a few rich guys in her time, but none of them had been this rich. She felt as though she might pass out at any moment. “Is okay?”
Troy shrugged. “Sure. When I come back down I’ll make us some tea and we can talk. Later on I’ll give you a tour, and then you can meet the family.”
Candy nodded and watched as he disappeared up the curving staircase with its iron banisters. When he’d gone, she wandered into the sitting room, which was filled to brimming with fussy claw-footed furniture that looked as though it had never been sat on. She poked into a couple of the drawers and highboys, but found nothing of interest. A few of the vases in the corners looked terribly expensive; perhaps they were Ming or something like that. There was even gold flocked wallpaper, of all things; Candy stepped toward the wall for a closer look, and noticed that there were lighter gold rectangles at even intervals along the walls, as though pictures had once hung there. She wondered what they had been, and why they had been removed.
A few moments later she heard raised voices, and ducked her shoulders guiltily before realizing they were coming from upstairs. She crept back out into the hallway to listen, removing her shoes on the way so their heels wouldn’t flap and echo. She couldn’t really tell what was being said, but she heard Troy, a reedy, defensive whine, and then another male voice, deeper, authoritative. There were women’s voices too—one or two of them, Candy wasn’t sure. She assumed the family was not too pleased about her arrival, and her uneasiness ramped up another few notches. Surely Troy had worked this all out before arranging for her to come here? She hoped this whole gig was going to run smoothly; she hadn’t really bargained on uncooperative relatives sticking their noses in.
The voices died down, and then she heard footsteps reverberating over her head. She darted back into the sitting room and installed herself on the edge of one of the settees, snatching an architectural magazine from an end table and pretending to leaf through it. When Troy appeared on the threshold, she looked up expectantly, as if she’d been waiting for him all along. “Okay?” she said. She didn’t want him to know what she had heard; it might complicate matters.
His jaw seemed tight, but otherwise he gave no outward sign of distress. “Your things are in one of the guest rooms for now,” he said, and then his face reddened as he realized the implications of his statement. “I mean, there are lots of empty rooms. You can stay in whichever one you want.” He grinned awkwardly, then made a stiff gesture for her to follow him. “We’ll have tea out on the sundeck.”
After flashing him a look of pleasant blankness, as though she hadn’t the foggiest idea what he was talking about, she began trailing along behind him, soon losing all sense of direction in the maze of twisting corridors. At last they entered a kitchen big enough to park a 747 in, and Troy set to work, pulling cups and saucers from one of a long phalanx of cabinets. Candy wondered why there were no servants, but she thought it better not to ask just yet.
While he worked, Candy made her way down the small hallway he’d indicated, which terminated in a pair of blue glass doors. She opened these and proceeded out onto a huge wooden deck that overlooked part of the gardens. Candy sat at one of the umbrella-covered tables, staring out at the early fall blossoms and wondering what in the hell she’d gotten herself into.
After tea and an awkward conversation in which the main thing Candy learned about her future “husband” was that he was the most socially inept person she had ever met, Troy cleaned up the dishes and led Candy on a rather perfunctory tour of the house. The doors of most of the rooms were closed, and stayed closed, usually with Troy explaining that the rooms were empty or only used for storage.
The house was vast and beautiful, and Candy tried to work up the requisite enthusiasm as she followed him around, but the flight and the stress of beginning a new con had finally caught up with her. “I am sorry, Troy,” she said haltingly. “I am very tired. Maybe finish another time?”
A deep, thunderous frown crossed his face so quickly that Candy wasn’t even sure if she had seen it. “That’s all right,” he said, taking her arm gently and leading her back down the hallway they’d just traversed. “You can rest in your room for a while, if you want. Then later we’ll have some dinner, and meet the family if they’re around.”
Candy’s stomach lurched at the prospect, but she only nodded and let herself be led through the already unfamiliar corridors.
At last Troy stopped before a door, opened it, and guided her inside. For one uncomfortable moment, it seemed as though he was going to follow Candy into the room, but with a jolt he stopped just a few paces over the threshold. He stood there, fists opening and closing by his sides.
“Thank you,” said Candy, hoping he’d take the hint, too tired to even look around at her new digs.
After a moment, Troy bowed his head at her once, formally, like a butler, then turned and left the room, closing the door behind him. Candy let out a sigh of relief, immediately making for the massive bed that dominated one corner of the room, slipping off her shoes and setting them next to the duffel bag that Troy had brought up earlier. She wondered if he had looked through it, then decided she didn’t much care if he had. Let the sad bastard get a few jollies sifting through her unmentionables, she thought with a wry grin.
She stretched out on the bed, which was almost criminally comfortable, if a tad musty-smelling. She thought she’d fall asleep right away, but she just lay there, aching muscles slowly unfurling but her exhausted brain refusing to settle.
She assessed her situation. First of all, this was the biggest con by far that she’d ever attempted, and she had to fight the vaguely queasy feeling that she was in way over her head. The con would work the same, she told herself—how rich the guys were didn’t matter. And one look at handsome, sheltered Troy convinced her that he’d be a piece of cake to manipulate. He was clearly desperate for a woman; she speculated that he might be a virgin, which would make her job even easier.
She was worried about his family, though. From the sound of their shrieking this afternoon, she deduced that they were none too pleased with this whole situation, with her presence here. If they were able to get to him, to poison him against her…
But no, she couldn’t let that happen. She’d just have to play it cool—be nice as pie to the family when she met them, but then try to subtly undermine their influence whenever she was alone with Troy. Make it seem like it was him and her against his meddling relations. Yes, that was the smartest way to play it. She’d have to be careful that she didn’t get the idiot disowned, but hopefully she’d have made the haul and taken off before things got to that point.
Candy slowly realized that the same shouting she’d heard earlier had started again; she’d been so lost in thought that she hadn’t noticed it, so for all she knew it could have been going on for a while. Still tired, but galvanized by curiosity, she slid off the bed and crept toward the door, pressing her ear against the wood, listening.
It was the deep male voice speaking, which she assumed belonged to Troy’s father. Candy could only make out random phrases and stray words, but the man’s tone was one of obvious rage, but also, she thought, a hint of resignation.
“How is it…different?” the man bellowed, and Candy could almost imagine Troy cowering under the authority of that booming voice.
She heard Troy uttering something unintelligible that ended with “marry me,” then he said, “She’ll…I ask.”
Candy cursed under her breath. What had he meant by all that? She’ll do whatever I ask? Her frown deepened. Man, if he thought that, he was dealing with the wrong Russian mail-order bride.
The father was speaking again, louder. “We can’t…for you,” he said, and Candy clenched her fists in frustration. What the hell were they saying?
There was another exchange that she caught none of, and then there was the definite sound of a door slamming and heavy footsteps coming closer through the hallways. Quickly, Candy climbed back onto the bed and feigned sleep. A moment later, there was a firm knock on the bedroom door. She thought if she ignored it then Troy would go away, but the knocking persisted. Angry and strangely fearful, she got up again and slipped back into her shoes—because it seemed vulgar to converse in one’s bare feet in a house as grand as this one—and opened the door.
It was not Troy who stood there. This man seemed taller and broader, with a strong resemblance to Troy but with something harder behind the eyes. The blonde hair was shot through with gray, the skin around the eyes and mouth darkened by fine wrinkles. “You’re Sonja,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
Candy thought it odd that he had addressed her by her first name, but she let it go. “Yes.”
“And you are here to marry my son.” The flinty eyes narrowed, taking in her face, her body, her entire being.
Candy hesitated, her mind racing, but then said, “If your son will…accept me.” She lowered her gaze and then raised it again, like a deferential bow.
This seemed to be the correct answer, because the man’s features visibly softened. His eyes still glinted like steel, though. “You may have noticed that my son is a little…shy.” He was seemingly embarrassed to be discussing something as feminine as emotions. “He’s had his problems, I’ll admit that. But I hope that this time he’s found someone who can relate to him. Someone who will…stick around.”
Candy remembered to look pained, to pause as though struggling to understand the language. “Yes,” she said, thinking that the man’s use of the phrase ‘this time’ pointed to her not being the first, wondering how much harder that was going to make matters. “I think…I will like Troy.”
The man brightened, and suddenly he seemed much younger, more like a man than an obdurate brick wall. He even reached toward her, briefly, before catching himself, glancing in horror at the hand that had seemingly betrayed him. Then he backed up a few steps before turning and lumbering down the hall, not saying another word.
Candy closed the bedroom door, disturbed and relieved in equal measure. She was glad to see that Troy’s father wasn’t the ogre she’d been expecting, but that strange gesture just now, when he’d wanted to touch her… She shook her head. She’d have to watch herself around him, that was certain.
The exhaustion hit her again, more insistent this time, so, not even bothering to take off her shoes, she flopped across the bed and was asleep in an instant.
Troy was rooting around in the attic, sneezing uncontrollably at the clouds of dust he was kicking up, sending squealing rodents from corners with his clumsy maneuvering. He wasn’t worried about the noise he was making; Sonja’s room was two floors below in the opposite wing, and besides, when he’d peeked in on her earlier she had been sound asleep.
Troy tried to put the image of the beautiful Sonja stretched across the bedclothes out of his mind so that he could concentrate on the task at hand. He knew the key to the special room was around here somewhere; he had kept it well hidden for years, saving it for the momentous occasion of his marriage. He poked his fingers into the drawer of an antique jewelry box, but came up with nothing except dust and the desiccated carcass of a dead silverfish. Scowling, he wiped his hands on his trousers and opened the next drawer. Nothing there either. He was beginning to worry that someone had moved the key, but who could have possibly done that? Nobody knew about it but him, nobody came up to the attic but him. He had just forgotten where he put it, that was all. He was always misplacing things, and anyway, it was a long time ago.
At last he came across the key in the bottom of an empty violin case, tucked under a flap of decaying velvet. He didn’t remember putting it there, but that didn’t matter now. Curling the rusty metal into his fist, he made his way to the narrow staircase, leaving the attic in disarray behind him.
Once back in the hallway, he found himself so excited that he couldn’t keep from running down the carpeted corridors, taking the servants’ stairs down from the third floor to the second. His special room was in the very farthest corner of the east wing, a large oval chamber that looked out into the closed-in back garden. He tried to picture it now, as he hurried toward it, tried to set it in his mind before he saw it, to test himself. Over the years he had lovingly assembled every piece of furniture, every tiny detail in the room, in preparation for his wedding night. He could hardly believe the day was almost here; his heart felt as big as a bass drum in his chest.
At last, breathing hard, he reached the door to the room that he would share with his wife. He had always kept it locked; even when the maids had been here, they had been under strict orders never to enter it. Troy was the only one allowed inside; once he had arranged it to his satisfaction, he had sealed it up tight, only checking it every three months or so, cleaning and airing out.
He thought a ceremonial pause would be in order, but his excitement was too great. He thrust the key into the lock and turned it, simultaneously pushing the door inward and breathing in the scent of the place, the enchanting combined fragrance of rosewood and iron, old incense and fresh industrial rubber.
When Candy awoke she had no idea where she was for the first few minutes. Night must have fallen; the stained glass windows were black behind their colors. She sat up in bed, wincing at the pain in her stiff neck, and groped for the lamp on the end table. In its glow she could see the secretive contours of the room, strange but slowly becoming familiar. She caught a tang of perfume and wondered if someone had looked in on her.
After she had washed up in the adjoining bathroom and changed into a clean dress from her duffel bag, she decided she’d better track down her host. The house around her seemed deathly silent, but she supposed that wasn’t surprising given its great size. Perhaps the family had gone out.
As soon as she was in the hallway, she caught the unmistakable aroma of meat cooking, and she quickened her pace, suddenly ravenous. It took her a few false turns and dead ends, but she finally found the marble staircase leading to the ground floor, and from there she followed her nose to the kitchen.
A woman stood at the stove, her back facing Candy. This was Troy’s mother, she presumed, as the woman was also blonde, slim like Troy was, with long spindly arms and legs. She apparently hadn’t heard Candy come in, for she didn’t turn. Candy cleared her throat, loudly, and the woman jumped.
“Oh. Sonja.” The woman smiled and wiped her hands on a tea towel, approaching Candy with an open, friendly expression. Candy found it hard to square this woman’s demeanor with the shrill harridan she’d heard berating Troy earlier, but maybe she was just very good at hiding her true feelings. “You startled me, dear. I’m Alice, Troy’s mother.”
“Sonja Andropova.” Candy shook the woman’s hand. “Very nice to meet.”
“So, you’re from Russia.” Alice glided back to the stove, stirring something in a large silver saucepan. “What part?”
“Moscow.” Candy had considered telling the marks she was from some remote part of Russia, some village with an unpronounceable name, but she found that people were far more accommodating if they’d heard of the place she mentioned. Besides, she’d been to Moscow once, as a student, so she figured she knew enough about the place to bluff a little if she had to.
“Ah. Lovely place.” Alice didn’t say any more about Russia, and Candy was glad. “Have you met Leonard?”
“Leonard is…Troy’s father?”
“Yes.” Candy hesitated, thinking of how the man had come to her room. “Yes,” she said. “In…hallway.” She twisted her hands. “Where is Troy?” she asked, not really because she cared, but just trying to make conversation.
Alice continued stirring. “Oh, I’m sure he’s around. You’ll see him at dinner. Why don’t you go ahead and have a seat in the dining room?”
It felt like a dismissal, though the woman’s friendly tone never altered. Candy left the kitchen, not knowing exactly where the dining room was, but wandering around until she found it.
There was a large table in the center, draped with white linen and impeccably set for two people. Candy, confused, slid into a chair before one of the place settings. Wasn’t the whole family going to eat together?
Twenty minutes passed on the mantel clock as she waited, every now and then leaving her seat to study the crystal bowls in the china cabinet, or to stare out one of the long narrow windows at the overgrown gardens, lit at this hour by spotlights mounted on the side of the house.
Finally she heard a noise behind her, and turned to see not Alice, but Troy, his hot-padded hands bearing a huge ceramic bowl that appeared to be filled with a thick stew. He smiled at her as he set the bowl in the middle of the table, then he reached into his pocket and produced a Bic, which he used to light the two red candles in the table’s centerpiece. “I’ll just go get the bread,” he told her, and then disappeared before Candy could ask what was going on. When he returned, he carried a big basket filled with sliced bread that smelled as though it had just come out of the oven. Candy felt her mouth watering; she hadn’t had a decent meal in days.
“Please sit down,” Troy said, and as she did he answered her unasked question. “I thought it would be nice for just the two of us to have dinner together. The others will eat later.”
Candy thought this odd, since she and Troy had already had tea alone together and found not a single thing to talk about, and since she hadn’t been formally introduced to the family at large. But of course she kept her mouth shut. The rich were eccentric, she knew, and this family’s quirks were really no weirder than those of some of her other marks.
They passed the meal in relative silence, Troy seemingly wanting to talk but unable to think of anything to say, Candy concentrating on the food and on not giving herself away by saying something stupid or out of character. At one point, Troy attempted to start a conversation about his childhood, but it sputtered out fairly quickly.
Once Candy had finished two bowls of stew and four slices of the thick bread, she began to feel sleepy again and ready to go back upstairs to bed. To this end, she pushed her chair away from the table and made to excuse herself, but then Troy very suddenly announced, “We’ll be married tomorrow.”
She froze, trying not to let the shock of the statement show on her face. “So soon?” she asked, keeping her voice neutral.
Troy’s expression clouded over. “Don’t you want to?”
“Of course! Is okay.” Candy smiled, placating, hoping he didn’t notice the sweat that beaded upon her brow.
Troy seemed mollified. “It’s all arranged,” he said, and his gaze grew distant, as though looking through reality to what lay beyond.
“I’ve even got a dress for you. And a special room for us. Wait until you see. It will be perfect.”
Candy nodded encouragingly, then chugged half a glass of water in one go, trying to quell the panic. This was not in the plan at all— she’d never had any intention of actually marrying this guy. What was she going to do? Marriage would make everything legal, make her (and the money) easier to track down. On the other hand, if she skipped out tonight, she left with nothing; she’d be abandoning what promised to be the most lucrative score of her life, perhaps the one she could retire on. Her head began to pound.
Troy was saying something else, but she wasn’t really listening. She was so tired, and she had to think. She held up her hand to silence him. “Please. I am sorry. I must go back to bed now. We will talk more in the morning.” He looked to be getting angry again, so she hastily added, “I am very excited to see the dress.”
He was clearly still wary, but he smiled. “Sure, of course you need your rest. Big day tomorrow.” His smile stretched to disturbing proportions.
“Yes.” Candy got up from the table. “Good night, Troy.”
“Good night, darling.”
Candy’s skin crawled as she made her way out of the dining room and back through the profusion of corridors and staircases that eventually led back to her room. Once there, she tried to lock the door, but found she had no key. Instead she wedged a heavy upholstered chair against the door and then sat down on the bed, thinking. She was so exhausted that she could hardly keep her eyes open, but she forced herself to stay awake. She had to figure out a plan.
It was obvious she had to get the hell out of here as quickly as possible. She hated having to abort a mission as potentially enriching as this one, but Troy was seriously weird, if not completely unhinged, and things were progressing to escape velocity too quickly for her. She wasn’t sticking around in order to get embroiled in a legal—not to mention probably sexual—bond with the freak downstairs and his elusive family.
She yawned expansively, then stood up and began moving around. Why the hell was she so damn tired?
Sluggishly, she set about gathering the few items she’d taken out of her duffel bag and repacking them. She thought it best to make her escape right away, while Troy was otherwise occupied in the kitchen. She didn’t think he’d be able to hear her leave. She didn’t have a car, but she remembered it wasn’t far to the main road—once there, she could call a taxi and pay for it with the last of her cash. She’d have to charge a hotel room and figure out what to do from there.
Then an idea managed to filter its way into her muddled brain. It occurred to her that even though she was cutting the con short before it had really begun, she still needn’t leave with nothing. This house, after all, was chock full of valuable knick knacks that could be spirited away without anyone in the family being the wiser. A quick glance around her own room showed nothing promising, but Candy figured she could poke her head into a few rooms on her way out.
Slinging the duffel bag across her shoulder and wincing at the creeping numbness in her limbs, Candy pushed the chair aside and listened at the door for the sound of footsteps. She heard nothing, but became alarmed when her head drooped against the door, her eyes closing of their own accord. She snapped awake, not knowing if she’d been out for a second or an hour. What the hell was the matter with her? The horrible possibility dawned that Troy might have put something in her food, but why would he do that? As far as he was concerned, “Sonja” was here willingly and raring to get hitched. No, she had just eaten too much on top of the jet lag and fatigue, that was all.
She eased the bedroom door open and looked both ways down the hall, which was lit only by a few dim wall sconces. The coast seemed clear, so she forced herself out of the room, closing the door gently behind her.
There were several doors on either side of the hall, all closed, and to Candy the whole thing resembled nothing so much as a fancy hotel corridor. The first two doors she tried were locked; the third opened onto a room containing nothing but an old sofa covered with a plastic dropcloth. Candy’s feet dragged along the carpet as she struggled to stay upright. Her vision was even starting to blur a little. Well, she could have a nap in the cab when she had gotten out of this madhouse.
The next room was empty except for a stack of framed photos and paintings, leaning so the images faced the wall. Candy remembered the blank squares on the wallpaper in the sitting room downstairs and wondered if these were the pictures that had been removed. She considered going in to look, but she was so tired, and besides, it seemed like a waste of time; paintings weren’t the most practical objects to steal. She closed the door again.
The next two rooms were also locked, and Candy was considering simply leaving the house empty-handed, as depressing a proposition as that was. But the next door, the one adjacent to the main staircase, opened easily, and a lamp had been left burning within.
She swayed on the threshold, finally managing to focus her vision. This had to be Troy’s room; there were his dress trousers, folded neatly over the back of a chair, and there was the only picture of herself that Candy had ever sent him, blown up to poster size and pinned to the wall above the headboard. She shuddered.
Candy stepped farther into the room, thinking maybe Troy had left some cash or a fancy wristwatch lying around. As she approached the nightstand, something on the bed caught her eye.
It was about the size of a cat, and furry. At first she thought it was a dead animal of some sort, and her heart skipped a beat, but as she peered closer she saw that it was only a wig, long and blonde and startlingly realistic. Despite her muzzy state, Candy had to smile. So that was one of Troy’s dirty little secrets, was it? Funny, she’d never have pegged him as the transvestite type…
Her smile faded as she realized what lay beside the wig. There, in a rumpled tangle, was a red and white striped women’s blouse and a black denim skirt.
It was the same outfit Troy’s mother had been wearing when Candy had seen her in the kitchen earlier that evening.
Her fogged brain reeled. What the hell kind of sick Norman Bates shit was going on here? Her terrified gaze slid away from the clothes and settled on the dresser, whose surface was littered with cosmetics, men’s and women’s jewelry, and a few bottles of gray hair coloring. Hanging from a peg above the dresser was another wig, this one a darker blonde, and styled in a pert bob. Troy had told her he had a sister, hadn’t he? Jesus Christ.
Forgetting the valuables, she turned to run, but her legs had gone to jelly, wobbling threateningly beneath her. Troy stood in the doorway, beaming at her as though she was the Virgin Mary. Candy heard the duffel bag hit the floor as it fell from her nerveless grasp. Then she heard Troy say, “I see you’re making the family’s acquaintance,” and then she heard and saw no more.
Candy was aware of sounds and voices, and for a moment she thought she was back in her apartment in Cleveland, and that she was dreaming. And then suddenly reality came flooding back.
“I told you this one was no different from the others!” hissed a deep voice, very close by. “They’re all the same, didn’t I tell you that? She had her bag, Troy, she was running away!”
Candy didn’t want to open her eyes; the images her mind was conjuring up were horrible enough. The feeling in her limbs had returned enough for her to discern that she was lying flat on her back, and that her wrists and ankles were restrained.
“But I got her to stay, Father!” That was Troy’s voice, plaintive and childlike. “I got Mother to put some medicine in her soup, just to make sure. It isn’t going to be like those other times, I swear it!”
“Technically speaking, none of those other girls ever left either,” said a young female voice, chuckling sardonically.
“Stop teasing him, Sue,” Alice admonished, though of course Candy knew who was really speaking, even without opening her eyes. Troy’s “mother” went on, “All we want is for this girl to work out. We can’t keep covering up for you when they don’t.”
“I know, Mother, I know!” exclaimed Troy, switching back to his regular voice without a pause. “And I appreciate all you’ve done for me. But this is different.”
Candy felt a hand on her arm, and her eyes flew open like a shot. Troy was standing over her, looking down at her with a rather frightening expression of plainly psychotic devotion. Candy raised her head as much as she was able, struggling against her bonds. She was clad in a stiff antique wedding dress, and shackled to what looked like a hospital bed. When she looked beyond herself, beyond the staring face of the doting Troy, and focused on her surroundings, she nearly screamed.
The walls around her were black and shiny, like thick rubber or vinyl-covered pads. Worse than this, though, were the metal instruments she could see suspended from pegs around the room’s oval perimeter. The objects all had long probing rods and sharp points sticking out at odd angles, and Candy didn’t even want to imagine where one would insert them.
She opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out. She struggled mightily, thinking if she could just get through to Troy maybe she could talk him out of whatever he was planning to do.
Before she could get a word out, Troy put a finger gently to her lips. “I know what you’re going to say, and I’m very sorry about the slight change of plans. But I thought you weren’t quite as enthusiastic about the marriage as I would have liked, so I just gave you a little encouragement.” He reached into his pocket, and now Candy noticed that he was dressed in an old-fashioned tuxedo that smelled vaguely of mothballs. He opened his hand to show her the object her had retrieved: A thin gold band with three square diamonds mounted side by side.
“It was my wedding ring, and my mother’s before that,” Troy said, Alice’s voice emerging from his lips, as though he was possessed by a honey-throated demon.
Candy cried out as Troy slipped the ring onto her finger. “You killed them!” she said, not bothering with the Russian accent anymore. “You killed your whole family!”
Troy’s eyebrows went up almost to his hairline. “I’ll have you know that I, my wife, and my daughter Sue are very much alive,” he said in his Leonard voice. Then he switched to the Alice voice, with a simultaneous change in demeanor. “We did leave Troy alone for a while, we admit that,” Alice said with something that sounded like regret. “But when we saw how much he needed us, well…how could we stay away?” Troy smiled, a feminine, motherly smile.
Candy couldn’t stop the sobs from coming now. “You’re crazy,” she said, pushing and pulling against her bonds, all to no avail.
Troy slapped her, savagely, across the face. “Don’t ever say that,” he whispered, speaking as himself again. He pointed to the ring on her finger. “Do you see that? You’re my wife now, Sonja. And wives do as their husbands ask.”
“I’m not your wife!” Candy screamed, tears backing up in her eyes, blinding her. “My name’s not even Sonja, and I’m not even Russian, I’m from fucking Ohio…” Her chest hitched and she found it hard to catch her breath. This could not be happening, there was just no way…
“Listen to her, poor dear,” said the Alice-voice.
“Yeah, you sure she wanted to marry you, bro?” added the Sue-voice.
Troy’s own personality returned. “Sonja and I would like to be alone now,” he said tightly. There was a long pause, then he regarded his captive with something like real affection. “They’re gone now, darling.” He brushed her cheek where he had slapped it, as though trying to heal the wound with his touch. Then his fingers skipped lightly over her chin and her neck, finally coming to rest just at the swell of her breasts. He looked to be in ecstasy. Candy wanted to close her eyes, to make it all go away, but she didn’t dare.
“It’s going to be wonderful, my love,” he said, backing up a few steps and shrugging out of his tuxedo jacket. “Those other girls before, they would do some of what I wanted, go part of the way with me. But there was always a point where they would want to stop.” He was unbuttoning his shirt now, and the removing it to reveal his pale torso. “They were never as devoted to me as a wife would be,” he went on. “And I never brought them here, to this room.” He had stepped out of his pants and underwear, and stood before her, his naked form dimly reflected in the shiny black walls. “You’re the first one I ever brought in here,” he said reverently, gesturing around the room at all the instruments glimmering on their pegs. “I’ve been waiting for this for so long.”
Troy grabbed a handful of Candy’s skirt and began shoving the lace and tulle bundle up toward her thighs. Candy did close her eyes then, knowing it wouldn’t help but no longer wanting to see what her fate would be. In the darkness behind the lids she pictured that first day sitting by her computer, answering that stupid personal ad and looking forward to another conquest, another cash-in. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. She wished she were back there, safe in her single-girl squalor. She wished she was anywhere. She wished she was dead.
Candy heard a metallic clang as Troy removed one of the instruments from the wall, and then heard his quickening breath as he approached her, preparing himself to test the bonds of matrimony. Candy clenched her teeth, and hoped to Christ her agony would be brief.
Stephanie Guthrie stood in the center of the pile of blood-soaked bodies, her arms outstretched, her face a blank mask. Children pointed and screamed, animals paced in their cages. Zoo employees gaped like statues, unable to believe what they had just seen. Soon enough, the police came to quell the panic, and then an ambulance came, and bundled the woman inside.
“I haven’t been able to get a single word out of her,” said Theresa Hill, the police psychologist. “Looks like partial catatonia.”
Vic Unger, the lead investigator on what was sure to be the most bizarre case the city had ever seen, made a disgusted sound. “Typical. And wait ‘til you hear what we got back from the lab guys.”
“What’s that?” The halls were nearly empty in this ward, and Theresa’s voice echoed like a snatch of memory.
“Cause of death for all fifteen people at the zoo,” Vic said, “was evidently a mass poisoning. In other words, they were gassed.”
Theresa raised her eyebrows at him. “Terrorists?”
Vic shrugged. “That’s why we need to get a story out of the sole survivor in there.” He scratched distractedly at his three days’ growth of beard. “She doesn’t strike me as the terrorist type, I gotta say.”
“No. Maybe the poison came from somewhere else, and Miss Guthrie was the only one lucky enough to survive it?”
“Could be, although witnesses say the people around her dropped dead as soon as she raised her arms, like the two events were related. Have you done any scans on her or anything? Checked her for brain damage?”
“Yes. Looks like nothing out of the ordinary so far.”
“Damn.” Vic was a handsome man, only in his mid-thirties, but already cultivating a look of hangdog cynicism that Theresa found amusing. They had reached the end of the hall, and the locked room where Stephanie Guthrie was being held for observation. Theresa produced a set of keys from the pocket of her coat and opened the door.
Stephanie was sitting rigidly in the chamber’s only chair, her hands resting stiffly on her lap. She didn’t look up as Theresa and Vic entered, but kept her gaze fixed on a spot just below eye level. A very long moment passed before she even blinked.
“Hello there, Miss Guthrie.” Theresa stood before the woman, her arms crossed. “How are we doing today?”
Stephanie, of course, did not answer.
“The investigator is here, Miss Guthrie,” Theresa continued, gesturing to Vic, who was standing slightly behind and to the left of her. “He’d really like to get to the bottom of what happened at the zoo on Saturday. Do you think you’ll be able to cooperate?”
More silence in which Stephanie’s chest barely rose and fell with her breathing.
Vic stepped forward at Theresa’s urging. “I’m Vic Unger, Miss Guthrie,” he said. “I’d like to help you, but to do that I need to ask you some questions. Is that all right?”
Another blink, another breath.
Vic wasn’t in the mood for this; his impatience was one of his few negative attributes. “Can’t you just hypnotize her or something?” he asked.
Theresa stared down at the top of Stephanie’s head. “That may become necessary, although I have to tell you ahead of time that hypnosis is sometimes not a very effective psychiatric tool. We generally only use it as a last resort.”
“Well, can you get started on all the other resorts? I’d really like to figure out what the hell is going on here.”
“As would we all, Mr. Unger.” Theresa smiled at him. “But cases like this take time. I’m sure you understand.”
Vic nodded. He did understand, but he didn’t like it.
The next day, driving up the interstate, Vic ran the facts of the case through his mind again, hoping to stumble upon a detail he’d missed the first few times. Last Saturday at approximately two-fifteen p.m. at the Langford County Zoo, thirty-two-year-old Stephanie Guthrie had been strolling through the butterfly garden in the company of her thirty-six-year-old fiancé, Ray Framington. According to witnesses—the few who were left alive, that is—they had been holding hands, and Stephanie had been smiling. Then suddenly, things had taken a macabre turn. In an instant, the woman had gone white, tilting her head slightly upwards as if she had just heard something that shocked her beyond her capacity to reason. Her eyes apparently
glazed over, and even though Ray Framington had shaken her, trying to discern the problem, she had acted as though he wasn’t even there.
Then, witnesses agreed, she had slowly begun to raise her arms, until they were even with her shoulders. At the moment when she opened her hands, spreading her fingers to their farthest extremes, the fifteen people closest to her—including her fiancé—had simultaneously begun to bleed from every orifice, and after an agonizing moment of this horrifying spectacle, all fifteen had dropped dead to the concrete like sacks of grain. As this was happening, Stephanie Guthrie stood as still as marble in the center of the action, her outstretched hands like white wings, her expression as lifeless as that of a china doll.
When the police and then the ambulance had come, she had said nothing, reacted to nothing. The EMT’s who strapped her onto the gurney said that she was completely docile, but also entirely lacking in humanity, like an empty husk.
Since then, her condition had not changed.
Vic took a swig of black coffee from his thermos, settling it back into the fork of his crotch. His dark mood was getting darker by the minute.
He thought of Dr. Hill’s mention of terrorists. That had been his first thought too, but something about the situation didn’t sit right. Besides that, a search of Stephanie Guthrie’s person had turned up nothing resembling a container in which the toxin could have been carried, and even her skin had only shown trace amounts of the chemical that had killed the others. It was all very odd.
Whatever direction the case was taking, the department was on his ass to put it to bed as quickly as possible, and to that end he was skipping lunch and driving up to Hastings to interview Miss Guthrie’s parents. He hoped they could give him some insight into her history, her personality; from long experience, though, he knew this wasn’t likely. He sighed and turned off the highway.
Vic parked in front of a modest brick townhouse and slid out of the car. He’d called the Guthries yesterday to set up the meeting, and now, as he walked up the driveway, he noticed the curtain twitching as someone peered out at him. He pretended he hadn’t seen.
His knock was answered by a rail-thin man in his mid-sixties, clean shaven with a slick bald head. His eyes were absinthe-green, sharp and wary. “Come in, Inspector…Unger, was it?”
“Call me Vic, Mr. Guthrie. Thanks.” Vic passed over the threshold and immediately spotted Mrs. Guthrie, who stood nervously at the end of the hall. She was also in her sixties, still fairly youthful and fit, though the few lines on her face appeared deep with worry.
At Mr. Guthrie’s invitation, Vic took a seat in the living room, choosing a worn upholstered chair near the unlit fireplace. He
noticed a framed photograph of Stephanie on the mantel, and for a moment he marveled at the difference between the cheerful girl in the picture and the sullen zombie he’d seen back at the hospital. Mrs. Guthrie offered tea, which Vic politely refused. He waited until the couple had settled themselves on the matching sofa across from him, and then he got straight to the point.
“Let me just say that I want nothing more than to see that Stephanie gets the help she needs, Mr. and Mrs. Guthrie,” he began. “As I’m sure you’re aware, the situation is very grave. Fifteen people are dead, and it appears that Stephanie may somehow be involved, as either a victim or a perpetrator. As I told you on the phone, she is refusing or unable to speak, so anything you can tell me would be greatly appreciated.” He pulled a tiny tape recorder from his jacket pocket. “May I?” The couple murmured assent, and he switched it on.
Mrs. Guthrie’s lower lip was trembling. “I just don’t understand how any of this could have happened,” she said. “Stephanie never hurt anyone. And she would never do anything to hurt Ray—she adored him.”
Mr. Guthrie was nodding in agreement. “Yes, there must be some mistake. I’m sure she was just the victim of a horrible attack, or perhaps a freak accident.”
“That’s what we’re hoping to find out,” Vic said with a tight smile. “Please forgive me, but I have to ask some of these questions. Now, about Ray, they were engaged, correct?”
“Had they been having any problems, though? Arguments? Had her behavior seemed any different recently?”
Mr. Guthrie was shaking his head before Vic had even finished speaking. “We just saw the both of them on Friday night. They came over for dinner. Nothing was wrong; they were happy, laughing. Talking about the wedding plans.”
“I just can’t believe Stephanie would have anything to do with anything so horrible,” Mrs. Guthrie said. Her eyes were glistening, but she spoke firmly. “The poor dear. Especially after—”
“Yvonne!” Mr. Guthrie bellowed.
Vic fixed each of them with a hard stare. “Especially after what?”
“Nothing, Inspector,” said Mr. Guthrie. “My wife was just going to say, especially after we had just seen her the day before.” He shot Yvonne a warning look that he probably thought Vic didn’t notice.
“George…” She reached out and touched the back of his hand.
Vic’s impatience was beginning to flare up again. “It won’t help your daughter’s case if you keep information from me,” he said, trying to tone down the irritation in his voice.
“She’s not our daughter,” Mrs. Guthrie said with a defiant glance toward her husband. “I thought you might have found that out by now.”
“Yvonne, I told you…”
Vic put up his hand to silence Mr. Guthrie, who was clearly approaching a meltdown. “Let your wife talk, sir.”
“He doesn’t like to talk about it,” said Mrs. Guthrie, patting her husband’s hand again. “It was his brother and sister-in-law, you know.”
Mr. Guthrie looked ready to explode, but Vic preempted him with a calming gesture. “Go on, Mrs. Guthrie.”
“It was such a long time ago. Stephanie was only about ten at the time,” Yvonne said. “A very bright child, she was. We didn’t see her often back then, you understand. Her parents—that’s George’s brother and sister-in-law—lived in Rosemere, about ninety miles north of here. But we saw them on holidays, of course.”
Vic wondered if this story would be going anywhere relevant, but he leaned forward in his seat, silently encouraging her to continue.
“Well, it happened at Stephanie’s school,” Yvonne said. She glanced over at George, who had covered his face with his hands. “It was one of those open house nights, you know, where the parents come to meet the teachers and so on. Do you have any children, Inspector?”
Vic did, a baby son, but he shook his head no. He didn’t want Mrs. Guthrie getting sidetracked.
“Well, it was the funniest thing,” Yvonne continued, to Vic’s relief. “Not funny, of course, but strange. I don’t think anyone ever figured out exactly what happened. It was all so sudden. One minute, there were kids and parents milling around the classroom, looking at all the projects the children had made, and then the next minute…”
Mrs. Guthrie waved her hand vaguely in the air. Her bottom lip was trembling again. “I wasn’t there, you understand,” she said, her voice going hoarse. “But I heard all about it. The papers said there was blood everywhere, covering everything. And all those poor little children…” The tears finally came, and Yvonne pressed her hands to her lips, and indication that she could not continue.
Vic looked to Mr. Guthrie, who looked haggardly back at him. “What happened?” Vic asked.
“They all died, what do you think happened?” George rasped. “My brother and sister-in-law, some other parents, teachers, a bunch of kids. Almost everyone in the room, as a matter of fact. Stephanie and one other person were the only ones who survived.”
“But what killed them?” Vic urged, exasperated. “Was it a shooting?”
Mrs. Guthrie had recovered enough to speak again. “I told you, they didn’t know what it was. Everyone just dropped dead, near as I can figure from the news stories. No one was shot, they were sure of that, but…” She trailed off, shrugging. “I guess they didn’t have all the fancy forensic science they have nowadays. Anyway, it was in all the papers back then. The Rosemere Gazette, a couple of others.” She sniffed and wiped at her nose primly with a handkerchief she had produced from her pocket.
Vic made a mental note to check the archives for news stories about the deaths; he didn’t remember hearing about it at the time, but he hadn’t been much older than Stephanie then, and he doubted that any news story, no matter how bizarre, would have made its way into his teenage psyche all those years ago. “Was Stephanie questioned after all this happened?” he asked.
Mr. and Mrs. Guthrie looked at each other. There was a long pause, then Yvonne finally said, “She was never the same afterwards.” Her voice was so soft that Vic had to lean farther forward to hear her. “She just kind of…vanished into herself. Not surprising, I suppose, after such a trauma. George and I got custody—we were the closest relatives, you know, and we were happy to do it—but we couldn’t reach the girl. She had to be…hospitalized for a while.” Yvonne looked as though she might be on the verge of losing it again, but she clenched her jaw and held herself together.
“How long was she hospitalized, Mrs. Guthrie?” Vic had lowered his voice to match hers.
“Oh…almost two years, I think it was.” She sounded almost apologetic, as though the girl’s illness was a personal failing. “I hated to see her in there, I really did, but…well, what else could we do?”
“They did help her in that hospital, right enough,” Mr. Guthrie added. “Stephanie was never the same as before, but once she came out of there she was much better. Not like she was, but still okay.” Now it looked as though George might break down crying again.
Vic thought he had caused the couple enough anguish for one day, so he switched off the recorder, replaced it in his pocket, and stood to go. “Thanks very much, Mr. and Mrs. Guthrie,” he said, reaching out to shake their hands. “I’ll be in touch. And if you think of anything more, give me a call.”
“We certainly will.”
Vic left the pair to their heartbreak, and made his way back to his car, where he finished off the thermos of now lukewarm coffee. His earlier hesitancy, it seemed, had been wrong; he had obtained quite a bit of interesting information from Stephanie’s adoptive parents. And now it seemed like the reticent Miss Guthrie wasn’t quite as above suspicion as she had first appeared.
Theresa Hill locked her office door behind her, then retraced her well-worn steps down the hall to Stephanie Guthrie’s room. It had been four days since the incident, and very little progress had been made. The woman was easily the most difficult case she’d ever run across, and as such, was maddeningly intriguing.
Stephanie had not moved during Theresa’s absence. The doctor fetched a chair from an adjacent room and placed it a few feet from Stephanie, then closed the door.
Perhaps hypnosis was the only way to reach the patient, Dr. Hill mused. Certainly nothing else had worked—Theresa had tried cajoling and threatening, withholding food, appealing to Stephanie’s love for her family and her dead fiancé. The woman had sat there through it all, stoic, emotionless. She wasn’t completely out of it, Theresa knew—she had been eating a little, and could be counted upon to get up and use the bathroom when necessary, but beyond that she was a shell of a person, an automaton.
Theresa began today’s session as she had begun the others, talking to Stephanie in low tones, addressing her frequently by name in order to place focus on her core identity. As with all the other times, Stephanie did not react, not even to make fleeting eye contact with the doctor.
After about fifteen minutes of this, Theresa sighed and stopped talking. Clearly it was time for a different approach, one she had been putting off for days. She reached into the pocket of her coat and drew out the small metronome she had brought from her office; she got up and placed it on the seat of her chair. She turned it on, and its winking silver needle began to tick back and forth with a sound like a wooden cane tapping on pavement.
“I don’t know if you can hear me or understand me, Stephanie,” said Dr. Hill, standing off to the side with her hands clasped behind her back. “But if you can, I want you to look at the object in front of you. Concentrate on it very hard, and ignore everything else but it and the sound of my voice.”
Theresa had no idea whether Stephanie was complying or not, since her blank expression did not change. She pressed on. “Good. Just keep looking at it, focusing on the needle going back and forth, back and forth.”
Again, there was no discernible reaction, but Theresa continued on, allowing her voice to become softer and softer until it was a pleasant drone in the drab room. At last, she said, “Now, Stephanie, I want you to close your eyes.”
For a long moment nothing happened, and Theresa’s hopes began to fade. Perhaps they would never be able to reach the woman; perhaps the bizarre deaths at the zoo would remain forever unsolved.
Then Stephanie’s eyes fluttered closed.
Theresa almost leaped for joy, but managed to keep her voice level, even as her heart hammered against her ribcage. “Very good, Stephanie. Now I want you to go back to last Saturday, the day you and Ray went to the zoo. Do you remember?”
Stephanie didn’t answer, but her brow furrowed as though she’d just heard some troubling news. Theresa was so elated to see a change in expression that she immediately moved on to the next question. “What happened that day, Stephanie? Can you tell me?”
The patient’s frown deepened, and her eyelids began to twitch. Theresa thought she saw the woman shake her head, ever so slightly, but it might have been wishful thinking. “Can you tell me what happened, Stephanie?” Dr. Hill persisted, trying mightily to keep from badgering her. “You were walking along with Ray, weren’t you? There were some other people around. And then what?”
Two tears squeezed from beneath Stephanie’s closed lids and trickled down her cheeks. Her face was a mask of horror and sorrow, and Theresa considered waking her up right then, but at that moment Stephanie began to move.
Her arms, which had been dangling loosely by her sides, started to rise, almost as though they were attached to a puppeteer’s strings. Stephanie’s eyes remained closed, but her face contorted, seemingly fighting against the actions of the rest of her body.
Her arms were now outstretched, level with her shoulders, and as Theresa watched, the woman unfurled her fingers like flower petals and spread them wide. The doctor opened her mouth to ask what she was doing, but then Stephanie’s eyes flew open and her gaze fixed fully on Theresa, the zombie stare now replaced by a look of frightening, hyper-aware intensity. The doctor backed up a step.
“The voice,” said Stephanie, the words little more than a creak of muscles long unused.
Dr. Hill was so shocked that the patient had spoken that she stumbled over the next question and had to repeat it. “Whose voice, Stephanie?” she asked, trying to maintain contact with that unsettling stare. “What did it say?”
Stephanie’s eyes widened, becoming round black holes in the midst of her ghostly visage. There was a sound from behind, but Theresa ignored it, intent upon her patient’s words.
“Lepidoptera,” Stephanie said, and then her entire body seemed to collapse in on itself, her arms dropping back to her sides, her head falling forward until her chin rested on her chest. Blood came, first in a trickle and then in a torrent. Frantically, Theresa clapped her hands, attempting to wake the patient from the hypnotic trance, but the sharp sounds of her palms smacking together had no effect other than producing a flat echo against the gray concrete walls.
Vic stomped on the gas, urging the car to go faster, even though he was already exceeding the speed limit by a considerable margin. He hoped to Christ his hunch was wrong, but a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach suggested it wasn’t. In fact, if Dr. Hill had gone ahead with the planned hypnosis, then it was probably already too late.
After leaving the Guthries’ the day before yesterday, Vic had gone straight to the Rosemere library and spent the better part of the afternoon examining the newspaper archives on microfilm. And there, just as Mrs. Guthrie had stated, was the entire unbelievable story, laid out in all its puzzling detail, though Stephanie, being a minor, was not mentioned by name. Police at the time had been mystified, and even though Vic had scoured the later records, hoping for some follow-up, he had found nothing further, other than a short article a few months after the event which speculated that the deaths had been caused by some freak chemical seepage into the classroom, since the victims had apparently all succumbed to some unknown poisonous fumes. Just like the fifteen people at the zoo, Vic had thought grimly.
Only one other person had survived the accident twelve years before, and that was a young teacher by the name of Bill Travers. Vic had spent the previous day tracking the man down, only to find out that he had died in an institution, having been in a near comatose state for nearly ten years following the occurrence at the school open house. And after speaking to one of the older nurses who still worked at the hospital where Travers had died, Vic discovered something else—that when a doctor had attempted hypnosis in order to reach the poor man, Travers had ended up dead, the doctor catatonic. Post-mortem examination of Mr. Travers had revealed that his death was caused by the same mysterious chemical that had killed
the parents and children in the classroom, and the same one, Vic knew, that had killed the fifteen people at the zoo last week. He’d had a report back from the lab boys on that, too—they had no idea what the substance was, other than that it was sort of like a pheromone, but deadly poisonous. Yeah, tell me something I don’t know, Vic had said sardonically.
But there was a minor detail that nagged at Vic. The nurse at the institution where Travers had breathed his last had supplied him with a grainy, black and white videotape of the hypnosis session where Travers had died. The similarity with Stephanie’s case was chilling, as the man sat very still in his chair, seemingly insensate, as the doctor stood over him, intoning a list of questions that was meant to draw him out of his traumatized state. But suddenly, the man’s eyes had opened, his face had wrenched apart in a silent scream, and he had uttered a single word: Lepidoptera. The tape stopped just as his lifeless body slithered to the floor.
Vic blew through a yellow light that turned red the second he passed under it. He didn’t understand exactly what the mechanisms behind all this were, but the outcomes seemed abundantly clear. Something was causing these people to transform from normal, functioning human beings into…what? Was it some kind of killer virus triggered by environmental factors? Or even by some internal apparatus that lay dormant in the body until a particular moment caused it to flower?
Vic didn’t know, but he did know that both Stephanie Guthrie and Theresa Hill were in horrible danger. Even though he had abandoned the idea of God long ago, he began reciting a litany in his head, something like a prayer, though to who or what he was praying he couldn’t have said. Please let it not be too late, please let it not be too late…
After what seemed like hours of driving, the unobtrusive sign identifying the Mayflower Psychiatric Hospital loomed through his windshield. He turned the car without slowing down, feeling two tires leave the ground, and then tore down the long, tree-lined road that led to the parking lot. He pulled abruptly to the curb and leaped from the car, leaving the door wide open and the keys dangling in the ignition.
Doctors and nurses turned to stare at him as he belted down the halls, flashing his badge at anyone who looked as though they may try to stop him, squeezing through the digitally locked doors the second the shocked guards had opened them. His shoes squeaked on the linoleum, and his lungs were filled with the mingled odors of urine and sweat and formaldehyde.
He headed first for Dr. Hill’s office, but saw immediately that she was not there. His heart sinking, he continued running, down the endless corridors, deeper into the bowels of the hospital.
At last he arrived at Stephanie Guthrie’s room. He turned the knob and found it unlocked, which made his hopes dim even further. He was almost afraid of what he would see as he pushed open the door.
For a split second it appeared that everything was fine. Dr. Hill was standing in the middle of the room, leaning toward Stephanie, who sat in the chair she had barely moved from for several days, her eyes closed, her arms outstretched. An echo hung in the air, as though Dr. Hill had just asked a question that awaited an answer.
Just as Vic was about to speak and announce his presence, Stephanie’s eyes opened and fixed on the doctor’s. Her lips parted with a soft plip. Vic darted into the room, knowing what she was about to say, but for some reason time seemed to have slowed, the way it does in dreams. Stephanie seemed very far away, her mouth opening like a tiny black O. “Lepidoptera,” she said, and then her entire frame collapsed, and blood began to ooze from her nose and mouth. As Vic watched, she crumpled to the floor, her eyes already beginning to glaze over, the single word she had spoken humming around the enclosed space like a hellbent mosquito.
Dr. Hill was clapping her hands, obviously trying to awaken a patient that would wake no more. She still had not noticed Vic at all. She moved toward Stephanie.
And then Vic felt it, that word the woman had whispered, tunneling into his brain like an earthworm through the loam, lodging in the deepest part of him. He could feel it radiating outward from this command center, infecting his flesh, his entire molecular structure. He could feel it squirming within him, using him for its own devilish purposes, waiting for the moment when it would unleash itself upon the unwary, making of him an unwitting carrier, accomplice, slaughterer.
Dr. Hill finally turned and saw him standing there, and just before his brain began its inevitable withdrawal into its cocoon, he managed to lock gazes with her. She had fallen to her knees next to the corpse of her patient, clearly suffering the same appalling fate as he. Vic tried to smile at her, if only to show that they were now joined in their shared contagion, but he couldn’t quite do it.
At last he felt his body falling, and his thin veneer of rationality dissolved completely, his thumping heart keeping time with the ticking beat of the metronome.
In my previous post about Stories That Scared Even Me, I mentioned how influential horror stories were on me as a kid, and how much I adored seeking them out and reading them, whether they were intended for children or not (my parents were pretty chill that way). Sure, I delved into the very disturbing adult worlds created by Poe and Lovecraft, King and Barker, Matheson and Bradbury. But I was still a kid, and as such, I enjoyed kids’ stories too.
I can’t remember who gave it to me (it could have been my parents or another close relative), but when I was a darkling little sprog I received a delightful black box set containing five slim paperbacks with different colored spines. I recently searched for the entire box set online, but to no avail; it appears that the books are only sold individually now, and used, at that. But it was the more freewheeling 1970s, and I had more scary bang for the buck, yo. While only one of the books was straight-up horror, the others had enough of a dark fantasy or funny fairy-tale vibe to keep me enchanted, and I read those five books until they literally fell to pieces.
The largest and scariest book in the collection was Maria Leach’s The Thing at the Foot of the Bed. It was an illustrated compendium of traditional ghost stories, urban legends, and poems, with some handy ghost tips thrown in at the end (for example, I distinctly remember the book warning me not to touch a hat that had been left in the road with a stick lying across it, since it belonged to a spirit who was presumably coming back to fetch it at some point. Stay away from haunts’ hats, kids; the dead are really touchy about their headwear). It contained many, many well-known tales, such as “The Golden Arm,” “Sweet William’s Ghost,” and that one about the kid who goes into a cemetery on a dare and plunges his knife into a grave and then ends up dying of fright like a dumbass because he thinks the corpse has reached up and grabbed him. I also recall a few funny ones, like the story about the guy with the super long teeth (which is actually kind of creepy now that I think about it), or the one about an old man shooting a bunch of holes in a nightshirt hanging from the line because he thought it was a ghost.
The two stories I remember the best, though, were naturally the ones I thought were the scariest. The first of these was “Sop, Doll,” an unsettling tale about a guy who is eating some sort of gruel in his shack and is inexplicably visited by a series of larger and larger cats. Did I mention that the cats could talk, and they kept saying they were waiting for someone? And also that the guy was so freaked out by this situation that he ended up slicing off one of the bigger cats’ paws? Oh, and also that the next day, his wife was MISSING HER HAND and thus was probably, you know, a shapeshifting witch? Seems like something you should sort out before the wedding bells ring, guy, but who am I to judge, right?
I can’t remember the name of my other favorite story (was it in Spanish?), but I still recall the details fairly vividly because it featured beheading, and beheadings have always been one of my morbid fascinations. A dude was ambling back from the butcher with a calf’s head in a bag. He was going to eat it for dinner, which probably horrified child-me more than the outcome of the actual story did. But as he walked, the bag was dripping blood everywhere, and eventually someone called him on it and asked him to show the calf’s head, because your dinner shouldn’t be bleeding that much when you just bought it from the butcher, right? Hell, everyone knows that. (Note: I did not know that.) So the dude pulls the thing out of the bag, cavalier as you please, and it turns out (DUN DUN DUUUUUUUN) it isn’t a calf’s head at all, but the severed head of a friend of his. Dude was taken into custody and promptly hanged for murder. Even when I was a kid, though, something about this tale didn’t sit right. I mean, I seem to remember that the story mentioned, “Oh yeah, that dude totally cut off his friend’s head,” but if that were so, why in hell would he be carrying the bloody head-bag through the streets where everyone could see him? And why would he whip out the head for the first rando who asked? I guess I just don’t understand crime.
The second book in the set, The Witch’s Egg by Madeleine Edmondson, didn’t make quite as large an impression as the others, though it did feature a crabby old witch, always a plus in any story (take my novel about a couple of crabby old witches, Red Menace, for instance). It was a sort of Grinch-like story, as I recall, about the aforementioned cranky hag having her black, black heart softened when she raises a baby bird that hatches from an egg she finds. Was she planning on eating the egg at first? Did she kill the mama bird? Probably, she was an asshole like that. I really can’t remember. But still, super fucking heartwarming.
Miss Clafooty and the Demon by J. David Townsend will always hold a special place in my heart, because it was this book (along with John Bellairs’s The House With a Clock in Its Walls) that initiated me into the wonderfully grotesque world of Edward Gorey, who did the illustrations. I absolutely loved his fanciful drawings for this book, and I loved the story itself just as much. The prim and miserly Miss Clafooty is simply rolling in loot, but her mansion is all ramshackle and busted up, she wears layers of old, out-of-style duds like a bag lady, she only eats stale bread crusts and expired peas, and she never invites anyone over because that means she’d have to spend some of the oodles of gold and silver coins she keeps stored in an old stocking. Rather like Smaug if he were a doddering middle-aged Victorian hausfrau, Miss Clafooty loves nothing more than sitting in her broken-down house and running her fingers through her coins and congratulating herself on how much money she didn’t have to spend that day. But this douchey one-percenter is soon put in her place by the appearance of a small purple demon (because why not?) with “a mouth like an oven” who shames the woman so much that she finally pulls the greed-plug out of her butthole and buys some actual food and some nice clothes and fixes her house up and invites everyone over for a big-ass shindig. Occupy Clafooty!
By far my favorite book of the set was Margaret Storey’s Timothy and Two Witches. I was absolutely enthralled by its darkly fantastical atmosphere and its charming British setting and tone. Timothy is sent to live with his aunt, I believe, after his parents die (probably). His aunt is a white witch, and she’s young and pretty, and all sorts of cool shit happens in her house, like the soap just jumps into your hand when you need it, and stuff cleans up after itself. I also have a clear memory (because even as a child I was a total dessert whore) of the little cakes the aunt would give to Timothy. She didn’t bake them or anything, she just made them magically, but they had his name written on them in icing, and I thought that was pretty fab. Come to think of it, I want to go live with this chick right now. Anyway, there was also a little girl, who was either the aunt’s daughter or a neighbor kid or something, and she befriends Timothy, as well as has cakes with her name written on them. And because it was a dark fantasy with a white witch in it, there also had to be an eeeeeeevil witch. I think Timothy fell under her spell somehow, but the white witch was more powerful and everything worked out okay in the end. I remember being particularly taken with the descriptions of the magical woods where the good witch lived, where the trees and grass all glittered with gold and silver. Damn, I’ve been to England, why can’t I find this woman’s place? I want magical maid service and personalized magic cakes and glittery trees. Goddammit.
The final book in the set was a wacky fairy tale entitled The Strange Story of the Frog Who Became a Prince, by Elinor L. Horwitz. It was a sort of send-up of the old Frog Prince story, wherein a witch (another one! There were a lot of witches in this box set, dang) who is out doing some freelance witching one day comes across a happy frog and turns him into a prince. Who knew that witches would just do this kind of stuff for free? I learned a lot about witches from these books. Anyway, the twist is that the prince the frog gets turned into looks more like Prince Charles than The Artist Formerly Known As, with big ol’ jug ears and knock knees and buck teeth and so forth. The witch gets points for accuracy, of course, but the frog isn’t too thrilled with the whole transformation jazz and starts telling the witch how much more handsome and kick-ass he was as a frog. Finally he convinces the witch to change him back, but she can’t remember how. So maybe she’s a trainee witch; that’s why she’s going around transforming amphibians into inbred royals willy-nilly. Much zaniness ensues as she tries to remember the spell to return him to his former state. Lots of words said backwards, as I recall. I think the one that ended up doing it was “peanut butter sandwich” said backwards. Which makes total sense.
I want a peanut butter sandwich now. *heads for pantry*
Until next time (burp), Goddess out.
There is nothing I love so much as a well-told and terrifying short story. Sure, novels are great, and can conjure an entire world that you can lose yourself in for days or weeks at a time; but there is something about that sharp jolt from a short tale that can be read all in one sitting (though perhaps not forgotten so quickly as that). Short stories are my preferred medium for writing as well, and I hope one day to be able to create something even partially approaching the nightmarish impact of some of my favorite short stories of all time: Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model.” Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.” Oliver Onions’s “The Beckoning Fair One.” Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” H. Russell Wakefield’s “The Triumph of Death.” Clive Barker’s “In the Hills, the Cities.”
When I was a wee Goddess, one of my very favorite things was to go to the library and check out one of the giant horror anthologies that flew under the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” banner. A shit-ton of them were published, and I think I probably read them all during my formative years. The stories contained therein were a huge influence on little nugget me, who was already starting to show a penchant for the literary and the horrific. My grandfather, knowing of my predilections, gave me one of the anthologies out of the vast, dusty collection of books he kept in teetering stacks on the floor of his creepy, overstuffed house. I still have it, though its pages have fallen completely out of its binding from the many rereads it underwent over the years. It was published in 1967, only five years before I was born. It was called Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories That Scared Even Me. Even the title intrigued me! THESE STORIES SCARED ALFRED HITCHCOCK, YOU GUYS. THAT’S HARDCORE.
Sadly, this incredible collection is now out of print, but used copies can be found pretty easily, and if you’re into a lot of the horror fiction that came out from around the 1920s to the 1960s, I would recommend you pick up a copy, because it is the most consistently great horror anthology I’ve ever read. There isn’t a dud among the 25 tales featured, and there isn’t a story in there that isn’t excellent at the very least. The collection has something for damn near everyone: Weird monsters (Fishhead, Men Without Bones, It, The Troll, Out of the Deeps)! Dystopias (Not With a Bang, X Marks the Pedwalk)! Creeping suburban horror (Tough Town, One of the Dead)! Jack the Ripper (The Knife)! Vampires (The Real Thing)! Nazis (Evening at the Black House)! I’ll provide a full table of contents at the bottom of the post, if you’re curious.
It’s difficult to choose my five favorite stories out of such an embarrassment of riches, but for the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to attempt it. Wish me luck.
“A Death in the Family” by Miriam Allen deFord
I briefly mentioned this story before in my post about season two of “Masters of Horror,” and I also mentioned that it had been turned into a partial episode of “Night Gallery.” It’s the tale of a lonely undertaker who has an entire “family” of stolen, preserved corpses in his basement to keep him company. His secluded little world is disrupted, however, when kidnappers drop the murdered body of a beautiful little girl on his doorstep, and he must wrestle with the decision of either doing the right thing by the girl’s family, or adding the perfect daughter to his own. The whole tale just oozes a cold, chilling atmosphere, and the helpless empathy you feel with the bereft protagonist gives this one a real emotional punch.
“Party Games” by John Burke
Since I was about the same age and personality type as the main protagonist of this story, the quietly sly Simon, this story really resonated with me when I first encountered it. Fairly violent, but in a pleasingly understated and very British way, the story follows the tragic arc of Simon’s ill-fated birthday party, and examines the vengeful depths that might be lurking just below the surface of even the shyest and most innocuous of little boys.
“Curious Adventure of Mr. Bond” by Nugent Barker
Really more of a novella than a short story, this tale is told in three rough parts. Mr. Bond is a traveler who goes to a succession of three oddly-named inns, and slowly begins to discover the terrible secret connection between them. I like this one a great deal because it has sort of an eerie fairy-tale feel, and the gruesome outcome is satisfyingly icky.
“The Road to Mictlantecutli” by Adobe James
I’m always down for a good devil story, and this one takes a fairly original and somewhat dreamlike path. Saturated in the atmosphere of the American Southwest and shrouded in Aztec myth, this story of an unsympathetic fugitive from the hangman who has his own ghastly “Hotel California” experience out in the desert is blood-red perfection.
“Journey to Death” by Donald E. Westlake
The premise is simple: Two men are trapped in an airtight game room when their cruise ship plunges to the bottom of the ocean. But the execution is skin-crawling, the tension palpable, and the resolution grim. A shining example of taking a bare-bones frame and building a towering edifice of terror upon it.
And here, as promised, is the entire list of stories featured in this fantastic collection. Check it out; you won’t be disappointed. Until next time, Goddess out.
“Fishhead” by Irvin S. Cobb
“Camera Obscura” by Basil Copper
“A Death in the Family” by Miriam Allen deFord
“Men Without Bones” by Gerald Kersh
“Not with a Bang” by Damon Knight
“Party Games” by John Burke
“X Marks the Pedwalk” by Fritz Leiber
“Curious Adventure of Mr. Bond” by Nugent Barker
“Two Spinsters” by E. Phillips Oppenheim
“The Knife” by Robert Arthur
“The Cage” by Ray Russell
“It” by Theodore Sturgeon
“Casablanca” by Thomas M. Disch
“The Road to Mictlantecutli” by Adobe James
“Guide to Doom” by Ellis Peters
“The Estuary” by Margaret St. Clair
“Tough Town” by William Sambrot
“The Troll” by T. H. White
“Evening at the Black House” by Robert Somerlott
“One of the Dead” by William Wood
“The Master of the Hounds” by Algis Budrys
“The Real Thing” by Robert Specht
“Journey to Death” by Donald E. Westlake
“The Candidate” by Henry Slesar
“Out of the Deeps” by John Wyndham
“Thanks for calling CastOutCo, we’re steamin’ mad at demons. How can I help you?”
“I’m not sure whether I should be calling or not.”
Father Buck rolled his eyes, aiming another pencil at the ceiling tiles. “What seems to be the problem?”
“It’s my son. I don’t know where to turn…”
The woman started talking, and Buck made some peremptory notes, and then began doodling on the edges of his legal pad. The symptoms she was describing were fairly typical; Buck already had all the information he was likely to need, but it made the clients feel better if they were allowed to vent.
When the woman paused to take a breath, Buck jumped in. “We’re awfully swamped, but I think I can squeeze you in this afternoon at two-thirty, if that’s okay.” He glanced up at the wrestling calendar tacked to the wall of his cubicle; there was nothing written there.
“Thank you. Yes, as soon as possible.” Her voice was forceful and harsh through the phone, as though she really wanted to say, You’d better get your ass here yesterday, buster.
“See you then,” Buck said, and almost hung up, but then remembered to tack on, “Thanks for calling CastOutCo.” The woman had already rung off. Buck put the phone back in its cradle, hoping the manager hadn’t been listening in.
With a sigh, he buttoned up the shirt of his uniform, which looked like something a priest would wear if he moonlighted as a motorcycle mechanic; it was black, with a faux white collar and an embroidered name badge with a little orange cross stitched on it. Buck slid his feet off the desk and crammed his black cowboy hat onto his balding pate. He couldn’t hear a peep in the office; the other associates were probably sleeping or cruising the Internet for underage girls. Business had been tanking, and it was all thanks to Big Pharma—parents were generally unwilling to fork over obscene amounts of cash to an exorcist when they could just stuff their kid full of Ritalin.
Buck got up from his chair, causing the chair and his back to squeak in protest. He hoped this tinpot operation could stay afloat until he retired; he was too old to go pounding the pavement for work, and besides, banishing demons wasn’t really an in-demand skill in the job market these days. He sighed again, heavily, and glanced at his watch. If he left now, he’d probably have time to stop and get a beer.
At two-thirty-eight, after three beers and a bowl of nachos, Buck pulled his rickety Ford to the curb in front of the client’s house, which was a typical faceless suburban confection painted in trendy Mediterranean hues. There was a dark green minivan in the driveway, with a sticker on the back proclaiming that their kid was an Honor Student at Insufferable Brat Middle School, or some such crap. Buck scowled.
The woman had the door open before he’d even got all the way out of the car, and she looked exactly as he had expected her to: Pinched, too skinny, with meticulously styled brownish hair and high-waisted jeans. Buck smiled and raised a hand in greeting, but she just looked at him with a steely expression. He muttered under his breath as he retrieved his box of supplies from the back seat.
Once inside, the woman didn’t even offer a drink or so much as a how-do-you-do; she just marched through the maze of cream-colored hallways, leaving Buck to scuttle along behind her. She stopped on the threshold of what looked like a sitting room, and thrust her finger forward.
The boy sat stoutly in a red recliner, his feet dangling an inch or two from the floor. Behind him were the tangled wires and controls of a forgotten video game, and clutched in his hand was a half-eaten Ho-Ho. He considered his mother and the stranger with flat-lidded eyes.
“What’s the kid’s name?” Buck hissed out of the corner of his mouth.
“Logan,” the woman hissed back. Then she moved aside and let Buck into the room.
“What’s up, Logan?” Buck put his box casually on the floor at his feet. The boy glanced down at it, and then looked back at him. “Something going on I should know about?”
The kid burped, and Buck got a cloudy snootful of root beer and Ho-Ho filling and brimstone. “Who are you?” Logan asked.
I’m Spartacus, kid, who do you think? Buck smiled. “Just someone who wants to help you. My name’s Father Buck.” He wasn’t really a father to anyone or anything; he’d never even done that cheapo ordaining deal on the Internet. The titles were company policy.
Logan’s face puffed up like an egg sac and turned a livid shade of green. The exorcist ducked in case the kid was going to spew, but all that came out were words. “He doesn’t need any help, wretched human,” the kid croaked, in a voice rather reminiscent of intestinal gas. “I am in…um…complete control now.”
Buck pulled up a nearby chair and sat facing the boy. It looked like it might be a long afternoon. “And who, pray tell, might you be?”
Logan’s face deflated in an instant, and he was again a normal, contemptuous pre-teen. “You already know my name is Logan. Are you retarded or something?”
Buck sighed inwardly. The beer and nachos seemed to be having a neighborly dispute in his digestive system. “I know you’re Logan. I’m talking to the other person inside of you.”
Logan just looked at him quizzically, but then the swollen green face returned. “You’ll never free the child from our crutches…I mean clutches!” The shining red eyes glanced to the left, as though consulting an invisible someone standing just behind the recliner. Then they fixed on Buck again. “Try anything you want! Dunk me in a tank of holy water! Read me boring bits of the Bible! Stick a silver crucifix up my nose and…uh…call me Sally!” Another small burp escaped the demonic maw. “Oh! And…um…your mother wears army boots?”
On top of the indigestion, Buck’s head had begun to pound. This was exactly what he needed today; this demon was only a damn trainee. He had dealt with a few of them in his time; trainees were usually a bigger pain in the ass to exorcise than fully accredited demons. Buck reckoned it had to do with the trainees’ inexperience, their desperation to succeed at their first big possession. Trying to ignore his throbbing temples, Buck said, “Junior demon third class, I want to talk to your supervisor.”
The green face registered childlike surprise, and then quickly reverted to a grimace that was apparently supposed to be terrifying. “What are you talking about, pitiful human? I’m an all-powerful…what? No, I can do it… Oh, all right!” In an instant the petulant green visage dissolved into a much less human countenance, reddish and reptilian. Yellow eyes with cat-slit pupils regarded Buck with impatience. “Yes?” its deep, gargling-drain voice said.
Buck reached into his supply box and produced the standard-issue silver crucifix, then held it at arm’s length in front of him. “I command you and your acolyte, in the name of all that is holy, to leave the body of this boy in peace, amen, et cetera.”
The supervising demon blinked. “Yeah. Well, look, can you do me a big favor and not bust my chops here? I mean, the trainee’s gotta learn this possession jazz, right? You understand.”
Buck had expected this, so he put down the cross and retrieved a vial of holy water from the box, which he proceeded to open and sprinkle liberally onto Logan’s pudgy shins. The flesh sizzled a little, but remained unblemished. The demon rolled its eyes. “Hey, didn’t the kid just tell you that none of that stuff was going to work? You been watching too many Hammer movies or something?”
Buck pulled his worn Bible from the box and began reading from it, but he’d only got through one paragraph before the demon waved its hands for silence. “Okay, put a sock in it. I’ll make you a deal,” the supervisor growled. “Let the trainee do his possession thing, pass his test, get his certification, and then I promise we’ll leave the kid alone and go possess someone else. Would that make you happy?”
Before Buck could answer he realized that Logan’s mother had breezed into the room and was standing so close behind him that he could feel her breath riffling his hair. “Yes, Mr. Demon! Please leave Logan alone. In fact, why don’t you go possess that Taylor slut down the street? She’d probably enjoy it.”
Buck closed his eyes. The headache was starting to make him see stars. “Ma’am, if you’ll please let me handle this…”
The woman cast a furious glance down at Buck. “The demon offered a deal, and if you’re too pigheaded to take it, then I will.”
Buck was trying to explain to the woman that demons were actually not renowned for their honesty and their stringent keeping of promises, but she had already marched past him and planted herself directly in front of the demon, hands on hips, ass muscles clenched. “I agree to your compromise,” Logan’s mother intoned grandly.
“Well, hallelujah,” said the supervisor, and in a flash Logan’s face lost its lizardly appearance and reverted back to being puffy and green. “Hail Satan!” the trainee demon shouted exuberantly, then opened its froggy mouth wide and released a massive column of fire straight at Logan’s mother.
Buck instinctively shielded his eyes, but he could still feel the searing heat of the infernal flames as they consumed the woman utterly. She hadn’t even had time to scream.
When at last the heat had dissipated, leaving only a thick greasy stench like overdone pork, Buck reluctantly took his hands from his face and stared at the human-shaped tower of ash that teetered before him. When he exhaled, the tower collapsed into a cascade of papery black flakes that came to rest in a neat pile on the ecru carpet.
“Oops,” said the trainee demon.
The lizard face was back again, yellow eyes seeming to blaze like exploding suns. “Oops? Oops? Is that all you have to say for yourself? All you had to do was levitate the chair with the kid in it, maybe do a bit of freaky writing across his pasty midsection, but no! You had to go torch an innocent woman who’ll be going to heaven now, her soul lost to us forever! Junior demon third class, you fail!”
The green face returned blubbering. “But sir, it was just an accident…let me try again…”
“Try again? You’ll be lucky if I let you scrape old hoof shavings off the bottom of the Styx. Now come on!” Logan’s face went through one more horrible transformation, from reddish rage-filled lizard to sobbing greenish egg sac, and then he was just a regular boy again, his cheeks pink from exertion. His stomach rumbled and he looked down at it.
Buck was still sitting in his chair, unable to process what had just happened. A strange wind, perhaps caused by the departure of the demons, stirred the pile of ashes and scattered them in a pattern that looked sort of like an angel, if you squinted hard. Buck stuck his toe into the pile. Well, there goes my commission, he thought glumly.
Logan, who had been watching Buck’s actions with an elaborate lack of interest, took one last look at the blackened cinders that had once been his mother. Then he turned his chair toward the television, stuffed the rest of the Ho-Ho into his mouth, and picked up his video game controller.
We’re now in 2015, believe it or not, and jokes about when we can expect to be receiving our hoverboards aside, hopefully it will be a better one than the last. I realize I’ve been neglecting this blog a little, but as with most of you, I was busy over the holidays with just general holiday stuff as well as some of the more personal issues I briefly mentioned in a previous post, and I just never got around to updating this thing as often as I should have. But I’m resolving to do better, and to that end, I’ve decided to do something slightly different with my Favorite Horror Scenes series by discussing the 2005 television show created by Mick Garris, “Masters of Horror” (all episodes of which are available on Hulu for free, if you somehow missed them). This year marks the tenth anniversary of the show’s debut, so it seemed an opportune time for another run-through.
I distinctly remember there being a lot of buzz about this series in the horror community when it was first announced. I mean, these were going to be hour-long, uncensored, hardcore horror films based on stories by H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, Clive Barker, Joe R. Lansdale! Directed by legends like John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Stuart Gordon, Dario Argento! AND IT WAS ALL GONNA BE ON TV, YOU GUYS. Pay TV, sure, but TV nonetheless. There had really never been anything quite like it on television before, and I for one eagerly settled in to watch the moment it was available online.
At the time I enjoyed most of them quite a bit, though I found that ten years later very few of them had made a lasting impression. I had forgotten even some of the better episodes, so it was instructive to watch them all again, and gratifying that many of them were far better than I had remembered.
Case in point: Episode eight, the John Carpenter-directed “Cigarette Burns.” I hadn’t remembered anything about this episode at all, but on the rewatch it instantly moved into my top three of season one. A great deal of my enthusiasm may be due to the presence of Norman Reedus, who of course in subsequent years went on to megastardom for his role on “The Walking Dead,” but everything in this episode hit the right notes for me this time around. Udo Kier was his wonderful scene-chewing self as a reclusive squintillionaire who hires a man to procure the single remaining print of a mysterious film called La Fin Absolue du Monde, the first and only screening of which ended in madness and murder. There is genuine suspense, an eerie, menacing tone permeating the whole enterprise, and gore galore, including a memorable moment in which Udo Kier’s character threads his own intestines through the projector after his long-awaited viewing of the cursed film. Top notch.
Also very good and worth a mention: The Stuart Gordon-directed “Dreams in the Witch-House,” which very effectively captured the spooky, otherworldly feel of the Lovecraft tale it was based upon. There was also John Landis’s “Deer Woman,” which I remembered disliking the first time around but appreciated much more this time. It’s far more black comedy than straight horror, with a rather absurdist premise based on a Native American legend, but there was plenty of blood, and Brian Benben’s snark-spitting protagonist was hilarious. Lastly, and surprisingly, was Dario Argento’s “Jenifer,” which starred Steven Weber (who also wrote the teleplay, based on a Bruce Jones story). I’ve always been a big Argento fan, but I think we can all agree that his more recent output has been somewhat less than stellar. This episode, though, is quite decent, even though it honestly could have been directed by anyone. It dragged a bit in parts, but the story—about a man being slowly bewitched by a deformed succubus—was suitably disquieting, and the gore was nicely excessive.
Episodes I could have done without included, sadly, Mick Garris’s contribution to his own groundbreaking series. “Chocolate” had a flimsy story, lame execution, and just an overall feel of why-bother-ness. Boo. The only other episode I found unforgivable was Joe Dante’s “Homecoming.” Zombies as political satire can be done well, but this came across as so heavy-handed as to be utterly ridiculous, even though I happen to agree with the film’s political stance. Added to that is the fact that the subject matter, current at the time, now comes across as terribly dated and not very relatable. Thea Gill’s ballbusting Ann-Coulter-alike was amusing (and her fate at the end satisfying), but otherwise, damn, tone it down some. You can actually make a point without smashing us upside the head with a wrecking ball, y’know.
I enjoyed most of the others, though they didn’t stand out as much as they probably could have. The David J. Schow-written, Larry Cohen-directed “Pick Me Up” was pretty good, with a decent premise (competing serial killers), some genuinely tense scenes, and the always-welcome presence of Fairuza Balk. “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road,” directed by Don Coscarelli from a story by Joe R. Lansdale, was also very watchable and included a fantastic turn by Angus “Tall Man” Scrimm. Lucky McKee’s “Sick Girl” was creepy-crawly fun, with a pleasingly awkward performance by Angela Bettis as a lovelorn lesbian entomologist. The Clive Barker adaptation “Haeckel’s Tale,” directed by John McNaughton, was good, but could have been better given the source material. Same with “Dance of the Dead,” which, given the status of all those involved—story by Richard Matheson, teleplay by Richard Christian Matheson, direction by Tobe Hooper, the appearance of Robert Englund as a depraved club owner— should have been incredible, but instead was just serviceable and somewhat disjointed. “The Fair-Haired Child,” finally, was entertaining but ultimately not all that memorable.
You didn’t actually think I was going to leave this one off, did you? Slated to air as the last episode of season one, Takashi Miike’s “Imprint” was already notorious well before its air date, because Showtime (who carried the series) refused to broadcast it, due to its highly disturbing subject matter and intensely graphic violence. It was released to DVD in the latter part of 2006, and is now available on Hulu as part of the regular series. It’s easy to see why Showtime balked (even though they should have known what to expect from Miike, frankly), but it’s also sort of a shame, because this is the best episode of the series by a mile.
Pretty much the entirety of the story takes place inside a Japanese brothel, where an American journalist (played by Billy Drago) has traveled in search of the great love of his life, a prostitute named Komomo who he had promised to rescue and take back to America. Instead, he finds another prostitute with a disfigured face who tells him the increasingly convoluted tale of what happened to the doomed Komomo. The flashback scenes of Komomo’s torture (for supposedly stealing the madam’s jade ring) are horrific, and even a seasoned horror hound like myself could barely get through them, wincing and turning my head away more than once (and yes, you may call me a weenie all you like, but aaaaaaggggggghhhhhhhhh). Additionally, the deformed girl’s recounting of her own wretched childhood, particularly the scenes of her mother dumping aborted fetuses out of a bucket into a stream, were intensely uncomfortable for me, since I had been through my own abortion only a few weeks prior and was still feeling a little strange about it. At the end of the episode, I felt as though I had been run over by a bus, in a good way, if that makes any sense. The best horror should, after all, shake you out of your complacency, and touch you in places where you’d rather not be touched. “Imprint” succeeded on that score in motherfucking spades. A genius piece of filmmaking, but one I probably won’t watch again for another ten years or so, if ever.
Hopefully you enjoyed this rundown! I’m on the third episode of my season two revisit, so keep watching this space for another fun summary to come. Until then, happy 2015, and Goddess out.
It’s the scariest day of the year, and if you’d like to spend some of this glorious holiday indulging in a bit of creepy reading, please take a few moments to read my 2009 short story, “William’s Pond.” It also appears in my book Hopeful Monsters, so if you like what you read, then why not go all out and purchase a copy today? Thank you, and I hope your Halloween is a haunting, howling scream!
The pond looked dark, even now, even in broad daylight. Muriel remembered it had always looked dark. She had always been afraid of it.
She waded through layers of dead leaves in her worn black flats, keeping her eyes fixed on the still water. The grass around the pond had grown long and wild; Muriel wondered if there were snakes. Her parents had always kept the house and grounds immaculate, and it saddened her to see the neglect, the desolation. Times had been hard for them, since she’d left home. And now they were gone.
A cloud passed over the sun, and in the ensuing grayness Muriel thought she saw a shadow flickering just below the surface of the pond. She stopped and looked harder, but there was nothing. Her parents had always warned her to stay away from the pond, and unspoken but understood in their stern, pale warnings was the knowledge that Muriel’s brother had drowned there, many years ago, when he was no more than a baby. But even if that hadn’t happened, Muriel would have stayed away.
Because when she was a little girl, she thought she’d seen things in the pond.
She scoffed at herself now, standing ankle deep in leaves, wearing a shabby black funeral dress whose cheap fabric stretched taut over her swollen belly. She was a grown woman, with a thirteen-year-old daughter and a second child on the way, a woman who had once been beautiful but now bore the marks of two failed marriages, abandonment, single motherhood. She was no longer the terrified little girl who had peered out her bedroom window under the maple trees and sworn she’d seen shadows moving beneath the water, shadows that looked like people with long, flowing hair. She had left that little girl far behind, perhaps still in this house with its memories.
So why was she still afraid?
“I’m not afraid.” She said it out loud, then reddened and turned to see if her daughter had heard her talking to herself. The house and yard were silent, but her words seemed to echo through the open stillness, coming back to her as oddly warped singsong, a children’s chant repeated like a mantra: Not afraid, not afraid, not afraid…
And she wasn’t, she told herself. She could walk right up to the edge of the pond now if she wanted to, just to show those shadows (those long-haired people who weren’t there) that she was brave.
With every step closer, the shadows seemed to move faster, more erratically. Muriel told herself that she didn’t see them. Instead she thought of her brother’s tiny white body, floating and lifeless, a shock of white against the night-black water. She hadn’t actually seen him drown all those years ago, but her parents had told her what had happened, and after that, she’d seen it every night, in her dreams. The baby’s bluish limbs splayed on the surface of the water, the blacker shadows milling below it, as though making a nest for the egg like little corpse. Muriel had seen it many times, among her many dreams.
She was at the edge of the pond now. The water chuckled and gurgled, then seemed to lunge at her feet with its icy black fingers. Muriel jumped back, then turned around and made her way quickly back to the house.
“Do me a favor and stay away from that pond, Angel.” Muriel found herself using the same tone of voice her mother had always used. She smiled, but it was a sad smile, edged with bitterness.
“I know, I know, my almost-uncle died in there.” Angel was only half listening, her head poking into the refrigerator, her tight jeans riding so low on her hips that the waistband of her underwear showed. Muriel had a sudden urge to smack the girl, but she restrained it.
“That’s right.” The fetus in her belly stirred, then kicked, and Muriel winced. Only another week or two, she told herself. She didn’t know if the baby was a boy or a girl; she’d decided to let it be a surprise. Not that it really mattered anyway; its father was long gone, just as Angel’s was. Her luck with men had been little short of catastrophic for as long as she cared to remember.
Angel was smearing jelly on a piece of bread already thickly spread with peanut butter. She sat at the kitchen table across from Muriel, squashing another slice of bread on top of the mess and then bringing the dripping sandwich to her mouth and taking a noisy bite. “Mom, how come you never brought me here?” she asked around a slobbering mouthful.
Muriel didn’t answer at first. What could she say? It wasn’t because she hadn’t gotten along with her parents; she had, even though she’d kept her distance since Angel was born. Was it the house itself that had kept her away, the stately but fading Colonial that had suddenly become a showplace after her brother’s death, the barren fields that had suddenly and copiously borne fruit, the pond with its lapping black life-taking waters? She wasn’t sure. “I suppose I just kind of lost touch with your grandma and grandpa over the years, sweetie,” she finally said. “You know how it is. They had their life, we had ours.”
Angel snorted. “Yeah. Some life.” Despite a face that was still pink and plump with childhood, the girl looked hard, and cynical far beyond her years. Muriel knew that the words were meant to make her feel guilty, and they did, although they made her angry too. She had struggled to give Angel the best life possible under the circumstances, and even though there were times when fate seemed against her, she felt she’d done a decent job. She couldn’t help but resent Angel a little for throwing her failings back into her face.
“I’m sorry.” Muriel wasn’t sure if that was entirely true, but she was too tired to argue. “I should have brought you to meet them. I should have done better.”
Angel shrugged, still chewing, then looked away, out the kitchen window toward the pond. “I wonder how deep it is,” she mused, almost to herself.
The baby, a boy, was born less than a week later. Muriel drove herself to the hospital, Angel silent in the seat beside her.
She named the boy William, after her drowned brother, and she brought him home to her parents’ old house and put him in the same room that the first William had slept in before he died. She didn’t know exactly why she did it, although she told herself that it didn’t matter, that her brother’s old room was as good as any other.
William the second was a very good baby, and slept most of the time; nonetheless, Muriel spent hours in the nursery with him, watching him sleep. Sometimes she would sit in the rocking chair by the nursery window and stare out at the pond, which now seemed darker and deeper than ever. Sometimes she thought she saw choppy little waves, disturbances in the middle of the pond, as if as school of piranha were attacking its prey just beneath the surface of the water. She saw this on several successive days, and on each day the disturbance seemed ever so slightly closer to the shore. She wondered if there was a large fish living there, or maybe an alligator.
Muriel moved her bed into the nursery, and slept directly beneath the window.
When William was nearly a month old, there came a night when Angel came to the nursery door, her eyes very white and shiny in the darkness. She was clutching a stuffed rabbit in her arms, just as she had done when she was very small. Muriel beckoned, and the girl came and curled up in the narrow bed next to her mother, deliberately keeping her back to the window. “I thought I saw something,” she whispered, squeezing her eyes shut tight, so the tears popped out through the cracks in the lids. “There was something out there, in the pond.” Muriel stroked the girl’s hair until she fell into a fitful sleep. Then she looked out the window.
There were so many of them—more than she remembered. And as she stared out at them, into their greenish eyes that glowed like fish scales in the night, she realized that she did remember what, all those years ago, had really happened to the first William, her baby brother. The memory was so clear that she didn’t understand how she could have ever forgotten it, how she could have ever believed that the boy had drowned, how she could have believed it so wholeheartedly that she’d had nightmares about it for many years afterwards. She remembered her parents’ chalk-white faces, fearful, horrified—yet was there also resignation behind those expressions, perhaps even acceptance?
The women had come out of the water and ringed the house, just as they were doing now. Their skin was white like fish bellies, and patchy with algae and what looked like barnacles. Their hair hung long and wet and ropy, framing their hideous faces, covering their sagging naked breasts. They were not smiling, but they gave the distinct impression of glee, and Muriel remembered thinking then that if the women opened their mouths, several rows of razor teeth would glimmer in the moonlight.
In a moment, Muriel knew, one of the women would step forward, only this single action marking her as the leader. As a girl, Muriel had watched from her second-story window as her parents stepped forward also, meeting the soaking hag halfway. Muriel could not hear what was said, if indeed any words had been spoken. The moon had been nearly full that night, its pregnant yellow form like a spotlight against the purple drape of sky, a stage setting for the horror unfolding by the pond. The fetid smell from the water was so powerful that it seemed to be oozing through the window glass.
Down below, in the yard, her parents were stretching their arms out to the woman, and at the end of their arms lay William, pink and writhing, his little face squinched up in consternation. Muriel thought she could almost hear him wailing, although it might have
been the wind in the eaves.
The woman took the infant from his parents’ grasp, and cradled it, tenderly, staring down at it with her iridescent eyes. The other women gathered around, craning their necks to get a better look. The leader, the one holding the baby, nodded once to Muriel’s parents, as if to indicate that everything was satisfactory, and then she turned her back to them, holding the baby tight against her slick white body. Muriel’s parents turned away also, and headed back
toward the house.
Muriel had kept watching from her window. And watching from the window now, a grown woman, in her old house with her own two children sleeping beside her, she shivered to think what she had seen then, after her parents had turned away. She glanced over at William the second, snoring in his crib, his tiny hands balled into fists on either side of his nearly hairless head. She could not bear it now, seeing both him and the memory of what had happened to her brother, superimposed in her mind like paintings on translucent paper. It was so horrible. And yet…
Muriel had seen those women in the moonlight, their scaly backs like eelskins. She had seen them all set upon her brother, the first little William, and even though she couldn’t hear anything, she could see their muscles working as they tore him limb from limb, see their jaws ratcheting up and down as they masticated the tender flesh, see the splashes of blood on their clawlike hands, rendered black by the light of the moon. And she could imagine the sounds of meat rending, of the women grunting with satisfaction and smacking their lips. Muriel saw all these things, and she never told anyone.
The next morning her parents told her that William had fallen in the pond and drowned, and they said no more about it. Muriel had simply nodded and kept silent. Perhaps he had drowned, after all. Perhaps what she had seen from her window had been a dream, nothing more.
The day after that, her parents received word that a distant relative had died and left them a substantial sum of money, enough to pay off all their debts and to make the farm prosperous once again. They were overjoyed, but their eyes were still haunted, and would
stay that way until Muriel left home years later. She could not remember a time when their faces were not hollow and furtive, when their glances did not quickly shift back and forth, constantly searching for something that Muriel could never see.
Angel stirred in the bed beside her, and Muriel held her until she stilled. Then she looked out the window again. The women were still there, a phalanx of corpse-white statues, their sopping hair unmoved by the breeze, their peacock-feather eyes raised to meet hers.
Muriel understood. They didn’t want the baby, not yet.
They wanted to bargain with her.
She tiptoed quietly down the stairs, wincing every time the wood creaked beneath her weight. She was afraid, but under the circumstances, quite calm. It’s almost as if I’ve been expecting this, she thought. In a way, she supposed part of her had been.
The moonlight looked almost like chalk where it fell upon the floorboards, and the moldy smell of the pond was like a thick fog. Muriel covered her nose and mouth with her hand. Through the downstairs windows she could see some of the women, silhouetted against the darkness, the moonlight giving them pale glowing auras.
Her stomach clenching, Muriel opened the front door and stepped outside. It was a warm night, but her skin was icy, and daubed with beads of freezing sweat. The leader of these horrible women, these water witches, was still standing slightly outside of the ring, closer to the house, and when Muriel emerged, the hag shuffled even closer through the long grass. Muriel noticed that the woman’s fingers and toes bore bluish membranes of skin between them, like frog’s feet. The sight made her gorge rise.
“You know us.” When the woman spoke, her carp-like lips barely moved. Her voice seemed deep and green and coated with slime.
Muriel opened her mouth to respond, but for a moment no sound came out; her throat had gone completely dry. She coughed, nervously. “I…I remember you,” she finally managed.
“Then you know what we want.” The hag’s eyes glittered like sapphires.
Muriel hadn’t known what she was going to say to the woman, but before she knew it, she was sobbing, begging. “Please,” she said, her vision blurred by the unbidden tears, her voice cracking. “Please don’t take my baby.”
The hag looked at her, the monstrous white face expressionless. “We would of course make it worth your while,” she purred. “Just as we did with your parents.”
Muriel recalled the sudden wealth, the farm’s startling prosperity after that horrific night, and for the briefest moment, she was tempted. Even though she also remembered those empty, haunted looks that had thereafter never left their faces, she couldn’t deny it. She was disgusted with herself.
The woman was still staring at her, and the others remained in their moveless ring, infinitely patient, as though the dawn would never come. And perhaps it wouldn’t, through some of their witchery; perhaps the yellow moon would hang there in the velvet sky until doomsday, until Muriel had finally consented to their desires.
“And what if I don’t…” Her voice hitched, her throat threatened to close, but she forced herself to go on. “What if I don’t give him to you?”
The lead hag’s expression didn’t change, but Muriel got the feeling that the air around her had grown thicker, heavier—it pressed into her nose and mouth, smelling like stagnant water and algae, creeping into her lungs and growing there like fungus. She gasped for breath.
“We will take the boy regardless,” the crone hissed through her white, grouper lips. “Had you given him to us willingly, we would have shown you our gratitude. Since you resist, you will incur our wrath, and the boy will die anyway.”
Muriel was shaking all over, but she tried to sound defiant. “All we have to do is l…leave.” She cursed herself for sounding as frightened as she was. It occurred to her that Angel might have awakened and could be watching the entire scene from the nursery window. She didn’t dare turn to look.
The hag’s lips pulled apart in what might have been a smile on a less inhuman face. Her teeth were small and triangular and close together. A piranha’s teeth. “Our curse will find you wherever you go,” she said softly.
Muriel shook her head, seeing the unending row of white witches’ forms as an indistinct blur in the silvery moonlight. “I don’t believe you,” she said, and the minute the words had come out of her mouth, the suffocating pond fog seemed to lift, and she could breathe again. A moment later she realized she was standing in the yard alone in the middle of the night in her bare feet, and that it was cold, far colder than she remembered it being. The grass was wet between her toes.
A moment after that, she was blinking awake, clear sunlight pouring in through the nursery windows, Angel snoring quietly beside her. Muriel lay very still, relishing the morning and the sensation of rebirth it brought, and then William began fussing and she got out of bed to tend to him.
When Angel awoke and came down to breakfast a little over an hour later, she seemed to have no recollection of the night before, or if she did, she was choosing to hide it. She gave her mother a cursory glance before sitting down at the table and tucking into a bagel and an overflowing bowl of cornflakes, all the while scanning the pages of a fashion magazine she held in her free hand.
Muriel watched the girl for a few minutes, William perched in the crook of her arm. “Angel,” she said at last, “it’s time for us to be getting back home. School will be starting in a few weeks, and I’d like to get this house put up for sale before too long.”
Angel barely looked up from her magazine. “Mm hmm. When are we going?”
“Today. There’s really no reason for us to stay around here, is there?”
“Nope.” Angel took a long swig of her orange juice.
William began to squirm, and Muriel moved him to her other arm. “We can stay in a hotel tonight, then tomorrow when we get back to the city we can start looking for another apartment.”
“Okay, whatever.” Angel drank the last of the milk out of her bowl, then left the dishes where they lay and stomped back up the stairs to her room. A few seconds later Muriel heard a door close up there, and then the muffled beat from her daughter’s old stereo.
Did she remember anything? Muriel wondered as she picked up the dishes, maneuvering William’s tiny body to accomplish the task. Perhaps the girl had rationalized the events away as simply a bad dream that seemed ridiculous in the sunlight’s cruel glare. Or perhaps
she had done what Muriel herself had done, all those years ago—completely blocked out everything she had seen.
After the dishes were washed, Muriel put William in his carrier where she could keep an eye on him, then proceeded to pack all of their things into her two battered suitcases. She hadn’t brought much; she hadn’t even intended to stay here as long as they had, though she knew there would be practical matters to be sorted out. She felt guilty that she hadn’t even contacted a realtor or the lawyers about the sale of the property, but then she mollified herself with the thought that William had come along early, and caring for him had been taking up nearly all of her time. This was true as far as it went, but she still couldn’t completely excuse herself. She sighed, resenting William’s father—and Angel’s, for that matter—for leaving her to carry the entire burden alone.
As she packed, she tried desperately not to think of the real reason for their swift departure. She didn’t want to think of it, of what would happen if what the hag said had been true—that the curse would follow Muriel wherever she went. But that was silly, wasn’t it? The women lived in the pond, and surely their influence couldn’t extend far beyond its parameters, could it? Besides, how would they even know where Muriel had gone?
As she folded her clothes and laid them in the suitcase, she noticed that her hands were trembling. She glanced over at William, who had dozed off in his carrier. His black eyelashes fluttered against his cherub cheeks, and his lips pouted outward from his sweet, fat little face. Muriel couldn’t imagine handing him over to those horrible women with their blue-metallic eyes and their dripping piranha teeth. She felt a wave of revulsion and hatred toward her parents for their cowardice, for giving the first baby William to the hags without even a single look back, for accepting the rewards the women bestowed upon them—guiltily, perhaps, but definitively. Why hadn’t her parents fought to keep their son? Was it simply fear, or were they also blinded by their greed, their desire for a better life? Muriel couldn’t remember despising her parents as much as she did in that moment, as she watched her own son sleeping in the early afternoon sunshine slanting through the windows, his tiny fists curled at his sides, his expression slack and peaceful. Yes, I’m afraid of them too, Muriel thought. Maybe even more afraid of them than my parents were. But they’re not getting William. Not this time.
By six that evening, they were all settled in a shabby but fairly clean motel room a few miles out of town, almost seventy miles from the farm they’d left behind. If Angel wondered about the abruptness of their departure, she didn’t mention it; the second she set foot in the motel room, she tossed her bags on the floor, kicked off her shoes, and flopped onto one of the two double beds, clicking on the TV with a remote that was bolted to the bedside table.
Muriel wanted to ask Angel if she remembered what had happened the night before, but she didn’t quite dare. The house and its black pond were still too close; she could feel the swampy, rancid tang of them still clinging to her skin. She could ask her about it once they were far, far away, once the place had been sold and hopefully razed to the ground, the pond drained and filled and forgotten. For a moment Muriel almost laughed, thinking of those fearsome water witches choking under tons of bulldozed earth, but then she envisioned the shifting pearly eyes of the hags, the sight of their algae-coated fingers reaching for the first baby William, the animal sounds of them tearing the child into bloodied scraps of meat. Muriel’s laugh dried up in her throat.
She fed the baby, then put him in his carrier and propped him up next to her in the second double bed. He’d been fidgeting and crying for most of the drive here, but now he seemed calmer, and stared at the flickering television screen with rapt attention for a little while, until his lids slowly closed. Angel likewise dozed off, fully clothed and still lying on her stomach on top of the covers. Muriel carefully leaned over and turned off the light above Angel’s bed, then pushed the off button on the remote. In the ensuing darkness and silence, she could hear the steady, comforting stream of traffic rushing by outside, as well as the rhythmic snores of her two children. Orange shafts of light from the streetlamps ringing the parking lot etched lines of fire across the walls.
Muriel was so tense that she thought she’d never be able to fall asleep, but she must have at some point, for some unknown span of time later, she snapped out of an amorphous nightmare to find the room in total blackness—the streetlights appeared to have gone out, and even the sounds of the traffic outside had utterly ceased.
Struggling to fend off the creeping panic, Muriel groped in the dark on the bed beside her, searching for William’s carrier. Her frantic hands met nothing but air, and with mounting horror she realized that the bed she lay on felt cold and strange, as if it were covered with slime.
She tried to cry out, to call to Angel, but her tongue seemed to have swollen, filling her mouth, and all she could manage was a strangled gasp. She turned over on her stomach, reaching up toward the light switch that she knew must be there, only inches from her fingers, but in the darkness she could get no bearings, and her hands simply waved blindly, futile, finding no solid purchase.
Panic had set in fully now—Muriel could feel it immobilizing her limbs, sending her rational thoughts swirling and screaming into the abyss. She was no longer in the motel room anymore, she didn’t know where she was, and William and Angel were gone. The smell of the cursed pond assaulted her nostrils and she gagged, rolling to escape it and falling, landing with a thump on one elbow, which made an upsetting crunch before sending shards of jagged-glass pain into the space behind her eyes.
Moaning, she reached out with her good arm and grasped something that felt like wet fabric—the bottom of a bedspread? She almost cried with relief. She was still in the motel room after all—maybe there had been a blackout, and she had awakened in the middle of it. She hadn’t been able to find William on the bed next to her, but it was very dark—she’d been half-asleep, disoriented.
Regaining her senses somewhat, Muriel used the bedspread to help haul herself into a sitting position. Her elbow was throbbing, possibly broken, but her relief was like a soothing tide, blotting out the pain almost entirely. It was still so dark that Muriel may as well have been staring at thick black velvet drapes hanging inches from her on all sides; not a speck of light penetrated anywhere, and the smell of the pond was still as heavy as syrup.
Sweating and cursing, Muriel pulled herself to her feet, and almost immediately went sprawling, unable to orient herself in a world with no visual cues. She finally stood upright, shakily, not daring to move a step. “Angel?” she called. Her voice seemed swallowed by the immensity of the darkness, but the sound was still so startling that Muriel’s heart skipped several beats.
“Angel!” Louder this time. The girl was a deep sleeper, Muriel knew that, but she was disturbed when she got no answer. She held her breath and listened hard in the blackness, craning her head toward where she thought Angel’s sleeping form should be, but there was nothing. She may as well have been the last human alive, floating in the vast nothingness of space.
And then, for a moment, she thought she did hear something—a rush, a sigh. Muriel flapped her arms desperately around in the blackness, nearly losing her balance again. The sound could have been her imagination, or it could have been Angel or the baby. Somehow she knew, though, in the depth of her gut, that it was neither of these things. She knew that something was wrong.
As she stood frozen in her dreadful certainty, there was another sound that could have been a laugh, and then a blast of frigid air rushed past her face—air that stank of the pond, a thick green rotten stench that brought the water-hags’ countless army clearly into her mind’s eye. She flailed again, almost falling, her elbow protesting with every movement. And her hands finally met something solid, slamming up against it with such force that she nearly screamed.
It was a wall, and Muriel leaned against it, pressing her palms flat against the textured wallpaper, silently thanking gods she had stopped believing in on that night when her baby brother had been taken away. Moving slowly, her heart thudding like a jackhammer in her chest, she felt her way along the wall until her fingers met what could only be a light switch. Crowing with triumph, she flipped it, then had to close her eyes for a few seconds at the sudden brightness.
Before she opened her eyes, she realized that the blackout theory was obviously incorrect. Her body felt as though it were filled with lead.
She opened her eyes, reluctantly. The wallpaper was just as she remembered, beige and speckled with tiny shards like diamond chips. It looked blurry this close up. Feeling as though she were in a slow-motion nightmare, she turned and surveyed the room.
The bedspreads and carpet, both an undistinguished shade of orangish-tan, were now spattered with an olive green, mucus-like slime, a stinking layer of algae-covered seaweed coating the surfaces like rancid frosting. The smell of stagnant water hung so thickly in the air that Muriel almost thought she could see the droplets.
Both Angel and William had completely disappeared.
Muriel could barely see through foggy tears of loss and rage. She drove as fast as she dared, barreling down the near-empty highway under a bowl of stars that seemed to shine down on her with mocking indifference.
She cursed herself with every filthy word she could imagine, banging her hands on the steering wheel until the skin on her palms split, until her fingers were slick with blood. Why hadn’t she believed them when they said they’d find her anywhere? Would it have made any difference if she had? And why had she felt as though she were being so brave when it was really her children’s lives she was toying with?
She had no ready answers to these questions, and it felt as though her whole body might explode in her frustration and self-disgust. What else could she have done? Stayed at the house and just let them take William, like her cowardly parents? She could never have forgiven herself if she did that. But she grimly realized as she drove that perhaps her parents had understood something that she had not—sometimes you simply had no choice.
Even though it had only been seventy miles to the motel, it seemed to take forever to get back to the house. Time seemed to be warping and bending in bizarre ways, making her entire perception skewed and dreamlike. She had no idea what time it was when she finally turned down the dirt road toward the farm. It was still dark, but at this point that didn’t mean anything to her—she remembered how the women could make it seem as though the night would never end.
The car tires crunched noisily as she steered toward the driveway, her body performing the function of driving with no input from her brain at all. She made no attempt to conceal her approach; the witches would be expecting her, of that she was certain. She was just as sure
of the fact that she would get William back, or die in the attempt.
There were no lights on in or around the house, and its rambling white structure hunkered in the darkness like a massive ghostly reptile tensing to spring. Just beyond the house, Muriel could see the edge of the pond, the moonlight peppering its gentle ripples. There was no sound at all except for the car’s engine, and when Muriel turned the key, the silence fell like a shroud.
She took a cursory glance around to see if there was anything that could be used as a weapon, but she quickly abandoned the search and got out of the car. Even if she’d had a machine gun, she doubted it would be much use.
Muriel had left the headlights on to guide her way, and as soon as she was clear of the car, she broke into a run, her sneakers crashing through dead leaves and shallow mud puddles. Her elbow felt huge, swollen inside her sleeve, but she tried to ignore the pain. As she stumbled through the yard, she thought she heard a splash, and the smell of the pond came into her nostrils like an intruder, a nearly solid wall of stench. She fought back her revulsion and pressed forward.
Muriel rounded the corner of the house at full clip, and now the pond in its entirety came into her view, huge and seemingly bottomless, its surface flat as black glass. The weeds and grasses at its perimeter stirred in the light wind, and their whispers soon resolved themselves into what sounded like words. Muriel skidded to a halt. She swore she heard a baby crying, very far away. “William!” she called, and her voice volleyed back to her with a sinister, watery tinge.
They came out of the pond like bubbles of acid, their reptilian heads emerging slowly and in perfect synchrony. Muriel watched, horrified but transfixed, feeling as though she was under a spell. Perhaps she even was. The hags’ dripping faces were now clear of the pond’s surface, and al of their eyes opened in unison, the moonlight catching the orbs so that they appeared to be a sea of fireflies or will-o-the-wisps. Muriel wanted to run away but couldn’t, wanted to plunge into the filthy water and tear the hags to pieces, but couldn’t. She could do nothing but stare as they rose from the pond, their scaly flesh sparkling wet, their long hair hanging in straight, shimmering ropes.
And then Muriel’s gaze focused at the middle of the pond. Her legs collapsed beneath her.
Angel was hovering there, her lithe naked body already beginning to bloat and go pale, her brown eyes turning coppery, glimmering in the dark like cat’s eyes.
William was squalling in her arms, his lungs gurgling with pond water.
Muriel tried to speak, but found she had no voice. Her knees dug into the ground, cold mud seeping through the fibers of her clothes. She reached out with arms that seemed to weigh a thousand pounds.
The woman approached the shore, their feet skimming lightly over the water, and soon stood in a well-organized knot in the reeds at the pond’s edge. Angel was afforded pride of place, directly in the center of the group. The other women backed away a respectful distance, giving her room. She held the baby and stared down at her mother.
Muriel shook her head, her lips flopping in futile rhythm. No, Angel, she wanted to say. How could they have done this to you? You can’t do this, not you. Not my Angel.
The girl seemed to have understood her mother’s thoughts, for her eyes flickered briefly, and she glanced down at William with what appeared to be uncertainty. But when she met Muriel’s gaze again, all semblance of the old Angel had disappeared. “They’ve given me power,” she said, and her voice, though seemingly choked with the filth and gravel and slime that coated the pond and everything in it, was as clear as a dagger sunk deep into Muriel’s heart. “They would have rewarded you. This is all that they asked for. Just this.” Angel held the baby out slightly—he wriggled and whimpered, and the women looked down at him with plain lust and hunger in their twinkling eyes.
“We could have been rich and powerful together,” Angel went on, her face a mask of mock regret. “You could have had other babies. Other girl babies. They only want the males.”
Muriel clenched her fists in the mud, trying to will away the vision of impossible reality before her, trying to convince herself that she was still asleep, back in the motel room or back in her old room in this house or even back in their old apartment in the city—anywhere
but crouching on the banks of the black pond that had stolen her childhood from her.
“I’m one of them now,” Angel said, clasping the baby closer to her chest. “William is going to make it official.”
“No…” Muriel managed to croak past the paralysis that stilled her throat.
The women were getting impatient now, eager to partake of the sacrifice of the living infant flesh seductively wriggling before them like a worm on a hook. From among the seething crowd came another voice, and Muriel recognized it as belonging to the leader, the woman she’d spoken to a million years ago, or maybe it was the night before. “It has come to this,” she said in her rattling frog-song. “It is your last chance. Join us now and you will be with Angel forever. Refuse us, and you will die like William, and like your brother before him.”
With the last scrap of willpower she possessed, Muriel raised her head and met the eyes of the hag with her own. A wordless look passed between them.
“The choice is made,” the leader said.
The van’s tires crunched up the dirt driveway, sending dozing bugs and lizards scurrying for cover. It was a hot day, midsummer, and the sun beat down like a punishment. Thin tendrils of steam rose from the surface of the pond behind the house.
A young man climbed down from the driver’s side, his hair shining like polished copper. A moment later he lifted a little girl—who looked no more than five, and shared her father’s new-penny hair color and soft, kindly features—down to the ground, where she immediately darted around to the passenger side to meet her mother, who was stepping out of the van with a wistful smile on her face. She scooped up her daughter and looked at the house’s crumbling but still grand façade. There was love in her face, and hope, glowing there like a beacon.
Muriel raised her head a little more above the surface of the pond. Her long algae hair dripped water into her opalescent eyes, but she barely noticed it.
The family had gone inside the house. Muriel gazed up to the second floor, to the nursery window where both Williams had once spent the whole of their short lives. For a second, she was sure she saw a little girl’s face behind the glass, staring back at her in pale, silent terror.
Muriel smiled and submerged her head again, clacking her sharp piranha teeth.
The womb is a trap, Philip thought to himself. He caught his reflection in a shop window and slowed his pace, taking in his furrowed brow, his stooped shoulders. The trap was pressing down.
Bonnie was already naked when she answered his knock. He peeled off his pants without a word and followed the promise of her bottomless gaze.
Afterwards, she lay on the sheets, afternoon light making a triangle across her flat belly. She smoked and didn’t look at him.
“Judy’s pregnant.” He hadn’t really meant to say it out loud, but there it was, echoing among the sounds of the traffic from the street below.
He swung his legs over the side of the bed and reached down for his socks. “And I don’t know what to do about it.”
“Your part’s already done, champ.” She smirked as she watched the smoke coils hanging in the air.
“Fuck you, it’s not funny. You know Judy, she’ll expect marriage and happy family life and all that.”
Bonnie sighed and crushed her cigarette into the ashtray on the nightstand. “Why are you telling me this, Phil?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I should marry her. Carry on the family line, or something.”
She got out of bed and slithered into a silk robe. “This doesn’t much concern me, you know.”
“I’ve been fucking you for almost as long as Judy and I have been together.”
“You’ve been fucking others for almost that long. Whether you’re married or not isn’t going to stop you from fucking me or anyone else, so why drop all your angst on me today?” Her hands were on her hips, and her face was a perfect mask of bored contempt.
Philip buttoned his shirt savagely. “Okay, sorry. Just thought you might have some advice for a friend.”
Bonnie glided over to the bedroom door and stood on the threshold, clearly ushering him out. “I advise you to quit bothering me with your bullshit. You want to fuck, come on by. You want to bitch, call your therapist.”
Phil stomped the three blocks back to work, hands jammed in his pockets. In the elevator, he stared at his reflection again, noting the dark circles under his eyes, his ever more sloping posture. He didn’t know why he had told Bonnie anything.
For the rest of the afternoon, he simply sat in his office with the door closed, staring at his computer screen as if his own thoughts were projected there. When the clock finally struck five, Phil shrugged into his jacket and drifted out of the building, robotically wishing his co-workers a good weekend.
His walk home was just as automatic, but halfway there he found himself standing in front of a glass door emblazoned with three gold spheres. A bell jingled as he pushed it open.
“Help you?” The woman behind the counter was white-haired and regal, with pale, searching eyes.
He approached, his movements molasses-thick. The jewelry in the case was a riot of color, all seductive winks and fragmented images. His finger tracked along the rows of diamond rings. “That one,” he said. It looked much like the others.
“Very good choice,” the woman said, bending at the knee to slide the blue velvet box from its place in the lineup. “She’ll just love it.”
The corner of the woman’s mouth curled upwards. “You don’t sound so sure about this.” She put the box on the counter and peered up at him from beneath her lashes.
“I’m just…nervous. I guess.”
Phil freed the ring from its plush prison and gave it a perfunctory once-over. It was a solitaire ring, with a brilliant-cut stone and a thin white-gold band. It seemed adequate, classic even. He noticed as he moved the ring back and forth, the diamond flashed and then darkened. He caught a glimpse of his own haggard face in the stone’s depths before it disappeared again. “How much?”
The woman chuckled. “Normally that would be three, but I like your decisiveness. Twenty-five.”
Phil handed over his credit card. The money didn’t concern him; the implications of that tiny white-gold shackle did. He slipped the velvet box into his jacket pocket and left without another word.
Judy was arriving home just as he did, clad in her hospital greens and carrying a plastic grocery bag in each hand. She greeted him with a smile and a kiss on the cheek as he opened the door to the apartment building. “I got a couple steaks for tonight, thought you’d like that,” she said, her bags creaking as she fumbled around for her keys.
“Sounds good. I’d actually love a cocktail, though, if you could fix me one.”
She held the apartment door open with her butt as he went past her. “Sure, baby. Let me put all this stuff down first.”
Phil downed one cocktail in a single gulp and then moved on to a second. The smell of steaks frying permeated the apartment, a secretive, bloody tang. The TV was on, and he sat on the couch looking at it, drink in hand, but nothing on the screen was making any sense to him at all. Judy called him to dinner and he turned it off.
He had a third drink, then a fourth. He had taken off his jacket and slung it across the recliner, but he could still see the square protrusion in the pocket, like the rectangle of dirt covering a fresh grave. Judy, for her part, didn’t seem to notice anything amiss, humming as she washed the dinner dishes, prattling on about some funny incident at work. He half listened, smiled where he was supposed to. After a while she settled on the sofa with her tablet, her pleasant face lit by its blue glow.
He let another two hours pass before he glanced at her. His heartbeat was a death knell. “Judy?”
She looked up. “Hm?”
“I…have something for you.” He reached across and pulled his jacket into his lap. Judy watched him, sweetly curious. When he pulled out the ring box, she sat up straighter, and her eyes filled with tears. She let her tablet slide off to the side. He opened the box and held it out toward her, an offering. “Will you…marry me?” He felt as though he was speaking around a mouthful of sand.
Her tears spilled over and she laughed a girlish laugh, a sound like a tinkling bell. “Oh Phillip, you didn’t have to…because of the baby and everything…”
He realized he was still holding the ring box in one outstretched hand, like an idiot. He took the ring out and slid over to her, taking her hand to put it on her finger. “It’s not because of that,” he said. “I just wanted to. I felt like it was time.”
She stared down at the ring with something like rapture, then met his eyes. “It’s beautiful, Phil. And yes, I will. I love you.” She threw her arms around his neck and kissed his forehead, his ear, the corner of his mouth. Her tears left salty dampness on his skin.
“Love you too, Judy.” He returned her kisses, hugged her tightly around the waist. The ring sparkled in his peripheral vision. In the reflected light from the TV screen, the stone almost seemed to turn black.
He was still awake several hours after Judy had fallen asleep beside him. She had been especially amorous after his proposal, and Phil had tried, but the four cocktails and the thoughts of his impending marriage and the shitty day he’d had conspired to prevent even a glimmering of an erection. He’d apologized, shamefaced, but of course Judy had forgiven him. She always forgave him.
In the moonlight streaming in through the blinds, he could see her hands folded across her stomach, see the slyly winking diamond on her finger. Underneath that stone, underneath her folded hands, a piece of him was growing. He shifted his position on the bed, and punched his pillow into a more amenable shape. He imagined Judy’s belly inflating in seconds, like a balloon attached to a helium tank, and then exploding in a rain of blood and gobbets of flesh. Scowling, he closed his eyes, wondering what the fuck was wrong with him.
Judy rolled over in her sleep, and her hand flopped onto his chest. He opened his eyes again. The ring was inches from his face, its facets reflecting the room back at him in insect vision. As he stared at it, he thought he saw a trickle of dark liquid emerging from it and snaking its way down Judy’s finger. He felt wetness on his chest as the fluid dripped. He picked up her hand between two fingers and cast it away in disgust. Judy stirred, but didn’t wake. Phil sat up and looked down at his bare chest, but there was nothing there. Judy’s hand, now resting on the sheet, was clean.
On Saturdays, Phil had been in the habit of going to see Bonnie, or sometimes Rachel, while Judy was working her long shift at the hospital. Today, though, he slept until several hours after Judy had gone, and by the time he awakened he felt so dire that leaving the house for any reason was out of the question. He managed to stay on his feet long enough to shower and shave, staring at himself and wondering who the old man in the mirror was.
The sound of breaking glass brought his razor up short. Blood bloomed in a thin line across his jaw.
Swearing, he grabbed for a tissue, pressing it to his face as he stumbled back into the bedroom. He got his pistol from the nightstand and slid the drawer closed, quietly. The sound had come from the kitchen, he was sure.
The silence in the apartment pressed around his ears like a wool blanket. Slanted light painted the hallway as he crept along, feeling vaguely ridiculous with the gun held shakily out before him.
The kitchen was deserted, as was the living room when he peered out across the bar. He set the gun on the counter and let out a breath, scanning the area for the source of the sound. There was nothing fallen, nothing broken. He snatched open the cabinets and stared at the rows of gleaming drinking glasses, innocently intact.
He blinked. The glasses darkened, clouded, as if a shadow had passed before the window, and he spun around. For a moment he thought he saw a sort of shimmer, a bright rain of color bursts hanging in the air. When he blinked again, they were gone. He scrubbed at his face, scowling when his hand came away smeared with blood from his cut.
“Christ,” he said to the empty apartment, and even his voice sounded old, muffled by the close atmosphere. He had to get out.
Rachel wasn’t surprised to see him, but she wasn’t thrilled either. “Don’t you ever call?”
“I was just going stir crazy. Haven’t been feeling very well.” Phil sat stiffly on her futon, withering under the gaze of Plato, Rachel’s imperious Maine coon.
“Poor thing. Want some tea?”
“Maybe later. Come here.” He pulled her down into his lap when she approached, and thrust his hand under her shirt. She pressed her body against his, straddling his legs. The cat jumped off the futon with a squall.
Fifteen minutes later, Phil was hunched at one end of the futon, his pants back on but still unbuttoned, a cup of tea growing cold in his hand. Plato had returned to his place, swishing his tail in triumph.
“Well, you did say you were sick.” Rachel’s voice was flat.
“Sorry,” he mumbled. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me the last couple days.”
“It’s no big deal, really. You’d have had to go soon anyway, I have things to do.” She was leaning against the wall, arms crossed, her skin like smooth stone.
“Yeah. So do I.” He finished his cold, gritty tea and set the cup on the coffee table. When he stood up, his pants sagged and slid halfway down his ass. Rachel smirked as he yanked them up and buttoned them.
For the rest of the afternoon, he wandered the streets, not wanting to go back to the empty apartment. It was a pleasant fall day, crisp and sunny, but everywhere he went he felt as though he was enclosed in a dusky fog. He met the eyes of passersby, but their gazes seemed to slide past him. When he grew tired of walking, he ducked into a coffee shop and sat at the window, nursing a latte and watching the huge, indifferent world bustling past on the other side of the glass.
“Did you have a good day today?” She asked this every Saturday when she came home.
He threw his head back and emptied his beer down his throat. “Does it look like I had a good day?”
Judy flinched, but when her expression settled there was only concern for him there, no anger. “Sorry, baby. I thought you looked a little sick last night.”
“Yeah, I think I’m sick.” His momentary rage had dissolved, and he felt suddenly exhausted, claustrophobic. “Probably going to be an early night for me.”
“Need me to get you anything?”
Her eagerness to please was giving him a headache. He waved her off and she went into the kitchen, where he heard glasses clinking together and the sound of the water running. He put his beer bottle between his legs and sighed. For a second he entertained the notion of going into the kitchen and telling her about the noises he’d heard earlier, but the desire dwindled as quickly as it had appeared. Instead he staggered into the bedroom and fell asleep without even taking off his clothes.
He awoke a seeming instant later. He was lying on his back, and the room was hot. He moved his head and saw that Judy was also on her back, snoring softly beside him. Her stomach was an enormous mound beneath the covers, and it was then that he realized he was dreaming. Slowly, he reached over and slipped the sheets off her engorged belly. Distantly, he noticed that her diamond ring was now on his finger, the stone like an obsidian eye.
The flesh of her stomach pulsed. Phil watched it, curious to see what would emerge, but then, with the certainty of dreams, he understood. He placed the edge of the diamond against her belly button and sliced downward in one swift stroke. A ragged red fissure opened, blood pooling along the lips of the wound like quivering rubies. Inside was a riot of shifting, refracted light, illuminating the room like floodlights in a swimming pool. Phil curled his fingers around the edges of the chasm and pulled, widening the wound, intensifying the glow. The brilliance was now so blinding that he had to turn his head, and when he did he heard the faint sound of a baby crying, very far away.
Phillip awoke for real, his heart thudding, his sweaty hair pasted to his forehead. He felt his fingers, which were ringless, and a quick glance showed that Judy slept on, her still-flat midriff rising and falling in a steady rhythm. He swallowed and heard his tongue click. Then, another sound.
A baby crying. Phil sat up in bed. It could have been coming from one of the other apartments in the building, of course, but he’d never heard a baby crying in the building before, and it sounded close. He looked down at Judy again, but she hadn’t moved. He slid out of bed. The room seemed darker than usual, with barely enough moonlight to see by, and he felt assaulted by some grey miasma whose tendrils insinuated themselves into his nose and mouth.
The crying grew louder and higher pitched as he made his way toward the kitchen. He couldn’t believe that Judy hadn’t heard it too, and the fact that she hadn’t made him think that perhaps he was still dreaming, but no, everything around him was real and solid, and he could feel the wood floors slick beneath his feet, the cold walls beneath his fingers.
The kitchen was empty, but the sound of the baby crying was very loud. In the perfect square of the window, the moonlight was a solid, featureless white. The air felt suspended.
Phil waited, hardly remembering to breathe. The baby keened and wailed, the sound coming from everywhere at once. He covered his ears, but he still heard it, now as intimate as a sigh. The moonlight around him was flickering, a living thing.
He didn’t know how long he stood there. The baby’s cries eventually waned, like a fading radio signal, and Phil dropped his hands to his sides. It took a while before he was able to place one foot in front of the other, to push against the air that hemmed him in. The hallway before him seemed to stretch into forever, its angles skewed and fractured. He walked it like a blind man, keeping his arms extended for balance, staggering this way and that.
He opened the bedroom door. The darkness was nearly complete, and he strained to see. Swirling clouds moved before his eyes, revealing the bedroom as he had left it.
Except that Judy was standing very still at the foot of the bed, staring at him.
No, not Judy. Something else. Phil froze.
It was a woman, or the likeness of one. Her hair was white, and hung in straight curtains on either side of her face, partly obscuring it. Even so, Phil couldn’t help but feel that she was familiar somehow, her face a barely there memory. She was naked, and her breasts were pale globes that sat atop a monstrously pregnant belly. It was here that Phil’s comprehension of what he was seeing began to break down, for her stomach looked as though it was made of a polished, faceted diamond, all glinting prisms. Below the diamond was simply a smear of white that suggested legs, though at their extremities they seemed to drip, showers of falling stars that sizzled and vanished into the floor beneath her.
But all of that wasn’t the worst. For Phil could see that there was some small squirming thing moving inside the diamond in her belly. Something that seemed to be staring out at him with two shining black eyes.
He thought he screamed, but he couldn’t have, because Judy didn’t stir. The apparition hovered there for no more than a few seconds, but to Phil it seemed like time had stopped. The thing inside her belly pressed closer against its prison, and the facets of the diamond distorted its face into horrible geometric puzzle pieces. Still it stared, its eyes like holes.
Phil didn’t see it fade or wink out of existence. It was suddenly just not there anymore. He blinked and let out a ragged breath. The room appeared completely normal, the objects becoming a little more distinct as the first rays of dawn begin to creep in through the blinds. Judy slept, peacefully oblivious.
He stood very still for a long time, watching, listening, starting at the slightest sound. He stood this way until morning had broken fully and the room was filled with a pleasing, diffuse light. At long last, when nothing happened at all, Phil moved slowly to the bed and settled in beside Judy, resisting the childlike urge to pull the covers over his head. He stared at the ceiling for what seemed like hours, thinking he would never be able to fall asleep again after what he had seen. He was still thinking this when he drifted into unconsciousness.
Everything was in pieces when Phil opened his eyes, reality painted on fragments. For a long time he couldn’t understand what he was seeing.
There were the walls of his bedroom, and the ceiling, but they were all awry, the angles a crazy patchwork. Here was a glimpse of the blue comforter, there the sliver of a lampshade. As he struggled to fit the fragments of the picture together, he noticed fractions of flesh; the curve of a jawline, the arch of an eyebrow. Then suddenly he was in motion, his body lifted as though it was no more than an atom’s weight. He threw out his arms to steady himself, but they were boxed in, and his legs were likewise useless, folded painfully beneath him.
All at once, the fragments turned completely flesh colored, and then for a moment he saw nothing but a gigantic ice-blue eye, staring at him like the eye of a god. Another motion, and he realized that he was looking into Judy’s face, enormous above him, her expression uncharacteristically hard and venomous. He thought he screamed, but he heard no sound. He remembered his dream from the night before, and this seemed all of a piece with it, but also achingly real, as the white-haired woman standing by his bed had been. He realized with a start that he was seeing his fiancee from the perspective of the ring upon her finger, the ring he had so carelessly bought, the shackle that would tie him to her symbolically just as the creature growing inside of her tied him to her biologically.
The huge, fragmented woman above him gave a terrible smile, a wide toothed rictus, and then he was moving again, lower and lower, watching her body flash past him in a series of triangular flickers. Then it was all flesh again, growing larger and larger in his vision, and as the ring moved closer he realized he was now poised just above her belly, the midline of her abdomen as stark as an ink line on white paper.
There was very little resistance as the diamond penetrated the skin. For a moment, Phil saw nothing but red, and then the brilliant play of the stone’s light blinded him.