There was something in the water. In the evenings the tap ran black, sticky bits of goo clinging to the mouth of the faucet before falling heavily into the sink. She learned early on to run the water for a minute before attempting to use it. At night. In the mornings there was only the spit and hiss of air in the pipes mixed with a dirty rust color from the red clay outside.
At night the house felt close, claustrophobic. The walls would feel too small, too near. The corners would look just a bit too sharp, the shadows darker and longer than she remembered them as a child, the empty places colder than anywhere else in the house. Yet it was the water, that dripping blackness that truly frightened her.
Then the dog died. Well, a dog. She'd never seen it before. It was a scrawny terrier mutt she found dead on her porch, a smear of inky tar on its lips. She'd buried it out back beneath the oak. She didn't feel right chucking the corpse in the trash and it had looked like a nice spot to decompose in. There were even three painted rocks she had left to mark the grave.
The tap had run darker than ever that night, not much usable water. Her bath had consisted of a single pale of clean water and a wash cloth from the closet. Even then the blackness had been reaching for her. The shadows growing colder while she wasn't watching. The specter of long thin hands had been reaching for her. She couldn't bring herself to stay long in the washroom. The dust on her bed covers didn't bother her that night. Not like usual. Not when it had almost had her.
Then the sparrows died. Not one by one but in a massive flock. As one, hundreds froze on the branches of the oak outside and fell to the grass in a rain of feathered corpses. She gathered them up and gave them a place beside the dog, their own pile of colored rocks to mark the spot.
The blackness had tapped on her bedroom door that night. Long manicured fingernails tap tap tapping. She found the furrows in the wood the next morning, carving five neat lines through paint and into the meat of the door.
There was a place in the house she never went, where the blackness began. Every day she would pass by the door, check the handle to be sure it was locked. Every day she would replace the cloth along the floor. One morning it was soaked through. Rusty water dripping and seeping along the floor boards, a thin line of black clinging where the cloth had met the crack under the door. She didn't go upstairs again all day.
She was burying a cat, frozen solid in the night along with her three kittens. The warm summer sun eased the dirt as she dug with the spade, the shovel too large for her hands. Then there were two suns, a towering shining presence flying overhead. For one moment she was blinded, her eyes unused to the brilliance and it felt like they would burn from their sockets. It would be days before the spots would vanish from her sight. The blackness was absent that night, the quiet void of seeping crawling muck.
Then they came in that big black thing and she thought it had finally come for her, the blackness given form. No more dripping from the faucets and seeping through the cracks in the walls. The noise was deafening, like a storm rattling inside her head. She could barely hear the creak of the stairs beneath their feet over the noise. Each step felt like they were dancing on her bones. It hurt.
"So what are we looking for again," the shorter one asked. He peered through the glass on the front door, clearing some of the grime with his thumb. It didn't help.
The taller one shrugged, "No one's been in there in years."
The shorter one bent down and picked the lock. The door opened on a loud crack of the rusted hinges. It fell with a heavy thud to the floor. A scream echoed through the empty house.
"Nice one, Dean," the tall one snickered. "Maybe we shouldn't antagonize whatever is in the house."
They talked loudly, stepped heavily, tromped about like it was nothing. Like she was nothing. She ran. She hid. She quivered as an army of roaches died around her. She was terrified. The blackness took her that night, swallowed her up and spit her out. The next day as she lay on the washroom floor she hoped that she tasted bad. She wondered if the blackness had left a bit of itself inside of her.
The sun reached its zenith and then dipped below the horizon. They came back. Their boots left prints on her floors, their fingers oily smudges on her countertops. It didn't hurt so much this time. They were more careful with her bones.
"Are we sure it's her," the tall one asked. He was limping, one foot landing with a thump a bit heavier than the other.
A flashlight beam landed on the one clean spot in the room, a rocking chair. "Yep," the short one remarked. Purple bruises marred one side of his pretty face, a delicate line of color around his eye.
Upstairs, they kicked open the door she had so carefully tended. She tried to warn them. Their breath froze on the air and the hair at the back of the necks stood on end, but it didn't stop them. Not when she slammed the door in their faces. Not even she knew anymore what they would find. In there.
The bed, her parents' bed, was dripping red, and black when the stuff hit the floor. Tendrils of it ran in rivulets along the floor. They acted like they didn't see it. The tub in the master suite was thick with it. The oily blackness clung to their boots and they left it in bits everywhere they went. It reached for her, whispered to her. Did they realize what they were doing to her?
Her wail at the mess shattered the mirror in the washroom. Those perfectly sculpted faces oozed fresh blood from all the cuts her pain had wrought as the glass flew through the air. But, it didn't stop them.
They found the oak tree, her oak tree. It was a gnarled old thing, twisted with age. The ground at its roots was littered with hundreds of little painted rocks and bits of polished glass. They stepped carefully around each grave, each apology made until they found the one unmarked. It was nestled there in the cradle of the tree's roots, left when the oak had been but a sapling.
The shorter one grunted, "This has got to be it."
She tried not to hurt them. She tried to warn them. The blackness. The blackness was no longer content with just her. It took her. It already had her. It rose up from the ground they were digging and she remembered. With each blast of salt and iron she remembered. The tall one flew through the air to land with a crunch at the base of the tree and she remembered.
There had been rough hands, and fear, and pain. So much pain. She hadn't understood. Only naughty children were punished. She didn't know what she had done, but she wouldn't do it again. She promised. She promises. Never again. Please. Daddy, I'll be good. The water had been frigid that night, like knives going down her throat and into her lungs. She coughed up water black as the night sky.
She was seven and a half years old.
She tasted salt and the sting of petrol.
The shorter one tossed the flaming book of matches.
She screamed and the blackness screamed with her.
And she saw the sun again. Only this time it had a face, brilliant blue eyes and messy black hair. He held out his hand and welcomed her home.