Alice expected the house to be dark at this time of night, but the darkness was a little too complete for her liking. Normally Grandma left a hallway light on, and occasionally a low light in the kitchen. Alice should have been able to see at least a dim glow from the street outside her house.
But tonight there was nothing.
Any other night she could have excused the absence of light, thinking maybe Grandma had forgotten to turn the light on before she went to bed, but tonight the timing seemed too coincidental. Alice hoped Grandma hadn’t gone upstairs and found her missing from her room. If Royce had discovered her missing, she was pretty sure he would cover for her, but if Grandma found her gone she would freak. She might even call the police. But there were no cars on the street; no police presence or neighborhood watch searching the neighborhood for a wayward high school junior. Alice felt certain that if Grandma had discovered her missing, there would be some evidence of her panic visible from the street. Maybe she’d simply forgotten the light after all. Whatever had happened at the house while she was away, Alice had no choice but to go inside and see for herself.
She knew something was wrong when the doorknob turned a little too easily. It was unlocked. In fact, it wasn’t even latched. The door was sitting partially open as if someone had walked out and hadn’t bothered to pull it all the way closed behind them. Alice paused before entering, her pulse rising and her breath quickening in response to the familiar fear that built inside her chest. Any desire she had to go inside vanished into the ether.
She stayed frozen in the doorway for a very long sixty seconds.
Everything about the house now seemed scary and alien. This had been her home since she was six years old, and it had always seemed warm and inviting, but now the entire place felt like a deathtrap waiting to be sprung. She knew she had to go inside, and she told her legs to move, but they weren’t listening to her at the moment. Her feet were blocks of lead, weighted to the worn wooden slats of Grandma’s front porch.
Alice closed her eyes and pictured Grandma’s face, kind and understanding, with just the right amount of stern defiance to put a grown man in his place if he was acting like a fool. She saw that stupid grin on Royce’s face as he spun his basketball on one finger and quoted lines from Star Trek. Her family needed her, and Alice would be damned if she was gonna let them down.
Just breathe, Alice. We have each other.
She swallowed her fear, filled her lungs with night air, and opened her eyes.
Alice nudged the door open and stepped inside the house.
At first, she thought the living room was empty. The lights were off and in the dark everything looked the same as it always did. Then she became aware of a sound that she hadn’t noticed before: a slow inhalation followed by the thin rasp of air escaping lungs. Someone was breathing in the dark.
Alice made her way over to the wall, trying to move silently, but failing as she tripped and nearly fell on some obstacle that shouldn’t have been there. She caught herself on the wall, fumbling for the light switch. After a tense moment of flailing around, her shoulders pinched and waiting for an attack from whoever was waiting in the dark behind her, she finally managed to hit the switch. Two table lamps and a single floor lamp flared to life. The sudden light blinded Alice for half a second, and she threw her arms up in front of her face, both to shield it from the light and to ward off any incoming knives or claws or hand grenades. None came, and after a moment her vision returned. What she saw froze the blood in her veins.
The living room carpet was shredded.
The center of the floor was in tatters, bits of cloth and fiber ripped and scattered in all directions as if something had torn its way up through it from underneath. Below the carpet, the wooden slats of the floor were untouched. The armchair that Grandma spent most of her time in was overturned. It leaned on its side near the damaged wall behind it, as if to call attention to the hole it had made in the plaster. Alice could see into the kitchen through the ragged edges of the hole. Against another wall, the entertainment center had been crushed by something heavy and the TV screen shattered. On the opposite side of the room sat a worn but comfortable couch, its cushions now shorn in half-a-dozen places by slices that looked far too similar to the cuts on Alice’s forearms.
And seated on the couch, upright and stiff as if frozen in place, was the source of the breathing Alice had heard in the darkened room.
Alice moved quickly to her grandmother’s side, nearly tripping on the jagged folds of shredded carpet on the floor. She lowered herself onto the couch, reaching out to the woman, but stopping just short of touching her. Alice didn’t know what was wrong with Grandma or how she might react to her touch.
“Grandma, it’s Alice. Are you ok?”
“What happened here?” Alice tried. “Are you hurt? Grandma?”
Grandma made no indication that she’d heard Alice. In fact, she hadn’t moved a muscle since Alice turned on the lights, sitting unnaturally still, her hands folded in her lap and her face slack and devoid of expression. The deep wrinkles in her dark skin gave her the appearance something brittle and delicate, as if a single nudge might cause her to crumble into ash. She stared into space with unseeing eyes and her chest rose and fell in a slow steady rhythm.
Alice waved a nervous hand in front of Grandma’s face. Still no response. She reached out and touched Grandma’s shoulder with gentle fingers. Nothing. This was not good. Whatever had happened here must have been terrifying, judging by the state of the living room. It had left her Grandmother in some kind of catatonic state and had probably freaked her brother out too.
Where was Royce? Alice shot her gaze around the living room as if her brother might be curled up in the corner somewhere and she just hadn’t noticed him. But there was no sign of the boy. She stood and moved deeper into the house on wooden legs. The air was cold and hung with a musty smell. Alice suppressed a shiver. Her eyes wide and painfully dry, she searched the house room by room for her brother. It didn’t take long. Grandma’s house was not that big. Alice checked the kitchen, bathroom, and Grandma’s room then climbed the stairs to search her room and the second bathroom. Each empty room drove a fresh spike of fear into her spine. Her heart pounded faster by the second and her breath ran away on its own. She checked Royce’s room last, unsure of what she was hoping to find. Would Royce be in the same catatonic state as Grandma? Would he be injured? Or worse? Alice nudged the bedroom door open.
The room was empty.
Royce was not at home.
Alice breathed a sigh of relief. If Royce was not here, then maybe he’d left before the trouble started, gone to a friend’s house to play Nintendo all night. Maybe he was, at that moment, deeply engrossed in Ninja Gaiden and binging on Cheetos and Tab. Maybe he was safe.
Or maybe not.
Alice hurried downstairs and back into the living room. She froze in the middle of the room, unsure of what to do, wringing her hands, then thrusting her fingers into her hair. She had to find Royce, but she had no idea where to look. And she couldn’t just leave Grandma alone in the state she was in. Alice wished her Grandma could talk to her. She could use some of that steady, sarcastic wisdom right about now. But Grandma still had not moved. She looked almost peaceful with her hands folded in her lap like that.
Alice tilted her head as she noticed something she hadn’t seen before. Grandma was holding something in her lap. Alice moved closer and saw the corner of what looked like a folded piece of paper hiding under Grandma’s hands.
“What you got there, Grandma? Can I see that?” She reached out and took hold of the corner with two fingers, freeing the paper with a slow tug.
What she held was a piece of notebook paper, most likely torn from one of Royce’s school notebooks. She could see Royce’s sloppy note-taking scrawled across one side. The paper was folded into quarters, and Alice’s name was written on the outside, right overtop of Royce’s notes. Alice took her time unfolding the paper. She didn’t want to know what was on the inside. Whatever it was, it could not be good, and Alice was ready to be done with bad news for the evening. But she had no choice. Whatever was in there might tell her what had happened to her brother.
On the back of Royce’s class notes was a short letter addressed to Alice, written in a large flowing script:
The Principal would like to see you in his office. I’m sure you know what will happen to your brother if you do not come immediately.
Alice read the note at least six times before she took a breath again. Her lungs filled on their own, heaving and emptying over and over in quick gasps. Tears fled from her eyes in globes of liquid pain that crashed into the terrible note in her hand and wet the ruined carpet at her feet. Waves of nameless emotion rolled through her, threatening to overwhelm what remained of her rational mind.
Royce. The Vetala had Royce. That monster was going to kill her brother. Unless she could stop it somehow. But first, she had to stop herself from freaking out and curling up into a useless pile of Alice on the floor. She wrestled her breathing under control and sat down next to Grandma again, longing once more for the comfort of her voice.
“What am I gonna do, Grandma?” Alice shook her head, cradling the Vetala’s note to her chest like it was her only remaining connection to her brother. “I can’t just abandon Royce. But if I go to that school alone, the monster who stole him will kill us both.”
“That’s why you don’t go alone.”
Alice’s head shot up at the sound of another voice in the room. Standing in the doorway, her dark hair falling in her face like a midnight-black waterfall and her eyes lit up from the inside with a wicked blue glow, was Miriam Acheson. Her smile was one hungry for action, eager to release some of the rigid tension in her shoulders through violent means. She stepped into the room and held a hand out to Alice.
“Let’s go get your brother back.”