Later that night, Alison and Greg sat together on her living room couch. She had just come home from dinner with Marissa. “Isn’t that crazy?” she asked him. She had changed into her pajamas, which was really just an old pair of sweatpants and a seven-year old red t-shirt.
“Yeah, it’s crazy, all right. You sure she didn’t do that on purpose to mess with your head.”
“You were there Greg,” she reminded him. They were discussing the peculiar event with the tarot reading of three blank cards from earlier in the evening. “You saw me and her both shuffle them didn’t you?”
“True, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t miss something.”
“You’re wrong,” she said. “It was a message and you and me both know that. Just like the messages Death gave me. They’re all connected. I just have to figure out how.”
“So what do you suggest?”
“I’m going to Emily’s tomorrow night. I might be able to find something there.” She planned on waiting until later at night out of fear that the neighbors would spot her breaking in. The last thing she needed to be labeled as was a prowler.
“If you want,” Greg replied doubtfully. “What if you don’t find anything?”
“I’ll take my chances.” She stood up from the couch, stretching her arms above her head and yawning. “Besides, you’re coming too.” She didn’t know why she felt so tired but she was. She headed into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator.
He gave her look. “It wasn’t like I’d let you go by yourself.”
“You’re a real gentlemen,” she said, staring at the contents of her fridge. An empty bottle of orange soda and a carton of eggs stared back at her. She dug deeper into the back, pushing aside leftover roast beef until she had found a plastic jug of grape juice. Tugging it out, she shut the door to the fridge and lifted the jug to her lips.
“You don’t have to be so sarcastic.”
“I’m not sarcastic.” After guzzling down a few mouthfuls, she stuck the bottle back inside and wiped at her mouth with the back of her hand.
She began heading back to the couch. She wasn’t sure what she expected to find at Emily’s place. She may not find anything at all. For all she knew, this Death character was making the whole thing up, blowing everything into a bigger deal than it was. It wouldn’t be the first time a spirit had lied to her and definitely not the first time a spirit had tried to fool her into thinking the end of the world was near.
For all she knew, the Blessed didn’t exist, the world was safe, and Emily had killed herself in her living room. End of story.
That was a serious possibility, wasn’t it? That none of this was real? That the whole thing had been a fabrication invented by spirits with a bad sense of humor and fueled by her own overactive imagination? A bunch of ghosts in the area could’ve decided to gang up on her and think of jokes to play on the local psychic.
“I’m starting to have my doubts about this whole mess,” Alison groaned.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what if this whole thing’s… just a bad prank someone’s playing on me? It’s happened before, you know. When I was a teenager, the spirits used to tell me stuff like this all the time. They’d make me paranoid. They’d say the world was ending, that a comet was coming to blow everything up, that my dad had put poison in my water and that elves were stealing my socks. You hear it so much you start to believe it.”
Greg laughed. “You didn’t know spirits could lie back then, huh. They do that when they find people that can hear them. They try to fuck with their head. I’ve seen them do it.”
“I didn’t know anything back then. I was completely new to the whole thing. I know people are liars but when they’re dead, somehow, you don’t think of them as regular people anymore. They’re like this scary, supernatural phenomenon. But that’s all they are. They’re just people. And they lie and they make fun of you and they do things to piss you off like it’s nothing.”
“What do you expect?” he mused. “You were their only source of entertainment. They didn’t know what was going on so they took out all their frustrations on you.”
“I don’t think they were even aware of what they were doing. It was like they hated me.”
“They didn’t hate you. They hated not knowing what they were. They didn’t know they were dead. They attacked you because you were there and you could hear them. They were letting out their anger and confusion on you.”
“Well, I know that now,” Alison replied. “I had to learn it for myself, but now I know better. That’s why I’ve been so frustrated about this whole situation. I’m worried I’m being tricked again.”
“Let me tell you this then,” Greg said, looking at her seriously. “This isn’t a joke. I’m telling you this for sure and all I can do is hope you’ll trust me on this one. I know for a fact that this is something very real and very serious. Whatever Death was trying to tell you is important. He mentioned the Blessed. That was all the proof I needed.”
The Blessed must die. Greg had told her it was the last thing he heard before he died. No wonder he was so certain. How else could it have come up again after four years? If Greg felt that sure that this was all a legitimate situation to be taken seriously, then she wanted to feel that way too. If she lost confidence now, she’d never be able to figure out what was really going on.
“Do you think we’ll see Emily’s spirit at her house?” Alison asked. “She could be there, couldn’t she? Since that’s where she died, don’t you think it’d be stranger if she weren’t there?”
“I don’t think so,” Greg replied. “If she’s Blessed, like Death said she was, then I don’t think so.”
He shook his head.
This had to do with his past, didn’t it? All of this did. How much more did he know that he wasn’t saying out loud? What was he trying to hide from her? “Still, it’d be nice if we found her there. She could tell us what happened?”
“She’s not going to be there, Alison.”
“What makes you so sure about that?”
“I just know,” he said. “I’m positive they took her somewhere else.”
“Where did they take her then?” she asked.
She stopped, unsure of what to say to that. Hell? That sounded awfully extreme, didn’t it? How could a sweet girl like Emily go to Hell? Did Greg say that because he still believed Emily had committed suicide? Did he think Emily had sinned? “I didn’t realize you were so religious,” she commented. “I don’t think she killed herself, and even if she did, I don’t believe people go to Hell for something like that.”
“It doesn’t have anything to do with religion,” he said, looking annoyed. “They killed her because she was Blessed. The Soulless did it.”
“Oh.” She paused. She had thought so. Greg had to know something that he wasn’t telling her. He knew something about Emily and the Blessed. Why did he have to constantly keep these things from her? It was stupid, but she couldn’t help but ask one more time. “Just out of curiosity, Greg, how did you die again?”
“I forget,” he replied flatly.
“Did you die because you were Blessed?” she asked.
That ruled out that theory, unless he was lying, of course. At least it was worth a shot. “Then what was it?′
“All right,” she said. She should’ve known he wouldn’t tell her. Tonight was obviously no different.
The next night, Alison packed a large flashlight and extra batteries into a small backpack. She brought the straps of it over her shoulder, feeling nervous as she did so. She didn’t know why she felt that way. Her palms were actually sweating.
Heading outside, she locked her front door behind her and headed out to her car.
Greg appeared beside her as she opened the driver door. “You leaving already?”
She looked behind her. “Yeah, you coming or not?”
Climbing into the driver’s seat, she dropped her bag down beside her. Greg had moved into the car’s passenger side and was looking at her now. “I’m nervous,” she admitted.
“I don’t know why, I’m just nervous. It’s like I’m scared to go.”
“It’ll be all right,” he reassured her. “I’ll be there too.”
“That’s true.” She started her car and pulled out of her driveway. Her eyes moved to her house, falling on the windows on the right side of the second floor. They were the windows of her bedroom. She imagined for a moment, that Death was still there, watching her from behind the dark glass. She imagined that Death knew where she was going.
What did that make her then? A puppet? Was this all going according to Death’s plan? Was this what it had wanted from her?
She shook the thoughts from her head. She couldn’t think like that. She wasn’t doing this because something else wanted her to. She was doing this because she wanted to. If Emily’s death wasn’t suicide then Alison had to know what really killed her. She owed it to Emily to do at least that much.
Turning her head, she glanced at Greg, noticing that he had started fidgeted around in his seat. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” he said. “Does it look like something’s wrong?”
“You look anxious.”
He paused. “I’m a little anxious.”
“I didn’t know you got anxious, Greg.”
“There’s always a first time for everything.”
“Oh, definitely.” She wondered if he felt it too then. She tried to ignore it but she couldn’t shake it. There was something frightening in the air. The closer they drove to Emily’s street, the more intense the feeling became. Greg’s distress showed on his face. She drove awhile longer, doing her best to pretend everything was normal. It didn’t make sense to freak herself out already.
She turned onto Emily’s street. The feeling became stronger still. It was too much. It started to pound against her skin and ears. It was as if a silent noise had wrapped itself tightly around her body. Her breath came out in shorter and shorter gasps and she realized that she was having trouble taking in a full breath of air.
Stepping on the breaks, she pulled her car to the side of the street, leaning her head forward once the car had stopped.
She told herself to settle down. When she had forced her body to relax, she filled her lungs with air. Her chest and throat felt painfully stiff as she did so. Why did her body feel like this? What was this terrible feeling she had?
“You all right?”
She nodded. “It’s hard to breathe here.”
“Yeah.” She looked up toward the windshield. Emily’s house stood further down the street. It looked alive. The structure gave off a pulse, as if it had its own heartbeat. The boards were skin. The door was a mouth. The roof was hair. If they went in, they’d be swallowed up. Was that crazy to think? There was something wrong with it. It stood there, a dark, quiet, life form throbbing in the distance.
She blinked. Even when she opened her eyes again, the house still looked alive. What was she thinking? That was impossible. She was being ridiculous. All the other houses on the road were perfectly normal. Why would this one be any different?
“Maybe we should go back,” Greg said.
Alison turned to him, broken from her trance. “What?”
“There’s something wrong here. We should head back.”
“The house looks alive,” Alison found herself saying. “It’s breathing.”
“It’s not alive,” Greg said. “It just looks like it is. It’s become a portal to Hell.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Call it hunch.”
“We can’t go back now,” Alison said, shaking her head. “I didn’t waste my time driving here for nothing. I have to find out what really happened that night.” Taking in another deep breath, she pulled back onto the road. She had to ignore it. She had to ignore its beating heart. She drove closer to it. She had to ignore its mouth and hair. She had to ignore the breathing house that gobbled Emily up in the dead of night. She had to ignore all those things as she drove towards the house.
Parking her car along the side of the road, she climbed out. She hadn’t parked directly in front of the house, but rather, a few houses away from it. She grasped her backpack from inside. Her muscles felt tense. Too tense. Why was she so tense? She could hear the house breathing. She heard every breath it took. The walls pulsated with life. The walls were skin that would be soft to the touch. If she stabbed the walls, she was positive the house would bleed. Would the blood be red? She knew there’d be blood but would a living house bleed red?
Not alive, she told herself. Greg had said himself it wasn’t alive. He called it a portal. Why would he call it something like that? It wasn’t alive. It was just a house.
She moved to the backyard, making her way unsteadily behind the place to the backdoor. Her ears were ringing! Her hands moved unconsciously to her ears, trying to block out the noises with the palms of her hands. The breathing. The beating heart. It was all too much for her. It was all too damned loud for her.
“You don’t have to do this,” Greg reminded her again, coming up from behind.
Ignoring him, Alison made her way to the back door, lowering hands and doing her best to block out the terrible sounds surrounding her. She tugged at the handle. Locked but she had expected it to be. The knob felt wet. Pulling her hand back, she looked at her damp palm under the moonlight. A clear, yellowish liquid clung to her skin. She rubbed her finger and thumb together. It was slimy, like mucus. Gross.
She reached for her purse. From inside, she pulled out the dagger Emily had gotten her, the same one that Death had touched with his cold hands when he handed it to her. She had brought it for luck, but mostly, she had brought it to jimmy the lock. Angling the blade, she stabbed it between the door and doorframe. She wiggled it, pushing the lock out of place. The wood felt surprisingly weak. It gave quicker than she thought it would and there was a click.
She pulled the door open. Her eyes moved to the place where she had stuck the knife. It was wet now too. Just like she thought. A living house that bled. But the blood wasn’t red. It was grey. She bent down, dabbing her index finger into it. Thick, grey blood. “Greg,” she said, “look.”
“I think I cut it.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
She lifted the knife again, stabbing it through the thick door. The wood was soft, as if the door had completely rotted to mush in days. The blade went through easily to the other side. Alison felt as the house heaved, letting out a loud breath of air. Grey blood poured from the stab wound.
Greg jumped back. “Shit. That’s crazy shit, man.”
“I told you.” She moved her gaze to the screen door closed in front of her. Behind it was the kitchen. It was hard to see well. She pushed the metal screen open, taking a step inside. The tiled floor quivered from beneath her foot. Tucking the athame back into her purse, she replaced it with a flashlight. She turned it on before shining the beam of light across the kitchen counters and floor. “Come on,” she said.
She moved inside, the screen door falling shut behind her. She noticed a small red glow coming from the end of the kitchen from the entryway. She walked towards the glowing doorway in curiosity. Everything was damp. It looked as if the same yellowish-mucus substance that had been on the knob was coating everything else in the room too. The walls and appliances were shiny with the stuff. The faint red glow from the next room became more noticeable as she moved closer to the door frame leading to it.
She peeked out of the kitchen, glancing into the living room before her. She stifled a scream when she saw what was there and covered a hand over her mouth. The living room was a tangled mess of what looked like yarn. The threads were strewn tightly back and forth across the room. They were coated in a dried brown crust. An apparition of Emily, her face burnt and swollen hung from the center of the strings, each bit of yarn biting into parts of her flesh. Blood ran from her wounds where they held her and the room around her glowed a dark, burgundy red.
“What the hell is this?” Greg stood gaping from beside her. It wasn’t her imagination then. Greg saw it too.
Alison shook her head. “I dunno.”
The image of Emily disappeared.
Alison stared at the hanging yarn, now empty of prey. What was that just now? She had seen Emily. She stepped forward. Her hand moved to the string closest to her, stretched out in front of her at eye-level. Her fingers touched the coated surface, bits of brown dust falling off. Blood? Emily’s blood?
Emily’s apparition appeared again in the same spot, her chin tilting up.
“Emily,” Alison stammered. Was she alive? What if Emily needed her help. Alison moved forward, tugging at the fence of tangled yarn that blocked her way. “Emily,” she said again.
“Alison,” Greg said. “Stop. It’s too late”
Alison turned to him, feeling dazed. She knew he was right. It was too late. Seeing Emily like this was so horrible that she was losing her focus. She wasn’t thinking straight. “It’s not Emily.”
“It’s an afterimage.”
“An afterimage. You’re right. I knew that,” Alison said finally. She looked at Emily again. Emily’s lips moved. The dead woman was looking at something. Was she talking to someone? The threads tightened around the woman’s neck, grinding into her bleeding throat.
Alison knew it wasn’t real. No matter how real it looked, it was no longer happening right now. This was the past. Tragic events had a habit of replaying themselves out again. Bad energy. It hung around in pockets of negativity that needed to use itself up, like a movie reel that refused to stop until it ran out of electricity.
She turned her head, acknowledging Greg once more. “What?”
“Do you want to go?”
“No.” She hesitated, looking at Emily. Why did Emily have to look so real? Was this really just bad energy? Or did Emily want them to see this? “Looks like that’s really her hanging there, doesn’t it.”
“Except it’s not.”
Emily disappeared again, leaving only the empty threads coated in her dried blood. Alison reached into her purse, pulling out the dagger. Carefully, she began to cut at the thread in front of her. They fell so easily. Just yarn. That’s all it was.
“What are you doing?” Greg asked blankly.
“I’m clearing the way so we can walk.”
He sighed. “Just be careful, all right?”
“I am being careful.” The sight of the bloody threads and Emily’s afterimage raised more questions than it answered. Alison had to wonder why no one else had been able to see this. Josh hadn’t seen it either. Was it the same for the police? If they had seen the room the way she was seeing it now, there was no way anyone would’ve thought it was a suicide. Josh had even said that he found her after she had hung herself from her living room ceiling.
Was that what everyone else saw? Were Alison and Greg the only ones that could see what had really happened? Had they all seen an illusion? Or was all this some kind of illusion for Greg and Alison, put in place to confuse them even more than they already were.
She cut down all the threads in her way. The image of Emily continued to reappear and vanish, playing out the last moments of her life before her death. The police had no clue this was all here. It was too strange. How could they not see any of this?
Once she had removed most of the blockade, she began noticing more peculiarities in the room. There were burns all over the walls and floor. She kneeled down over a particularly noticeable burn spot, running her hand over it. The spot was a long oval shape that appeared to have been seared into the material. Moving her gaze, she noticed a trail of similar burnt shapes leading from the wall to the place where Emily kept appearing. They made her think of footprints. But what kind of creature left footprints that burned the floor with every step it took?
“It’s from the Soulless,” Greg said, addressing the burnt spot. “They’re hot.”
“Their skin’s hot?”
“Yeah. Really hot. It burns when they touch you.”
“Oh.” She didn’t bother to ask how he knew that. It wasn’t like he’d be honest about it anyway.
Looking up, she noticed similar burnt spots on the walls around them. They were round. She would’ve thought they were handprints except they oddly were shaped and appeared to only have three fingers.
The long strings of yarn that she had cut down now lay in piles on the floor. They lay stretched out over the mucus-covered furniture and carpet.
Emily’s image appeared again. The woman’s eyes were wide as she struggled against her restraints. Her mouth opened again. Her flesh burned. Her cheeks and neck instantly turned a charred black. She struggled to breathe. She fought there like that for awhile. Then, her throat caved suddenly inward. Alison grimaced. It looked as if Emily’s throat had been crushed by some powerful grip. Emily’s head fell forward. Dead. Already dead but dead again.
Alison stood up, moving toward the image of the still woman. She reached out, her hand moving right through the apparition of Emily’s face. This wasn’t real. This was the past. It was a movie that played out Emily’s death again and again. How awful to have to see her like this. It devastated Alison. She moved her hand back and forth, her fingers cutting through the image. Just like with Greg. She couldn’t touch Emily now either.
The image disappeared. It reappeared, starting the movie over again. Emily was alive and hanging by the yarns in the center of the room. Her eyes stared intensely in front of her. Alison moved her gaze, struggling to follow where Emily was looking. Where was it? The thing that killed her? The Soulless? Why didn’t it show itself? She noticed that Emily’s eyes were staring in the same direction as the trail of burnt footprints. Whatever had killed her had definitely been the one to leave them there.
The Soulless. What were they? How were they able to kill like this? Emily looked so terrified in the afterimage. Whatever the Soulless was, it was able to scare Emily this way. It was able to burn her flesh and crush her throat. It was strong. Something that burned with the fires of Hell.