The place was mortifying. Greg had stared with disbelief at the scene in the living room. Over and over, Emily’s death played before their eyes. It was something he had seen many times before, spiritual residue. Not the spirit themselves, but something like a fingerprint or skin cells left behind at the scene of a crime.
The bad residual energy took the form of Emily’s death, playing the act out in front of them like a film. It was like a broken record. Again and again. The more tragic the death, the stronger the spiritual residue was.
Alison had removed most of the web-like thread that hung around the room with the knife that Emily gave her. He watched as she examined the living room, sometimes reaching out in front of her as if in hopes of grasping the projected image of Emily.
He watched the death scene as it started again. His gaze focused on the burn marks around Emily’s neck and seared into her cheeks. Unconsciously, his hand went to his own throat. Burning. Hot. The smell of singed fleshed. He could still feel it. Could still taste it. Skin like burning hot coals.
The Soulless, as Death had called them. It was convenient to have a name for them now, despite the fact that having something to call them by didn’t change anything or make it anymore easier to take in.
He watched the movie awhile longer before turning away. It was all too familiar. It brought back bad memories.
Unfortunately, however, the image told him nothing new. Another Soulless had killed another Blessed. All that managed to do for him was verify that he wasn’t alone in his suffering. To be honest, he had suspected just as much. It only took Alison to give him the proof he needed to know his experience hadn’t been a unique accident.
Even now, there were Blessed ones out there and Soulless from Hell instructed to kill them. It was something delicate and planned, and most of all, highly intentional. Something was happening in Hell and Greg needed to find out what it was.
Greg noticed that Alison had gone back to picking at the burnt carpet, examining a clump of blackened fiber between her thumb and index finger. He still didn’t get what she expected to accomplish there. Aside from witnessing Emily’s death with their own two eyes through spiritual residue, he didn’t feel as they though they were any wiser for the experience. Most of all, the place gave him the creeps. He wanted to get out of there as soon as possible.
A noise startled him from his thoughts. He looked at Alison and realized that she had heard it too. Her head turned left, then right, and she stood up straight. Greg listened carefully. It sounded like crying.
“What’s that?” Alison asked out loud.
“It sounds like someone’s here.”
“Where’s it coming from?”
“I can’t tell,” he replied, moving forward. The crying sound wafted toward them quietly through the air. It was hard to discern the location it was coming from. Was it coming from above or below?
He turned the corner to the staircase. Carefully, he followed it up to the second floor, listening as he moved. Reaching the second floor, he began searching each room. He checked the bathroom first, glancing behind the curtain and into the tub. Then he checked the bedrooms. Every so often, he stuck his head through the wall to see if something was hiding there.
The second floor proved to be similar to the kitchen and living room. The walls and carpet were spongy, covered in a thin layer of slick, clear substance. Unique to the second floor alone was a sour smell that reminded him of rotted meat. The bed and dressers were still intact in Emily’s former bedroom. They too were coated in the mysterious slime.
Looking up, he went through the ceiling and found himself in the attic. It was dark there. The boxes piled over the wooden planks appeared decayed, as if they were decades older than they really were. The dozens of spiders that hung from the slanted ceiling were now all dead. Their bodies curled into tight, dried balls from their webs. Not a single insect twitched from the dark room.
This house was a truly a gateway to Hell. It was incapable of sustaining life in any shape or form, even that of a tiny spider.
“Greg,” Alison called loudly. “Come down here.”
He paused at the sound of his name. Looking down, he began to drop through the floors, following Alison’s voice until he found himself in the basement. The light had been turned on already. Alison was standing in the finished room, her back facing the large television. A squirming child struggled in her grasp. Alison stood firm, holding the child in hands.
“Chill out,” Alison complained. “We’re not going to hurt you.”
The girl stopped for a moment, locking eyes with Greg. He looked at her face and recognized her from somewhere he had seen before. He realized that the small girl was the same one he had seen at Emily’s funeral, the one that had been watching the service in the distance from behind a gravestone. She looked to be around five. Her long, disheveled auburn hair hung over a white nightgown. Was this the one? The one Emily had been talking to?
“What’re you doing here?” Alison asked.
“Calm down and I’ll let you go.”
The girl narrowed her eyes, turning and glaring at Alison. “I said let go of me! Let go of me!” The child began screeching. “Let go, let go, let go of me right now!”
Sighing, Alison stepped toward Greg, dragging the girl with her. “Can you help me do something about her?”
Like what? Greg wanted to ask. He tried resting his hands on both the girl’s shoulders. “Hey, it’s okay,” he comforted, trying to sound as pleasant as possible. “We’re your friends. You don’t have to be scared.”
“Why would I be scared of a homeless person?” the girl snapped.
Homeless? He glanced down at his clothes. He had died in his work clothing. Even now, they were dirty and tattered from three years of sweating and doing heavy labor in a hot factory. No wonder Alison never found him attractive. She had never seen him looking like anything other than a hobo. “I’m not homeless,” Greg shot back.
The girl reached out and punched Greg in the face. “I don’t care. Get off me!”
Alison looked annoyed. She released her hold on the kid, leaving alone Greg at the child’s mercy. “Forget it. Let go of her, Greg,” she said.
“Are you sure?” he asked. The punch didn’t hurt. Pain wasn’t a concept he really had to worry about anymore but that didn’t mean it didn’t annoy him.
“Just let her go.”
He loosened his grip on her shoulders and the child bounded away instantly.
The girl headed immediately for the basement wall to flee. Just as she was about to disappear, Alison called out, “What do you know about Emily? Did you see her die?”
The girl stopped, looking at Alison. “It’s not my fault she’s dead. I tried to help her.”
“Did you see what killed her?”
The girl nodded. “The fire monster. It killed her. It tried to save her but I couldn’t make him stop.”
“Why don’t you tell me about the fire monster?” Alison asked. She headed toward the couch, motioning for the girl to follow. “Come on. Sit by me.” Alison sat down herself and patted the seat beside her.
Greg noticed that the basement wasn’t nearly as bad as the rest of the house. The room looked moderately normal compared to the ones upstairs. Missing was the clear slime that coated the upper floors and the century-old rot that had contaminated all the wood. Even the couch looked normal, which must’ve convinced Alison that it was safe to sit on.
“I don’t think so,” the girl said, hesitating. “I better go.”
“Please? I promise we won’t bug you anymore if you help us. We were Emily’s friends too.”
The girl nodded slowly. She began floating unsteadily toward the couch, landing on top of it. “What did you want to know?”
“What’s your name?”
“That’s a nice name,” Alison said. “Were you Emily’s daughter? She told us a lot about you.”
The girl looked down at her lap. “No, I wasn’t really her daughter. I said I was though.”
“Why’d you tell her you were if you weren’t?”
“I don’t know,” Mandy replied. “So I could have a mommy again.”
“What happened to your real mommy?”
“I don’t know. I couldn’t find her. She disappeared a long time ago.”
“So you let Emily be your new mommy instead?”
The girl nodded before looking up again. Her face was upset and she had started crying again. “But it’s not my fault she died. It’s not because I lied. The fire monster did it. It had nothing to do with me. I wanted to save her.”
“What’s the fire monster?”
“It was hot,” the girl said. “It was black and slimy and hot. It burned her and grabbed her face.”
“What did it do after that?” Alison asked.
“It took her underground.”
“It took her ghost underground and they disappeared like that.”
Greg watched the two as they exchanged conversation. Just as he thought. The Soulless had taken Emily’s soul down with it to Hell. She called it the fire monster. No kidding. It kind of was like a fire monster, wasn’t it.
Greg was beginning to feel more and more nervous about Alison’s welfare. He knew what the Soulless were capable of. Alison wouldn’t stand a chance up against a creature like that. If Alison kept this up, would she be putting herself in danger?
“I can’t believe we never saw you here before,” Alison commented. “You’re a good hider.”
“I didn’t want you to see me,” Mandy said.
“You said Emily was making it all up. I heard you. No one ever believed her. That’s why the fire monster killed her. No one helped her.”
“If we knew, we would’ve helped her,” Alison said. “We wanted to help her. We just didn’t know what was going on until it was too late.”
The girl looked away. “I know. It’s too late now. I gotta go. I don’t want to stay here anymore.”
“That’s okay. You can go if you want.”
The girl moved from the couch. Greg watched as she disappeared through the wall. When she was gone, Greg said, “Why didn’t you tell her she was dead?”
Alison shook her head, pulling herself up from the couch. “I couldn’t do it. Telling a kid she’s dead isn’t really my thing. She’ll figure it out on her own when she’s ready. No point in forcing her. Besides, I think her mom’s still alive somewhere. There’s no point in rushing her to cross over by herself.”
“She did look pretty lonely.”
“I wish she hadn’t done that to Emily though. It really confused her thinking she had a daughter.”
Greg said, “Maybe it was better for them like that. They both got what they wanted, right?”
“If you think living a lie is a healthy alternative to reality.”
“All I’m saying is it made them happy.”
“It made everyone think Emily was crazy too,” Alison reminded him.
“True, but look at it like this. Even if Mandy never existed, even if she never did that to Emily, then it would’ve been someone else that did. The only reason all this happened was because Emily could see the dead. You know how hard that is. You should know that better than anyone how hard that must’ve been on her.”
“Alright,” she said, shaking her head. “I get it. You’re probably right. If Emily was seeing things no one else was, then they were bound to call her crazy eventually, right?”
“Basically,” he said. “Anyway, are you done here?”
“Yeah, I’m done. I doubt we’re going to find anything else here we can use.” She began heading for the stairs to the kitchen and Greg followed behind her. “Should burn this disgusting place to the ground while we’re at it.”
“Did you bring matches?”
“Better not,” he said. “I don’t feel like watching you go to jail for something stupid like that.”
“Who would you talk to then, right?”
Alison didn’t say anything then, though she seemed to be sincerely considering her own suggestion. The woman was justifiable frightened by the place. They could feel the atmosphere changing as they headed back up to the first floor. There was no specific explanation for why the basement was left as untouched as it was from the Soulless’ presence. It could’ve been that the creature had manifested itself on the second floor, and its domain had enveloped the adjoining attic and first floor, poisoning the rooms until they were Hellish places themselves. The Soulless may have had no reason to spread the poison further if Emily seldom used the basement area.
Heading back up the stairs reminded him of that. This was a gateway to Hell now, a self-contained universe that was home to a Soulless. They were treading dangerous territory just by being there.