2014: A Dark Place III
Dark. Familiar. The far wall where Daddy’s workbench used to sit, dominating the space with its long tabletop and chest of drawers, each assiduously organized by tool and trade. The corner where Mommy’s shelves of preserves used to stand, glittering in the dusty sunlight that fell in dreamy shafts through the cellar windows, each jar fastidiously labeled by content and date. And that wall there where the boxes of Christmas ornaments were stacked—wreaths and lights and stockings to hang on the mantle, each stocking lovingly embroidered: Mommy, Daddy, Tilly, and Ally. But she hadn’t been “Ally” for a long time.
Where was the old steamer trunk Daddy had prided? How had she come to the cellar of the old house? Was it a dream? But which was the dream? Being here, or everything that took place on and after that terrible night back in 1956?
A dull glow waxed and waned, illuminating the cellar. Candlelight, she thought. Then the memory came back to her. The sound of a thrown door, the mean grip of strong hands on her body, her mouth, and then the shrinking of the world outside, the world of sunlight, as she was drawn deep into the house where she and her sister used to play hide-and-seek. Then darkness.
She tried to sit up, found she could not, and squirmed on the hard, earthen floor. Her hands were bound behind her back, and she was lying on them, had been lying on them for a long while judging by how they tingled and sang with pins and needles.
Sandra twisted onto one side, facing the stairs that led up into the house, up into the world beyond the house, the world where she was a wife, a mother, a retiree with a pension. Candles decorated the risers. Wax had run from the heat of the wicks and spilled over. The scene was that of ritual, almost beatific.
When she moved, her head thrummed, but Sandra ignored it and drew her legs slowly under herself. She struggled into a seated position, forcing her face into the dirt to gain some leverage. Now she sat on her knees like some penitent, and the scene was made all the more stark by those flickering candles.
She managed to gain her feet, but she wouldn’t get far with her hands bound behind her. She glanced around the cellar. Something sharp. Anything sharp. Even a piece of broken glass would—
Several large pieces of glass glittered nearby, and Sandra noticed that someone had broken one of the cellar windows. She squatted over the shards, not wanting to lose her footing, and just managed to snag a large piece before her balance betrayed her. The glass bit into the tough meat of her palm, but she barely noticed. She flipped the edge up and worked at the twine binding her wrists. It was slow, painful work, the glass punishing her fingers for every fiber of twine it cut through. When she was free her hands looked like she’d tried to grab the wrong end of a weed trimmer. Thin ribbons of blood coursed over her hands and shimmered in the fickle and waxy light thrown by the many candles.
She thought about making her way for the stairs, even took two or three steps in that direction, but logic asserted itself. Whoever brought her here would be upstairs. Sandra made her way to the window, thinking it wouldn’t be too difficult boosting up and out through the tight space.
A voice, feminine and resonant, suddenly called out.
Olly olly oxen free.
Sandra froze, her hands shooting out at her sides like some escapee trapped by the tower guard’s searchlight.
Come out, come out, wherever you are.
“Not real,” Sandra whispered. “Not real.”
She leaped up at the window, snagged the sill, managed a few inches before her wounded hands lost their grip and spilled her back to the dirt floor, one of her nails snagging on the rough concrete and tearing away. She sucked air over her teeth, not wanting to scream, and stared at the raw and ragged flesh where her nail used to be. It throbbed in tandem with the thick pulse at her temples, and she strove against an insistent urge to vomit. When she’d regained control, she gathered her feet once more, and once more made for the window. “Please, God—” she began, but the inimitable creak of a door swinging slowly open on rusted hinges interrupted the thought.
A shadow stretched along the far wall atop the stairs. The candles made that shadow seem like an image captured on poor quality film, flickering at a low frame rate. A foot descended, naked and pale and covered in dirt. Another joined it. Now Sandra could see the sleek, pallid calves, the thighs with veins snaking beneath the almost translucent flesh in blue-green streaks. The hips. The breasts. And now she stood staring at the complete form of a pallid woman. The woman was smiling, and there was something unsettling about that smile. The face was young, but the skin had puckered about the mouth, shriveling the lips slightly, and the eyes were partially sunken into deep, bruised sockets. But, no, one was of a different color, and it bulged and glittered.
The woman strode forward, her grin unwavering. “There she is,” she whispered, and her tone was maternal and somehow cold. “Oh, I’ve waited so long, Ally. Dear, dear Ally.”
Sandra felt her bladder clench at the sound of her old name spoken from those dry lips. “Who?” Sandra began—and finished. It was all she could say.
“I don’t blame you for forgetting, dear,” the woman soothed, drawing ever so closer, but ever so slowly. She stepped with purpose, each foot taking its position in slow motion, digging into the dirt, driving the toes down into the thin layer of dust. Her hips swayed, and Sandra was reminded of the way ballerinas will conduct themselves across a stage during an opening ensemble. “You were so young. So innocent. But I remember. Momma Magus could never forget.”
“Magus?” Sandra echoed, now taking a slow step back for every step Verina Magus took forward. “You—You were here. Before?”
“Poor girl,” Verina sighed. “You’ve been hurt so bad. But I can make it all a dream. I can make it go away. Just like I did for Tilly. You can join us, Ally.”
“That’s not my name!” Sandra cried.
“We can play hide and go seek. Forever.”
Sandra shuddered at the sound of the woman’s voice, and her mind was catapulted back to that night so many years ago. “What happened to Tilly? Did you kill her?”
“She came to me,” Verina cooed. “She came and she made a promise.”
“You killed Tilly,” Sandra sobbed. “You killed her and my mommy and my daddy.”
Verina’s face—the face that she’d stolen from a dead girl and was now slowly rotting—contorted into an ugly rictus of hate. “Your daddy killed me!” she screeched. “I loved him and he killed me! He stole it all!” Verina’s widened glass eye shimmered with the yellow light of the candles. Now her grin returned. “But only for a little while. I’ve taken some of it back. Not all. But some. And I will have it all, dear. Tilly understood. She knew I was a victim. That’s why she promised him to me. She wanted to help. And she did.”
Sandra shook her head, tears spilling down her cheeks, cheeks lined with years but still younger than the voice of the woman before her. “Hailey. You took Hailey, too. Didn’t you? Morgan. Oh Morgan, I’m sorry.”
For a moment, Verina’s withered face looked sad. “The babe was unfortunate. But, no, I did not take her.”
“You lie! You—you took her!”
Now Verina was close enough for Sandra to smell the rot coming off of her in fetid waves. Close enough for her to see the way her flesh pinched at the extremities. Close enough for her to realize that she’d seen this face before. Jonah had brought her to the apartment several times (and at the time Sandra had noted this behavior with resigned disappointment). But now the girl (Melissa, her name was Melissa) was no longer. Now the thing that had killed Daddy lived inside her, just as it had lived inside Mommy. And Sandra knew she had to get away, to get to her family, to get herself safe, and then burn this horrible building to the ground like she should have done decades before.
Verina’s hand shot out, her puckered fingers hooking into a claw, and Sandra dodged right, but not in time. The fingers—those implacable, dead fingers—tangled in her hair and yanked. Sandra shrieked and bucked left, deciding at the last second to go with the motion, and rammed her shoulder into the woman’s naked midriff. Verina, surprised by the action, grunted and tumbled over, taking a large clump of Sandra’s hair with her. Sandra, her scalp singing, rushed for the stairs, pounded up them two at a time, threw the door wide, and dashed into the hallway that abutted the kitchen. Her muscle memory led her right, toward the front door. She nearly slammed into it as she clutched for the knob. She yanked at it with both hands, but the blood coating her fingers sabotaged her grip, and she stumbled back as her hands slipped off. Stumbled into Verina’s waiting arms.
Or so she thought. But the arms were too thick, too cruel. They were the same arms that had pulled her implacably into this place. And now they spun her around.
Sandra stared into the face of a dead man. He looked dead. For the time Emery Winnan had spent with his earthen bride had changed him into something subhuman. His eyes stared out from their deep sockets. His lips quivered and oozed a thick, jaundiced drool. The eyelids twitched as the eyes themselves studied her. Then he opened his mouth and bellowed, and Sandra would have screamed in chorus, but the stink spewing from that mouth made her choke and gag.
He lifted her.
“No!” Sandra cried. “No! Morgan! Phil! My family! Please! My family!”
And dumped her into Verina Magus’s awaiting arms. They stood face-to-face, and Verina giggled. “I see you’ve met your nephew. I apologize that it’s such a short reunion, but as you can tell from the shape of me, I’m very pressed for time.”
Sandra watched the dead woman’s hand rise and pluck the glass eye out, revealing a swollen hole where things squirmed. “Please—” Sandra began, but her words were cut off violently as the glass eye was slammed into her face, and a mean thumb shoved it into her eye socket, pressed it deep, rupturing the real eye beneath. Sandra screamed, but even in her agony she saw the dead woman’s cracked lips part, felt them lock greedily on her own. And she felt it, felt it as the air was pulled from her lungs, felt it as something else was pulled from her, siphoned away; she felt it as the thing that had killed her mother and father on a hot evening back in 1956 sucked at her, the dead eye rolling back like a shark’s when it strikes. She felt the life drain slowly from her hands, her feet, her arms, her legs. But the heart—the heart that had quavered years ago when a young, handsome man named Phil Lundy crouched onto one knee in McAphee Park and asked her; the heart that beat extra notes when little Morgan took the stage for a kindergarten play, when young Morgan took the state driver’s test, when Morgan said she loved her, and, as an adult, had truly meant it—that heart died last. And such things are too sad.