Chapter Twenty-Three: Bane
I smiled in return.
The wife of Mr. Gates was undeniably disarming. Her face was narrow, though not as severe as Valerie’s. Her jaw was slightly broader, better defined, her chin squared, but in a feminine manner. Her lips were small and thin, and would’ve registered on her face if they hadn’t been as pink and glistening as if she wore lip gloss. The idea of Mrs. Gates wearing make-up after the fact she’d been dead for more than fifteen years didn’t occur to me as odd, though it does now. Her nose was angular along either edge, giving her a flattened sort of ridge down its’ entire length. Her cheekbones blended into the rest of her visage, so they seemed polished instead of chiseled, making her appear even more statuesque. She had a broad forehead and wore her hair combed back over her head to accentuate the comely feature. Her auburn hair was long and stringy, almost damp, as she she’d come from the shower within the hour, though not recently. It hung down to the middle of her shoulder blades, reflecting the fantastical light within the alley, a glow that was everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
She wore an outdated dress when compared with those I’d seen my mother and Valerie dawn. It was powder-blue, without sleeves. There were twin swaths of fabric forming the bodice from either side. It flowed from her shoulders, gathered about the waist by a darker blue material that gave the impression she had wrapped a sash around her midsection, though the fabric was a part of the dress itself. From her waist, the dress flared considerably. It wasn’t as dramatic as a hoop-skirt, but it puffed outward like the skirts I’d seen from the 1950’s.
When I’d made that distinction in my head, it all came together. It was a dress from that era, cotton with a layer of chiffon or like material overlaid. It appeared gossamer, but wasn’t exaggerated in that regard. She wasn’t some tireless haunt howling through the night with long, billowing trains of a dress whisping behind in the wind. She wasn’t like that at all. She was elegant as if she’d been high-born. Though she looked young, her prowess in etiquette was imbued in her graceful form. I could tell she would know how to conduct herself in the proper fashion in any given situation. Even with a knit-witted scamp like me ogling every physical component she possessed.
“Hello,” she said after a time. It didn’t seem to matter that I’d been staring. Maybe she was used to men appraising her; after all she was very pretty.
“Hi,” was all I could manage as I cleared my throat, glancing away with the back of a hand against my mouth. I was suddenly self-conscious in only my pajama bottoms and torn slippers, feeling brutish and coarse with my scraped-up arms and scuffed back.
She was pristine.
I was a ragamuffin.
She gestured in a placating sort of way. “I didn’t mean to scare you, but I had to act decisively. Bore isn’t someone who moves placidly.”
I peered at her through the corner of my eyes, a sarcastic remark upon my tongue, but I held it instead. It seemed barbaric to be rude at a time like this, in a place as outlandish as the alley with her, as beauteous as she was. “It’s… its just t-this,” I began, eyes darting about, indicating where we were standing. “This all takes a little getting used to.”
She laughed. It was musical, somehow melodic, entirely captivating. An errant hand came up to her chest, about her collarbones, long, delicate fingers touching her pale skin.
I could only watch. I was speechless.
Her cheer trailed away and only the odd sounds of the alley filled my ears - the drip of water into a puddle, the rustle of paper though there was no breeze.
Our eyes found one another. The bunching of skin around her eyes diminished as her smile slowly left her face.
I could feel the onset of a blush.
Somewhere, far away, there came a scream. It was an agonized keening. Like those at the end of a long session of torture, drawn-out with the hint of weeping and a shred of hope that the anguish would soon end. It was the sound of the very end of faith.
It wasn’t at all like the howl of the man called, Bore.
I was stunned to see her blue-green orbs turn to fire. The set of her jaw altered as if she were on the verge of grinding her teeth. One end of her upper lips rose and fell in rapid succession. “I had to do it, you know,” she muttered through a clenched jaw.
The wail came again, longer, more desperate.
I remained silent, unmoving.
“They would’ve killed you all… done worse to the women…” It was a thought voiced aloud. Maybe I wasn’t even supposed to have heard it.
I cleared my throat for a second time. “I-i-is Lenny here?” I tried to ask nonchalantly, but there was no way I could do it with so much spit muddling my tongue, threatening to choke me.
Her eyes were no longer any color near blue. They were crimson, deep, bottomless sanguine as if reflecting a lake of blood. They rippled with a non-existent wind. They were filling beyond their banks. “He is where he needs to be, Jeremiah Favor.”
“Here?” I queried and a final shriek echoed throughout the alley. This one was cut short, only a gruesome gurgling followed.
She nodded. Somehow she looked bigger than she’d been when I had first seen her. I could’ve sworn she’d been no more than an inch taller than my shoulder. Now, we were looking each other in the eye.
I was about to ask why, but she spoke before I managed to get a word out.
“You should leave now.”
“It isn’t safe here for a b- - a young man - such as you.” She tried to smile reassuringly, but failed. There was nothing soft in her glare. “You should go. I do not think I could ward-off Bore a second time.”
I frowned, but nodded in agreement all the same. “I would, but I’ve come so far. It’ll take some time before I find my way back.”
“There is only one way back, Jeremiah.”
“I know, about two miles that way,” I replied pointing down the endless expanse of the alley, and its’ gruesome inhabitants.
Her head tilted to the side. There was a wicked gleam in her eye matching her sneer. “Really? That far?”
I bobbed my chin. “Yeah, I’ve been walking for almost an -.” The words turned sour in my mouth. My tongue felt as though it weighed ten times greater than it should.
When I had turned to follow the end of my finger, I did not see the limitless track with the hundreds of doors I’d passed as I blundered my way through the alley and its’ endless side passages, looking for any sign of my demented father. There was no garbage, no broken glass, and no trash bins – only the door to the basement of the house on Lincoln Drive stood before me. Through it, I could see my mother and my siblings clinging onto one another, frightened to tears.
I grimaced with misunderstanding, trying to figure out what had happened. What had she done? And how?
“Jeremiah, my son, oh my god, where have you been?” It was mother speaking, hoarse emotion, nearly choking her. She was distraught with fear. Her face was ashen in the afterglow coming from the alley.
I ran toward her without thinking, passing through the threshold of the basement door and into her warm embrace, feeling tears of my own toppled from my eyelids. Her arms, her small body never felt better than they had that night. I breathed deeply smelling the scent that had calmed me a thousand, thousand times, feeling the beat of her heart below mine. I could only think of one word, and yet, it filled me to bursting with meaning. Mommy. I was holding my mommy. I was back.
Suddenly, we were crushed from either side by Valerie and Elijah. Their small limbs engulfed us as far around as they could go. My sister was weeping against my side. Her head was nestled behind my arm as she clutched me about my back. I could feel her fingers, splayed wide, trying to touch as much of me as possible at one time. Elijah was at my waist, his little head plastered to the outer portion of my abs. It didn’t feel like he was crying, but he held onto me as if his life depended upon it.
“Where were you? You were gone for so long,” inquired my mom, arching back from me, so she could look me in the face.
I shrugged to the best of my ability. “I went after him.” I didn’t know what else to say. “I searched for hours.”
Her brow furled. Her body stiffened. Her expression was bemused. “What do you mean?”
I sighed wearily. “It was a big place. I went through so many rooms I lost count.”
“But we’ve only been waiting here for twenty minutes, Jer.” She put a hand to my chest. “It was an excruciating wait, don’t get me wrong, but it was only twenty minutes.”
“But how is that possible? The alley had no end.”
My mother shook her head.
The question hung in the air like a noxious fume. It wouldn’t go away no matter how much time passed.
I heard her weeping then. Not from anywhere close, but from within the alley. Compelled, I turned to look.
She was sitting now, leaning against an avocado-colored, 50-gallon drum. Somehow her dress wasn’t soiled by the muck covering the ground. It remained flawless as if she’d just come from a dressing room. She had her head in her hands. The sobs wracking her small form made her shoulders bounce. She looked like the petite, young woman I had seen deep in the nightmarish passage.
The four of us came apart. My family had finally seen the young debutante bent over, crying.
“I had to do it. I had to. I had to do it. I had to. I had to do it. There was no other way. There was no other way,” she was saying out of order, but over and over.
It was Eli who made the first move. His face brightened with joy at the sight of her. He extricated himself the rest of the way from me and stepped toward her at speed.
“Stop!” she commanded, her head jerking upward, her eyes intense. Her face was streaked with wet runnels.
Elijah stopped as though he was perched upon the edge of a crevasse, atop pointed toes, his hands to either side offering balance. “But, it’s you,” he accused in that manner only a child his age could pull off without sounding petulant.
Her face wrinkled with hurt. “Not anymore, little one.” She still sounded on the verge of breaking down.
“But, I missed you after all this time.” The little brother went flat-footed.
“I know, but there was a reason I had to go,” she tried to explain, but it was clear to me that Eli didn’t understand.
Hell, neither did I.
“You’re here now, though.”
She smiled warmly at the workings of my little brother’s ability to extrapolate. “The Way has been sealed from this side. It would be dangerous for you, any of you,” she glanced up at the rest of us, “to come into the Breach now.”
Elijah would have none of it. “Jerry went through.”
“And he will be the last, child,” she clarified sadly. “Anyone who comes through now will be claimed. Bore will have it no other way.” Her look was for me alone.
My brother was about to say something more, but my mother came up, placing her hands on either shoulder. He clammed-up at once. It was an old method of hers. When employed, we were not supposed to talk anymore.
“Is it really you?” asked Pillar, my mother.
The young woman stood, brushing off dirt and grime that did not exist. “It had always been me.”
They stayed silent for a long time. We kids waited, unsure of the right thing to do. It seemed like an encyclopedia of knowledge was passing between the two women, though they never said so much as a single word.
I stood there one of my hands still holding onto one of Valerie’s, wondering about the lady who had lived and loved where we had done precisely the same. The house had been built for her, the property and everything on it had been placed according to her specifications. She had lived upon it her entire life, never leaving, never so much as dreaming of selling. She had made love to her husband here. She had raised her children here. She had watched them grow as she aged and the decades passed. At last, she had died here, within the sunroom as quiet and as dignified as one could pass away. Peaceful. Content. Life had been good to her.
And then, after years of disaffection and misuse, my mother had come along and had fallen in love as well. My mother had rebuilt the house from the shadow it had fallen under. My mother had restored it to its’ former glory. My mother had breathed life into what had almost become a corpse. Pillar Favor had taken residence just as she had all those years ago.
Though she could’ve chosen to stay, with her beloved domicile, forever, decided to stay young and beautiful, sustained for all time within the bones of the old house on Lincoln Drive, she had chosen otherwise. Like the lady she had been in life, like the mother she had been while living, she chose to be something else. She chose a path nearly every other person alive would’ve dreaded to traverse. She chose to protect.
“You’re leaving, aren’t you?” asked my mother, finally. Her voice boomed in our ears, making us start, though she hadn’t raised her voice in the slightest.
The young woman nodded.
“There was a price.” It was a statement posed as a question.
Again, the woman nodded.
“The house will -, has been empty without you.” My mother bent down to hug Elijah about the shoulders.
There were tears in his eyes.
Valerie squeezed my hand.
I turned toward her and was surprised to see she was nearly as sad as my little brother. She had hated the house when we had first moved in, was deathly afraid of the bothersome poltergeist, and now… She was changed.
I think all of us had changed. The house had grown on us. It had become an integral part of our family. It had become a sanctuary of sorts whether it was from Lenny or anything else that might’ve bothered us, personal or worldly. It was home. It was our home, the house we had helped rebuild, and because if it – it was more than important.
Out of it all, her eyes found mine at last. They were infused with blood once again. “You should close the door now,” she said, sternly.
I nodded in agreement and walked toward the massive door that should’ve led to the root cellar, but instead led somewhere else. I reached for the door, my fingers grasping the thickness of it. “Good-bye,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
Behind me Elijah burst into fitful weeping.
“Farewell, Jeremiah Favor,” she said through needle-like teeth that hadn’t been there moments before. “You take good care of that little woman of yours. I’ll be watching…” She pointed at me with fingers horribly long, nails claw-like and razor sharp, blotched with blood, crusted with dried flesh. Then, she turned away.
My heart was in my throat, pounding. I rushed to close the door, so the rest of my family wouldn’t see.
I’ve always said in my heart of hearts, I didn’t want to see more. I know that’s what I’ve told myself time and time again – I really did not want to see anymore. I know this. I made myself believe it.
But, as I stood before the threshold to what Mrs. Gates had called the Breach, with the door open no more than a foot, I looked. Maybe it was plain curiosity. Maybe it was stupidity. Maybe… just maybe, I really did want to know. Maybe I wanted to see what the cost had been. Maybe…
I could go on for hours as I agonize over this subject. It still wouldn’t change the outcome.
Up to this point in my life, I have only ever told Valerie and not a single soul more.
She had turned from me, her hands at either side, each digit growing impossibly long – longer than before. She stood upon feet that were much too large for a woman of her size, even if she’d had large extremities to begin with. I stared, dumbfounded over the length, the rippling muscles, the toes that were twice as long as my middle finger. Her ankles seemed wrong, as if they had been spun backwards like the hind legs of a horse. She stood poised upon those massive feet, the smooth skin of her calves broken out with large dark splotches as if she’d been injected with some debilitating disease. They grew as well, in size and strength as her dress shortened, was shorn in a hundred places, barely covering a body that was no longer petite, no longer that of a demure, young woman. A pair of thorny spires ripped from her back, tearing even more of the garment she was wearing. Her shoulders broadened, the barrel of her chest thickening, while her hips remained as narrow as a teenagers. Her damp hair became short, spikey, sucked into her head as if eaten. Her skin became cracked and torn as if there was not enough of it to cover her properly. When she topped seven feet in height, she stopped changing physically. She was unlike anything I had ever seen, so different I couldn’t put a likeness to any part of her.
“P-p-p-p-ple-e-ease let me alone,” came a plea from someone who hadn’t been there a moment earlier.
It was Lenny. The 50-gallon drum she had been leaning against while she’d spoken with my family was no longer that. It was him, strapped to an ancient-looking wooden chair, bound in place by rusted, grime-coated barbed wire. He was punctured upon every surface of his person, blood running freely from nearly every wound. His foot, where she had snapped it in twain upon the framing of the basement doors, dangled sickeningly, jiggling with every move he made. His eyes were wild with fright. His hair clung to his head as sweat poured from him. His shirt was sodden with it. His pants were soaked in urine, caked with feces.
It was obvious to me; she’d had at least one “go-around” with him.
He gazed upon her with frantic eyes, trickles of crimson seeped from both edges, coating his cheeks. It was the desolation of macabre mascara and made him even less real to me.
“Why should I leave you be, Leonard Favor?” she asked. Her voice was terrible, deep, resounding, grating against the drums of my ears.
It was the voice of a beast.
It was not the lovely Mrs. Gates.
Lenny’s eyes darted here and there, trying to find an escape as she crept closer to him, her elongated fingers rubbing the front of her dress, smoothing out the ripped material, glazing it with a patina of Lenny’s leave-takings. “Pleeeease, I b-b-b-beg you… j-j-j-juuust let me go,” he begged, spit, tingled cardinal, dribbling down one side of his mouth.
“Who am I, Leonard Favor?” she inquired instead, looming over him, a towering figure, hunching her back to do so.
He shied away, closing his eyes as tight as he could.
She waited for a few seconds. “Who am I?” Her tone was harsh, as if she were on the brink of violence.
Through an overflowing mouth, he managed, “You are my bane, The Bane of my existence!”
“Yyyyyeeeessss, Leonard Favor,” she hissed intensely, dripping salvia of own upon his cheek and neck.
He shivered uncontrollably.
She licked at it, savoring her juices as they mixed with his. “I am Bane,” she spoke so close to him, her sharp fangs snagged along the top of his skin, tearing the flesh like a samurai sword. “Don’t you ever think to forget,” she threatened, ripping more flesh.
Lenny squirmed with agony. “I won’t!”
She stood erect, a giant menacing form. “So, you wish to play a child’s game?”
“W-w-w-what?” asked my one-time-father, unhinged by the change in topic.
She rumbled with cruel laughter. “You said you wished for me to release you,” she began, taking a few paces in one way, then reserved her directions and stepped in the other. “So, I take it to mean, you want to run, while I seek…” Her voice trailed off into nothing.
“I don’t understand,” quivered Lenny.
Without warning, she swiped downward, tremendously hard, her knife-like nails raking the barbed wire as they swooped from high to low.
Lenny screamed horribly as the sharpened prongs were hacked from the muscles of his body. He fell to the ground in a heap at her feet, writhing in pain, sobbing. He curled into a fetal position, trying to protect all that had been ruined. He failed miserably. There was too much damage to cover it all.
She giggled a demon’s giggle. “You had better run, Leonard Favor. When I catch you, every time I catch you, I will take a nice big bite of you.”
He squealed like a pig, twitching upon the ground.
“You had better move. Already I feel the vestiges of hunger and you look so delicious, so nicely tenderized.” Then, she lunged at him, nipping him upon the heel.
He jerked as though he’d been prodded with a Taser. Somehow, he was able to get on all fours and scurry away like a three-legged rodent. He got ten feet when he pissed himself again, leaving a long trail in his wake.
Bane tilted her head back and chortled in earnest. “You are making this far too easy for me, Leonard Flavor.” She swung her head around, toward me, in that instant. “He leaves me a nice trail to follow… How kind of him…”
Her face was distorted. Her eyes were far too large for her skull; her mouth was so wide it stretched all the way to either ear. Her cheeks were so gaunt, they looked hallow. Her broken skin was pulled so tight against the bones of her face, every single one of them was clearly visible from below. Where her nose should’ve been was only a gaping hole, congealed with snot and gore and some of Lenny’s blood. Her eyes were squirming with flames. There were no whites. They were no irises. There was only the red hot fire of revenge.
In her hand was a golden blade, a Moorish knife much like a sword, only in miniature. The words Affliction’s Key was aglow, somehow visible from afar. I could read them readily. I could also tell the edge was razor sharp, harder than stone, not the show-piece representation of a bygone era. No, this blade was meant to cut.
Her gaze met mine.
I was paralyzed as I watched the words change. Right before my eyes they writhed and wriggled upon the metal like a living serpent, coiling and uncoiling.
Only the word Bane remained upon the knife.
I slammed the door shut, clamping my hands over my ears to shut out Lenny’s pathetic wails.
A few heartbeats later, there was nothing.
The Breach had been closed.