This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
Huddled in the back of Abby’s car, they watched the rows of two family houses plod beyond their windows. George could see a hint of the mask covering the burnt parts of Abby’s face. It curled up over the place where hair no longer grew. The mask fit so snuggly, it looked like the disfigured portions of her face transformed into plastic.
Susan pointed at houses she liked and frowned when Abby told her how much those houses cost. Perfect craftsman after perfect craftsman like this – beautiful and standing tall with neat lawns and mid-entry SUVs in the driveways. The houses stayed upright even as Susan’s smile drooped into a frown.
“Are you sure we can afford a house out here?” Susan said.
“To buy, no,” Abby said. “To rent, usually no, but I found a house on a deal.”
The car stopped in front of a muted peach house where an upper balcony perched on top a lower porch. The lawn sloped upward from the sidewalk, curving like a half-smile. Through the middle of the lawn, a walkway made of bricks cut up to porch. Two large bushes flanked either side.
Police tape strung like streamers around the porch and across the front door. The windows were large and studded in designs of leaded glass at the top. The large bottom panes were clear except the globs of dried blood streaking across their surface. They were clearly original to the home.
Abby unbuckled her seat belt and turned around in her seat. Her mask caught on the head cushion, peeling away from her scaled face. She pushed it back into place and sighed.
“Here’s the thing about this house,” she said. “The good news is it’s only nine hundred a month, and that’s for the whole house. It is divided into two units, and the lease on one of the units will end after one year. Then it will be nine hundred for one unit.”
“I think we have some other questions,” Susan said.
“You’re wondering about the police tape,” Abby said.
“And I think I see blood on the window,” George said. “Did somebody shoot a movie here or…”
Abby’s mouth turned upward. Her entire mouth was visible beneath the mask, only the bordering cracks of her accident showing in the divide between her mouth and mask.
“Well, that’s the other thing,” she said. “A murder did happen here, and part of the deal is you will have to clean up both apartments.”
“How bad is it?” George said.
“I haven’t looked inside the place myself, but the landlord said it was pretty bad. Also, you’ll have to do all mowing and shoveling yourself.”
Abby stepped out the car, adjusting her pinstripe pantsuit, brushing small coils of hair and fuzz off the sleeves. They followed her up the walk where Abby’s heels stuck briefly in the cracks between bricks. George held the police tape up for Abby and Susan to walk under, and he ducked under it himself. They ripped the tape off the door.
“And one last thing,” Abby said. “I promised the landlord you wouldn’t say anything about this to the press or anyone. The police are trying to keep this hush-hush.”
The front door opened into a cove of an entryway. A hallway ran from the front door straight to the back. The carpet in the hallway would have been soaked if the blood hadn’t already dried. It crackled under George’s feet, the sound of someone tip-toing onto potato chips. It felt like cheap AstroTurf.
Blood ran across all the walls and up to the ceilings like thick paint flung haphazardly around the house. Someone overturned all the furniture. The couch was hacked into a dozen pieces and thrown across different ends of the living room.
The dried blood carpet continued throughout the house until it gave way to the chipped tile floor of the kitchen. The kitchen floor was clean other than those cracks, which had hints of blood as well.
Abby waited outside while they walked around the house. George led Susan by her hand, and she ran into the bathroom to throw up after a few minutes, coming back with her hand held over her mouth and distress in her eyes.
“More blood in there?” George said.
“No,” Susan said. “Go look for yourself.”
George went back into the hallway and found the bathroom across from the master bedroom. Family pictures filled the bathtub, taken out of the picture frames that lay broken across the bathroom floor. Pictures filled with smiling people. Families. Couples. Friends. All in a stew of shallow black fluid as thick and dark as oil but scentless.
The black fluid gashed across the tiled walls and the vanity in patterns mimicking the bloodstains in the other rooms. The toilet seat was missing. George checked in the vanity and kicked at the picture frames, but it was nowhere to be found.
George looked up at the mirror, and he caught something behind him, slowly peering around the bathroom door. Obscured in the murk of blackness, George only saw a ghostly shape. He jumped, and turned quickly around. Susan stood in the doorway with her hand covering her mouth.
“I don’t like this place one bit,” Susan said.
“It’s the cheapest place we’ve seen today,” George said.
“There’s a reason for that.”
“It’s the largest place, too. Let’s check out the master.”
In the back of the closet, they found rotary landline telephones lined up in a row, the cords all snipped. Seven telephones in all. George shut the closet.
“At least there’s no blood in this room,” George said.
“One room down,” Susan said.
“Let’s look upstairs.”
The upstairs was more of the same – bloody walls, black fluid and another row of telephones. This time, the closet hid four phones. They walked around the upstairs with hands carefully stuffed into their pockets. Susan only took her hands out to cover her mouth, gurgling precariously behind her fingers.
They looked out the back window into the yard. Tire tracks cut up the lawn, leading to three long but shallow holes in various spots. One hole under a great willow tree, its branches cut back just over the hole. Another in the dead center of the yard, it was the longest and widest and deepest hole. They could barely see the last hole. It was closest to the hose, peeking out just below their sightline.
“Looks like we need to do some landscaping, too,” George said.
“Look at those tracks, George,” Susan said. “Look at how perfectly rectangular those holes are.”
“They dug something up back there.”
“Obviously. I don’t usually look at holes without thinking someone dug them.”
“Bodies were buried back there. I just know it.”
George scratched at his beard, staring down at the three holes ripped across the yard. He leaned on the windowpane – a rare bloodless surface. Wordlessness lingered between them like the void between galaxies in deep space.
A small bulge poked at the form of Susan’s shirt, rounded and firm, just recently bulging. George put his hands on her stomach and held them there. His lips slinked into a shadow of a smile.
“This place is perfect except one thing,” George said. “And I’ll fix that one thing before any of us ever live here.”
“I’m not superstitious,” Susan said. “But we don’t know what happened here. Something seems dangerous about this place. There are two units here, and the people were murdered in both of them.”
“What? You think there’s a serial killer who only murders people who live in this house?”
“Don’t laugh at me. I need to talk to the landlord before I decide anything.”
They went down the backstairs that led to a shared mudroom with a door out to the backyard. George poked around at the washer and drier stacked in a corner of the room, opening their portholes and spinning their metallic drums.
“These look newer,” he said. “And we’ve never had a washer and drier in our own place before.”
“You’ve never done laundry in your life,” Susan said.
“I know how to do laundry, but you wouldn’t catch me dead hanging around your mother’s house to do it.”
They stepped onto the small patio, formed with large pieces of flat stone arranged in a square. They stood at the edge of the closest hole. It was about three feet deep. George jumped into it, patting his feet at the semi-dried mud.
“We can turn the big one over there into a pool,” George said.
“Get out of the hole,” Susan said.
“That’s what she…”
“Don’t you dare make a dad joke already,” she said, raising a scolding finger at him.
“I have to practice.”
“You really don’t.”
He sat on the edge of the hole and swung his legs onto the grass. He placed his head on the ground, his knees pointed up toward the treetops reaching their green, leafy fingers overhead as if to protect him from the malevolent sky. Susan sat next to him and picked blades of grass one by one, throwing them onto George’s chest.
“There you two are,” a woman’s voice said.
George looked over, and it was Abby, hands on hips, standing on the sidewalk that poked around the side of the house. Breeze tugging at the legs of her pantsuit, she walked over to where they lay and observed the hole for a scowling moment.
“Have you come to a decision?” Abby said. “Frankly, I showed you all the worthwhile apartments you two can afford.”
“I want to talk to the landlord for this unit,” Susan said.
“I can give him a call. In person or on the phone?”
“I’d prefer to talk to him in person.”
Abby searched through her phone for a few minutes and called the landlord. They walked along the sidewalk to the front porch, sitting on the steps until a car pulled up and parked on the opposite side of the street, a shining black Mercedes with its sunroof popped open.
A thin man stepped out. His uniformally grey hair bordered on platinum. The man kept it slicked straight back and shoulder-length. Luxury ended with his Mercedes and priceless strands of hair. He wore a flannel shirt with his sleeves rolled up and a faded pair of jeans. Luxury began again with his black leather shoes.
He trudged up the walkway to where they sat on the porch. George stood up and grabbed Susan’s hand, pulling her to her feet. The man shook Abby’s hand, a grim twitch of his lip when he looked up at the house. He introduced himself as Sam.
“I suppose I can guess what you’re wondering,” Sam said. “You want to know what happened here.”
“They have a few misgivings about moving into a place where something awful happened,” Abby said. “You understand.”
“I understand. That’s why the price is what it is.”
“We’re going to bring children into whatever apartment we rent,” Susan said. “I want to know if it’s safe.”
“The people living here before,” Sam said. “They were into some bad things. This is a family neighborhood. Nobody’s seen anything like this before.”
“What kind of bad things?” George said.
“Police are still sorting that out. Seems like drugs. Maybe some sort of cult. They’re a little light on the details. Even keeping it out of the press somehow.”
Susan coughed twice, and Sam looked at her. He crossed his arms, a huffing sigh blowing exasperation into the air.
“You’re telling us both families were dealing drugs or whatever?” Susan said. “There are two units, right? I assume those were two different tenants?”
“Seems so,” Sam said. “They found these pills in both apartments. Police said they never saw this drug before. I don’t know what to tell you. At this price, take the place or don’t. If you aren’t doing anything illegal, you’re probably safe.”
George rubbed the small of Susan’s back, tangled strands of muscle knotted together beneath her skin. He tugged at her shirt.
“I think we need to talk about this,” Susan said. “In light of what you just told us.”
“I’ve got a few minutes,” Sam said.
“It’ll only be a few minutes.”
“I’m already late for another appointment.”
Sam scratched at his shoulder, absentmindedly avoiding eye contact.
They walked up the street past large houses perched on mounds behind short retaining walls made of grey stones. Vibrant paint colors splashed each house, structurally similar but brightly unique in their signature shades. They rounded a corner and could see the zoo off in a short distance.
“I’ll clean it up myself,” George said. “You won’t have to lift a finger. It’s close to my job, it’s a great price, and we’ll actually have room for everybody. I don’t think we can pass this up.”
Susan raised her hand and placed it on George’s chest.
“No need for the hard sell,” she said. “I know we have to take it. I wonder if I’ll ever get the image of all that blood out of my head.”
“If you ever get too inside your head about it, you can always walk over to Patil’s house and stay with them. They live pretty close to here.”
She pulled her hand back and slapped his chest.
“Don’t make me change my mind,” Susan said.
They came back, and Susan wrote a check for the first three months of rent, scribbling in her check book against the hood of their car. She handed Sam the check, and he pulled out three sets of keys. He dropped them into her outstretched hand. One of the sets bounced off her palm and landed in the grass. George searched for it on his hands and knees, picking it out of the green expanse like he was bobbing for apples and finally sunk his teeth into the flesh of something red and sweet.
George picked up take out, and they ate slowly on the porch until sunset dimmed the neighborhood into shadows. Before they left, he went around to every door, making sure they were locked, a zookeeper checking the cages at night so nothing could get in or out.
Alex Rushmer: I like the intrigue that you introduce from the very beginning of the story. The idea of the girl waking up in the alley with no memory of how she got there and with injuries is very interesting. It was very well done. There were a lot of grammatical errors that need to be fixed though. I think t...
Diane April: Really liked the concept of this story. The beginning had a great explanation about how things worked in the real world that people tend to overlook. It was a nice change from the usual zombie story that just makes things up as they go along and actual facts don't matter.
Carolyn Hahn-Re: I really liked this story! The writing was well done, and the plot was suspenseful. I couldn't stop reading chapter after chapter, on the edge of my seat! The characters were well developed, and true to form. Thank you so much for this wonderful read.
Kiz16: After a truly shocking start to the story, I found the style and content slowed down as the author introduced a varied group of characters who I thought were fleshed out very well. After a slow couple of chapters, I found this story difficult to leave with the tension growing within the house. Yo...
Kastril Nomenclature: This is a very clever story in the style of 19th century (and turn of the century) Gothic writing, very reminiscent of Stevenson's The Body Snatchers or even of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (less so of Frankenstein itself, since the author is more minimalist than Shelley's florid, Romantic rhetoric). ...
FreakyPoet: "you made me laugh, made me cry, both are hard to do. I spent most of the night reading your story, captivated. This is why you get full stars from me. Thanks for the great story!"
Sara Joy Bailey: "Full of depth and life. The plot was thrilling. The author's style flows naturally and the reader can easily slip into the pages of the story. Very well done."