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Survive the Night

By Benjamin Card All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Horror

Entire Story

PROLOGUE

It doesn't take much wind to make windows rattle, and it doesn't take much weight to make floorboards creak. If the house is old enough, or poorly built, they do so liberally, their invisible strings pulled along by whatever spirits roam freely in that place. So it was with the spirits in Whitlock Cemetery. Within a tiny shack in that park, Edwin Habernal, the caretaker, heard both the rattling and the creaking as he sat on his wooden stool and stared out the window. He lit a cigar and rested his tired elbow on the window sill. Letting out a puff of smoke, he swiped away at the wispy trail it left to get a clearer look at Ashmore house, which loomed atop a hill some hundred yards away. Everything about the pallid mansion seemed to suit its deathly character, and Habernal couldn't conceive that the dreadful place had once been called "home" by any living thing; though it hadn't been called such in over a hundred years.

Home, his mind ached. To him, the concept of home was as much a myth as the legend of Ashmore house. But what the two had in common was that he longed so desperately for both those myths to manifest themselves into reality; to reconcile him back to the life and reputation he once stood proudly by. Soon, God willing, they would.

Standing and stepping away from the window, Habernal walked over to a table to retrieve an envelope containing the letter he'd received in the mail one week ago. In the poorly lit room, he was forced to sit on his bed to read it by the lamp. He'd read it many times, but the words still had the same vulgar effect on him.

He skimmed the words of the letter and sighed, folding it up again. Time was running out. The residents of the town of Marbury wanted him locked away, and the burden of proof was on him. But how does one provide visual evidence for a crime committed by forces unseen? How does one incriminate the supernatural?

Habernal pressed shaky fingers against his temple, wincing at the blinding pain that followed. Anxiety was taking hold of him. It had been so long, and still the mystery of Ashmore house went unanswered. Answers must soon arrive, he thought in aggravation.

He returned to his work station on the other side of the room and clicked on a pot-shaped lamp with a frayed white shade. The sudden illumination made him hiss at the pain in his head. He brought out a container from under the table, opened it, and brought out three slender candles, lighting each and placing them in holders around the table. After pressing at his temples again, he rested his elbows on the table. Everything else was already in place, because he did this every night now.

Habernal's fingers grazed the heart-shaped planchette and he pushed it to the center of the Ouija board.

He put out his cigar then shut off the lamp to begin his third séance of the week.

Closing his eyes, he waited a few minutes to relax himself, then took in a labored breath before starting.

"Spirits of the past," he began. "Move among me. Be guided by the light in this room and visit upon me."

Habernal waited in silence for several minutes and repeated his chant.

"Spirits of the past, move among me. Be guided by the light in this room and visit upon me."

When he felt nothing the next time, he knew he needed more to pacify the wilder spirits. This evening he'd brought with him something important he'd forgotten in past attempts—a sacrifice. He caught sight of the chicken he had lying beside his bed. He'd stolen it last night from a small farm on the other side of the park. It was in a drugged stupor, sprawled half-under the bed sheets which hung over the mattress.

Habernal rose to clench it by the neck and lay it over the table.

"Goddamn you, Abner," he muttered.

By the time the chicken had regained semi-consciousness, Habernal already had his knife in hand. The white bird slivered chaotically beneath Habernal's fist as he brought down the knife and heard the blade meet the wooden table with a thump. Blood jumped from the knife and landed on his arm.

"A sacrifice to appease you," he called to the spirits. "To invite your wisdom into this place."

He was so close. He knew it.

Shoving the chicken aside, he raised the planchette again and lowered it onto the Ouija board.

"Who will enter the house?" he asked.

Almost immediately he felt unseen hands moving the dial.

Yes, he thought. This is it! He dared not speak or interrupt in any way.

The first letter was revealed to him. He tried to suppress his excitement at his first successful séance.

His hand continued to move. To the next letter!

Habernal held his shaky fingers carefully.

Another! His eyes widened.

The planchette moved quicker now, as if the spirits were running out of time. He laughed.

"Yes," Habernal said, satisfied. "And who will lift the curse?"

The letters formed again to spell out the same name.

"And who will defeat Abner?"

The planchette moved like a zipping insect now. His headache blazed worse than ever, but he didn't care.

Habernal laughed aloud. "Yes! Finally!"

When his session was over, he blew out the candles and let the room hang in cold darkness. From his tiny shack in Whitlock Cemetery, rubbing at his stinging temples, Edwin Habernal waited by the window for the one who was meant to wake him from this unending nightmare. The one who could save his life.

CHAPTER 1

The putrid smell of bleach and urine pinched Victoria Brooke's nose the moment she entered the restroom at Eldridge Senior High School. The sound of chuckles bounced off the walls and she stopped mid-stride. They sounded masculine.

"Hello?" she called, thinking for a humiliating moment that she'd entered the wrong room.

The boys made shushing sounds to each other from within the stall while one of them bellowed out a nasty cry. Victoria was the only girl in the room, she realized, and she turned, noticing that the three sink faucets were running on full blast to drown out the noise in the stall.

"You guys cut it out," she shouted over the rushing water. "Whatever you're doing in there, stop it."

The boys laughed, and she heard the toilet flush. More laughing and hushed, secret words. Then, making Victoria take an involuntary step back, one of the boys regressed from the stall, smiling at her.

It was Kevin Cooper, the boy who'd brought Eldridge High's varsity basketball team two consecutive state championship rings. Eldridge High was a small school, but if it was a kingdom, Kevin ruled it.

Grinning, he brushed off a few beads of toilet water from his red polyester letterman jacket.

"All yours," he said, then turned and walked out of the restroom.

The two other boys inside the stall—Michael Sage and Geo Malovich (Kevin Cooper's varsity basketball teammates)—quickly surfaced, chuckling and avoiding eye contact with Victoria. They followed Kevin out of the room like faithful tails.

There was still someone in the stall. And he was sobbing; his voice echoing dimly from the hem of the toilet bowl. As she approached, Victoria knew that it was Icarus Foster, a petite boy from their class, even before he turned his soaked face to her. His hands were blindly searching for his glasses on the floor and he was sobbing a confusing stream of tears and toilet piss, spitting foul juice from his mouth. His black mushroom hair was pasted on his forehead like a glossy poster.

She walked past him, pretending not to notice his drenched uniform and his piss-licked hair, and the smell of filth protruding from his general direction. She locked herself inside the stall beside his and breathed in the thick, awkward air before settling down on the toilet. This always happened to the poor kid, and she didn't know how much more of it she could stand to watch.

A minute later she heard Icarus's feet as he exited the restroom, leaving small puddles of toilet water behind him.

***

"When you think of Halloween, what comes to mind?" asked Mr. Crockett, rolling a stick of chalk in his hand.

"Pumpkins," said Wendy Cho.

"Good. What else?"

"Ghosts," said Emily Black.

"Good."

"Candy!" said Sasha Perkins, and the class giggled.

"Right! Wonderful. One more."

"Ashmore house," said Winston Patel, and the laughter stopped.

Mr. Crockett seemed to stiffen his posture for a moment, then nodded and returned to his desk.

"The assignment tonight," he said, "is to write an essay on Halloween, its origin, and why it's so important in society today."

He jotted out that night's homework assignment on the board. Victoria and Ashley were seated at the far left of the room, by the windows that overlooked a block of yellow houses and the bus stop. She watched a pick-up truck roll slowly by the road, and thought about the nightmare she'd had the night before. She knew why the dreams were more consistent now. Tomorrow makes a year since—

"You look tired," Ashley Dooling said.

Victoria had her fists beneath her chin. "What gave it away?"

"Another nightmare?" Ashley asked.

"Yes."

"Was it...?"

"Yeah, about my mom," she finished.

"Oh."

Ashley dropped the subject and darted her attention back to her textbook.

The remainder of the school day proceeded like it always had in the past—more homework was distributed, students were dozily fighting to stay awake, and the clock above Mr. Crockett's classroom door cranked its needle hands as slow as an elderly woman walking with a cane. But it was that very evening that life in the small town of Marbury changed forever.

It was the night Victoria Brooke, Ashley Dooling, Kevin Cooper, Winston Patel, Sasha Perkins, Emily Black, Geo Malovich, Michael Sage, Robby "Bleak" Reed, Wendy Cho, and Icarus Foster went missing. Though at first, no one knew they were gone.

They were all normal high school kids. None of them deserved such horrible things as trauma and terror and death. But they each had it coming to them. From the best of them to the worst.

They were all equals that night.

CHAPTER 2

"What are we exactly?" Victoria asked.

"You are each equal portions of God," the spiritual Being said.

"But...I don't feel like God."

The Being smiled. "Not alone, you don't," and pushed her back to her bed.

Victoria woke up. Sitting up and sighing, she downed the soda she'd left beside her bed earlier that day. It was past midnight. Caffeine would do nothing to help her restlessness, but right now she could care less, knowing sleep wouldn't come anyway.

She’d had another nightmare. In it, her mother was tucking her into bed like she’d done many times in the past. She had felt her mother's smooth fingers as they touched her ear and the side of her cheek. As her mother was leaving the room, the door clamped shut behind her. In the dark, Victoria could see a strip of yellow light beneath the door’s wooden frame. Her mother's feet silhouetted for an instant before the light shut off into blackness. In the dream, Victoria lay immobile in bed as a chill crept through the thickness of her sheets, making her tremor. At some point, she remembered realizing that it was a dream.

But it was too late. In that instant, Victoria heard it.

The sound of tires sloshing on wet asphalt, a parched scream, and the impacting sound of steel meeting her mother's fragile bones.

As always, she awoke shivering, with her vocal chords releasing a groan of despair. She rose from bed with her sweaty brown hair plastered against her forehead, and looked out her window. It wasn't raining. That was good. The sound of rain only made it worse. She wanted to leave, though. She wanted her mom. Wanted to talk to her again. Victoria could feel her heart burning with longing. She walked over to her study table and grabbed a bouquet of flowers she'd bought earlier in the day at Ruby’s Red Roses, the only flower shop in town.

She left her room, treading slowly downstairs. She knew which steps creaked and which sagged beneath her weight from years of living in this house.

When she reached the first floor, she could already hear the light hum of the television set in the living room. As she suspected, her dad was fast asleep on the couch; his peaceful face dimmed and shone emphatically in the blue hue of the television. When she reached the door, his voice made her wince.

"Where are you going?" he asked groggily.

Victoria turned to face him. "I wanted to see mom."

An uncomfortable silence. He seemed to study the flowers she held. "Now?"

"Yes."

"Baby," he said, raising his head to face her. "It’s late. You should rest. You can see her tomorrow."

She noticed as he spoke that three empty beer bottles lay strewn about the table. Perhaps he too had been incapable of sleep.

Brian shuffled his feet from the glass coffee table onto the floor. "Get some rest, baby," he said.

Victoria nodded. She turned—half harshly, half respectfully. She climbed upstairs two steps at a time. Before she knew it, she was back in her room where she'd started. But she knew she couldn't stay there. She felt her mother's voice calling her. It was not an audible voice, of course. Rather, a voice that pressed with dripping anguish at her heart, made her restless inside.

She looked out the window. The glass was cold against her forehead as she measured her jump. Not too high. She'd made this jump twice before; other times when her dad wouldn't let her leave home. Like tonight.

She'll have to make it again.

She opened the hatch and slid the window up with jerky haste, poising her neck out to examine the bushes below her. She tossed her bag first, not particularly caring where it landed, then she dropped the flowers as gently as she could. She then hung over the edge of the window before plummeting in a quick decline for the bushes. Their leaves rustled in distress when she landed. She immediately felt the sting of a few mild scratches and hissed at the pain. Hard not to get scratched, she reminded herself. She recalled almost twisting her ankle after the same stunt a few months back.

Victoria retrieved her bag not too far off. Then the flowers. She walked, looking back over-shoulder to make sure her father hadn't heard her.

When she felt confident that he hadn't, her pace accelerated to a near jog. Although Halloween was a day away, the streets were littered with teenagers galloping around in their costumes—most hoisting eggs and toilet paper to send flying at houses. Apparently one night wasn't enough time to really ruin their neighbor's lawns and homes. To really make a memorable impression. These Marbury kids had to make a weekend of it.

Victoria couldn't tell who was who in the frivol madness. Across the street, a masked grim reaper hurled a fresh roll of toilet paper over his shoulder. It floated momentarily until dwindling into a large oak tree, catching itself in a mess of tangles. At the crossing of Red Street ahead, a juvenile superhero ran up crouching toward a house near Victoria's and heaved five eggs, one by one. They soared sloppily in the air before popping into sun-yellow pus. The boy moved to her house.

"Don't even try it!" Victoria shouted at him.

The masked vigilante looked at her blankly, shrugged, and pitched an egg at her front door. The shell exploded into a yellow gel. He bolted away, a little blur in the night. Victoria's face burned with adrenaline, but she stifled the urge to chase after him. Not now, she thought. She was too exhausted, too spell-bound en route to let the boy get to her head. Besides, the boy was running in the opposite direction of Victoria's destination. She couldn't waste any more time.

Her cell began to vibrate in her pocket. She grabbed it and sighed, thinking it was her dad. But it was Ashley.

"Hey," Victoria answered. "What's up?"

"I see you," Ashley hissed into the static, attempting to sound like an enigmatic serial killer. "Are you scared?"

"No, I'm annoyed."

"Not quite the reaction I was going for.”

She turned towards Ashley’s house and glared at her dark figure in her second-floor bedroom. "What’s up?"

"I saw you walking. Are you trick-or-treating? Alone? Why didn't you invite me?" She regarded Victoria's clothes—pink and black pajama pants and a black tank top. "Are you supposed to be a...sleepwalker?"

"I'm not dressed up," Victoria said. "I was going to visit my mom."

The static hummed. "I'm sorry, I didn't know."

"Please, it’s fine," Victoria shook her head. "Come with me. Quick, though, before my dad comes out."

Ashley nodded from a distance and hung up her phone. In a moment, she emerged from her door. She walked down the porch and smiled. "Hey. You doing okay?"

"Hey, yeah," Victoria smiled back. Somewhere nearby boys were running and laughing.

The walk to the cemetery was direct. The girls talked lightly as they traveled, sometimes bumping shoulders accidentally or after telling a joke. When they passed Sonia's Bakery, they turned right down Vizener Avenue until they reached the park on their left. It was easy to get around on foot in this small town, where everywhere you needed to go was compressed within a three-mile radius.

The cemetery appeared sinister in the night, as if in some devilish way it were alive and breathing—the hill was the belly of the beast, the trees its wrangling arms, each grave the demon's watchful eyes.

There was a fence that surrounded the place, which was never locked, with a rusty post that read: WHITLOCK CEMETERY.

"I’ll be around," Ashley said, resting her dark hands on Victoria's shoulders. "Let me know when you want to leave."

When Victoria was alone, all was quiet at last. The moon was a brilliant white stamp in the sky, accompanied by a glitter of stars. The steepness of the hill made it difficult for Victoria to climb, but when she reached the top, she could make out her mother's grave in the dim light of the overhead lamps. The flowers she'd placed last week were still there, held in place by some stones, though scattered and withered into dry paper. A bare tree loomed overhead, casting an arthritic shadow over the tombstone that read:

Cynthia Brooke - 1966-2014 - Loving Wife and Mother, Friend to Every Soul.

Victoria bended on her knees then scratched the creases of each word scripted. The grass was wet with dew, forming an icy blanket beneath her. She felt better now. Closer to home. Victoria never felt like she'd lost her mother. Not in the way it seemed, at least. You are each equal portions of God. She suddenly remembered those words from her dream.

"Here I am." Victoria's voice trailed in the wind. "I'm back, Mom."

The wind shifted directions every few seconds.

She held the new flowers up to the light. "I brought these for you. They're blue orchids."

She liked to imagine that the wind carried her mother's touch. That the whistling of the trees and the rustling of leaves imitated her voice.

"I'll take these old ones for you," she said, replacing the bunch. "And when the new ones die, I'll bring fresh flowers."

Victoria stood and brushed off dirt from her pajamas, then looked at the ground absently. She moved to the side slightly; the idea of standing directly above her mother always troubled her.

"I love y—"

"Ha!" a voice cut her off in the distance. Victoria turned. She tried and failed to pinpoint which way the voice hailed from.

"We'll all go in at the same time," another voice said.

Victoria looked behind the tree to find her suspicions met. Somebody—or rather, a group of bodies—was just outside Ashmore house. It gave Victoria a lightning chill to even look at the place. From these heights, its puzzling roof seemed to reach out towards the sky, stretching awkwardly high, even higher than the hill on which Victoria now stood. Ashmore house had been an icon in Marbury for quite a measure of time. Kids relished the place from afar, conjuring up stories that may or may not be true. Adults, however, seemed to know enough about Abner Ashmore, the previous owner of the house, to keep quiet. The man had been dead for a hundred years, but from the way certain people acted whenever you mentioned his name, you'd think Abner himself was listening in on the conversation with a hidden wired microphone.

The subject was brought up once on a class fieldtrip to City Hall. A boy from Victoria's class, she couldn't remember who, raised the question to the mayor.

"Is it true that Abner Ashmore killed his family?" the boy had asked, wrinkling his nose beneath his thick glasses. All the students looked at Mayor Dixon in silence, waiting for his response. It never came. What did come, however, was an unmistakable shudder. It was brief, but Victoria had seen it.

"Let's move on, shall we?" he’d said. It was as if, to him, the name alone summoned a dark presence in the room.

Victoria had seen Ashmore house hundreds of times when visiting her mother, and even before then. She could easily ride it off as being emotional near her mother's grave, but if she was honest, something about the house had always captivated her. It was as if, whenever she stood atop the hill at Whitlock, an invisible cord would tug at her. She never paid it any mind in the past; enabling the excuse that perhaps fear and curiosity embedded those thoughts.

Now, she couldn't ignore the noise of people chattering away and laughing nearby. Victoria began to walk toward the house, the sounds of laughter growing louder. Just as she was passing the last tree, a shadowy figure emerged. Victoria jumped back and screamed.

Ashley laughed and held her arms out in defense. "You scared me."

"You scared me more," Victoria said, laughing.

"I'm sorry. I heard some noise at Ashmore house and thought I'd check it out."

"Yeah, me too."

"Kids pulling pranks?"

"Probably," she said.

They began to walk together, the house growing ever-larger with each step until it was a massive beast before them. The mansion was that indeed; colossal in every proportion—from the high arched steeple that centered the architecture, to the square windows flanking every yard of the walls—and it made her wonder how they’d built all of it in the first place.

Victoria began to feel dizzy. It came upon her suddenly and without warning. She looked to the left and felt the ground tilt beneath her before Ashley caught hold of her.

"Whoa," Ashley said. "You okay?"

"Yeah, I got dizzy. I'm fine." Victoria straightened up again and smiled.

Ashley looked at her with her bushy eyebrows narrowed. "You sure you don't want me to take you home?"

Victoria frowned. "Of course not. I'm fine."

"If you say so."

They reached the house and found Kevin Cooper and his gang, some sitting and some standing, on the front porch of the house. Among them was Geo Malovich, Michael Sage, Emily Black and Sasha Perkins (who were, according to most of the guys at Eldridge, the two prettiest cheerleaders in the school), and, to Victoria's evident surprise, Icarus Foster. Icarus was in the back, looking down at the ground. Looking almost ashamed that Victoria had found him there.

"We heard you guys from the cemetery," Victoria said, stuffing her hands into her pajama pockets.

"What a surprise," Kevin said.

"What are you guys doing here?" she said.

Michael grunted. "Don’t tell her. She’ll make a big deal about it like she always does." He was wearing a gray skully cap that was pulled down just above his eyebrows.

Victoria blinked. "A big deal?" Like when?"

Kevin nudged Michael on the shoulder. "She’s alright. We can tell her."

Kevin turned to Victoria. "If you must know, we're planning to spend the night here."

Ashley's eyes grew wide. "Here? Winston’s dad owns this house now. What if they come or something?"

It was true; Winston Patel, a British student from their class, had recently announced in class that his father had just purchased Ashmore house on the cheap and had already started making renovations.

"He won’t," Sasha said, her blonde hair dancing softly in the wind. "Plus, Winston’s in love with me. I can get that kid to do anything. Last week I got him to call the main office and pretend to be my dad saying that I was too sick to come to school. He did it! Can you believe that? On his own cell phone, right outside Crockett’s class." Her face became more serious. "This house is supposed to be haunted, you know."

"Why is Icarus with you?" Victoria asked.

Kevin grinned and invited Icarus to the front, gripping his skinny shoulders. "He wanted to come. Ain't that right, Icky?"

He nodded, looking like a sad puppy behind his thickly-framed glasses.

"Somehow, it's hard to believe that you didn't trick him into doing this," Victoria said.

Kevin shook his head in disbelief.

"I'm serious," Victoria said. "If you plan on doing something mean to him, I'm not going to let you." She turned to Icarus, her voice gentler. "Icarus, you don’t have to go inside. This place is a dump, anyway. You, me, and Ash can go grab a burger to eat. Burger Blast is still open till ten."

"Aww, c'mon!" Geo snapped. "He's a big boy. Let him make his own decisions."

Victoria’s fingers twitched. "All right," she said, meeting Icarus's eyes. "Well?"

He blinked and looked at Kevin, who was grinning, apparently enjoying the show.

"I..." Icarus started, looking down. "I'd like to stay… I—I wanted to stay."

"What?" Ashley said.

All the while, Victoria was stunted by Icarus’s response. She glared at him with intense silence, hot in her cheeks, and he looked away in shame. The entire group was silent until Kevin spoke.

"Well," he said conclusively. "I guess we have our answer. Vicky, you tried. Shall we enter?" He motioned to the house and the group gathered their things. The girls—Sasha and Emily—waited for the boys to take lead. Kevin, being the leader, reached the front door first. The door seemed ordinary enough. No strange knob with a lion or a wolf. Only an ordinary, albeit ancient, golden ball. Kevin twisted it. The door opened with a cold yawn.

"It's dark in there," Sasha said in a shaky voice.

"Well that's why we brought flashlights, isn't it?" Michael said, reaching for his in his bag.

They were almost all inside when Ashley turned to Victoria.

"Vicky, what do we do?"

Victoria was frozen in place.

"Vicky?" she said again, stringing the syllables out slowly.

Victoria looked at her. "What do you want to do, Ash?"

"I don't know. I sort of want to get out of here as quickly as possible."

"Funny," she said.

Ashley made no attempt at hiding her confusion. "What is?"

"I want to stay."

"Stay?" Ashley's voice rose without hesitation. "In there? With them? After Icarus humiliated us?"

"Icarus just doesn’t know how to stand up for himself. It’s not his fault. I can’t leave him in there with them. Not alone. Plus, I don't want to go home, Ash. I really don't."

Now Ashley sounded defeated. "Why not?"

"I'm not sure," Victoria said. "You can go home if you want. I think I'm going to stay."

By this point, everyone was inside, but the door was still cracked open. It called for Victoria.

"Aren't we going to at least tell our parents where we are?"

Words on deaf ears. Victoria began to walk to the door slowly, dead grass crunching beneath her sandals. The wind tossed her hair. With each step, the temperature seemed to be dropping. Behind her, she could hear a muffled Ashley calling out her name. Calling for her to stop. But it was too late. By now the air was ice cold; the door one more step away. Victoria raised her delicate fingers and pushed the wooden door wide open. The gang must have moved into another room because the main hall was dark. All black. Too cold to be normal. It rattled her. The air itself seemed to be whispering horrors into Victoria's ears. Or, rather, some might interpret them as horrors. To Victoria, it may just have sounded a bit like, Welcome.

CHAPTER 3

Victoria felt her way into the darkness, holding her arms out in front of her and holding her breath. Completely disoriented, she looked back to see Ashley standing at the doorway, deciding whether or not she wanted to come in. Eventually Ashley did enter, and as she was closing the door, Victoria called out to her.

"Don't," Victoria said. "Not yet. We can't see a thing. Let's find some light first."

"Good idea." Ashley widened the opening.

It took a while for their eyes to adjust to the dark, but when they did, they began to make out hazy outlines of certain objects. They could assume they were in some sort of entrance hall. The hall was a long rectangle of space, almost the size of her father's entire house. There was no furniture, only a set of potted plants in the corners of the room. The main luxury was the walls; columns bordering each doorway, gold trimmings, and two marble statues sitting on a bust. One on each side of the room.

"Do you suppose those are the Ashmores?" Ashley said, eyeing one of the statues.

Victoria approached her. "I wish I knew. Let’s find the group."

The tiles under them were complex and irrational. They seemed to change directions with each step. There didn’t seem to be much order in this house, and Victoria could feel a dark presence lingering, floating around in the darkness of the room. Or maybe it was just her imagination. Just as Victoria began to feel fear settle in, she heard a voice echoing in the hall. Then saw multiple beams of light swinging across the walls.

"It smells like rotting wood in here," Emily Black said, a trifle laugh from the gang immediately following.

"Or rotting flesh," Geo corrected.

"Ew don’t say that!"

"Hold on!" Kevin shouted.

Victoria's figure lit up as they shone their flashlights on her and Ashley.

"Jesus, you scared the crap out of me," Kevin said, wielding his light away.

"Sorry," Victoria said. "We decided to stay."

The group was silent, then Kevin fished out a flashlight from his bag. "This is our last one. You'll have to share."

They made a bee line for the second room to their right, taking incremental steps, more out of fear than caution. Once inside, they flicked on a switch near the door and several lamps came to life. The well-lit room was refreshing. The flashlights shut off, and bags were dropped to the ground. Sasha and Emily plopped onto a white sofa in the center of the room, their matching skirts floating over their thighs. This room made the main hall seem like a separate house. There was a fine glass table in between both sofas in the center of the room, low to the ground and decorated with flowers that had been dead for a long time. The floor was a maroon carpet, and it absorbed the sound in the room, unlike the hideous echo out in the hall. There were a few paintings lined around each wall, a piano, and a fireplace. The windows were veiled by massive, ruffled silk drapes. A chandelier hung above; and dimly lit lamps surrounded the room. Kevin approached the mantel and crouched to his knees, his joints releasing a slight cracking sound.

"Should we light a fire?" he asked.

"Oh, that'd be nice." Sasha stood abruptly, skipping over to Kevin. She knelt down as well, the ruffles of her skirt lapping over her silky thighs. "Do we know how to do that?"

"I do." Geo scratched his gruff curly hair. "There's still a good couple logs in there. Does anyone have paper? Like a newspaper?"

"No..." Ashley rolled her eyes. "I'm fresh out."

"Okay." Geo's eyes narrowed. "Be funny if you like, but newspaper helps it smoke more."

"Do we want it to smoke more?" Victoria asked.

"What do you mean?" Kevin responded.

"I mean," she started, "smoke will go out the chimney. People will see. We don't want people to know we're in here, do we?"

"I guess not."

All the while, Geo was circling the room, eyes searching for a newspaper. "Found one!" he announced, his arm raising the paper high.

“What are the odds,” Ashley said, rolling her eyes.

"Light it!" Sasha said, clapping her palms together. "I've never seen a real one lit before. We have one at my house but it’s fake. Never knew what the point of that was."

Geo paced to the front and leaned against the mantel, then tossed crumbled papers and tucked a few under the logs. After soaking the logs with lighter fluid, he grabbed the torch above the mantel and lit the papers, then the logs. Slowly, it began to crackle and altogether took flame.

"Wow," Sasha said, the glow of the flames reflecting off her green eyes.

"This isn't too scary at all," Emily said, unlocking her crossed arms. When the warmth of the fire reached the group, they had forgotten how cold the room initially was. Victoria found a seat next to Ashley, who was sitting with legs crossed on the carpet.

"You're right," Michael said. "Frankly, I'm a little disappointed."

Icarus was seated on the sofa furthest from the room, eyes fixed on a painting of a raven that was hung across the room.

"Icky, come join us," Michael said with glee. "I almost forgot you were in here, you ol' wallflower."

Icarus stood and met them by the fire. "Sorry."

"It's all good," he said. "We're here to have fun, though, right?"

Geo lit up. "Hey, I've got an idea. How about some ghost stories?"

Kevin shrugged. "I don't believe in ghosts."

“Well they believe in us,” Emily said almost to herself. “That gives them the upper hand.”

By now a relatively thick snake of smoke had curled its way up the chimney, releasing an aroma of burned wood. The group formed a tight sitting circle near the fireplace. Victoria exchanged looks with Ashley, who seemed a bit concerned about how the rest of the evening would play out. In truth, Victoria had been worried as well; at least at first, when she had first stepped into the house. Why had she come? In retrospect, she couldn’t understand her reasoning. It was as if some invisible force had reeled her in without her knowing it. Something she couldn't control. And she felt its fury now. In the quiet crumble of the firewood, in the salty smell of the decaying walls. This dark home was indeed cursed. She knew it somehow. Knew that something wasn't right.

"Fine. Who's first?" Kevin asked with a dry smile.

Geo rubbed his hands together. "Okay, I got one." The group listened as he began. Geo told the story of when he was just a boy, on a December night; a strange man had come to his home and knocked on the door. Geo was with his older brother when they heard the constant, steady pounding. Nobody else was home. Geo's brother had warned him not to dare open the door, and Geo obeyed. He had, however, managed to peek out the window to see the man knocking.

"He was wearing a black mask," he explained. "And he was holding a huge knife."

"Bullshit," Mike chuckled.

"I swear. And he kept saying ‘Op’n up. Op’n up.’ I almost shit my pants."

"There wasn't a ghost in that story," Kevin said.

Geo shrugged. “Maybe the guy was dead. We don’t know.”

Then Kevin leaned in and placed his elbows on his knees. "Doesn't matter, because we’re all sitting in our own ghost story. Do you guys know the true story of this house?"

Everyone was silent for a moment.

"Yeah," Michael said. "Abner Ashmore killed himself here."

"You're right about that," Kevin nodded. "But there's more to it."

"Like what?" Sasha said, pressing further back into the couch.

Victoria didn’t know how seriously to take Kevin, but decided to stay open minded for now. If what she felt about the darkness in this house was real, knowing some truth behind its story might be worthwhile.

"Yes, Abner Ashmore killed himself in this house," Kevin began. "But what's worse—he killed his brother and his brother's soon-to-be wife, too."

"Why'd he do that?" Victoria spoke almost reluctantly.

Kevin looked her in the eyes. "Abner Ashmore was in love with Evelyn Sanders, who was betrothed to Abner's brother, Sebastian. Evelyn and Sebastian were soul mates, and Abner couldn't deal with that, so he went nuts. He killed them the day before their wedding. Then he killed himself--not out of guilt, but so that he could continue to chase Evelyn to the end of eternity."

"That’s terrible," Sasha said.

"Want to know why no one comes here anymore? Why nobody even likes to bring up the subject? Because Abner is trapped in these walls. When he died, he wasn't able to chase down Evelyn like he thought. He was doomed to a cursed limbo within this house for eternity. And anyone who dares enter this mansion is haunted by his ghost. But this isn't Casper the friendly ghost. This is a deranged murderer. And people say he still has the power to kill even when—"

"Okay, can we do something else?" Emily said, interrupting the story and standing up.

"It was just getting good!" Geo lamented.

"You heard her, man. She was getting scared." Mike shifted in his seat and adjusted his gray skully cap.

"All right, Romeo," Geo snickered.

Victoria had her eyes glued to Kevin when she felt one of the wooden boards beneath her creak an awful sound.

"Did you hear that?" Kevin said, cocking his head back.

"Stop it," Sasha said. "You're scaring—"

"Shut up!" Kevin demanded in a loud whisper. "I'm serious."

The floor boards groaned again, this time louder. Victoria's chest constricted and she held onto Ashley’s arm.

"I heard that, too," Michael muttered.

They all slowly stood and walked to the door. Geo tried to put out the fire but impatiently gave up. Icarus trailed in the back, his nervous hands rubbing their own sweaty palms. Kevin raised a finger to his lips for everyone to stay hushed, then buried his face between the wall and the door, one eye gazing into the darkness of the main hall. Pitch black. Except...

"The front door's open," he said in a low voice.

He felt a hand grip his shoulders gently, then Sasha said in his ear: "Are you sure?"

"Yes," he whispered.

He waited for his eyes to catch a glimpse of anything out of the ordinary. For a moment, everything was still and he could feel his blood pulsing at the side of his temple, and could feel his hot breath reflecting off the wall where his lips were touching. Then, in an instant, a shadow crossed the light from the open door.

"Shit," Kevin muttered. "Someone's here."

"What?" Victoria said, louder than she intended to.

"Someone's in the hall," he hissed at her. He retracted his head slowly and from the look of his sullen eyes, they all knew he was telling the truth.

Mike swallowed. "What do we do?"

"I don't know, dammit!" He crossed over to the mantel and grabbed a wrought iron shovel hanging beside the fireplace. Michael followed suit and picked up the iron poker.

"Are you guys serious?" Geo said with a nervous chuckle. "We don't even know who's out there. It could be someone we know."

"Or it could be someone we don't want to know," Mike replied, crouching lower. "I'm not gonna wait here like a sitting duck to find out."

"This is crazy."

"You guys stay here," Kevin said. "C'mon, Mike."

They took a deep breath together and opened the door slowly, their weapons over their shoulders like baseball bats. Once they reached the hall, they disappeared from view. The rest of the gang waited in expectation. Not quite sure themselves of what to expect. Any kind of sound. A scream. A crash.

And then it came. But it was neither a scream nor a crash. Instead, they heard three voices out in the hall. Coming closer. A laugh. And then the door burst open.

"Christ, it was only Winston," Mike said laughing.

But Winston Patel wasn't laughing. He looked just about as terrified as the group was, and not the least bit amused to see them all there. He pushed the bridge of his glasses up the slope of his nose.

"You almost struck me with that shovel!" He grabbed the poker and shovel from Kevin and Michael and replaced it near the mantel. "What on earth are you all doing here?"

"How did you find us?" Ashley said.

"Wasn't very difficult," he said. "You have all these lights on. And what’s with the fire? I could see the smoke from down the street!"

Kevin looked at Victoria and smiled.

Winston glared at them. "My father purchased this house and I’m trying to convince him to let me throw a Halloween party tomorrow. If he finds out that you all came in here, there’s no bloody way he’ll let me throw it!"

"Who cares about a stupid party?" Mike said. Kevin and Geo chuckled.

"Hey Winnie, I like your accent. Where are you from again?"

"Gloucestershire,” he answered.

"That's a mouthful," Geo said.

"That in England, right?" Kevin asked.

"Yes," Winston said, combing a hand through his fair hair. "That in England."

Victoria stepped forward. "Your dad bought this house? How? Why?"

"How? With money. Why? Because it's a valuable property and no one else wanted to buy it. They think it’s haunted."

Geo scratched his head. "This place is a nightmare. I can't imagine staying in here for more than one night."

"All the same," Winston clasped his hands together. "Because you're leaving tonight."

"What?" Sasha cried. "Let us spend the night, Winston. Please."

"Absolutely not. You've done enough damage already."

"Like what?" Kevin said, crossing his arms.

"Like," Winston started. "Like—"

"Oh let us stay," Sasha begged. "Please." She approached him and her lips took on a sad puppy dog shape. Her eyes grew wide with longing and she placed her soft, princess fingers on his arm. "Please," she said again. "We’ll owe you big time."

He scoffed. "You already owe me from that time I let you copy in Crockett’s class."

Sasha laughed ruefully, but she knew she was wearing him down. "Well I’ll owe you a bigger favor, then."

He shook his head, as if he couldn’t believe what he was doing. "Fine," he said. "On the condition that I stay to make sure things are in order."

The more the merrier, Victoria thought.

"Fine with us," Kevin said.

Winston nodded and sat on the sofa. In a way, Victoria thought that Winston wanted to be there. The poor kid never seemed very sociable at school. His dad had the most money, and that was pretty much his anchor. He'd never tried to build a social status of his own. In fact, Victoria thought, when he saw the chimney up in smoke, he probably laughed with excitement.

The group spent the remainder of the hour joking around in the sitting room, loosening up. Since their arrival they'd been as tense as stones. Now they finally felt at ease. Maybe it was because they had Winston's approval, or maybe it was just because their initial scare had turned out to be nothing more than a geek out in the hall. Kevin put out the fire and lit a few of the hung lanterns on the wall. Geo attempted to play "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on the piano, but Winston stopped him almost immediately.

"This is what I meant by keeping things in order," he said.

After about an hour, the sitting room began to bore them, and Sasha was the first to say so.

Emily and Icarus were the only ones who didn't seem to agree on exploring, but they tagged along anyway. After all, being left alone in a room was probably a much worse idea.

They returned to the main hall and Winston turned on the chandelier above them. The place lit up in glorious splendor. Victoria was wrong. This room was beautiful in the light. Everything she had seen earlier glistened with expensive stones. The columns were made of marble, and the statues seemed to boast a pleasant gloss. The chandelier was the star attraction of this room, however. It was white gold with a complexity of jewels and, what looked like, diamonds. Everyone was looking up and smiling now. And now Victoria was glad she came.

Kevin opened a door near the main entrance and grinned.

"Hey guys," he pointed. "They've got a library in here."

The gang headed over in his direction and, this time, wasn't cautious or afraid. Even Icarus was moving in animated strides—maybe he was excited to see the books. He always had a book up his nose during class, Victoria thought with a chuckle.

They encountered an enormous room with shelves lining every inch of every wall from floor to ceiling. There were even a few bays near the center of the room with more books. Victoria wondered why the books hadn't been donated. They were just sitting there, thousands of them, collecting dust like kids collecting snow on their tongues in the winter.

Winston picked up a book and began to read it. The others roamed about freely, glancing at a book occasionally and then putting it down. Just by their posture, Victoria could tell that Sasha and Emily had never picked up a book in their lives, except to maybe swat a fly. There were two reading chairs in the center with an antique lamp situated between them. The boys sat there.

After, they continued their exploration. The dining room was at the end of the main hall, with the kitchen connected. They decided to leave the second floor for later and remain in the dining room to eat. This room had a large window at the end in which they could see the woods.

"Cover that up with the drapes." Victoria gestured in disgust.

No one argued this; seeing the woods outside reminded them all that they were in an isolated place where they shouldn’t be. Geo and Kevin closed it. After finding dishes in the kitchen and washing them, Emily did her best to make the meal look presentable; though not much could be done to make peanut butter and jelly look like a five-star dish. She placed the sandwiches on the fanciest plates she could find. When she returned, the group was seated with their placemats neatly in front of them. They only had water to drink.

"I brought extra in case people got hungrier," Emily said, passing the last one to Winston. "So there's enough for everyone. And Geo and Sasha brought a bunch of snacks to last us the whole night.”

"Great. Thanks," Winston said, smiling.

"That's real nice of you, Em," Michael said.

"Thanks, Mike," she said giggling and stroking her straight, brown hair. "Just thought 'better safe than sorry.'"

“Sheesh, maybe you two should share a bed tonight,” Kevin said.

Geo laughed.

“Shut up,” Mike said, blushing.

After their meal, they cleaned up the table and headed out of the room. The main hall was still lit and inviting.

"Did we search the whole floor yet?" Kevin asked.

"No," Victoria responded. "But so far no beds or bathrooms. They must be upstairs."

"But first," Ashley stepped forth and opened the doorway to the ballroom, which was across from the library, the last room they hadn't checked downstairs. All the lights were off in this room, and it was colder here than in any other room in the house. Kevin turned on his flashlight and scanned the room. He landed on two bodies huddled on the floor.

"Oh shit, what’s that?" Geo whispered, pointing in the dark.

It took a moment for the clustered figures to shift beneath their covers, and then one of them jumped out screaming.

"Oh my God!" the girl screeched, holding the covers up to her shoulders.

A boy poked up beside her. "Jesus, who’s there?" he said, his eyes narrowed against the flashlight beam.

"Say your names first!" Kevin demanded, trying to hold the beam as steady as he could.

"My name’s Wendy," she said.

"Wendy Cho? From school?" Victoria asked.

"Yes, yes," she hissed. "And Bleak."

Geo found the light switch and flicked it up.

Bleak and Wendy squirmed in the new light and shouted for everyone to leave the room. The entire group did so, laughing on their way out.

"My my," Geo started. "We're finding our whole class in here."

"Who’s next, Mr. Crockett?" Sasha said, still failing to stifle her laugh. 

Like we were all invited, the thought crept into Victoria’s mind.

After a minute, Bleak and Wendy emerged from the room; Bleak dressed in his usual black hoodie; his pale, bony face stroked with shadows. Wendy, the only Asian girl at school, was wearing a plaid skirt and a green blouse. Wendy looked upset, while Bleak just looked stoic and bored as usual. That’s how he got his nickname. He rarely spoke, and when he did, it was with the jubilance of a dry rock.

Ashley asked the question that was on everyone's mind. "Do you guys always come here?"

They didn't expect an answer from Bleak, but Wendy nodded. "At least a few times a month, when we can. I tell my folks I'm at my aunt’s house. She lives out of town, but my aunt’s cool like that, so she doesn’t care. What are you all doing here?"

"In the spirit of Halloween," Kevin said, "we came to see if it was really haunted."

Emily spoke out. "It’s not haunted, right you guys?"

"Sorry, but no," Wendy said. "The floorboards make sounds sometimes, and the windows rattle, but that’s it. Any old house does that."

"Damn," Michael blurted out. "That’s a shame."

Sasha shrugged. "Maybe we'll get lucky."

"We'll be the lucky ones if nothing happens," Emily said.

Kevin asked Wendy if they’d explored the second floor yet. They hadn’t. According to her, the stairs didn’t seem very reliable. According to Winston, however, his father had already finished renovating the staircase and it was safe now.

Bleak and Wendy decided to spend the night with the group, adding two more bodies to the gang. All in all, Victoria was having a pretty good time. Nothing too crazy had occurred yet and everyone was playing friendly. Icarus wasn’t getting picked on, so that was good. She looked around.

"Hey, guys?" she said, still looking around the hall.

The group turned. "Yeah?" Ashley said.

"Where's Icarus?"

No one knew. They began to call out his name, to no avail. Then they searched all the rooms they'd visited. Sasha and Kevin searched in the library. Geo and Michael searched the kitchen and dining room. Bleak, Wendy, Victoria, and Ashley checked the sitting room and parlor. Then they peeked out on the veranda. Nothing. He was nowhere in sight. After nearly ten minutes of searching, they gave up.

"Maybe he left," Michael said.

"Don't be stupid," Kevin muttered. "We didn't do anything to that brat."

"Stop arguing," Victoria said. "We have to look a little more."

All at once, the group glanced over at the narrow, darkened staircase near the kitchen. Victoria looked to the group for affirmation, and everyone except for Emily seemed to agree. Icarus had to have gone upstairs.

The first wooden step sagged slightly beneath Victoria's feet, and one by one, the gang began their ascension to the second floor of Ashmore house.

CHAPTER 4

The first thing that greeted Victoria was a sudden chill, more so than downstairs, and a fragmented dome-shaped window nestled high above the spiral staircase. She glanced up at the glass for a moment and her eyes flitted away, imagining with vivid horror somebody hanging up there. Impossible, of course, given that there wouldn't be any place to tie the rope. But fear could often neglect common sense.

Ashley reached the top, then Kevin, then Sasha, and the rest of the group following one at a time, unwilling to take the risk that the old steps might fall through under their weight, despite Winston’s constant reassurance that the reinforced stairs were stable. Once they were all together, Ashley began rubbing her arms frenetically with her hands.

"Vicky, it's freezing in here," she hissed. "Why is it so cold?"

"I have no idea," Victoria said. "Maybe the heater isn't strong enough to power the second floor."

The second floor hallway was just as dark as the first floor had been, and with the temperature drop, Victoria was really wishing that Icarus hadn’t come up here. Of course, they had no proof that he was up here at all, but they had to look everywhere they could to find him.

All the flashlights at hand were summoned and turned on. The circles of light danced shakily on the walls.

"Where’s the light switch?" Emily asked.

"It’s got to be near here," Winston responded, feeling the lumpy walls with his hands.

It took a minute before Geo fixed his beam of light behind the staircase, where he saw a door to the balcony. Beside the door was a switch.

"Found it," he said with relief.

Victoria shuddered when the room was illuminated. The upstairs hallway was wide and long, stretching about fifty feet in all. Above the dark wooden floor, there was a rug that snaked from one end of the wall to the other. The rug had strange designs similar to the tiles downstairs. Aside from the rug and a few paintings, the room was empty. They spent the next minute splitting up in groups to search for Icarus. After calling out his name several times, it became obvious that he wasn’t in the house.

"I guess he did leave," Michael said.

The answer didn’t seem to satisfy Victoria. "Why would he leave?" she asked.

"Maybe he had to get back home," Ashley said.

They settled in their sleeping arrangements and managed not to argue on who got the master suite. They decided on giving it to Winston—it was, after all, his house. Bleak and Wendy insisted on sleeping in the ballroom. Sasha roomed with Emily in the quarters across from Victoria and Ashley, beside Winston’s room.

When Victoria and Ashley first walked into their room—which faced the direction of the wooden fence in front of the cemetery—they smiled at each other, and Victoria could feel a twinge of excitement burst in her chest.

"It’s amazing," Ashley uttered, her eyes moving in a panoramic fashion.

The bedrooms seemed to be the most extravagantly decorated rooms in the house. In this room, much like in the main hall, a crystal chandelier was suspended over the canopy bed. There were brown, elegantly carved dressers, a nightstand, a rocking chair the same color as the rest of the furniture, and a vanity table.

Ashley crossed over to the bed and sat on it with a slight bounce. "Comfy," she said.

"I can't get over how beautiful it is," Victoria said, twirling in awe, gazing from the vanity table to the bed to the chandelier.

"I know. I can't imagine this house being haunted anymore."

"Except for how cold it is up here," Victoria said, feeling a constant chill in her arms and spine.

Since there was only one bed, Victoria and Ashley decided on sharing. Regardless, it was big enough to fit three people.

"This feels like another sleepover," Ashley giggled.

"I guess it is," Vicky said. "Though I don’t think my bedroom back home looks half as impressive."

"I love your room," Ashley said, smiling. "Makes me feel at ease."

"Does this place make you feel at ease?" Vicky asked, unsure if it did for her.

"I’m starting to think so. By tomorrow morning, we may never want to leave."

Victoria felt an icy knot in her stomach, she wasn’t sure why, but she strained a smile.

They heard a knock coming from their bathroom. Ashley opened it and found Kevin grinning.

"Our rooms connect?" Victoria said.

"Apparently," said Kevin with a chuckle. "No worries, I'm not a creep."

Ashley released the door and caught a glimpse of Kevin’s room. "Sounds like something a creep would say," she muttered.

Kevin's grin dwindled and he walked back to his room.

Almost immediately after, Sasha and Emily walked in.

"Wow, nice room," Sasha said, mouth agape. "Looks almost as pretty as ours."

Victoria couldn’t tell whether Sasha was just teasing or being serious, probably the latter.

"We're going back to the piano room to group up," Emily said.

Victoria explored the dresser and found a dress still inside.

"Oh," she said, unfolding a white dress. "There's still clothes in here."

The dress smelled like old dust and wood, and felt as if the fabric would disintegrate with a single stretch and pull.

Sasha's eyebrows rose up her forehead. "Don't be late."

Victoria turned, as if coming out of a trance. "Oh, yeah. Be there in a minute."

The girls vanished out the room and Ashley felt the dress. "It’s prehistoric."

Victoria didn’t say anything, staring at the dress, falling back into her trance.

Her hands grazed the soft fabric again and Ashley released her grip. Victoria watched the dress turn in her own hands, mesmerized by the mystery of it. Evelyn had probably worn this dress at some point. The notion chilled her again.

The thin fabric swirled in waves over her fingers, shining in certain areas in the dim light. She imagined Evelyn; what she must have looked like wearing it. What Victoria herself would look like wearing it.

She heard a crash coming from downstairs and turned her head. The dress fell into the drawer half-hanging and Victoria bolted out the door. When she reached the sitting room, everyone was laughing. Victoria looked down to see Winston rising from the ground, a broken vase beside him.

"What happened?" Victoria asked.

"Winston’s breaking his house," Geo said, taking a swig of whiskey.

"Where have you been?" Ashley asked, a much too worried look on her face.

Victoria tightened. "I told you I'd be down in a minute."

"That was almost fifteen minutes ago," Ashley said.

The group stared at her in silent amusement.

"No," Vicky said. "That—was now. Like a minute ago."

Kevin cocked his head forward a bit. "Nope, I’d guess about fifteen too."

"I was looking at a dress I found," Victoria said defensively. "It couldn't have taken more than a couple minutes."

"Fugedaboutit," Kevin said, placing a hand on her shoulder and handing her a bottle of cheap whiskey.

"I don’t want," she said.

"Why not?"

"Because," –she removed his hand from her shoulder— "I just feel weird doing that here, that’s all."

Ashley smiled and lowered her glass onto the low table. "This place is not haunted, Vicky."

"That’s not why." But it was. Deep down—and not too far deep at all—Victoria knew that that was her reason. She felt safer when she was sober and fully in control, simple as that.

"She's right," Wendy said. "It’s not haunted. The Abner thing is just a story. Bleak and I come here all the time. Even last Halloween. We've never seen anything bad happen."

Victoria looked over at Winston who was now sitting on the sofa, tending to the new hole in his shirt. He clucked, dipping his finger inside the cotton hole.

"It's still not safe."

"Safe," Ashley scoffed. "Does it always have to be safe, Vicky?"

Victoria felt a rush of heat bake her cheeks. She felt smaller in the room, singled out and embarrassed. She hated that. And she hated Ashley for acting differently whenever liquor was involved.

"Why do you have to be like that?" Victoria said, feeling her lower lip quiver. "Does it really matter if I drink or not?"

Kevin pressed his lips together in a tight, bloodless line. "I think Ash just wants you to relax and have a good time."

Victoria turned, gawking at the small crowd of intoxicated classmates. Fuck it, the thought came to her unrepressed.

"Yeah," she answered. "Fine."

Kevin handed her the bottle again and Victoria put it to her lips. She coughed as she swallowed the dry whiskey and let out a repulsed hiss. The liquor burned her stomach and she felt her body relax. After a minute, she took another swig.

"That's more like it!" Michael said, clapping. "Kevin, your speech sure did a number."

In a matter of minutes, Victoria caught up to everyone else's buzz. The room was close to chaotic; Mike and Emily were slamming on the piano keys in the corner of the room, creating a dissonant, aggravating sound; Geo was playing with the fire; Winston passed out; Bleak and Wendy were making out on the couch as if they were alone in the house again; Sasha was flirting heavily with Kevin, who didn’t seem to be opposing it; Ashley was staring at a painting on the wall.

Victoria watched all of this through drunken eyes, the room blurring with every turn of her head. Her face was numb and her legs felt heavy. She walked over to Ashley.

"What’re you looking at?" she said.

Ashley was startled by her presence and pointed. "This weird painting." Her voice sounded distinguishable, but her words muddled—as if her tongue wasn’t making an effort to elaborate on each syllable.

Victoria glanced at the painting. In it, a crow was perched up on a man's head. The man had no face; only a swirl the color of skin that made up his head.

"Creepy…" Victoria stared at the painting, losing her perception of the room around her. Everything in the corners of her eyes seemed to blur, becoming muddy, timeless blotches.

"Hey guys!" Kevin called out, holding up a pink telephone.

When Victoria turned, Ashley was no longer beside her; she was sprawled across one of the couches. Victoria shook her head in fast, choppy movements, feeling disoriented for the second time that evening.

"So what?" Michael said. "It's just a telephone."

"I don't think so," Kevin said. "There's buttons with labels on here that lead to different parts of the house." He read a few aloud. "M. Bedroom; Kitchen; Dining; Ballroom; W. Cellar--"

"Wine Cellar?" Wendy started. "We've explored the first floor dozens of times. Never seen a wine cellar, huh Robby?"

Bleak shook his head apathetically.

"Well, that's what it says here."

"Maybe we should call it," Geo said.

Kevin's mouth parted as he pressed the button labeled W. Cellar and pressed the receiver to his ear.

He heard a dull tone as the phone rang.

After eight rings, he was about to hang up, then—

He acted shocked. His eyes widened. "Hello?"

The group let out a gasp.

"Who is this?" Kevin inquired, appearing concerned. Geo and Michael grinned in the back of the room. Kevin turned to the group, his face a mask of fear. "There's someone talking. He said he wants to… kill Sasha and Emily?"

Geo and Michael couldn’t hold in their laughter any longer and burst out in a cry of glee.

The others looked aggravated.

"That's not funny!" Emily screamed. Sasha crossed her arms and shook her head.

"Sorry, sorry," Kevin laughed, holding his clenched stomach with one hand and returning the phone to its cradle with the other. "I couldn't re—"

RIIIIIIIING!

Everyone froze.

RIIIIIIIING!

No one could speak. Unreserved fear thickened in the room. For some reason, Kevin looked at Victoria for an answer, and when she finally met his eyes, she shook her head.

The phone continued to ring in the room, scratching around its four walls, a harsh screech harassing Kevin’s ear drums.

"Maybe it's Icarus," Victoria said at last.

RIIIIIIIING!

Geo seemed satisfied with this theory. "Yeah, that's it," he affirmed. "It's Icky. He got lost."

Kevin slowly reached for the phone. He was appalled to see his hands trembling a little. During another hideous ring, he picked up the pink receiver.

He took in a labored breath. "Hello?"

The other end was silent, but he could hear static.

"Hello?" he said again.

The room waited in anticipation. And waited.

They saw Kevin flinch and jerk unexpectedly, letting out a groan. He dropped the phone as if it was electrocuting him and it crashed against the floor. He was breathing rapidly and his skin was pale. Everyone, even Victoria, knew he wasn’t acting this time.

"Jesus, Kevin, what did you hear?" Geo said.

His breathing continued at a fast pace, and Sasha helped him take a seat.

"What was it?" This time it was Victoria, sitting beside him.

He turned to face her and swallowed, an obstacle of a lump forming in his throat.

"You all didn’t hear it?" he said, his eyes wild and hostile. "You all didn’t hear the gunshot?"

***

Kevin gulped down one last shot of whiskey and gagged.

"Are you sure you heard right?" Sasha asked.

"Yes."

His face was returning to its healthy color, and the group was sitting in a circle around him. For nearly half an hour, they'd been trying to gather information from Kevin, who was only clinging to the simple fact he knew: That a loud gunshot was heard on the other side of the phone. As he recalled, the call came from the ballroom, the room exactly opposite from where they were now.

"Should we go look?" Michael suggested.

"I wouldn’t feel comfortable going in there now," Sasha said.

Emily spoke up. "Why don’t we just leave then, guys? Icky left. I mean, who knows what happened to him. And now this. And it’s freezing—do you feel that?"

Although Victoria knew that Emily made partial sense—the rest, she knew, was a fluttering of fear that seemed to seep through Emily’s pores constantly—something about the house had already won Victoria's overnight stay. She wanted to say she did it; say she stayed over Ashmore house. Prove to others, or more so herself, that there was no such thing as a haunted house. Everything which could occur merited a logical explanation.

Michael looked at Kevin. "Are you positive it was a gunshot and not something else?"

"Of course, I am," Kevin snapped. "It sounded just like one, couldn’t be nothing else. We got a phone call—isn't that strange enough? And none of you heard a sound. We're downstairs. You all should have heard something.”

"Exactly," Emily said. "We didn't hear it. All the more reason to believe you imagined it."

Kevin's face tightened.

"Dammit," he said. "I know what I heard. I'm a little drunk but I'm not stupid. I heard a clear shot."

"What do you want us to do, Kevin?" Victoria said. "Do you think we should leave?"

"Aww, no—" Michael started, tugging his skully cap lower.

"Let him talk."

Kevin looked from Sasha to Victoria, then to the rest of the group.

"I guess not," he said. "I just think we should be a little more careful. None of us goes out alone. And we don't go into the ballroom. And we don't use that damn phone anymore."

"That won't be a problem," Geo said. "Anything else? You want every light on, too?"

"Geo, shut your fucking mouth," Kevin said, teeth grinding.

"Guys, you don't think..." Wendy was almost whispering. "You don't think this...gunshot...was Icarus, do you?"

Kevin shook his head in throbs. "Not a chance. No way—right?"

The group sat in silent docility.

"No," Ashley said finally. "Icarus wouldn't do that."

"Exactly, it was something else." Kevin stormed out of the room, breaking his own first rule.

***

He didn’t go far. He stayed in the main hall, pacing the room and absorbing the silence in order to calm himself. The dim light of the chandelier casted an oblong shadow on his body. He shuddered and took a seat near the entrance. This whole night was going to hell. First they lose Icky, now this? Did he really believe that Icarus might have caused the shot? He didn't want to. But frankly, there was no way to tell. Unless to enter the ballroom on his own. And that, he would not do.

Sasha strolled into the hall after knocking on the hollow wall. Kevin whirled around.

"Hey, sorry," she said. "Didn't mean to scare you."

"You didn’t."

Sasha smiled and crossed the room to sit beside him. Their hips touched.

"I believe you, by the way," Sasha said, looking down at the tiles.

"Thanks. I believe me too."

Sasha frowned, wrinkles forming on her otherwise unblemished forehead. "You don't have to be embarrassed if you want to leave. Most of us want to leave. This place sucks, anyway. And Emily is scared out her mind."

"We aren't leaving."

"Why not?"

Thinking back, he never imagined that he would be the one who chickened out first. It was impossible. Not with Icky and Emily and Victoria in the mix. But they hadn't heard what he had. And he hadn't imagined it.

Sasha called out to him as if she was reading his mind. "Did you hear anything besides the gunshot?"

He thought about it. "Yes."

"What?" she asked.

"I heard…commotion," he said, remembering. "People yelling far off. Then one voice speaking up."

Sasha looked away, shuddering at the image. "Then the shot?"

"Then the shot," he said.

"So it couldn’t have been Icky, then. You heard other people too."

"I guess."

"Maybe this place is haunted."

"Maybe."

Sasha's lips smacked together and she nodded. She rose and strummed her hand over his shoulder. Kevin felt ashamed that he had to fight back the burning of tears forming behind his eyes. He turned away to hide them. Sasha returned to the sitting room. Kevin followed after her a minute later, clinging to one hope: It's only one night. What more can happen in just one night?

***

Emily sipped a glass of hot water from a mug that she had washed thoroughly before using. Who knew how long it’d been since it had been used and washed? Or if, when used, it had been washed at all. She wagged her head when she considered that perhaps the renovating crew had used the mug to drink beer or liquor or whatever smut they drank and had forgotten to wash it.

She found an electric stove in the kitchen, still functional. She cleaned a pot and used it to boil sink water. The gang needed a way to warm up, especially once they returned upstairs. She hadn’t done this alone, of course—no way in hell would she be caught alone in any room of this house—Bleak and Wendy had offered to help. They were a nice couple, Emily thought. She was glad they were there.

When they met the rest of the group in the sitting room, Wendy offered hot water to everyone, but only Sasha, Ashley, and Winston accepted. The rest of the group seemed distracted in their own affairs. No longer were they giddy with excitement and joking around. Their faces suggested that they simply wanted to get the night over with and go home.

"I’m getting tired," Sasha said, wrinkling her small nose as a yawn broke loose.

"Me too," Emily said, then turned to Sasha. "You wanna go up with me?"

Sasha looked over to Kevin and gave an apologetic look. But Kevin didn’t mind; in fact, he was glad that they came up with the idea first. He, too, wanted the night to end.

The rest of the group concurred that sleep was probably the best avenue, so they all hiked back upstairs.

Back in their rooms, Victoria and Ashley sat in bed. Victoria was already dressed in her pajamas—she hadn't brought a change of clothes either way—and combed her hair with her fingers. She gazed into the vanity mirror, gawking at the dress she'd found earlier. How lovely it would look with her brown hair, she thought, and wondered for a fleeting moment about trying it on. Maybe it was a perfect fit. She smiled, wondering what Ashley would think if she told her that. Probably that she was a creep.

When she turned back to the bed, Ashley was already fast asleep with her lamp turned off. Jesus, she thought, did I do it again?

Unfolding her bed sheets, she slipped beneath them and felt warmth engulf her. She turned to her side and could see the dress still hanging haphazardly on the open dresser. Its brilliant white fabric seemed to glow in the darkness. It was the last image she saw before closing her eyes and falling asleep.

***

When her eyes opened again, she started to turn toward the window. Still night. She felt as if she'd slept through for over nine hours, but she knew it couldn’t be past 4:00 AM; the room was as dark as it had been when she first got to bed. She fished for her phone in the dark. It had fallen out of her pocket sometime during the night. Victoria felt around for it, her hands slipping over the dry, cold fabric until she finally found the phone and gripped it tight. Pulling it free, she pressed a button and the screen illuminated to life. For a moment, it pained her eyes, then she covered the light with her blanket, creating a thin, illuminated cave, and checked again.

It must be broken, she thought.

She squeezed her eyes shut and checked again. Confusion struck her—12:40 AM. She lifted her head from the covers and reached over to get Ashley’s phone on the nightstand. Ashley only stirred slightly.

She pressed on the other phone. 12:40 AM.

"What?" she mumbled in the dark.

She shrugged it off and went back to sleep. It was two hours later, however, that she woke up again and saw the moon in the same position, the sun showing no signs of entry, and the time still read 12:40 AM on both their phones. It was a ridiculous thing to fear—that time had somehow stopped. But she couldn’t control the questions, couldn’t stop the thoughts.

I think this is bad, she thought solemnly, holding up the covers to her chin and watching the stagnant moon from the window. I think this is very bad.

CHAPTER 5

About an hour later, Ashley woke with a violent jarring from Victoria, who was looking at her with sharp green eyes. She sat up so fast it made the bed bounce.

"What is it?" she said with agitated breath. Her black, kinky hair was a knotted mess.

"I don’t—know," Victoria stammered. "It’s still dark." She thought she sounded like a frightened little girl. Maybe she was.

"What?" Ashley croaked. "You woke me up for that? What time is it?"

"Our phones say it’s still forty past midnight."

"Okay, then our phones are clearly broken. What are you so wired about?"

She didn’t know. She just felt a layer of fear thickening over her flesh, like a hardening shell.

"Don’t you feel like you’ve been sleeping a long time?"

Ashley thought about it. She did.

"So what does that...?" Ashley started, somehow knowing the answer to the question she had started to ask.

Suddenly, Victoria felt as if bugs were writhing around under the sheets. Cold, numberless, tangible little creepers that climbed and fell off her skin, off the covers. They climbed and climbed, trying to reach her hair. Trying to get into her pores, her mouth, her ears, her eyes. Roaches and moths and bees.

"Ashley, I’m scared," Victoria said, gripping her friend’s arm.

She could almost picture Ashley smiling at her in the dark, amused at her incompetence. Then, suddenly, the nightstand lamp clicked to life and the room was lit. When Ashley turned back to face Victoria, she wasn’t smiling like Victoria had imagined. Her face was distraught, terrified.

"I thought I felt bugs," Ashley said, shivering.

They both threw back the sheets. But there was nothing there.

***

They waited another two hours before deciding to tell the others. In those long hours, the moon had not moved an inch from its place and the sky was the same shade of inky purple.

"What does this mean?" Ashley asked after a long period of silence. "Do you think we’re just being silly? Imagining things because we’re afraid?"

Victoria shook her head and stood to move near the window. She knew what it looked like. It looked like the night was never going to end. It looked like time had no relevance here like it did in the real world. Of course, that couldn’t be true. But that’s what it looked like. And she had to disprove those absurdities before she could give Ashley a logical response. The problem was, though, that the absurdities couldn’t yet be disproven. The only logical course of action would be to leave. And that was the only plan she had.

"Shouldn’t we leave?" she asked.

Ashley nodded and rose from the messy bed. "I thought you’d never ask."

A claustrophobic fear swept over them and they ran out into the second floor hallway and treaded over the floor heavily, knocking on everyone’s door. First Winston came out, looking groggy with his blonde hair tossed in a mess. Then Kevin and the boys, then everyone else except Wendy and Bleak, who were sleeping downstairs.

"What’s going on?" Kevin asked.

"Look at the time," Ashley said.

Everyone did—those few, at least, who still had battery left on their phones.

"12:40," Kevin stated. "Uh—Yeah mine’s been acting up."

"No, that’s what all of our times say," Vicky said.

"Okay, what’s your point?" Mike asked. "All that means is that the crappy reception in this house fucked up our phones."

"That doesn’t even make sense," Ashley said.

"Well, what else then?" Mike snapped. "You saying it’s still midnight? Are you fucking high?"

"Do you have to curse so much?" Victoria asked, then turned back to Kevin. "Ashley and I are leaving."

"Good," Mike said from behind them.

"Yeah, that’s a good idea," Kevin said. "We’ll all pack our things."

"What?" Mike snapped. "Why us?"

"I’m just tired of this place, okay?"

Mike grunted.

Everyone except Mike agreed (so he was forced to agree too) and packed up whatever little they’d brought. Once they got downstairs, they summoned Wendy and Bleak who, like before, were cuddled together in the dark. They stirred before looking up at the gang.

"We’re leaving," Kevin said. "Sorry to wake you."

Wendy yawned. "Okay," she said, mid-yawn. "What time is it?"

"We’re not sure. Something’s up with the phones."

Kevin led them to the veranda where they stared wide-eyed at the still night. The trees and grass seemed oblivious to the oddity of the night, swaying slightly in the cool breeze like night dancers. Near the cemetery, there was a thick gray fog brushed over the distant air. The sight of the fog made Victoria shudder.

"What are we waiting for?" Emily asked, taking a long stride off the veranda onto the dew-licked grass. As she was taking slow, crunching steps she began walking quicker toward the fog, where the cemetery was. The gang watched, hesitant for some reason, as she reached a distance that made them uneasy.

Beginning with Winston and Sasha, the group slowly came off the veranda and began following Emily. She looked over her shoulder a moment to see the group walking a distance behind.

And then she screamed. Just before she made it into the fog, she let out a piercing, echoing shriek that rang in the night, as something underfoot gripped her leg.

"Oh my God!" Sasha shouted. "What is that?"

She began sinking.

The group faltered in their steps.

"What is she doing?" Mike asked, straining his eyes.

Sinking.

"Help me! Please, help me! It’s got me! HELP!!!"

And sinking.

Two more beings—shaped like humans, but moving awkwardly, like pictures in a flipbook—came popping out of the ground like moles. They were sickly thin, worn out to the bone; skeletons wrapped in wet, moldy, brown flesh.

Sasha ran forward and Kevin caught her shoulders, tugging her back, and she fell hard on the grassy rug beneath her.

"We have to help her!" Sasha screamed in an inhumane voice.

They all stared on blankly. Terror froze them to stone, like drying lumps of cement.

Mike wanted to run and save her. He wanted to… but his knees buckled even at the thought of moving. This is Emily, goddamnit! GET HER! GO GET HER! This was it—his time to be the hero, to show her. To show them all. Now. Right—now!

Dark liquid—it made a sloshing sound as it spurted through the air—erupted from Emily’s waist.

Goddamit, SAVE HER NOW!

"Goddamit!" Mike cried, because his legs wouldn’t move.

I can’t, stupid boy, I can’t move a muscle, his legs said to him. Look what’s out there!

"What are those things?!" Mike cried.

Emily was sinking ever deeper—the workings of this scene were a slow, slow brew, a poisonous sloth of an event. A framed picture of a nightmare. The sound of Emily’s voice in such pain made Victoria want to vomit. And Sasha began to scream. She just wanted to scream until she choked up a solution for Emily.

""Help me please!! I don’t want to die!!!" Emily was halfway into the dirt now, both her legs and waist submerged in the soft earth. She was attempting to grip the black soil, but the force pulling her down was too strong. She could feel the ghoul’s rusty fingers digging into her calf muscles. No one could bear to watch anymore, and everyone but Sasha and Mike turned away. Sasha saw a squelch of blood lap over the grass and gagged. There was a point, when Emily was nearly submerged up to her shoulders, where her face suddenly changed. It was the look of acceptance. Like she knew that nobody was coming to save her. They were all too afraid. Those cowards, she thought as she sniffed mucus and spat her tears away. Jesus, she thought again. I’m about to die. I’m only seventeen. What does it mean to die?

Her final thoughts as the cold dirt took her eyelids under:

For fun, she almost laughed while choking on the wet dirt. We came here for fun.

***

It was a strange thing that nobody heard the screams. That nobody in town showed up to help them. The group ran into the house; each of them shuffling incoherent thoughts in their minds, trying to piece together what they'd just witnessed.

They stumbled in heavy steps, like men on stilts. Sasha was clutching the rail and gagging between sobs. Everyone was looking down, even as the cold rush of the mansion’s air greeted them in the main hall.

The chandelier in the sitting room was still on, and they shuffled in that direction, following the soft glow in the edge of the large black hall. Their eyes darted around the dark like knives stabbing around for something solid as they crossed the hall. When they reached the room, nobody had the sanity to light a fire, but the room was so cold that Winston helped Geo set one ablaze. Victoria wanted to say something, but she felt that anything she might say would be unsubstantial. Her thoughts were a frantic combustion.

"What just happened?" Ashley asked her privately.

Victoria could only shake her head.

They must have been in that room, replaying the ghastly scene in their minds, for nearly an hour. They must have been clinging onto their sanity like spiders flailing on gossamer webs against harsh winds. They were finding it nearly impossible to breathe—each intake of air rattling their chests as if their breasts were pregnant with some manic demon.

Across the room, Sasha sat numbly, her eyes red and moist, with two sore pockets drawn beneath them. Her mouth hung slightly ajar, and she was making a soft crackling noise with her throat. Everyone in the room was doing a poor job of pretending not to notice her, or comforting her, for that matter. Bleak was holding Wendy around the waist, and he whispered something in her ear.

Wendy flinched when she heard what he said. She looked at Victoria, tapping her fingers against Bleak's wrapped arms. "Do you think..." she hesitated, "Do you think the same thing happened to that kid from class?"

Kevin blinked. "Icarus? You don’t think—"

"She doesn’t know," Victoria cut him off. "I guess now it’s a possibility."

Hell, anything is a possibility, Victoria thought.

"How ca—how can we leave?" Ashley asked, her voice a hollow breath of air.

Everyone, including—or maybe especially—Sasha, looked at Victoria for an answer. Instead of answering, she crossed the room and took a seat near Sasha. Her arm floated over Sasha's slim shoulders, her blonde hair rustling at the touch. Sasha frowned and looked down. She cupped her hands between her bare thighs, her already-short skirt scrunched up well above her knees.

"I’m sorry,” Victoria said in a low voice.

Sasha crunched her fists into balls.

"I'm sorry... I—I know she was your best friend."

A tear crawled down Sasha's cheek. Her lips were quivering.

Victoria leaned in only inches from her face. "I won't let anything bad happen to you. Okay? I promise. We’ll get out of here."

Sasha’s eyes flitted around the room pensively.

"What is it?" Victoria asked.

Sasha rubbed her cheeks with her palms. "I just wish..." Sasha spoke with the subtlety of a dying leaf. "I just wish we could have given her a proper burial. You know? She...died like some animal."

Victoria got the thought to say, Oh believe me, she's buried. And in a cemetery no less. She scolded herself for thinking something so cruel and twisted her glance away.

"Would you like to say some words?" Victoria said. "You knew her best."

Sasha nodded and stood, smearing her tears away. She approached the fireplace and turned. The group looked her way, and all eyes were on her. First she coughed out a soft cry, then stood up straight, as if trying to prove herself to be strong.

"Emily—" the name broke off into another sob, and she stomped against the rug in frustration. She took a deep breath and started again. "Emily was a good friend," she said with a weak vibrato. "Even though she was popular, she never considered herself that. She always thought of other people first, and she always enjoyed having fun. And she loved life." Her gaze lowered. "We...we should have listened to her when she said that coming here was a bad idea. She was smart like that. I can't..."

Sasha shook her head and sped away from the fireplace, passed Victoria, and shoved her body against the corner wall of the room, near the door. Her body writhed slightly and slid down the smooth wall like a bead of dripping water. And there she cried. For about another hour.

***

"We should eat something," Kevin said later that evening. "We can’t stay here. In this room."

"I'm not hungry," Winston said.

"Me either," Geo said.

"I know... I know." Kevin shook his head. He was walking in circles near the door. "Can we just try, though? I can't be in this room any longer."

They got up and crossed the main hall and Geo swung open the living room double doors.

"Let's see what's left," Geo said as he catapulted his bag onto the table.

They took an inventory on their food: Three more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, six bags of potato chips, and four bananas. When they laid it out on the dining table, they decided it was a meal for three, maybe four, people. They were eight.

"This won't last us through one night," Geo said.

"It will because it has to," Kevin said stiffly.

"You mean we’re staying here again?" Sasha squealed, mashing her hands over her mouth in distress.

They broke the bananas in half. They poured out all the potato chip bags into one giant bowl that they'd gotten from the kitchen, then split it into eight parts.

"Okay," Kevin said, slapping his plate onto the table. "Dinner's served,"

"This?" Geo hissed. "Half a banana and some chips? What about the sandwiches?"

"There's only three. We'll save it for next meal until we find some edible food in here."

"Jesus, we're gonna starve here!" Geo cried.

"No," Kevin said sternly, "we're not."

Again, Sasha let out a whimper. They were speaking about the long-term, about living arrangements. This made it difficult for her to breathe again.

Despite his frustration, Geo sat quietly and ate the meal in less than a minute. Everyone else was done soon after. Victoria savored every piece with incremental bites.

After eating, Kevin assigned tasks to the group. Wendy and Bleak washed the big bowl; Victoria, Ashley, and Sasha searched for more food, and the boys made sure it was safe to go upstairs. With what happened earlier, they weren't sure what to expect in their bedrooms. Luckily, when they arrived back to their rooms, everything was just the way they'd left it.

Despite having slept all night, Victoria felt exhausted. A long, soothing yawn spilled out of her mouth. A simmering heat burned behind her tired eyes. This time she passed the white dress in the room without noticing it and collapsed into bed. After a minute, she was asleep.

***

Sasha lay in bed, eyes transfixed on the ceiling. The only sound she could hear was that of the window crackling as wind pushed into it. All was still as she tried to remember how she got to bed. Her skirt was folded in messy ruffles on the bed. Her fingers drummed on her slim stomach. Sasha fought back the dark thoughts. All this will be over soon, her mind recited. Of course, she had no proof to back that up, but she ignored that too. She realized that she was alone. She refused to sleep alone. The others must have forgotten that she was paired with Emily.

Rising from the bed, she patted down her skirt and headed to the door. She checked herself in the mirror, which hung over the door like a portal to another dimension, and noticed her blonde hair parted and her eyes puffy. She combed through her hair with shaky fingers, gritting her teeth when she pulled through a knot. She heard it tear in her head.

When she left the room, her eyes searched the hall like a lighthouse beacon, contemplating which room to disturb. She hoped to God that they weren't all asleep.

Kevin's room, her first choice, was locked. So was Victoria's. She saw a bar of light spilling under Winston's room and knocked with her finger bone. The sound mixed with her slow breathing. The door opened with haste, and Winston eyed Sasha with confusion.

"Were you asleep?" Sasha asked, suddenly feeling embarrassed.

"After everything that's happened? Not a chance," he whispered.

She smiled painfully. "Can I come in?"

Winston stepped aside and she stepped in. The room was by far the largest in the house. It was about the size of the sitting room downstairs. Perhaps larger. Similar in design to her room, but with an added fireplace and an area in the corner of the room with incense and a peculiar rug, probably for meditating, Sasha thought.

Winston pressed his lips together in an awkward smile and crossed over to the fireplace.

"Shall I start one?" he asked, rolling a log with a small pitchfork from the wall.

Sasha shrugged. "Up to you."

She sat on the bed with her hands pressed between her thighs. Her eyes were lost somewhere beyond the room. Winston went back to sit on the bed.

"How are you doing?" he asked.

Sasha hung her head.

"I'm sorry," he said.

She didn't move.

"Maybe we should try and get some sleep," he insisted, kicking off his shoes.

Sasha nodded.

He looked at her. "You can stay here if you'd like. I'll sleep on the armchair."

She shook her head without looking at him. "I'd rather sleep with you. I don't want to be alone, Winston."

He felt a rush of heat bake his cheeks.

"All right," he said.

He shut all the lights. He and Sasha slipped under the covers. Oh dear God, Winston thought. I'm in bed with Sasha Perkins. Then another voice pressed through: She's grieving, you pig. Keep your sick dirty thoughts to yourself. Suddenly, Sasha pressed closer to Winston and his stray arm accidentally felt her silky thigh. His heart skipped to an abnormal pace. The feel of her body warmth made his mind parade with fantasies. He battled to suppress them.

"Hold me," she said in the dark.

Winston swallowed. He anchored an arm around her slim shoulders and pulled her closer. He could smell warm strawberry body spray in her neck mixed with dry sweat, and her hair smelled of clean shampoo.

Sasha draped her arm over his chest.

"Thank you," Sasha whispered. "But don’t get used to this."

He wouldn't.

***

Kevin Cooper's eyes leaped open. He looked around the room and saw that Geo and Mike were gone. Sitting up, he rolled his shoulders back into a tight stretch and yawned. He felt like a bear stirring from hibernation. Seeing that it was still dark outside made him utter a sigh; the nightmare hadn't ended. Emily really was dead. They really were trapped.

He rose and shuffled to the hall, seeing that it was already lit. Geo and Mike were out there, watching the graveyard through the window. Their figures looked like huddled statues until they heard Kevin's footsteps and turned to him.

"Why didn't you wake me?" Kevin asked.

Mike looked to Geo. "Geo woke me up when he opened the door, so I came too."

Kevin nodded. "Is anybody else up?"

"Not that we know of."

"What are you guys doing?"

"You can see the graveyard from up here." Mike pointed, tapping the glass.

Kevin saw the hill buoyed in the distance. The fog made it difficult to make out, but the hill crested just high enough, like an iceberg looming over deadly waters.

"I think we can get past it," Geo blurted out.

Michael nodded. "There has to be a way."

"But we’ll get taken like," –Kevin hesitated— "like Emily."

"Maybe we can try the back of the house," Mike suggested. "There's a fence, but right over’s Vender Avenue. We'll be safe there with all those shops open late."

"Late? We don't even know how late it is," Kevin grunted.

"We know it ain’t morning yet. And I’d rather take my chances out there."

Kevin shook his head in bewilderment. "We don’t stand a chance out there. What if—"

"We have to try." Victoria was standing at her door, a shadow in the dark.

The boys whipped around, then relaxed when they saw it was only her.

"How?" Kevin asked.

Victoria crossed over to the window and gazed at the cemetery, a spear of longing piercing her heart.

"Mike is right; we can go out the back," she said. "The fence is closer that way, and there’s less graves back there."

"But what if we…" Kevin looked gravely at the tombstones. "What if we die?"

Victoria scoffed. "I think that’s a risk we can all afford to take."

CHAPTER 6

At breakfast, they split two of the sandwiches so that each person got one tiny square. Geo clicked his tongue in anger, but deep down he knew it was the only way. Breakfast was over in one bite. They all gulped down a glass of water and sat there quietly. They had discussed the plan together earlier. It made sense. At least, as much sense as a plan could make given the circumstances. They’d be closer to the fence if they went out the back, and less likely to get attacked by whatever it was that had taken Emily. They clung onto any hope at this point. They were starving and restless, each of them anguished by relapsing desires for home.

"So," Wendy said. "Why do you think this is happening now? Bleak and I have spent the night a bunch of times before. Why are there suddenly…"

No one knew.

"Maybe," Ashley contemplated, "we brought too many people with us."

"How many is too many?" Kevin mumbled.

"Maybe it's because of Halloween," Mike said, staring at his empty plate.

"But Bleak and I stayed here last Halloween." She turned to Bleak. "Right?"

Bleak nodded and his hoodie gathered forward a little.

"Why would this suddenly happen with us, then? With this group?" Wendy continued.

"Okay, I don't think it matters right now," Victoria said. "We're out of food. We have to find something to eat."

Victoria, Ashley, and Sasha hadn't found anything edible during their last search, but then, what did they expect to find in a house that had been abandoned for over a hundred years? Everything in the house was years over its expiration date, the fruits and vegetables had turned black. It was a wonder that this place had never even been cleaned out in all this time.

But food was out of the question. And that was why Victoria knew their only option was to flee.

They went to the sitting room and sat there for nearly half an hour. Victoria was silent, but her mind was picking up fragments of ideas, taping up a plan in her head. She fished out a notepad from the table and abducted a pen from a drawer underneath, then started to devise a plan with Ashley. Running through the backyard was their only shot. They sat a while drawing maps of the town as well as they could remember it, and estimated how far they'd have to run to jump the fence and reach civilization.

It was farther than they had hoped. About eighty yards.

***

"We'll take weapons," Victoria said from the kitchen, and they heard the clashing of knives fumbling in their cabinets before she emerged with two handfuls of sharp utensils. They each got one. Victoria carried a butcher's knife. Sasha's hands were trepid like an old motor behind the knife, and Victoria smiled at her. "I told you I won't let anything happen to you. We're going to make it."

"Wait up," Kevin said. He ran into the main hall, and in a moment he returned with the iron shovel and poker. He handed them to Mike and Geo.

They exited through the kitchen which led to the wraparound veranda and into the backyard. They could see the fence from where they stood, although a gathering fog was making it nearly invisible. The path seemed clear enough. No reason to wait any longer. The time to leave was now, before anything else insane occurred. Before anyone else died.

The grass danced in slow, rhythmic twists, and to Victoria the blades looked like ramp agents on a runway. They were the planes.

"Are you ready?" Victoria exhaled slowly.

"Let's get this over with," Kevin said, stiffening.

"On three," she said. The air was cold and the fence looked farther as each second passed.

"One."

The black clouds drifted lazily in the swallowing sky.

"Two."

They gripped their knives with sweaty hands. Winston let out a shaky breath.

"Three!"

They bolted off the veranda, Kevin, Geo, and Mike leading the way. Victoria right behind. The grass blurred beneath her feet as she pounded over it in heavy measures. She could see the fence bouncing as she ran. Heavy breathing around her. Somewhere not too far off, Sasha grunted as she ran. Winston yelped. Ashley caught up to Victoria. "Are we getting close?" Ashley coughed out. Victoria ignored her and kept on running. On and on. Pressing through the sudden cramp she felt burning in her left abdomen. Then she began to decline her pace, breathing through her cold throat. Something wasn't right. The fence looked the same distance it had been from the veranda.

"We're not moving!" Mike cried out of breath.

"Ungh!" Sasha cried, stumbling to a complete stop.

They all stopped. Dread consumed Victoria. She collapsed to her knees and slammed the ground with her fist. "Dammit!"

The next second, she saw an arm explode out of the ground and lock onto her wrist. She cried out and tried to tug free. It was too strong. She swiped the butcher's knife at the creature's wrist and it writhed until it became dislodged. Blood sprayed in burps on her arms and clothes. Then the creature's head pulsed out of the ground. Dirt rolled off its crusty face, mud caking its forehead and cheeks. It looked like a man, but his eyes were rolled back white and he was grinning with demented glee. She could see his neck convulsing and heard a crackle of laughter lodged in his throat. She swung the knife and it got stuck halfway into his forehead. She felt the bone split and even heard a reflecting dense pop. The ghoul sank back into the earth.

"Run to the house!" she shouted.

Everyone turned and began to sprint back. Victoria followed, not looking back.

What do we do now? she thought in despair. Blood dripped from her hands. The house etched closer behind the fog with each springing step. We couldn't leave! Her heart screamed. What now! What now!

***

The gang hobbled onto the veranda, panting and writhing on the floor. Victoria's eyes were a blank slate of glass transfixed on the ground. It didn't work, her mind echoed.

Bleak rubbed Wendy's back while she coughed hoarsely. Sasha could hardly breathe; her lungs hanging from some invisible noose.

"What the hell happened back there?" Kevin said, his hands mashed against his trembling knees.

Victoria's mind was elsewhere. Somewhere void of hope. Kevin supposed he didn't expect an answer anyway. How the hell were any of them supposed to know? They were all united in fear.

After a while, they shuffled into the kitchen. Victoria was parched and swallowed multiple glasses of water. The others took turns at the sink. Wendy was sitting with her head bowed at the table, arms crossed under her. Bleak did her a favor and brought over a full glass of water from the sink. He filled it to the brim. He balanced it as he walked like a man conducting a tight rope act, but despite his best efforts, a thin film of water cascaded from the glass, some of it trickling over his fingers.

"Here," he said. "If you need."

Wendy nodded with her head burrowed into her arms.

"Is she okay?" Ashley asked Bleak. He shrugged; a look of concern on his face.

"No—I need to throw up," Wendy mumbled through her arms. "It’s too bad. All too bad."

Ashley walked over to her and pasted her hand on her back, stroking it softly. "Maybe you should, honey. Maybe that'll help."

Without another word, Wendy got up and hurried to the bathroom upstairs. Bleak ran after her. They could hear the hum pressure through the walls as the upstairs sink came to life.

"We're trapped here," said Sasha.

Everyone was looking down. Victoria stared like a ghost in one direction. She could feel her stomach flatten with hunger. She was so hungry that she could feel her body eating away at the fat stored in her. She willed away the thought and stood. The group looked at her.

"We have to find food in the house," her voice was running thin on hope. "Now or never."

***

They searched upstairs and down, their main focus being the kitchen and dining room. But they'd already checked there before. If they wanted to survive, it came to Victoria, they needed a miracle.

The wine cellar.

The thought came like a dollar left out in the open. It was the only storage room they hadn't checked. Maybe they could find something in there. But where was it? Victoria got the group’s attention and told them her idea. They thought it was as good a plan as any.

"We know it would be on the first floor." Winston pushed up his glasses. "But where?"

They swept through the entire first floor, entering the ballroom (to everyone’s relief, Icarus’s carcass was nowhere to be found) for the first time—it was a circular room, predominantly blue with a more feminine ambiance—and moving all the way back into the kitchen. The library was clear, and so was the sitting room and dining room. The kitchen seemed empty as well.

"I found something!" Geo shouted from the hall.

They ran to him. He was touching the face of a wall under the stairs, near the kitchen. It was wooden with yellow boards, cracked and stiff.

"What is it?" Kevin said.

"There's a little grip on this wall." He pulled the grip with excessive force, a grunt escaping his throat. Everyone froze in disbelief as the wall abruptly jerked open. It thudded as Geo opened it fully. It left a gaping square hole the size of a door.

"No way..." Mike said, glaring in.

Geo grinned. "I'll bet there's a wine cellar down there."

***

Kevin ran upstairs to grab his flashlight from his bedroom, then a minute later returned, leaping from the stairs. The device clicked to life and a wide ball of yellow light illuminated the steep stairs leading down to, what looked to be, the wine cellar. The air was filled with the thick, creamy stench of dead rats. Everyone pinched their noses and struggled to sustain the air in their mouths. Each inhalation swamped their mouths with a retched sweet-sour taste. The stairs weren't long, and soon they reached the landing.

"Let's make this quick," Sasha squealed through her cupped hand.

The landing led nowhere except to a steel door with black bars to look through. Kevin approached with the light and shone it through the bars.

"What do you see?" Victoria asked anxiously.

The light bounced around like a fluttering pest, casting a greenish glow on the bottles that shelved the entire room. Every wall was draped with wine bottles. The room smelled like musky, spoiled water.

"Gross," Sasha muttered, peering in. "The only food we'll find in there is what we throw up."

"Let's just search it a minute," Victoria said through her pressed nose.

Since Kevin had only brought down his flashlight (to conserve the batteries of the other ones), they shouldered behind him as he went from shelf to shelf, the beam of light rising and falling like a dysfunctional elevator. There were thousands of bottles, some empty, some full, but nothing else. There were twelve tables bolted onto the wall, protruding out like flat fingers. Some had stray empty bottles, and others were empty.

There was nothing.

"What did we expect to find?" Sasha whispered.

Victoria wondered that as well. She touched her stomach. We don't have food, she thought. They had nothing at all.

And just like that, hope left them all down there.

***

They spent the next hour in the sitting room, in their usual spots—Mike by the fire, Geo fiddling with the piano, and Winston looking out of place in his own house. Kevin crossed over to Victoria and sat beside her, Ashley moving over to check on Wendy and Bleak, who were still upstairs. They hadn't returned in a long time, and it was never safe to be alone in the house. Although, Ashley realized, aside from the dangers outside the house, they hadn't experienced anything out of the ordinary indoors. Not counting Kevin's encounter with the ringing phone, that is. But who knew for sure if he had even heard right? They'd gone to the ballroom room themselves. All of them. No sign of a gun, blood, a body—no damage to the room at all. Ashley was beginning to believe that he'd heard wrong. Still, better to be cautious and call the whole place dangerous, indoors or out.

Kevin buried his hands into the pockets of his red letter jacket.

"Hey," he said.

"Hey."

"How are you?"

"Just fine."

He huffed. "I'm serious."

Victoria snarled. "So am I."

"We need to come up with a plan," he mumbled. "Everyone here is looking to us for some reason." He shifted in his seat. "Apparently, we're the leaders."

Victoria let out a dramatic chuckle and raised her eyebrows at him. "Leader? Since when have you been a leader? You mean because you lead a posse at school and bully kids like Icarus?"

Kevin stared at her in bewilderment. "Can we drop that?" he said. "I don't think this is the time to reflect back on our lives."

"No, of course we can't drop it. You brought Icarus here. And you lost him. And based on what we’ve seen so far, I don't think he got out of here alive."

The others in the room began to pick up on their conversation. Geo stopped playing the piano and pretended to be cleaning dust off the keys.

"—wasn't my responsibility—"

"—not your responsibility? I came here because—"

"—no one asked you to babysit—"

"—well you seem to have things under control!"

Ashley entered the room with Bleak and Wendy tagging behind. Ashley's eyebrows curled up.

"What are you guys doing?" she shouted over them.

They stopped to look at her; for a moment Victoria had forgotten there were other people in the room. Ashley wiggled her head, waiting for an answer.

"Nothing, we just—" Victoria started, then stopped when she saw Kevin storm out of the room.

As he left, Victoria thought she heard his stomach growl.

***

The rest of the night involved an indulgence of liquor. They needed something to distract them from the hunger. This time, however, the group had split several ways. Victoria was alone with Ashley and Sasha as the night wound down. They wanted to make it sort of a girls’ night, even though in the back of their minds they knew that any form of normalcy was out of the question. Wendy didn’t want to join in—she and Bleak seemed to be inseparable. Strange that no one had even suspected them to be dating at school.

Sasha found herself thinking about Winston again. She figured he wouldn't be too pleased about her not being with him tonight, but this was more than just "girl time". This was something she needed—it was essential; a final grasp at her sanity. What had happened to Emily was still finding new ways to haunt her; like a black cloud of dust that never settled. They'd been friends all her life, since the third grade. It was true, in certain cases, that opposites attracted each other. Sasha, for instance, never had to go out of her way to find a boy, but she needed a sidekick; and Emily, while pretty enough, needed a leg in, someone to follow. They needed each other. Now Sasha was just another blonde ditz without a real friend in the world. She could tell by the simple way they sat by each other that Victoria and Ashley shared something different. It went unspoken, but they were there for each other. There was no reason why they should both be trapped in this house. They were there only because they were better people, trying to protect Icarus while the others exploited him. They were cut from a different cloth. Sasha's cloth, she thought, was always pink and predictable, now splattered with scarlet red.

She tossed back another shot of whiskey. It stung her nose as the hot, smoky poison rested in her belly. Almost within her next breath, she could feel the liquor begin to work its magic. The air around her eyes slackened to a slow stir, and she could hear her voice louder in her head when she said: "I'm glad you guys are here."

Victoria and Ashley smiled, but Victoria was secretly thinking that she wasn’t glad. They were all sitting cross-legged on the bed. Each of them three shots intoxicated.

"The feeling's mutual," Victoria lied, rubbing the saliva stain her lip left on the glass with her thumb. Shiny, she thought. Funny what a little alcohol could do to change her outlook on things. Still, guilt nudged at her mind with its crooked talons for the way she'd treated Kevin earlier. Sure, he deserved it. But he was right, somewhat. They were sheep in a slaughterhouse, that much was certain, whether by fate or chance. Kevin may not be the best influence in the real world, but he did have leadership qualities, for good or evil, and in this hell house he was just what they needed. Someone to take charge, to make choices. They may not always be the right choices, but at least it was a step in some direction. The others couldn’t do that. They were too scared shitless to make choices. Victoria was scared too (God knows she’d rather curl up in a bed and cry herself to sleep until this nightmare was over), but that fear only propelled her to try harder. She wanted out of this house more than anything in the world.

While these thoughts plagued Vicky's drunken mind, Sasha reached for the whiskey bottle and held it up to her face, observing how much they'd used up since last night. Almost all of it was gone. Enough for tonight, though. And the boys still had a couple more bottles left. Good, she thought. She needed anything she could to get her on eye-level with this dreadful place.

"Why were we never friends in school?" Sasha asked.

It was a question Victoria had pondered herself, but secretly knew the answer to. Simple: Before all this had started, Sasha's island of friends were made up of cheerleaders, jocks, and anyone who could help build her already-impeccable social status. Anyone who didn't benefit her immediately wasn't worth her time. With Emily gone, Sasha's island was topsy-turvy. And now she needed real friends.

Victoria avoided bringing all this up, feeling guilty for even thinking that way—she was no one to judge—and offered a naive shrug.

"I don't know," she said. "It's hard to be friends with everybody."

Good answer, she thought.

Sasha nodded. They continued drinking for a long while more until sleep weighed down on them with such force that keeping their eyelids open felt as incomprehensible a task as speaking unlearned languages.

For a moment Sasha thought about sleeping with the girls, but felt a twinge of guilt in burdening them. She needed to be a strong girl; that's what Daddy would have said. Besides, she had Winston to sleep with. And he was all alone tonight. She couldn't leave him alone.

Sasha said goodnight to the girls and walked over to Winston's room. The door was unlocked, but this time the lights were off. Stepping in, the room smelled of lingering burnt-out candles and incense.

"Winston?"

In the pitch blackness, Sasha heard the bed sheets ruffle. Then a soft groan.

"Is it okay if I sleep here again?" she whispered, hearing her voice more magnified than it was. The silence was so sharp that it hummed in her ears. She figured the alcohol played a role in that. Winston was probably passed out from drinking, too. She decided to just crawl in.

Walking in sudden palsied steps, Sasha reached the bed in the dark and shuffled inside slowly. The sheets were cold and warm at the same time. She could feel that the mattress was dunked toward the center from Winston's weight, and moved close enough to him that she could feel an aura of heat permeating from his body.

What will we encounter when we wake up? Sasha wondered in despair. What's next for us? Either she was losing her mind, or she was starting to accept that anything was a probability. Even death. Get some sleep, she commanded herself.

She opened her hands and spread them on the bed, closing her eyes like curtains. The blackness of the room was just about the same as the blackness behind her eyelids, but somehow she felt safer with them closed. Interrupting her clouded thoughts, she felt Winston move closer to her, then wrap an arm around her. She flinched but didn't fight it. Instead she smiled. Winston's arms held her tightly, and she could feel the hairs on her neck stand up. It almost made the pain go away. She responded by turning over to her side and pulling him a little closer.

What happened next happened fast. Winston was leaning in to kiss her neck and she was letting him. She gripped his fair hair with a hot and trembling hand. He kissed and licked her neck more vigorously. She breathed heavily and kissed his face all over.

Then, she was twisting off her clothes. Her skirt flew into the darkness beyond the bed, her shirt as well. Winston was working to remove her bra; he unhooked it with an expert twist and it fell off. Sasha arched her back and her breasts swelled towards him. His tongue and hot breath scurried over her like a ghost in the dark. She moaned. He grunted. And the rest was fury. It was over after about twenty minutes.

Then she was asleep.

When she awoke the next morning—morning albeit sunless—Winston wasn't in the room. Sasha pushed up from the bed, dressed, and shuffled to the corridor. She checked downstairs and didn't find him. Everyone seemed to still be asleep. He's disappeared like Icarus, the thought came to her. No, she negated, he couldn't have. She knocked on Kevin's room and asked him if he'd seen Winston.

"Yes," Kevin whispered. "Keep it down. We're all still asleep in here. Winston, too."

"When did he move to this room?" she asked, appalled.

Kevin flicked his head back. "Move? We had a guys’ night just like you and the girls. He was here all night."

Sasha felt an icy chill slither in her spine.

"He was here?" she asked again, hearing the words float off her lips as if spoken by someone else.

Kevin nodded.

Her eyes were sharp but looking to nothing in particular as fear swelled in her.

Who fucked me last night?

Mmmm…that felt good, she heard a voice say in her head. Rape, baby, rape!

A scream bled inside Sasha’s skull, but she only released a high-pitched whimper, unable to utter a discernible word. RAPE! RAPE!

"Why are you shaking?" Kevin asked (RAPERAPERAPEBABY!). "Sasha—why the hell are you shaking?" 

CHAPTER 7

They sat on the veranda, quiet as the trees ten steps or ten miles away. The moon was hidden from view, casting an opaque silhouette on the purple clouds. A few minutes earlier, Victoria and Ashley had exploded into the corridor from their room, fearing the worst—that somebody else had been killed. Sasha's crying and shouting persisted for a long time, and wasn't stilled when Winston confirmed that he had indeed been in Kevin's room all night. Eventually, they got her to stay quiet while she blurted out snippets of what had happened, leaving out the more erotic details. She stuttered as she spoke, still trembling and sobbing sporadically between words. When she was done, Michael jerked up his eyebrows and whistled. "Christ," he said.

"You believe me, don't you?" Sasha's head twisted from person to person for a response.

Victoria was picking at the skin around her fingernail, feeling her mind coming undone, then made a sound to speak, but Ashley spoke first. "Of course we do, honey. After everything that's happened so far, why wouldn't there be some ghost man sleeping with you?"

Geo made a scoffing noise and dug his head in his hands. His fingers clenched his short, curly hair.

Now, they had all gone out to the veranda for fresh air.

"Are we all going crazy?" Kevin said in a droning voice as he watched the starry sky.

Nobody had an answer, and if they did, it was yes. Even Winston, who admitted to himself that he felt deranged pride in knowing that Sasha Perkins had fake sex with him, felt a tree of fear ripen in his belly, as if he were waiting for insanity to recruit him to its psychotic army.

"Why are we still in this house?" Winston added to the endless list of unanswered questions. "Why can't we just walk off these steps? It's right there! We're honestly trapped here? Are we honestly going to die?" He stumbled back and tried to clutch at the wall behind him. "I'm insane, aren't I? Aren't we?"

"Oh, shut up!" Mike said, kicking his chair to the ground. Everyone twitched as the chair crashed against the veranda rail.

"Stop this," Victoria said.

"Says the Almighty Voice of Reason," Kevin mocked.

"Jesus, Kevin," Ashley started. "What the hell's your problem?"

"What the hell's my problem?" he scoffed. "How about the fact that we're all going to die in this Hell Hole like Emily. That a big enough problem for you?"

"This is ridiculous!" Victoria shouted. "We can figure this out. We can survive."

Kevin laughed. "How? Survive how, Victoria? Things don't always just 'get better', you know. We're starving to death and it's only going to get worse from here. That's reality. That's the truth. And there's nothing you or any of us can do to change that."

Ashley scowled at him. "Fuck you, Kevin. She's trying."

"Oh, she's trying! She's trying, everyone!" Kevin rose from his rocking chair and bowed to Vicky. "Thank you." He crossed over to the front door and turned at them again. "Thank you for excelling in the art of trying. Try or not, we're all dead." He slammed the front door shut.

Victoria felt her cheeks soften like churned milk as tears itched behind her eyes. She held them at bay.

She began to pick at her fingernails again.

***

They had their final sandwich several hours later. The pieces were cut in such miniscule sizes that the bread almost dissolved on their tongues immediately. It made Victoria's stomach turn to think that there was no more food left and she excused herself to use the restroom. She found it curious that although they were limited to one laughable food option, the group managed to eat together in the dining room. The community spirit wouldn't last much longer, she figured. Already the group was starting to fall apart. She could feel it like the seams of a thick rope splitting. Sasha wouldn't speak to anyone, Bleak already scarcely spoke, and Kevin and his sidekicks seemed to be gradually rebelling against the group.

Ashley approached Kevin in private after the dinner, slickly cornering him in the kitchen. She stamped her index finger hard into his shoulder.

Kevin turned to face her. "What do you want?" he said, swiping her hand away.

"We're all going through enough already as it is. And last time I checked, it wasn't Victoria's idea to come here. It was yours. And I'm not saying this to blame you or make you feel guilty, but Victoria doesn't deserve you talking her like that."

"Yeah...I know, you're righ—"

"I'm not finished!" Ashley slammed her open palm against the counter.

"Jesus, ok—"

"Even if we do die, how do you want to die, Kevin? Do you want to die knowing you tried, or do you just want to give up now?"

"Does it even matter? I'd be dead in both scenarios."

"You don't know that," Ashley said. "What if we do find a way? Everything has an answer, Kevin. Even if—" she stopped talking, because Kevin was shaking his head and laughing.

Ashley threw her head back, appalled at his reaction. "What?" she said.

"You have hope," he laughed, as if it was the funniest thing he'd ever heard in his life.

"Yes," Ashley said. "I have hope. So what?"

"Hope," he said laughing, "doesn't live in this house."

***

Wendy lowered the hood of Bleak's sweater. They were sitting together in the library, hiding under a circle of light illuminated by a single chandelier in the room.

"Your face is burning up," she said. "Why are you still wearing this?"

Bleak was looking down, his eyes following her motherly hands.

"I don't like seeing this place," he said. "I want to hide."

"We can't hide," she said. "That would mean adapting. You know we can't get comfortable here. That scares me so much—that we'll adapt and then never try hard enough to escape this place. We have to stay afraid. All the time."

Wendy thought she saw a shadow cross his face. It was gone as soon as she thought about it, and then he was looking at her intently again.

"I want to be strong for you, but I don't think I am," he said.

"You are," she said. "Robby, you are."

"I'm scared. Very scared. We're—look! You're being stronger than me now."

"Only because you're here," she said. "I'd be dead if you weren't. Don't you see that?"

He forced a smile. "All I see is you. And that's the only reason why I'm still alive."

Her smile was unforced. "Well I'll always be right in front of you."

Bleak leaned in to kiss Wendy and felt her full lips cushion his own. She was breathing through her small nose and it steamed over his cheek like cologne. Wendy backed away slightly and glared into his eyes as if into a living fire. "Why don't you ever talk to them?"

Bleak's expression signified that he was expecting this question. He sighed. "I will when I have something worth saying."

"You're smart, Robby. Probably smarter than all of them. You have a lot worth saying."

"Let me rephrase." He blinked, searching the words tangled in his mind. "I mean, I will when they're ready to listen."

***

Kevin Cooper raised his arm to his face. He inspected his watch. Still broken. He unfastened the belt of his watch and hurled it across the room. It crashed over the headboard and thumped on the ground.

Kevin crumpled onto the bed. He thought about morals. Good ones, bad ones. The difference between the two, and whether survival surpassed the need to care which was which. His head throbbed because he was hungry and tired. His boiling point was reaching a maximum and he knew that he would explode at any moment. Everyone was losing their minds here, he thought. It was inevitable. Madness, after all, is what a mad house should inspire.

Kevin felt his labored breath rise and fall, thinking to himself how difficult it was to inhale. Like winding an old, ragged pull-string doll that should have been thrown out years ago. Years. They'd been at Ashmore only a few days, and yet it felt like years. I'll get out! his mind screamed. And his stomach compressed with passionate rage. Hunger was more than a feeling in his stomach now. Now it consumed the majority of his thoughts. He needed something else to focus on.

And that's when the lights went out.

***

It happened suddenly. The light that had formerly been functioning properly, thanks to Winston's father's renovations on the house, out of nowhere stopped working. A unanimous shriek filled the house in different rooms as the gang fell into utter blackness. Victoria was in her room when it happened, and her body stiffened almost in light-speed as her eyes fought to adjust as quickly as possible to the sudden change in environment.

"Shit—hello?" she beckoned.

She reached out from the bathroom and was pleased to see a faint square of gray light pouring from the window. The white dress looked like a crouching lion in the dresser, dark and glazed, still as the moon. Victoria went to it and stuffed it into the back of the drawer, shutting it. Better, she thought. She walked out of the room and into the corridor, feeling the plush carpet of blackness envelope her. The corridor was a new place entirely; foreign when lost in some underground alternate reality, a dungeon of darkness and cold gas. Was it colder, or was she imagining it?

Victoria called again in the hall, receiving no reply. Then she heard a voice in her head. It was her own. Her shoulders caught like a hooked fish as she listened.

"What do you want to do, Ash?" the voice in her head recited as clear as an actual voice. "I don't know. I sort of want to get out of here as quick as possible." Ashley's voice said.

"Funny."

"What is?"

Victoria began to breathe heavily. She knew what this was. She knew what was coming next. Something in this house was mocking her.

"I want to stay," she heard the replica voice say.

Then in a deeper voice. "I want to stay." Then deeper and slower, like the lowest keys on a piano. "III waaanttt toooo staayyy."

She gritted her teeth and tightened her fists until her knuckles were white. Leave my head, she told the voice. Leave now. She fled downstairs and smacked open the kitchen door, hearing it swing back behind her. She twisted on the faucet and heard the faint aluminum cry as water peeled out of the hose. Cupping a pool in her shaky hands, she splashed it over her face. Yes, she thought. That feels so good. Her skin absorbed the cool water like a thirsty sponge, and she almost smiled. When she was ready, she crossed through the dining room and entered the main hall again. She heard voices descending the staircase, then echoed footsteps. After a moment, Ashley and Sasha emerged, running off the steps.

"Vicky!" they cried.

"I'm here," Vicky said.

"What's going on with the lights?" Sasha asked.

Behind her, the boys trotted along.

Victoria strugged to speak, in near pitch blackness. "No idea. Electricity off."

"We can see that, Einstein," Michael said. "Did you mess with anything?"

Vicky heard him, but could barely see him. "No!" she cried.

Kevin came up from behind him. "We need to gather everyone in the sitting room," he said.

"Shouldn't we get candles first?" Ashley said.

"We still have some working flashlights in the sitting room," Kevin responded, passing her.

Bleak and Wendy emerged from the ballroom, rolling the strain off their stiff necks.

"What happened?" Wendy asked, rubbing the nape of her neck.

"We don't know," Winston said.

They recovered three of their flashlights and turned them on. Their thick beams of light swirled about the room. Kevin asked the boys to help him start a fire in all the fireplaces in the house. They started with the sitting room, then Geo and Winston went into the main hall and dining room. Three fires. Michael didn't find another one anywhere else. Then they sought out candles. It didn't take long to find them. They were stock-piled in nearly every room, easily accessible to anyone. Geo held a thick bunch and felt the smooth, hard wax roll over his fingers.

"I got some," he said, bowling them onto the table.

They wasted no time in illuminating the house. The quicker this darkness was dealt with, the better. Victoria helped as much as the boys allowed her to, but she could tell that they didn't want her or Ashley to be a part of anything. Was this the time to make enemies? she thought in frustration.

She reached up, holding out her arms in a parallel line, feeling the joints in her elbows ache as she slipped two lit candles on a holder high on the wall. Hell, she didn't mind that they were trying to exclude her from this task. She didn't want to be a part of it. Let the men do all the hard work, she thought irritably.

"We're all done up here," Geo shouted into the hall from the staircase.

"And we're done down here," Kevin said, passing Victoria by.

The dim light was spread like checkpoints in the house. It helped, but it was nothing compared to the brilliance they had before. Didn't matter; they had to make the best of it. And it was better than utter darkness.

Ashley followed Victoria upstairs. They both did their pre-sleeping rituals and boarded their beds. Victoria marveled at how often she was sleepy here. She figured that the constant darkness had something to do with it. For a moment she got the thought that she might sleep and not wake up. She pushed the thought away and blew out the candles near her bed. Victoria closed her eyes. Ashley closed her eyes.

But the demons in the house never slept.

***

Victoria woke at some point in the everlasting night and for a moment conceived that everything thus far had been a bad dream. Then reality struck when she saw the dress hanging like earlier and the dark vanity table in the corner of the room. Hadn't she closed the dresser earlier? She willed the thought away. And another surprising thought came. Emily is dead. She's dead. The realization clung to her like the sweat-soaked tank top that clung to her shaking body. This was chaos. It was unreal. What time was it now? Did it matter?

She rose from bed gently, so as not to stir Ashley. She felt a throbbing at her temples as she walked in sandals over to the bathroom.

It was dark, but after a moment her eyes were accustomed enough to see herself, like she was seeing herself for the first time, in the mirror. She noted the dampness of her white tank top and decided that she must have sweated at some point in the night. Perhaps she was having nightmares. She felt ridiculous in her pajamas still; black and pink jammies and soft pink sandals. She wasn't prepared for this. None of them were.

Victoria fumbled water into her mouth, pumping her cheeks as the water swished around. She then washed her face and felt the cool water bringing her comfort. Strange that the water even works, she thought. Must be Winston's father's doing.

Victoria felt like her brain was on a timer. Every minute or so, her mind would click back to the horrifying dread that something killed Emily. Pulled her right under the ground. What did any of it mean? Wendy and Bleak admitted to coming here numerous times, so why were they never attacked? It was all too surreal to deal with now. It was impossible that a house could really be haunted, she knew. And yet, what happened to Emily, and the monsters from the ground, and what happened to the missing sunrise was clearly supernatural.

Victoria stared into the vastness of her brown eyes. Maybe she was dreaming. Without looking, she pinched the thin skin of her forearm and winced at the pain. She offered an amused, though weak, smile in the mirror at her vain attempt to grasp at reality. She'd get through it. They all would. She wasn't going to let anyone else die tonight.

Backing away, she inched toward the door.

She froze.

A voice.

It was Ashley's. Sasha must have come into the room frightened. No, something wasn't right. Ashley sounded strange. Behind the hollow door, Victoria could hear a crispy, stern voice.

Too loud.

The door yawned as Victoria crept through it, brighter shadows crossing darker ones as the door opened. She could see Ashley sitting up in bed, covers draped over her. Her eyes were closed, but she was smiling. Her breathing was rapid and light chuckles flooded from her throat. Victoria tensed as she stepped closer.

"I'll do it if I have to," Ashley sang in a malignant voice. "You know I'll do it if I have to."

She was sleep-talking. It didn't sound like her, though. Like the sound of a hair trimmer vibrating. It was her voice, but riddled with a dark tone.

"I'll do it!" Her voice erupted. "I'll do it if I have to!"

Victoria felt fear engulf her body. Her arms drooped and her chest clenched. She must be trying to frighten me, Victoria said to herself.

"Ashley, you're scaring—" Victoria started to say.

The sleeping girl leaped up to her knees as her head lolled backward and to the side. Her eyes still swelled shut.

"I did it once and I'll gladly do it again!" she chanted.

Victoria couldn't swallow. She couldn't move. Some force was keeping her feet pinned to the ground.

Ashley collapsed on the bed finally, bouncing as she turned to the side. She looked like a child now. All the rage seemed to be gone. But just before Victoria was able to move, Ashley whispered something barely audible. But Victoria heard it.

"I'll kill you if I have to, Vicky."

CHAPTER 8

Wendy's head bobbed up and down rhythmically as Bleak's chest expanded and deflated. Her hand, numbed, was lodged under his abdomen. She didn't care. She winced as she felt a sting under her wrist. When Bleak stirred and opened his eyes, he gasped before taking in his surroundings.

"Jesus, it's dark in here," he said.

"My hand," Wendy winced again.

"Oh." Bleak rolled to the side and Wendy slipped her hand out, sighing in relief and lifting the limp limb to her stomach. She gave it a few shakes.

"Sorry," Bleak said.

"No," she said. "I didn't mind."

"Why were you awake?"

"Couldn't sleep," she said.

"This whole time?"

"Huh?"

"You couldn't sleep this whole time?"

She ignored his question. "Do you want to sit on the veranda?"

"What?"

"Let's—"

"Why?" Bleak said, not hiding his confusion.

Wendy tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "I don't know. I need some fresh air. We've been inside too long."

"But it's not safe."

"The field isn't safe," she corrected him. "The veranda's fine."

None of it's safe, he thought. He didn't seem convinced but found himself already rising up from their makeshift bed on the floor.

"Okay," he sighed.

They left the parlor and tip-toed their way to the front door. They walked slowly with their arms out like zombies, Bleak leading and Wendy gripping his cotton sweater. When Bleak felt the door, he found the knob and twisted it with ease. The door creaked open and they stepped outside. Bleak propped a chair against the door to make sure they couldn't be locked out.

Wendy closed her eyes and sniffed at the cool air, feeling liberated for a fleeting moment. For a moment she was a free girl again, running across the street to Eldridge High and laughing with Bleak in class. Then it was gone.

She was a prisoner at Ashmore house again. To be free again, she thought in despair. What I'd give to be free again.

Bleak wrapped his arms around her from behind, and she flinched.

"What are you thinking about?" Bleak asked.

"I want to leave this place." It was such an obvious answer, but she really wanted that more than anything in the world. To leave. To run off this veranda, pass the fields, and find the block that welcomed her home. Home, her mind cried. Was it the four walls she'd known her whole life? Did that define a home? Not exactly, she decided. But home meant knowing that she was free to come and go as she pleased. Ashmore house was no home, it was a prison cell.

"We will," Bleak said, his arms closing tighter around her stomach. He couldn't know that, she knew, but she relished his faith anyway. To be peacefully sitting outside the school yard, or to watch the classroom from afar (she lived across the street from Eldridge High and was close enough to see, but not hear, her teacher's lectures from her bedroom window) and see Bleak wagging his hooded head obliviously to whatever music played in his head. Probably Radiohead. Wendy smiled. Her focus was sharpened again to the hazy lawn of the house. The moon was hidden behind smudgy clouds.

"I love you," Wendy said.

Bleak smiled behind her. "You've never told me that."

"Really?"

"Positive. I'd remember."

"Well..."

There was a silence, and Bleak was still grinning.

"Well," she started. "Do you love me back?"

He held her tighter. "I haven't thought about it lately."

She frowned. "You haven't thought about it?"

"That's not what I mean, I mean with everything—"

As Wendy turned away from Bleak, the door burst open. They saw Victoria move to the fence, vibrating in fear, her eyes pale marbles of terror.

"What happened?" Wendy said, unhooking Bleak's arms from her waist.

Victoria seemed hesitant about answering. Should she tell anyone? And if so, should she wait to tell Ashley first? No, she decided, Ashley may be in danger already. And she wasn't going to let her die needlessly like Emily had. Like Icarus probably had.

She tried not to cry as she spoke. "I think Abner is here," she said. "With us."

***

Ashley sat, because she couldn't stand, while Victoria told her and the others what she'd heard. The others were gathered around the sitting room in silence while she spoke.

"I did hear some noise from my room," Winston said.

"But," Ashley stammered. "I don't remember any of it."

"Wouldn't make a difference," Geo said. "Those things can happen. And if you're asleep when it does, you wouldn't feel a thing. I mean, it's like sleep-talking, except..."

"You're saying I was possessed by a demon?" Ashley touched her forehead.

"We didn't say that," Victoria said.

"But that's what you mean," Ashley finished, her voice a ripping fabric.

"What Vicky's saying is that we should be extra careful," Kevin's deep voice loomed over the rest.

"Careful, how?"

"We'll keep a closer watch on Ashley at night. See if she acts up again."

Ashley looked down, mouth agape, tears welling up in her eyes.

Sasha spoke up. "But who's to say this...possession can only happen to Ash? We're all in danger."

"She's right," Mike said.

"Well then," Victoria stood. "We'll all be extra careful. Maybe we can sleep in shifts."

Kevin rolled his eyes—more for rebellious effect, because deep down he knew that she'd made the right call.

They discussed what exactly was happening in the house. They knew about Abner Ashmore and his brother, about the girl he was driven to murder for. But other than what they'd heard through the grapevine, they had no other information. Who knew if any of that stuff was even true? Why, for instance, were all the adults so afraid of even mentioning Abner Ashmore? Did they know something that the younger kids didn't? Victoria wondered if the house itself had hidden within it some sort of clue. It had to. She'd found that white dress earlier, so there must be other items that were left behind. Something that could help them solve this mystery.

Victoria left the room and went back upstairs. Ashley offered to accompany her, but Victoria declined. It had nothing to do with being afraid of her, she convinced herself. She just needed to do this alone. But she knew she was lying to herself. She was afraid of Ashley now. Afraid of her own best friend. Now when she looked at her, she could only see that horrible grin and the swelled-shut eyes. The malignant voice and the rolling head, veins bulging at the side of her neck.

That wasn't her, Victoria's mind objected.

She retrieved a flashlight from Kevin's room and searched the corridor upstairs from end to end. Perhaps they’d missed something earlier in their exploration. For a while she found nothing new. Then, behind the stairs, she saw a large red curtain. She swung it aside. There were two doors that looked heavy and staid, like bouncers at a club. She tried the handle. To her surprise, they were unlocked. She slipped her head into the room and found it pitch black. It looked eerie in the dark, void of any life. She turned on the flashlight and searched the room in spasms, moving in waves over what looked to be dusty wooden pews. It looked like a chapel. As she stepped in, Victoria came across a bible that was opened atop one of the pews. She looked closer and saw that it was turned to the book of Psalms. For how long? she wondered chillingly. How long has this page been open for? Years? Decades? The thought disturbed her.

She read a random passage.

"Oh God, whom I praise, do not be silent, for wicked and treacherous mouths attack me. They speak against me with lying tongues; with hateful words they surround me, attacking me without cause. In return for my love they slander me, even though I prayed for them. They repay me evil for good, hatred for my love."

She dropped the book hard when she heard something fall near the altar. Her flashlight swirled to the right and held in place. She waited for a moment until a black rat raced for the back of the room, its silhouette like a dancing candle wick on the wall.

Treacherous mouths attack me, she thought. I feel your pain, Psalmist. Her legs carried her behind the altar, the floorboards wailed and dust puffed up from each step. She looked up at the statue of Jesus on the cross. It was life-sized. The messiah's face was a pasty white, his eyes the same pale skin color. His hair was long and chipped in places. By the look of it, Victoria felt that she could snap the weak-looking porcelain statue if she tried.

Why was there a chapel here? she wondered. Was Abner religious? Or the couple he murdered? She couldn't imagine Abner making any good use of this room.

She walked back to leave the room when her flashlight caught glance of something on the floor. It was a paper; it had fallen from the Bible when she'd dropped it. The note was folded and Victoria knelt down to pick it up. She unfolded it. The creases were deep and sharp.

She read the top.

My Dear Sebastian—

Victoria stopped and looked up slowly. Sebastian? Abner's brother? She lowered her gaze after a moment and continued to read.

My Dear Sebastian,

Especially on evenings like these do I feel the dread that comes from your absence. Has it really been only ten days? Unimaginable. Though I must be strong for twice the length of torture I endured this past week, I fear that I'm not able.

When I put this ink to use, I can imagine you lingering above me, reading my words aloud. In my former letter, I saw a droplet of ink seep into the side of the paper and was convinced, if only for a moment, that it was your tears landing strong on the page. I remember turning quickly to find that I was wrong. And I was alone again.

When shall you return, my love? I know the date, yet days are not days when you're gone. They become years. And months become too long to bear. You'll be gone a month, and I will age thirty years until you return. Until then, I will do my best to take good care of the house.

The house is well. Abner is, as expected, still behaving strangely. Since your father passed away (forgive me for bringing it up again), I don't think he's been the same. I suppose that's normal.

Regardless, things are okay. And I am happy. Believe me that I am. When you asked me to marry you, my whole world came together. We were meant for each other, Sebastian. I know it with all of my heart. I long, with a dripping pain in my chest, for us to be united as one again. I know you do, too. Our love is a masterpiece. Our love cannot be marred.

Hurry home, lest I die.

Love,

Evelyn

Victoria lowered the letter. Some parts of it didn't make sense to her, but Victoria would discuss it with Ashley later. Where had Sebastian gone? And in what ways was Abner acting strangely? She reminded herself not to forget to ask the others. Right now, she just wanted to get out of this room. She realized how cold the room was, and shivered as she made her way to the door, the bright light of the flashlight bobbing on the ground.

Then she heard a noise. A low groan. She didn't know whose it was, but it was a woman's voice.

"Vicky," she heard from behind her. Like a whisper. Her muscles turned to stone.

"Vicky."

"Who's there?" she said, turning.

"Vicky," the voice said again.

It wasn't in her head like last time. It was coming from the altar. Victoria wanted to run away but found herself walking towards the noise. What the heck am I doing? she thought. But on she walked. She passed the lonely pews and the Bible she had dropped earlier, and stood before the altar. Behind the podium, she saw a small pool of...something. Too dark to be water.

No, it's blood.

Victoria felt fear nibble her insides as she raised her neck, despite the cold tickling in it. From her neck to her spine she felt the hairs rise like balloons being inflated.

She only glanced at the cross for a split second, and then she fell and her hands splashed over the pool of blood.

God, no. No, no—no. Shit! Shit... Impossible. Impossible. Why wasn't she sprinting away? she wondered. On the cross, Jesus wasn't there. No, she didn't see Jesus when she looked up.

Victoria saw her mother.

She looked again. They made eye contact, and when they did, her mother blew her a kiss. She hung on the cross, naked, bleeding from her groin. The blood dripped into the larger puddle on the ground. There were large nails holding her thin body up by her hands and legs.

And her mother was smiling. A wide, plastered grin. Her dark brown hair was greasy and hanging adhesively against her breasts.

"Hi, honey," the porcelain statue said in a cordial voice. "Could you help me down?"

Victoria felt her body rack like snapping branches. She stood frozen in place, her mouth a hanging hole.

"What's wrong, baby?" The woman's head swiveled, her hair following her pale, sweaty face like a flaccid tail. She spread her thighs wide, her vagina covered by a crop of thick hair. "Don't you like my pussy? It's bloody for you."

In the next second, the blood from the statue's vaginal area sprayed violently over Victoria's shirt and pajamas.

Victoria cried and maniacally wiped the blood off her hands. Somehow, it had already dried on her palms, like a remindful tattoo.

"Oh my God!" Victoria screamed.

"What is it, honey?" her mother said, looking concerned. "You don't like it? I thought you would. I'm your mother. I thought you missed me. You don't miss me?"

Victoria couldn't speak. Her brain knew no language for a moment.

"My own daughter doesn't miss me!" the statue screamed. "My bitch daughter doesn't miss me! And she won't even lick my bloody cunt! What good daughter wouldn't?!" The clay statue began to laugh, and her eyes became pale white. Sickly purple veins were bulging all over her body. Vicky felt like throwing up. She stood without strength and caught her balance on the podium behind her.

"Don't leave me," mother said. "I'm sorry."

"Shut up," Victoria huffed, feeling faint.

"Why don't you miss me?"

"Shut up!"

"Lick my cunt! Lick it, honey! It's tasty, I promise! Suck my tits!"

Victoria lifted the small, wooden podium and swung it hard into her mother's waist. A chunk of the porcelain statue smashed to pieces on the ground.

"Oww," the statue cried. "I'm already dead, don't kill me again. Remember how I died? "

"You're not my mother!" Victoria cried.

"If I wasn't your mother, how could I possibly know that you enjoy licking my cunt?"

The statue's laughter rose again. She began flicking her tongue wildly at Victoria, spreading her legs wider.

"What do you want from me?" Victoria asked, her voice a wisp of drained energy.

"I already told you," mother said. "It starts with..."

"Don't waste my time, Abner."

"Abner?" her mother feigned confusion. "Who's Abner?"

"You," Victoria said. "You're Abner. You're not my mother!"

"Suck my nice—"

"Shut up!"

"You got me. I'm Abner. I thought you would fall for my trick. I know how much you loved your mother's cunt."

The statue still resembled her mother in appearance, but her voice was deep like the heavy echo of a drunk man in an alley.

"I'm not going to let you hurt me," Victoria pressed her eyes shut. "You can't hurt me. You can't hurt any of us. This is all mental. A mental game."

"Too late for Icarus and Emily! Too late! Too late!" The statue's laughter grew so loud that Victoria wondered how anyone else in the house hadn't heard.

"But not anymore. We have our guard up now," Victoria said.

"Wrong. Wrong-wrong-wrong! Go see downstairs. Go see!"

Victoria stumbled over the fallen podium and looked back at the statue.

It was Jesus again. The broken chunk was still missing where Victoria had crashed the podium.

She bolted out and rushed downstairs. Bleak and Wendy were the only pair occupying a room in the first floor; the others apparently had already retired to their rooms upstairs. She saw Bleak emerge from the dining room with a glass of water.

"Where's Wendy?" Victoria cried.

Bleak nodded to the ballroom. "Asleep," he said.

Victoria ran to the door and jiggled the door handle.

It was locked. Victoria could hear Wendy on the other side of the door. The door was thick, but she heard it.

Wendy's muffled screams.

CHAPTER 9

Victoria ran upstairs to find the others while Bleak stayed behind, looking for some way to penetrate the locked door. They were all in their rooms as she'd hoped. When Victoria trampled into Kevin's room, he sat erect from his bed. Sasha was hidden in the covers, but her blonde hair failed to hide her.

"What are you doing in here?" Kevin shouted, his muscular arms twitching, making sure the blankets were covering the lower half of his body.

"I'm sorry," Victoria cried, covering her eyes. "Wendy's in trouble. She got locked inside the ballroom."

"What?" Kevin jerked the covers and wrapped them around his waist, leaving Sasha squirming naked on the bed trying to veil her body with pillows. Victoria turned away rapidly.

"Shit, Kevin!" Sasha roared. "Asshole."

Kevin put his jeans and shirt on in the bathroom and followed Victoria downstairs. The whole way down the spirally staircase, they heard Bleak shouting, "Breathe easy and slow, baby. Easy and slow. We're getting you out of there."

Victoria nearly tripped on the first step and fumbled beside Bleak. He caught her and shook her. "What are we gonna do?"

Victoria's eyes flickered back and forth from Bleak to the door. She didn't know. The entire hall was dark now, whatever they were able to see only permissible by their adjusted eyes.

"Wendy?" Bleak's hand slapped the door. "Are you there?"

There was a painful silence before Wendy's hollow voice said: "There's a window here. It's outside on the veranda. I can't open it."

Bleak's strained eyes lit up the room with faint hope. He tugged at Victoria's wrist and they ran outside, the rest of the crew—except Sasha, who was likely still dressing herself upstairs—met them and trailed behind. Outside, the cold, milky air bathed their skin and spines, and the sky was a purple soup with swimming clouds. A parade of footsteps bounced over the wooden boards of the veranda searching until Bleak shouted, "Here it is!"

It was a tiny square window, about the size of a laptop screen. Wendy's petrified face was pasted on the window, her skin pale-white. She was breathing so fast that her head rocked up and down.

The window was high and Bleak had to move a rocking chair to stand on it. He nearly stumbled before catching himself on the wall. Geo and Kevin held the chair in place for him.

"We need to break it right now!" Bleak shouted. His voice was hoarse and demanding, a tone none of the others had expected to hear from him.

Winston and Mike ran back into the house and came out a minute later with instruments from the kitchen, and the shovel from the fireplace. They tried the shovel first.

"Move!" Kevin roared. He stood up on the chair and buried the shovel hard into the window. It made an eerie scratching sound, but it didn't break. He flipped the shovel to its end and tried again. A screech and nothing more. Several more times. Nothing.

"Let me try," Bleak insisted. He yanked the shovel from Kevin's hands and Kevin slipped over the chair, crashing to the floor. Bleak mumbled an apology and climbed the chair again.

For the next few minutes he went wild on the window, with Wendy's face blinking behind it. Slamming the shovel against it to no avail. Only minor scratches. Wendy's face looked like a still-life painting behind the glass, like something that belonged framed on the wall.

“There's...” she said dimly from behind the glass. “There's someone in here with me."

She was very still, as was Bleak, as if not to disturb whatever presence lingered inside.

"What do you mean?" Bleak whispered, his eyes never leaving hers.

Wendy swallowed. "I see it."

"What?" cried Bleak.

"On the glass. Reflected on the glass."

"Don't turn around."

"I won't."

"What does it look like, baby?" he said.

She thought about it, her voice a shaking leaf, flitting through the words quickly. "An old woman. White eyes. She's smiling. No teeth. Oh no..." Wendy's voice trailed off.

"What?" Bleak cried. "What is it?"

"She's walking this way. Baby, please get me out!"

Bleak continued slamming at the glass with the shovel at a hundred miles an hour, a maniacal gleam in his eyes. His lips flapped wildly in the cold October air, some saliva slipping from his mouth.

The glass remained intact. Wendy was crying on the other side.

Bleak began to weep and dropped the shovel. He didn't know how else to save her. Wendy's hand pressed against the glass. Bleak moved his hand to meet hers. The glass was cold and dead, an infinite barrier keeping Bleak from his Love.

"I love you," Bleak said.

"I love you, too," Wendy said.

He could hardly see her through his running tears, but she looked beautifully afraid.

"Bleak?" Wendy's voice was frailer than even before.

"Yes?"

"I can't see anything. Are you there?" Her eyes were milky white now; somehow she’d gone blind.

"Yes, baby, I'm here." Bleak was sobbing now.

"Kiss me," she said.

"Of course. Press your lips to the glass, baby."

Bleak saw her thin lips press over the glass, and he immediately leaned in to the kiss them. He closed his eyes and pretended they were home, cuddled in bed watching movies together. Pretended there was no glass barrier, no chair beneath him, no Ashmore house at all.

They both pulled away at nearly the exact time. Wendy was smiling lovingly, as if she were imagining the same thing as Bleak.

"You owe me a dance," she said. "Someday when we're together again."

"Someday?" Bleak felt a lump in his throat.

"I feel it," she said. "She must be right behind me now. She's taking me away."

"No..."

"I'm not scared anymore. This was supposed to happen."

"What do you mean?" Bleak cried. "I'm scared."

"I see the bigger picture now." Wendy smiled, her blind eyes glowing. "Why we all were brought here. It was for love. Oh—she's here. The wait is over, the wait is over."

"Baby," Bleak wept. "Don't go. How can I do anything without you?"

Before she could answer, dark blood began to leak out of her mouth, first in minute streams, then in gurgling cannons of oily red that sprayed against the window like a broken fire hydrant. Bleak fell back off the chair and the others caught him. He was a mess of tears and screams. The window thumped with blood pressure before subsiding.

Then the window dripped. His Wendy's blood.

"Cover his eyes!" Ashley shouted. "Don't let him see!"

The others wrestled Bleak until he gave in and heaved his tears on the wooden floor. Kevin had his hands on his knees and his face looked to be changing colors like a chameleon.

Bleak felt silent rage at the noise around him, at the people attempting to make little of everything he'd just lost. Cover my eyes? his mind hissed. Don't let me see? As if I could forget in a long blink! As if my Wendy wasn't just murdered before my eyes.

Bleak gripped the balcony of the veranda and eased his body to a sitting position. The others could only watch. He flexed his throat to vomit, but nothing came out. Only a low gurgle. A croak. He pressed his eyes shut and tried to pretend it hadn't happened. Wendy didn't die. She didn't die.

Not his Wendy. Not his.

Victoria motioned for the others to come back into the house. They followed her silently, passing the creaking floorboards one by one.

Sasha was in the hall when they entered, wearing Kevin’s jacket. Victoria averted making eye contact with her, while Winston did just the plain opposite. He gazed at her and his fists tightened, then loosened as he turned away. The house smelled like settled dust, Victoria thought; an old wet smell that seemed to produce a film of mucus on her nose if she breathed too heavily.

"What's going on?" Sasha asked in the dark, her eyes darting to everyone, but mostly Kevin.

"Wendy is dead." It was Winston's voice, tight and emotionless.

Bleak winced at his words.

"No," Sasha gasped. Winston ignored her and went into the kitchen.

Victoria and Ashley were looking at each other from across the fixture where the torso statues flexed. It was dark, but somehow their eyes had adjusted better. Victoria could sense the question on Ashley's unmoving lips: Who's next? What now?

Mike was fiddling with the ballroom's door handle, trying to unlock it.

"Move," Bleak demanded, shoving Michael aside.

Bleak tried the door again. This time it opened with ease. His eyes weaved shut in anger. Of course it opens now, he thought.

The smell that flooded out of the room was grotesque and pungent. Bleak flung his head back and bellowed out a crying cough.

"Christ," Geo hissed.

"We'll do it, Bleak," Kevin said, stepping forward. "Don't worry about it."

"Go get me the tablecloth," Bleak said.

"The..." Kevin started, then just turned toward the kitchen and obeyed.

Sasha followed him. Winston watched her go from his peripheral.

Bleak tried to take a breath in the room again, but ended up coughing hoarsely. The room smelled of hot blood and rotting meat. Jesus Christ! My Wendy was dead! He pressed at his eyelids until they stung from the pressure, then collected his small, running tears with his thumb.

Kevin jogged back into the hall, the white tablecloth slithering across the floor like an anaconda. He handed it to Bleak, who took it without looking.

"Hold the door for me," he said.

He entered the black room with the cloth pressed his fingers against his mouth and nose. He wasn't certain what to expect. All he knew was that he couldn't leave Wendy in there. She needed a proper burial. He owed at least that to her.

He felt the tablecloth grow heavier and stopped. He lifted the cloth. It had about a pound of more weight on it. Bleak felt the bottom of the cloth and found that it was drenched in blood. He cried out so loud that Kevin poked his head in.

"You okay?"

Bleak grunted. "I'm dandy, just hold the damn door!"

Kevin's shadow retreated.

Bleak walked over the puddles of blood and tried to steady his breathing. It felt as difficult as trying to balance a marble on a knife. He felt something watching him from within the room, and for a fleeting moment he imagined the woman Wendy had described. The woman who took her away. He looked back hastily to see Kevin still slouched at the door, holding his nose as well. Dammit, where was she? he thought in distress.

It didn't take long after that for his foot to kick at something beneath him. Heavy enough that he knew it was Wendy. He leaned over and felt with his hand until he poked something. It must be her shoulder, he thought. It was, but he realized that her body was face down. My poor baby.

Bleak took in a heavy breath and held it, tossing the tablecloth over Wendy's body and tucking his arms to interlock with hers. He slipped on the blood and regained his footing, then began to tug. The pool of blood beneath Wendy made her easier to slide, and for a shameful moment he was relieved that the blood was there to help. He cried out. He just yelled and pulled, screamed and yanked. Roared and carried the body closer to the open door. Kevin knew not to interfere.

Bleak finally came into the dim light of the hallway, which the girls had lit with candles again. Victoria and Ashley were still there waiting, and almost regretted it when they saw the body. Wendy's hair was a mop of blood. Her tiny, frail body was pale and looked soft like uncooked meat. Blood followed her across the floor in sickly brush strokes, and Bleak was sobbing now. The smell was unbearable; her insides were all gushed out. Like a human's organs were put in a blender and poured all over the ground.

Bleak stumbled to the ground and held his bloody hands in front of him. The tablecloth wasn't a tablecloth any longer. It looked more like a wet red tongue, caught in a lick over Wendy's limp body.

Everyone knew they had to get rid of the body immediately if this house was to become at least moderately livable. The smell was sure to remain for weeks, and the ballroom was surely lost altogether.

"Bleak," Victoria said to the sobbing boy. "You need to let us take her."

He nodded. At first, Bleak thought he wanted to see her again. To perhaps hold her body again or to kiss her lips. He couldn't imagine kissing her now. That bloody corpse wasn't his Wendy. It couldn't be. Wendy smelled like flowers and bath soap. Wendy's skin was a healthy pale hue.

Bleak keeled over and vomited on the tiles, only adding to the impossible smell they now had to live with.

***

Bleak fainted, and after, the posse carried him to the sitting room sofa and unscrewed the lock of the door with a dull knife. They planned on doing this to every door in the house, but first, they had to get rid of that body.

Wendy, Kevin scolded himself. Her name is WENDY! not “that body”. We're not savages.

The boys wrapped their faces with their shirts, looking like bandits.

"I'm going with you." Winston was standing at the brink of the stairway.

Kevin scoffed, and when he saw that Winston was serious, he nodded. "If you can stand it."

Winston undid the buttons of his shirt and whipped his sleeves off. His bony, pale chest was a dot in the dead gray room. He raveled his shirt over his face and followed them to the center of the room wordlessly.

The next thirty minutes were the worst they'd encountered at Ashmore house since their arrival. Their petrified faces confirmed this. Not a word floated off their lips throughout the entire push and pull, toss and bury procedure. Kevin felt as though he were trying to piece together a bad movie reel in his mind; each frame of time feeling worse than the last. He wanted to rip the film apart and wake up from this nightmare. All those hopes were futile, he knew.

They were afraid upon arriving at the backyard that those monsters from underground would surface again. When they spoke about burying Wendy, they really meant above ground. The quicker they got out of the yard, the better. The boys shoveled some dirt over Wendy's ragdoll form and patted the soil evenly. Or, as even as they could get it. They had to make sure Bleak wouldn't see her this way. He would definitely insist on burying her, despite the risk involved.

"Ah!" Michael cried. "I can't get that horrible smell away from me! It's in my hair! My nails, everywhere!"

Winston's nose wriggled and his eyes shut tight. Geo seemed preoccupied trying not to throw up. Kevin dabbed at the sweat lolling down his face with his wrist. "Try not to think about it. Let's go do the doors. Me and Geo will work on the knobs, you two just cover us. Let us know if any of those things come at us."

Kevin and Geo began with the front door of the house. This main door had a complex knob unlike the other rooms, so they had to settle on breaking the knob altogether. This was hard for Winston to watch. It was, technically, his house. The rest of the house took about an hour to clear. They cleaned the vomit that was near the ballroom, where Bleak had puked.

Bleak had been awake the whole time, sitting alone by the fire. His eyes were like toasting marshmallows behind the flames. How would he remember Wendy? As that dead transfiguration? Surely not, but to him it was the most prominent image in his mind. It was difficult to remember the former, beautiful Wendy after seeing her face that way—the cracked jaw, the slipped-out and bloody tongue, the rolled back eyes. The blood. What an inhumane way for such an amazing person to die. For anyone to die. Abner would pay for what he did. Bleak would send him to Hell himself if he had to. If that's what it took, he'd kill himself and find Abner. And in that world of the dead, he would find Wendy again and keep her safe.

As he fantasized all this, he kept rediscovering how delicious the plan sounded. To take his life, against what alternative? Rotting away in this horrible house for the next few weeks? Or worse, to suffer the same fate as Wendy and Emily? No, Bleak wouldn't go that way. He would take his own life if he had to. Then maybe he could fight back and end Abner's dominion over this house.

Bleak stood and felt the heat drift away as he left the fire. The questions wouldn't cease. Why had he left her alone? If only he'd stayed. They at least could have died together. He hated himself for it. Years ago he had considered taking his own life. His childhood, he figured, was pretty decent for an only child. But then again, he only thought that because he couldn't remember much of it. As he got older, however, it became obvious to him just how horrible his family was. His mother was a witch and his father a day-in and day-out drunk. He could deal with the drunk, who was really just absent most of the time, the way a sponsor is when he sends a check to feed a child in some third-world country, and nothing more. Nothing intimate. The witch, on the other hand, he wanted dead. He realized that hate was a strong word, and he double-hated her. Lucky for him (or unlucky, depending on how one perceived it), the old lady did die after all. A heart attack. And after about a week and a half of guilt and scolding himself for not trying to love her while she was alive, he concluded after all that he was glad she died. It was a horrible thing to admit, but at least it was the truth. She was a witch and a bitch and both should be burned at the stake.

Victoria came to a halt right outside the room as Bleak stepped out.

She gasped. "Oh, hey. I was just coming to check up on you."

"Why?"

Victoria surrendered a shake of her head. "Honestly? I don't think it's safe for any of us to be left alone right now. Especially...you know..."

"Well, I'm fine." Bleak shoved past Victoria and the candle on the wall nearly went out. Victoria stood there without looking back, regretting her approach. He needed time alone. None of the people here were really friends with Bleak at school except for Wendy. He lost the one person who related to him. For someone like him, that had to be nearly impossible to cope with.

Victoria found some incense stored away in one of the kitchen cabinets and lit a few around the first floor near the ballroom. It didn't do much, but it kept her busy. Plus, she needed a way to mask that smell. The smell of Wendy's guts and organs. It was the type of awful odor that summoned not only the sense of smell, but also that of taste. The smell gave her a stomach ache, and soon it would permeate throughout the entire first floor. Something had to be done.

As she was done lighting the last of the incense sticks, she heard a melodic hum float through the walls. It sounded like it was coming from the sitting room where Bleak had just been. Victoria felt her chest freeze itself as her gaze trickled to the door. It's a trap, she thought. Abner is trying to trap us again. But the doors were unlocked. And besides, the sitting room door was a normal door, unlike the bulky door guarding the ballroom. She would just poke her head in. Just to see what it was.

Victoria inched closer to the door in the darkness and the tune swelled louder. It was the piano. Someone was playing the piano. It seemed like something silly that would happen in a ghost movie; to walk in the room only to find the black and white piano keys pinching up and down at the control of some invisible pianist. Compared to what they'd witnessed the past couple of days, the idea didn't seem all that frightening.

When she swung open the door, Kevin flared his head at her from behind the piano.

"I thought you were a ghost," Victoria sighed.

The piano stool creaked as he shifted his weight. "Who believes in ghosts anymore?" He smirked.

Victoria strolled closer. "I didn't know you played the piano."

"Why would you?"

She nodded and looked away.

Kevin offered a weak smile and lowered his fingers onto the ivory keys again. "My mom made me learn when I was young. I had ADHD pretty bad when I was a kid. I couldn't sit still. It got better as I got older, but sometimes when I'm stressed out, sitting at the piano for a while helps."

He began to play again. The melody swelled like perfume, a sound that didn't belong in this evil house. Victoria felt her muscles relax for the first time in days. She felt that familiar stinging behind her eyes.

Tears again.

But she wouldn't let them show. One slipped away and she nearly slapped her eye to veil it. Kevin didn't notice. He seemed so focused on the music. So enchanted at selecting the right keys to play. And Victoria was enchanted too. Up and down the notes dribbled, like laughing children coming down the stairs hard on Christmas morning. The fire was nearly out now, but she could still hear the crunch of the ashes, adding to the serene sound.

"Aaaaaahhhhhh!!!"

They both turned to the door panic-stricken. The music burped off.

"What was that?" Kevin huffed.

Victoria didn't answer. She ran into the hall and Kevin followed. It was dark and most of the candles had gone off, but they could both see clear enough Ashley screaming on the stairs. And Bleak hanging limp from a noose tied to the top of the staircase.

***

Kevin bolted to Bleak and was able to reach the sole of his shoes. He pushed his arms up with all the strength he had and felt Bleak's knees nearly buckle.

"Untie the curtain!" he shouted. "Go go go!"

Ashley looked confused while Victoria ran past her. By this point, the entire crew was at the stairs. Victoria fingered the knot but it was too tight.

"Hurry!" Kevin roared.

"I'm trying, goddammit!"

It was too tight. The weight of Bleak's body added too much force to undue the knot. Bleak must have done it this way to make sure they couldn't save him.

No. Victoria wasn't going to let another one die. Not another.

She stood and kicked the wooden banister three times before it snapped like a bone, then quickly slipped the knot over the sharp, toothy stub of the railing.

Bleak came down with the curtain in one quick decline. Kevin half caught him and half crumbled to the floor.

Passing a paralyzed Ashley again, Victoria met Kevin at the foot of the staircase. The fallen curtain formed some sort of awkward tent which Kevin had to fight off him.

"Is he alive?" Victoria said, lapsing to her knees.

Kevin blinked, mouth agape, and turned to listen to Bleak's heavy wheezing. Bleak's face was cold-white. His neck was purple. After a moment, Bleak opened his eyes and began coughing. It took him a while to realize where he was and what had happened. For a moment he thought he was dead, he thought he’d succeeded. Then he saw Victoria's face and the chandelier behind her.

"What did you do?" Bleak groaned.

"We saved you," Kevin shouted. “Are you cra—”

"WHAT DID YOU DO!" Bleak began kicking wildly and swinging his arms. He struck Victoria in the jaw and Kevin hurled his body onto Bleak's writhing figure. "Calm down!"

The burst of pain in Victoria's jaw sent a raw feedback throughout her entire body, and she rubbed her face.

"I was only trying to—" she started.

"What have you done?" Bleak asked again.

"—you were going to kill yourself—"

"Why didn't you let me—"

"—I couldn't... I couldn't..."

Bleak sat up with all the strength he had in his aching muscles and gripped Victoria's slumped shoulders. She flinched.

"Why didn't you let me die?" he begged again.

Bleak's eyes adopted a new heaviness and his shoulders began to shudder as tears scratched down his cheeks.

"Why didn't..." he tried again, but his convulsing lungs wouldn't let him speak. He just continued to cry. For Wendy. For home. For himself.

For everything.

Inside the walls of Ashmore house he cried in Victoria's arms.

CHAPTER 10

The gang couldn't tell time anymore; none of them had cared enough to draw up a calendar or keep track of the days. Without the sun to come or go, the endless night became their only reality, and time became useless to them. And without food, they felt too hopeless to give that any of their attention. Instead, they let the endless night swim around their heads like the god that it was, making its own rules and forcing them to play along.

They could assume that about a week or so had passed since their arrival, though it felt more like years. They were seldom hygienic; they only showered when they felt compelled to solitude or when the smell got too bad. And they were all noticeably thinner—the well-fitted clothes they had arrived in now hung around their bodies like morose reminders of what used to fill them—and now food seemed to be everything that any of them ever thought about. They tried not to talk about it, though, because it was hopeless and they already wanted to escape their thoughts.

Everyone had fallen asleep as Sasha rolled out of bed, making sure not to wake Kevin. In the vacuum of darkness, she had to slide across the floor to avoid stepping on Geo, who was somewhere asleep on the carpet floor.

Sasha found the coated glaze of the wooden door and pushed it open, her head projecting closer as the crack grew wider. She felt a sudden chill move in her, and for a moment she contemplated going back to bed.

She couldn't. She was too thirsty.

At least, Sasha acknowledged, they had water. It wasn't food, but it was something to fill their bellies and she was grateful for that. Her stomach growled in agreement as she made her way into the upstairs corridor. She could see the only window to the far left wall spitting blue light into the room. As she turned to close the door, her body tensed up as the room across from her began to open. It was Winston's room.

"Hello? Winston?" she whispered in the vulgar darkness.

"It's me," Winston's voice said, his shadow bobbing into the corridor.

Sasha sighed in relief and clutched at her skirt. For some odd reason, she was afraid she hadn't been wearing any clothes. Sleep deprivation, she supposed. None of them were thinking clearly anymore.

"Where are you going?" he asked, stepping closer into that blue light. His hair was licked by the pillow and unfixed, his glasses off.

"I'm going to drink. My stomach wouldn't let me sleep."

Winston made a repulsed sound. "I can't even drink lately. I've been throwing up water every day." He felt immediate regret at telling her that.

She made a scoffing sound. "I understand." The words came out light-hearted, but deep down they were both very, very sad. And very, very afraid.

"Can I walk you to the kitchen?" Winston said. "I don't want you going down there alone."

"Yes, please." She smiled. "I'm glad you're awake. You always seem to be the only one awake when I need it most."

They were the words Winston wanted to hear, but at the same time he felt his body wince with anger at them. Kevin had Sasha's affection because he didn't try. He didn't need to. And in turn that made him irresistible to her. It was lunacy, but it was the way of the world. And even this house couldn't change that; if anything, this house made that law thicker and truer.

They made their way downstairs, hearing a low crunch when they stepped over fragments of the broken banister. It was amazing to Winston that the human eye could adjust so steeply to the darkness if in it for long enough. He thought of Alaska's thirty days of night and the absurd darkness almost felt normal. But that was where the similarities ended, because Alaska didn't have demons wearing the darkness around their bodies like bear skin.

Once in the kitchen, Sasha leaned over the sink and turned on the faucet. It spat cold water and, after a few seconds, settled to shoot a clear stream. She opened her mouth beneath the stream and felt the refreshing water fill her mouth like a sensual kiss. She closed her eyes, and some rivulets of water rolled down her neck.

When she couldn't drink anymore, she thought about food again. Her eyes snapped open.

"Food..." she mumbled. It almost sounded comical to her own ears. But it angered Winston.

"I can't take this anymore," he almost shouted. "I can't, I can't!"

Sasha withdrew from the sink and gave him a sad look of reprieve. "It won't be much longer."

"How the bloody hell do you know that?" Winston snapped.

She blinked to the floor. "I don't. I'm just trying to think positive."

"Maybe positive thinking is our enemy."

"Abner is our enemy," she said. "And if you don't want to panic and kill yourself like Emily did, like Bleak almost did, you'd better start looking on the bright side, too."

"What makes you think Bleak panicked? Perhaps he's the only sensible one in this group."

Sasha wagged her head, looking repulsed. "You're saying we should have let him kill himself?"

Winston shrugged. "It was his choice. He lost Wendy. He wasn't happy here. He was alone."

"None of us are happy here. And we're all alone." Sasha spoke through clenched teeth.

"Not all of us," Winston said. "Victoria has Ashley still. Geo's got Mike..." He drifted off and pressed his palm on the countertop, speaking softly. "You've got Kevin..."

Sasha felt the muscles in her cheek relax a little. "Is that what this is about?"

Winston scoffed. "This isn't about anything. This is about the fact that, really, Bleak and I are the outsiders of this group."

"You're wrong, Winston."

"Am I?" He pressed his eyes shut. "Maybe coming down here with you wasn't such a good idea."

"With me, you see?" she said. "You are hiding something from me."

"I'm not."

"Winston, please," she begged, and placed her hand over his. At her touch, he felt something like electricity coursing through his arms.

He withdrew his hand. "What you did to me wasn't fair," he said.

She was silent for a long moment. In the dark, she could see his eyes polished with the tears he held back.

"I know," she spoke softly. When he didn't say anything, she felt a gaping hole in her gut. "I'm sorry," she said.

"I'm not a monster," he said. She could see his jaw flex and retract and knew that he was trying very hard to not cry.

"No one said you were," she said.

"Whatever hurt you wasn't me," he whispered, his voice breaking in between words.

"I know," she said again. But she couldn't accept it. In her mind, she had been in the bed with Winston. As it turned out, it was some...monster, as Winston had put it. Whatever else it might have been was left to her imagination. All she knew was that it had traumatized her indefinitely. She could never sleep in that room again. Never consider the idea of sleeping with Winston after that. She just couldn't. Why couldn't he understand that?

Abruptly, Winston turned from the sink and walked in long strides out of the kitchen. Sasha heard the door slam shut and shuddered at the idea that it might have woken someone upstairs. Kevin, her mind thought automatically. Stop it, she told herself. You're hurting Winston. So just stop it, already.

She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear and felt a thin layer of grime on her hair, and a tangle of knots that hadn't been there when she first arrived at the house. This place was killing them, sure enough. Winston was right; it was only a matter of time now.

She made her way out of the gloomy kitchen. Being in that room felt like being trapped within a cold cardboard box. She shivered as she opened the door and ventured into the main hall again, this time alone. The nerve of that kid, she thought. To offer to escort me downstairs only to leave me stranded. The jerk.

Sasha could see the high ceiling clearly, and the unlit chandelier sparkling with gray and black specks. She felt like she was being watched and forced herself not to look at the walls. They were buried in shadows and she didn't want to imagine someone standing there.

She couldn't move. Somewhere to her right, she heard the faint yet audible sound of someone crying. It seemed to be coming from the wine cellar downstairs. Was it Winston? Had he gone there alone to cry? It was a sad thought, but it was also likely. He had, after all, considered himself to be one of the outcasts. Or had he used the word “outsider”? Sasha couldn't remember... But there was no way she was going down there to console him. She cared about Winston, probably more than most of her friends here, but she wasn't going to risk her life to help him. It might be another one of Abner's traps, after all. Two girls had died already, no boys yet. She wasn't going to let herself be the third. At least one boy had to die before another girl did. No, she thought. No one else is dying, got it? No one, not one!

Unless Abner was only after the girls. Could it be? It made sense—he hated Evelyn because she was betrothed to Sebastian. Maybe he wanted every girl in this house dead. So far, he'd killed two.

The thought made her panic, and in a jolt of fear she sprinted to the stairs and found herself in the second-floor corridor a few seconds later. As she walked, she could see Winston's bedroom door closed.

It hadn't been closed before. She could swear that when they'd gone downstairs together, he'd left the door open. Had she imagined it? No, she was positive.

Sasha could still hear someone crying downstairs. The sound had grown louder. Or maybe she was imagining it. This fucking house, she thought with a shudder. She walked up to Winston's door, if only to add distance between her and the stairs. She felt an icy chill as her hand floated up to push open the door.

"Hello?" she said inside.

There was a candle lit by the bed, and she could see the covers bulging with the plumpness of a human body. The body turned slowly. RAPERAPERAPERAPE.... She caught her breath.

"What do you want?" Winston said.

Sasha sighed. "I heard someone downstairs."

Winston propped his elbow on the pillow and patted the nightstand until he found his glasses. "What do you mean?" he said.

"I think it was coming from the wine cellar," she said, then seemed to look inwardly. "No—I'm sure it was."

"Maybe we should ignore it for now. It could be a trap. Go to sleep. We'll wait to tell the others when they're awake."

Sasha nodded. "Okay." She crossed her arms. "Can you walk me back to Kevin's room? I'm scared."

Winston turned back to embrace his pillow.

"Walk yourself," he said, closing his eyes.

***

They all sat together in Victoria's room as soon as everyone was up. Bleak was sitting in the corner of the room; his eyes fixed on the dead wall. Kevin noticed how much emptier the space felt without the original group. He knew that soon there would be even less friends, more space.

"I called you guys in because we have some problems to deal with," Victoria started. "And since it concerns all of us, we should all talk it through. Starting with the most urgent."

"The most urgent is that we have to leave this damn house," Geo said.

"Yes, but let's stay realistic. We need food," Victoria said. "Also, the first floor is starting to...smell worse, there's no electricity, and Sasha said she heard crying coming from the wine cellar."

"And we're running out of liquor," Kevin said.

Victoria looked at him quizzically and shook her head. "Right. Well let's keep the liquor situation on the bottom shelf. There are more important problems."

"Really?" Kevin said. "Because if we're all going to die, I'd like to at least be wasted when it happens."

"Is this a joke to you?" Victoria said.

"Is this a game to you?" he shot back.

Everyone else in the room was quiet. It seemed that whenever they were together, a fight dispersed. Ashley sighed and began combing Sasha's hair with her fingers. Sasha was conscious of the knots she'd felt earlier and felt a twinge of embarrassment. If Ashley noticed the dirty hair, she made no indication.

Victoria threw her arms up in the air. "So you're suggesting we just give up and get wasted, huh?"

"What I'm saying," Kevin blinked, "is that up until now, we've been Abner's...play things! You don't think he's listening in on every plan we've come up with? You don't think he knows our every move?"

Geo swallowed and looked at Mike, who looked back at him. "Do you think that's true?" Geo whispered to Mike. Mike shrugged.

"I don't know!" Victoria exploded. "I'm only trying to help!"

"Why don't you help by pouring us a drink," Kevin said, turning from her.

Victoria glared at him incredulously. That son-of-a bitch! her mind screamed. Like it's my fault that this is all happening.

"By the way," Kevin added, "How did you know that Wendy was in danger to begin with? We all heard you running downstairs before Bleak even knew about it. We heard you ask Bleak where she was."

This caught Bleak's attention. He raised his chin a little and his eyes grew sharper. Yes, he thought. Yes—how did she know?

"I was in the chapel..."

"What chapel?" Kevin said.

"There's...there's a chapel upstairs," she said, realizing with grim shock that she still hadn't told anyone since it happened.

"Vicky, what are you talking about?" Ashley blinked with sudden intrigue.

"Oh my God," Vicky said, feeling dizzy and looking down. "I'm so sorry. I—I can't believe I forgot to mention it. It's just...it was so horrible. I think I wanted to forget—"

"What chapel are you talking about?" Kevin demanded.

She took in a labored breath. "There's a chapel upstairs. There were curtains hiding it before. And you can't see it in the dark anyway because it's behind the stairs."

"A secret room?" Geo asked.

"What does that have to do with Wendy?" Kevin pried.

"Let me finish," she said nervously. "I was in the chapel looking for more clues. For a way out. I found a Bible and there was a letter inside. A letter from Evelyn."

"What?" It sounded like everyone at the same time.

"I was going to mention it, but—"

"But what?" Sasha interrupted.

"But Abner showed up to me before I could leave the room."

"How did you not tell us this?" Ashley said.

"You saw Abner?" Michael asked.

"I was going to tell you. I guess I forgot with everything that's happened."

"Wait," Kevin said. "But you saw him?"

"Not Abner himself. He came to me..." she felt it unbearably hard to speak the words. "He came to me in the form of my mom."

Everyone looked at her in dismay. Bleak's eyes were like hot bullets in the dark corner.

"What did he say?" Ashley asked.

Victoria tried her best to avoid the details, because she didn't want to imagine it again. Truthfully, she'd buried that whole chapel memory somewhere in the darkest, most desolate part of her mind. Until now.

She skirted around the major details. "It was horrible. First he was just messing with me, you know? Trying to make me believe that he was really my mother. I didn't buy it from the start, but I think he knew that. I think he just wanted to upset me. Or..."

"Or what?" Kevin asked.

"Or distract me," she said looking down.

Bleak looked away almost at the same time.

Victoria went on. "Then he told me...that he had the power to kill all of us."

"Well I guess he does," Kevin said.

"I told him that he couldn't. That he had no power over us; that we were on our guard now."

Bleak looked up, heavy shadows veiling his face. "You provoked him?" he said, spitting out the letter P in provoked.

Victoria immediately regretted her words and shook her head. "You don't understand. He was going to do it anyway. It could have been worse if—"

"Get her out of here," Bleak said. "Get her out of here before I kill her myself."

Victoria felt a lump form in her throat and her heart began punching in her chest. Everyone saw the serious look on Bleak's face and moved to escort Victoria out of the room. Victoria looked appalled as Sasha and Ashley took her by the arms and gently pressed her shoulders in the direction of the door. Victoria followed them in a trance, afraid to look at Bleak.

"We can go to my room," Winston said softly in the corridor.

"I should talk to him again," Victoria said, looking from person to person, tears in her eyes.

"Just let it go," Kevin said. "He's upset right now."

"But he doesn't understand, my—"

"Vicky, let it go," Ashley said.

It felt strange to hear Ashley on Kevin's side. Victoria felt singled out. Did they think she was at fault, too? They hadn't been there. It wasn't fair. They hadn't seen their naked mother on a cross spitting profanities. Victoria felt befuddled as she looked up to Ashley.

"You believe me, don't you?" she asked her.

Ashley nodded, but there was a flash of uncertainty in her eyes. "Of course," she said.

CHAPTER 11

The moon hung like an intimidated turtle in the sky, cowering away in its pale white shell. Ashmore house sat erect on a grassy hill, brows furrowed, mouth rigid. Within the house, the remaining survivors continued their luckless plight to freedom. But on this hour, freedom to them meant letting go of their cares. Earlier, Victoria had shown them (briefly, and without entering) the chapel. Lucky for her, nobody wanted to step inside; they could all sense the evil lurking there.

Afterward, the gang used up the rest of the alcohol. Since their last night of drinking (circa two weeks ago) they hadn't felt compelled to touch the remaining bottle. But tonight they wanted to cheer up Victoria, and, in turn, cheer themselves up too. Although eventually she'd given in to the pressure, Victoria was the last to agree to the reckless drinking. She'd watched as the boys and Sasha poured back shot after shot of warm scotch, their tongues exploding out in disgust after each one. But they were happy for once, and that was good for all of them.

Ashley had eventually joined in when Geo raised his glass high in the air, spilling some of his drink, and said: "Cheers, to this non-diminishing nightmare, and hoping to at last wake from it."

Ashley had smiled and poured her own glass to toast with them. She emptied its contents in her mouth and swallowed painfully.

"Uck!" she groaned. "Terrible."

"Hey, this is sacred water, it's not gross," Mike said, wagging his drunken finger at her. He hadn't worn his skully in days, and his light brown hair sat atop his head looking messy and flat.

"You're next," Geo said to Victoria.

Kevin was standing by a newly lit fire in the room, and Sasha was toying with the incense candles. Winston was hovering over Geo and Mike, watching to see if Victoria would keel under the pressure.

Victoria took a glass and suspended it over her head with a nod. "All right, I'll have a couple," she smiled.

"Atta girl!" Geo hollered.

Victoria gulped the drink in one swig and felt her neck constrict as the burning juice made its passage to her stomach. Once it settled, she could almost feel her vision receive it with haste. She smiled.

"Another one," Victoria said.

"Me too!" Ashley bounced up, suddenly excited.

"And it's a party, folks," Geo said, refilling their glasses.

Victoria felt saddened that Bleak wasn't joining them; that Wendy, Emily, and Icarus would never join them again. But she buried those thoughts somewhere deep inside herself for the time being. Tonight was about letting go. Tonight she would act like a free woman again. They would act as friends, and not merely survivors.

Standing, Victoria felt like a peaceful bubble moving towards the window. She'd had five shots in total, but she had lost count after three. She slid open the window and felt a breeze come in. The others were still behind her playing with objects in the room and laughing. Victoria tried to be happy too. She really did. But her joy felt marred, and as she glanced back at the others and saw the smiles on their faces, smiles that had been absent for days, she knew that their joy was marred as well; induced only by the alcohol in their bloodstreams. They would never again have the simple joy for real things. This joy was joy of survival, of outlasting the horrors of this house. Horrors that might come back at any moment. It was an embracing.

Embracing of what? She didn't know. But looking out at the sidewalk, which seemed to be screaming their names, calling them home—if she had to guess, she'd say they were embracing insanity.

***

Bleak remained in Victoria's room while the others partied in Winston's room. He could hear the commotion through the thin grainy wallpaper and heard their muffled voices rise and fall in uncoordinated bursts. Rising from the ground, he pushed his body off the wall and began hobbling to the door. He felt a lingering pain in his back. Must've been from the way he'd been sitting the past hour. Like a hunched monster lurking in the darkness, he thought. But not so; if they didn't have eyes to see who the real monster was, so be it. He would have to punish the beast himself. Victoria had gone on too long playing “leader.” What was it Wendy had said? That the wait was over. Bleak knew his real enemy was Abner, but it was because of Victoria's carelessness that Wendy was dead. Challenging Abner. Making threats to him. She deserved to die for that. She deserved the worst of the worst for it!

Bleak walked across the corridor, listening with his left ear to the noise coming from within the room. He picked off a candle from the wall and waved it in front of him. The stairs appeared in waves of dim light, each step casting its own shadow on the next step. He passed the broken banister and grunted. Even that, he thought. The bitch hadn't even allowed him to take his own life. All right, all right. She'll pay in full.

Once he reached the first floor, he gagged at the awful smell. It's frogs, he thought. Pretend it's anything but the truth. Pretend it's anything except you-know-who's insides. Dissected frogs. Pigs. Baby goats. How could it be that in all their time here, the smell was still as potent as ever?

He couldn't breathe by the time he reached the library, and when he shut the door, he let out a hoarse cough. Dabbing at his lips with his collar, he walked to the end of the library.

The smell was still evident in here, but he kept moving and kept thinking of those cut up frogs. Pigs. Goats.

He found the bookshelf he sought and smiled. It was the most prominent in the room and towered triumphantly over the rest. The shelves were filled with only fat encyclopedias in this section. All black, outdated books; the kind no one reads. If you examined them closely enough, you could notice that the books were fake. But at a glance, it was nearly impossible to tell.

Bleak found the shallow wooden knob—same texture and color as the shelf—and slipped a small key inside. Then he revolved it until his wrist cracked. With a hard shove, the door floated open.

He and Wendy had discovered this secret room on one of their visits. Before this madness, of course. Maybe five months ago. They had never gone in because Wendy had been too afraid, and she'd refused to let Bleak enter in alone. So he hadn't. It could be nothing at all in there; or it could be an answer... Or...

Or what? he thought. How far was he willing to let revenge take him? Would he really murder another human being? She caused Wendy's death, a manic voice reminded him. They were all going to die in this house, anyway. If that was the way it had to go, he would make sure Victoria died slowly before Abner took her life first.

He left the door ajar. It was as thick as a mattress, and completely solid. The room smelled of soggy paper and dead rats. Still, the smell was better than dead...people, he thought with a shudder.

The candle was beginning to reach the end of its wick when Bleak noticed something on the wall. A box. He moved toward it, his hearting beating faster. Was it...

Yes! Yes, it was!

The circuit breaker. Bleak nearly dropped the dimming candle as he propped open the fuse box. It was down here all along! The breaker must have tripped. It had happened back home several times. His Pop called it a short circuit, but this wasn't the same thing. This was something even Bleak himself could fix. He tried to beat the candle's slow crawl to darkness. His finger found the ON/OFF lever and he reset it. In a moment, the lamp in the room illuminated.

"Yes!" he hissed. He let the useless candle roll on the ground. A great find, he thought. Two achievements. Two commendable achievements, he thought as his eyes scanned the room.

The lights were back on, and he'd found the perfect place to kill Victoria.

CHAPTER 12

When the lights blinked on, Michael looked around the staircase like an escaped convict who'd been spotted by a searchlight. He could see from midway down the steps the eloquent chandelier smiling broadly and the shiny marble floor looking newly swept; the room looked even shinier and larger now after they’d cleaned it. It looked like a different house entirely; no more were the shadows gripping on Michael's shoulders, nor the lingering feeling that someone was watching. There was, of course, still the problem of the smell. And that he couldn't shake. He almost turned back upstairs to confess everything, now that the light had come on, but decided against it when he saw Bleak appear from the library. His hands were buried in his pockets, his head bowed under his draping black hoodie.

Michael moved off the steps and hid behind the stairway as Bleak neared him. Had he seen him? Probably not. But just to be sure, Mike slinked deeper into the only shadow big enough to conceal him. Bleak was oblivious as he kicked up the steps, his hands still tucked away and his elbow drifting up the curved railing. Michael waited until the sound was gone and came back out into the hall. He turned left before reaching the kitchen and walked down the steps leading to the wine cellar.

He had to be stealthy, because Sasha had almost caught him crying down there once already. He'd been coming down each time his friends were asleep, but now that "time" wasn't on their agendas anymore, their sleeping arrangements were sporadic and unpredictable. He took this opportunity since everyone was drunk and asleep in Winston's room.

He pinched his nose as he entered the pitch-black cellar. Closing the metal door, he clicked on the light. He almost didn't expect it to work; yet it did.

There she is, he thought. Just like she had been for the past two weeks. The wine cellar was just the way the group had last seen it, except that, in place of empty bottles, a rotting body lay on the table. He could taste the awful smell in his mouth, as if it were planting seeds on the bumps of his tongue and sprouting rotten fruit. It was an oddly sweet smell, and that notion sickened him most of all. Michael reached for the key in his pocket and placed it on the table. The silver key sat right below the corpse's thigh. He'd done this same procedure countless times in the past few days. All to no avail.

A voice in my head, he thought. That's why I'm here. It was true; Michael had heard a voice calling to him the hour just before Wendy died. That voice had read his heart's desire, and had urged him to a task. Who are you? Michael had asked the voice in his head. Abner Ashmore, it had answered.

He wondered now how Abner could have spoken to him and appeared to Victoria at just about the same time. He let the question go, because his reward was worth it. And since the silver key had been in the kitchen cabinet, exactly where Abner had said it would be, he knew he wasn't imagining the voice. In the end, Wendy was just collateral, and he knew that the others would be pleased with his decision. Except Bleak, of course. He did a bad thing for a good reason, he convinced himself.

"It's done," he said to the air, or to the voice in his head, growing impatient. He could hear little maggots moving within the bloated body that lay there. Eating. Feasting. "I've waited long enough. Now..." he drifted off. What exactly was he expecting?

"I locked Wendy inside the room just like you said," he whispered. As he said the words, the guilt of what he'd done began to weigh on him again. "Keep your promise," he begged. "Her life for Wendy's. Please," he begged. "Don't make me tell them."

In that moment, the corpse's finger twitched almost unnoticeably. Michael jerked forward, nervously, but didn't see any physical difference in the corpse's body. The corpse's hair was still falling off, her skin bloated and purple. Her eroded thighs looked incongruent against her neat cheerleading skirt.

"Emily?" Michael whispered.

Emily's swollen eyes reeled up in a frightening second and Michael jumped back. She gave a rotten smile, and the skin of her lips hung like crispy meat from her mouth. The corpse—Emily—turned her neck to look at Michael. He felt nausea stir in him, pulling levers in his stomach. His heart became a fast-pumping motor in his chest.

Emily sat up and he could see a nest of hair left behind where her head had been.

"Here I am, baby," the corpse said in a gurgling voice. It was Emily's voice. No way he could call her Emily now, though. That monster was not Emily.

"This isn't what we agreed to," Michael said to Abner, wherever he was. "You said you would bring her back—I meant back to life. I meant alive, I meant beautiful!"

"Am I not beautiful to you?" the corpse said. She stood on her bony legs and began to shuffle towards Mike like a toddler learning to walk.

The maggots were fleeing now, visible from her eyes, her mouth, her ears.

"You're not Emily. Bring her back!" he cried. His legs buckled despite his effort to stand, and he fell to the floor. Emily's corpse reached out to Michael. She gripped his neck. Her fingers felt like cold cigarettes. He screamed out. Her grip got stronger. How is it possible? his mind screamed. This isn't happening!

Instinctively, he pulled an empty wine bottle from the rack of thousands and crashed it over the corpse's skull. She let out a drilling scream but continued choking Michael. He still held the sharp neck of the bottle with his knuckles and swung it. It pierced the corpse's neck. Brownish blood first foamed, then sprayed out of her neck. The blood showered over Michael's face and clothes. He spat wildly in the direction of the bottles. The blood and spit dripped over the bottles.

He shoved her writhing body. She lost her balance on the grimy blood and slipped. Her collapsing body made a sound like falling bowling pins.

Michael slapped his forehead and felt a strange sensation in his throat, unaware that he was screaming. He forced himself to stop, his eyes blinking rapidly like passing carousel horses.

What had he done? Wendy died for that? That...hideous....

Realizing the smell again, he doubled over and began vomiting. The vomit mixed easily with the brownish blood, clouding together and forming a vulgar pool. His hands sat like islands in it.

Idiot! I deserve this, he cried in his mind, tears now joining the sea of muck bellow him. I deserve this and everything that's coming to me.

***

Victoria rose from bed to find everyone still asleep, scattered around Winston's room. Her head throbbed and her tongue clapped clingingly to the roof of her mouth like a stick of tape. A typical hangover, she knew. She still felt buzzed as she made her way to the corridor. All she could think about was water. She froze when she saw that there was light in the room. A small lamp attached to the wall near the door lit a small corner of the room. How was that possible? They'd been in darkness so long that she almost thought she was dreaming again.

She was startled by how silent the house was. Her current buzzed state exaggerated the silence, making everything sharper and clearer, and she cringed at the sound her footsteps made. Like a child on her way to steal from the cookie jar, she thought. Except, she didn't quite have a destination aside from getting water, which she could've gotten from the bathroom upstairs. She just felt the sudden urge to move about, walk around.

Is Abner behind it? she thought and stopped. She felt afraid to think any thought, make any move, with any confidence or assurance that it was she, and not a spiritual influence, thinking it. Victoria shrugged off the notion and continued to walk. If I die, I die, she thought, suddenly angry. But I'm not going to let Abner scare me half to death about my own damned thoughts.

Ah, the bravery granted by alcohol, she thought smiling.

She didn't feel quite brave enough to go downstairs, though. Every death so far had occurred down there (except for Icarus's which could have been anywhere). And that smell. She could smell the odor still from the top of the staircase. She tried to describe it in her mind but couldn't. It was too repulsive and grotesque to deserve a name. It deserved only a sound for a name. The sound of vomit hitting the toilet bowl, that's the name it deserved.

She was whipped back from her drunken stupor to reality when she heard someone trotting up the steps. She'd noticed earlier that Mike was gone and almost expected—no, hoped—that it was him. Who else? As she mouthed the name, Bleak's face stopped in front of her own.

""Bleak," she said. Ah! Run-run-run! her mind screamed. Bleak was the last person she wanted to face right now.

"Hi," Bleak said.

But what was that in his voice? Calmness? More so, exuberance? Almost as if he was going to look for her anyway. Victoria couldn't decide whether to move out of his way or stay in front of him. When Bleak continued staring at her, an unfamiliar smirk on his face, Victoria moved against the wall.

"I'm in your way, aren't I?" Victoria said.

"No," Bleak said quickly. "Actually... Is anyone else awake?"

Victoria thought about it. She knew everyone in Winston's room was knocked out, but then there was Michael. He'd been missing for a couple of hours. "No," she said. "But I don't know where Mike is."

"I was coming to see you, anyway."

You were? she thought, dumbfounded.

"Yes."

She must have spoken the words aloud without realizing it. She looked around the room.

"There's a room I want to show you," he said. "A secret room. We found it...Wendy and I...a while ago."

Her throat turned to sandpaper at the mention of her name. At the memory of Bleak's tantrum earlier. What had changed? she wondered. Had he come to his senses and realized that Victoria was innocent? It seemed unlikely, but the evidence was in front of her; Bleak was completely docile now.

"Okay," Victoria said. "Where is it?"

Bleak led her downstairs and Victoria gasped when she saw again the beauty of the first floor. They'd lived in darkness so long that she'd forgotten how gorgeous the house really was. Gorgeous in a gothic, morbid sort of way, of course. But compared to the blind darkness she had grown accustomed to, the house was spectacular.

"How are the lights back on?" she asked.

"That's part of the surprise," he said without looking back.

Then came the smell. Christ Almighty, she thought. How long would that smell stay? She got an urge to throw up and stopped. Bleak looked back.

"What?" he said. "The smell, I bet."

"Yes—Bleak, I can't," she gagged. “Show me some other time.”

"Please," he said, sounding desperate. "Just hold your breath; we're almost there."

Victoria trapped the filthy air inside her mouth and followed Bleak quickly into the library. When he shut the door, she looked around.

"What are we doing here?" she asked.

"The secret room is in here." He continued walking and waved her on. "Come. I'll show you."

Victoria followed him. As she breathed again, she was relieved to find that the smell was fading. But in her mind, at least, it was strong as ever. It was the kind of smell one could never forget.

Bleak led her to the back of the library, to the shelf he'd uncovered before. The door was closed shut now, and Victoria looked at him, perplexed. She was almost going to ask him why he'd brought her here when Bleak turned the hidden knob and the shelf began opening as a door does.

Victoria felt cold shock. "No way..." she said. “We have to show everyone!"

"Wait," Bleak said. "Let me show you the inside first. Trust me, it can't wait."

The room was dark as she entered, the only illumination coming from the library. She had to step over a small ridge in the passageway.

"Is there light in here?" she asked.

The room was silent and cold. She took one more step and was completely inside, dank darkness surrounding her.

"Bleak," she said again, turning. "Bleak is there—"

She momentarily saw something like a lead pipe coming at her and felt it crash against her skull just before she faded into complete blackness.

CHAPTER 13

A gripping pain stabbed at the inside of Victoria's head as her eyes creeped open. She flexed her elbow to touch her head, but found that her hands were tied to the back of a chair. The wire gripped her wrists so tight that they’d gone numb. She moaned, unable to endure the throbbing pain in her head. The room was too bright, and in reality it wasn't so bright at all. But she couldn't see a thing. She heard things moving on the table to her left. It sounded like metal scraping against the table.

A knife…?! her mind screamed. Breathe. Breathe, Victoria, breathe...

She opened her mouth to speak but only cried out at the pain in her jaw. Jesus, she thought. Bleak's gone insane and he's going to kill me.

She tried to speak again, failing again. She groaned, the pain intolerable. Her sight was beginning to adjust, but what she saw was completely skewed. The only contrast to the brightness was Bleak's black hoodie. And she saw two or three of him.

She shuffled in her chair.

"You're not going to get out of there," Bleak said.

She shuddered at the sound of his voice. She still couldn't speak, so she moaned again. How pathetic must I look? she thought.

She saw through half-shut eyes as Bleak walked her way. She flinched when he touched her hair, not realizing how close he was.

"No one will find you in here," Bleak said, almost directly in her ear. "Only Wendy and I knew about this room, and well, she won't be saying anything now, will she?"

Terror sprinted in Victoria's heart as she began twisting and writhing crazily in her seat. To no avail. Bleak chuckled and returned to his table. Victoria could see clearer now and saw that the table was set with different tools. Torture weapons, the chilling thought came.

A toolset, knives from the kitchen, and the pipe he'd used earlier. He grabbed something from the tool kit and approached her. Was he smiling? Christ, the boy had gone completely insane.

It was a roll of duct tape. He zipped the roll and ripped off a sizable ribbon. Then he slapped it on Victoria's mouth.

"Just to be safe," he said.

Now Victoria shifted into full panic. The kind of panic that paralyzes you, she discovered. Her eyes were unblinking as she stared at the wooden wall of the room. She couldn't even take in her surroundings; couldn't register that she was still at Ashmore house. This new room made her feel trapped in some foreign dimension miles away from civilization. It might as well have been.

Bleak grabbed the knife and put it away in a drawer. Then grabbed the lead pipe and put it away. Then the tools.

"After much thought, I changed my mind about how I want to hurt you," he said. "I was going to cut you up and kill you quickly, but..." he gathered the words carefully, "I don’t want that blood on my hands."

Victoria looked at him.

"I’m not a monster, Victoria. I just see what the others don’t see," he said. "You’re the monster. You’re trouble. You’ve been trouble from the start. You play leader and demand all this attention, even when you don’t think you’re doing it. I hate it! I hate you!”He was shaking and squeezing his eyes shut, and Victoria realized that this was the most she’d ever heard him talk. "So here’s what I’m gonna do…" he went on, "I'm just going to leave you in here. Leave you in the dark like you left Wendy. Maybe some old woman will come get you, too. I'll tell the others that something took you away. In this place? They'll believe it."

What would Wendy think? she wanted to scream at him. But she couldn't.

She was breathing like a frightened child beneath the tape as Bleak killed the lights and locked the door behind him.

***

Michael hobbled upstairs with his hand clutching his ribs. He breathed through airless lungs, hoping to God that everyone was still either asleep or too drunk to notice the marks on his neck. He'd left Emily's corpse in the cellar, not caring if the smell got out. They'd think it was Wendy's odor, if it came to that.

He walked out into the corridor again, making his way to Winston's room. When he arrived inside, he found everybody asleep. For a second, he felt a stir of jealousy. They looked so peaceful—their eyes closed still; their cheeks calm like a bowl of settled milk, their chests rising and falling at an easy pace, while he was a nervous wreck. In the back of his mind, he knew it wasn't true. None of them were at peace; they were drunk, that's all. As soon as they woke up, reality would be smiling its uncanny grin right in front of their faces. And then the truth would settle in. It always does.

***

"Everyone wake up!" Bleak screamed.

Everyone did. Kevin sat up in bed even before his mind registered where he was. Some rubbed their eyes, others stretched.

"Victoria's gone," Bleak said, even before all of their eyes were open.

Ashley's arms swiped and patted the bed feverishly. "Gone where?" she cried.

"Where is she?" Kevin asked.

Bleak swallowed. "She...uh…" he started.

"Out with it," Michael said, who had pretended to be asleep near the mantle when, in truth, he'd been awake all night.

"She was out on the porch," he said. "Too close. She was too close to the lawn. Something reached out of the ground and grabbed her leg. I tried to pull her back, but it was too strong. It pulled her under. Did none of you hear her screaming?"

"Please, no Bleak, don't tell me—" Ashley stood and collapsed to the ground weeping. "No!! No!" she cried. Her face was contorted and wet with tears.

Michael hadn’t heard Vicky’s supposed screams. He couldn't speak for anyone else, because everyone else seemed to be asleep, but he didn't sleep a wink; not after the horror he’d witnessed in the wine cellar.

"What were you doing in the veranda with her?" Kevin said over Ashley’s hysterical crying. "Why the hell was she out there in the first place?"

Bleak flapped his hoodie down. "I was apologizing to her."

"You couldn't apologize inside?" Geo said.

"Look!" Bleak snapped. "I'm just telling you ‘cause I thought you should know. If you want my opinion, I think she had it coming to her."

Ashley screamed, rose, and shoved him hard in the chest. "We don't want your opinion, you piece of shit!" The moment her arms fell back to the side of her waist, she fell crying again. Geo and Sasha went to her side.

"Jesus..." Kevin said, looking down. He felt torment inside of him, a great shock, even worse than when Emily died. He wasn’t sure why, but for some reason he’d believed that Victoria was their key out of this place. Now the group would surely look to him for an answer. An answer he didn’t have.

Kevin’s face became rigid. "Show us where it happened," he said.

He noticed a trace of discomfort in Bleak’s face, then Bleak nodded. "Follow me."

They all followed him downstairs. Seven in all—four boys, two girls—when at first, they’d arrived at the house as eleven. They were dying fast, and they hadn’t come one step closer to figuring a way out. If anything, they’d taken two steps back, losing more hope than ever with Victoria gone now.

Everyone plugged their noses when they went downstairs. They hurried across the main hall, all of them looking around the room in awe, because they hadn’t seen the room lit in so long.

"How are the lights on?" Kevin asked as he walked.

Bleak didn't look back when he answered. "No idea."

He'd left the front door open, to make it seem like he'd run inside in a hurry. He stepped aside and waved his hand to the lawn, as if to say, Be my guest. Kevin gave him a cold look and passed him. The lawn was matted with dying weeds and bone-dry dirt. Kevin scooped down to his knees and felt the dirt. He picked up some soil and it crept away through the creases of his fingers.

"This where it happened?" he asked.

Bleak crossed his arms and shrugged. His indifference only made him a more viable suspect in Kevin's opinion. On the one hand, if Victoria really was abducted out here like Emily was, Kevin still believed that Bleak was behind it. Victoria was too smart to be killed that way on her own. Bleak must've pushed her, or done something to put her life at stake. On the other hand, he may have killed her and hidden her body somewhere.

"We're going to look for her," Kevin said plainly.

Ashley looked up and the others nodded.

Bleak smiled. "You'll be wasting your time. I saw her get taken."

Kevin grabbed Bleak by the sweater and shoved him against the wall. Bleak moaned a little. His face was blushing with anger. His eyes sharp.

"Let go of me!" he shouted.

"We're going to look for her, you little shit. If we don't find her, fine. But we're going to look. If wasting time is something you're concerned about, open your fucking eyes, because we've been stuck in the same Twilight Zone episode for weeks."

He let Bleak go and walked past Ashley and the others, who were staring in shock. Bleak didn't fight back; he only crept against the wall, almost as if he was hoping to sink into the wall and escape the situation. Kevin made eye-contact with Ashley and she almost smiled. He cares, she thought. By God, he gave a shit. Never in their years of schooling together had she seen Kevin give a shit about anyone but himself. Maybe he was doing it to keep a leadership image. Or maybe he just wanted to keep busy. Hell, he might've attacked Bleak for the simple pleasure of blowing off steam. That may well be, but Ashley didn't think so. No, Kevin wanted Victoria back. More so, she thought, Kevin needed her back.

***

Within the secret room in the library, Victoria sat oppressed in her chair. Her mind was scratching with horrid scenarios, playing out ways that she could die.

No, she mustn't think that way. She had to find a way out.

It was bad enough for a room like this to be pitch-black, she thought. But it was the seclusion of it that terrified her. Nobody else in the house knew this room even existed. She could be holed up in a coffin a million miles away and it'd be the same thing.

She screamed behind the duct tape for a long while until her voice hurt. It took maybe five minutes for her to give up screaming. Upon walking in this room, she'd seen how thick that door was. There was no way anybody could hear her, even if they were in the library. Her only option was to escape, or for Bleak to change his mind and come clean. She decided the latter was less probable, so she had to find a way out fast.

She thought she heard a noise to her left. Her face hardened. I'm imagining it, her mind suggested. Breathe and think of a way out. She heard it again. A sliding noise. Like something was shifting on the table. Was she imagining it? She pressed her wrists and ankles against the constraining wire and let out a cry. I have to get out now, she thought again. Again she heard the noise. Her head snapped left. Her breathing became intense, and when she swallowed she felt her neck expand and nearly pop. Victoria wiggled her hands frantically and tossed her head from side to side. Jesus, she panicked. Something is there. I know it.

She instantly began screaming. Again, it sounded muffled behind the binding adhesive, but the sound was much louder than her previous attempts. Now she wasn't merely trying to get someone's attention from the outside, she was screaming for her very existence. For an instant she thought about how comical her voice sounded. Like a complete stranger's, not her own. Like a whistle. What she heard was a screech vibrating from her throat and ringing, like pinching bells in her ears. Nevertheless, she preferred her screaming to whatever noise was happening in the darkness. Why was it so dark? Why hadn't her eyes adjusted one bit? For a frightening moment, she got the notion that she was actually blind. That Bleak had done something to her eyes, or that somehow she'd shut her eyes too tight, worked her nerves too hard. Of course, it didn't make sense. But irrational fears made a whole lot more sense in the dark.

She could taste the glue of the tape on her pursed lips, and with all the screaming, saliva had crept its way between her lips, and she felt them wet and dirty.

Even with her hands tied, she could feel her heart throbbing violently in her chest and in the veins in her neck. Sitting upright, Victoria began to sway from side to side. The chair slipped a little, but she couldn't get it to rock. Since its base was so wide, it made it difficult to get off the ground. She had felt with her hands that the chair was wooden. Probably oak. It was durable, but she thought that perhaps it might break if she were to knock herself over. What if it didn't? She'd be stuck on the ground, probably hurt herself. If she was put in that situation, then she really would have no chance of escaping.

She decided that trying to knock over the chair could wait. She felt a full tightness in her bladder. No, damn it, not now, she thought. The liquor, along with this fearful situation, made her have to pee. Plus she was still thirsty. She'd been holding her bladder for a while; she'll just have to hold it longer.

Victoria ignored the pain in her stomach and tried to steady her breathing. She realized that a few minutes had gone by without her hearing any strange noise. That was a good thing. Of course, she may have been imagining it the entire time. This swallowing darkness will swallow with it my sanity, she thought. She felt it deep inside, licking out of her pores. Insanity. Craziness. She wanted to die already.

No I don't, she countered. I just want my freedom.

Then an idea hit her. If she could slide the chair... Slowly, but it could work. Maybe she could reach something in the room even with her hands tied, if she were to press up against it. It wasn't the most promising idea in the world, but right now it was all she had.

Victoria began to twist about violently and the chair shifted in bits, in random directions. She couldn't quite maneuver herself in the direction of her choosing, so she let luck guide her. Again, she didn't see that she had much of a choice.

Her feet did hardly any of the work—they were too tight in place to even move much; she had to sort of hop and bump the armrest to get it to move. After a few minutes of trying this, she had to stop. The pain in her bladder was making it too difficult to move at all. Oh God, she thought. She felt her stomach pressed into a tight bubble, a bubble that could explode if disturbed any more. The pain shot up from her ribs all the way to her tongue. Her hands were gripping the arm rest hard. This is how I survive, she thought painfully. It's one uncomfortable situation to save my life. It's gotta happen anyway.

She couldn't hold it any longer. The warm liquid began to spread and lap over her thighs and buttocks, eventually dripping on the floor. Then the smell came. It made her feel sick. And although she was alone, she was blushing. She felt so embarrassed that she began to cry. Her tears crossed from her cheeks to the duct tape and then down her chin. The smell of damp piss permeated throughout the entire room. She wanted to throw up, but the tape covering her mouth wouldn't allow it.

Instead, she soon became very quiet. Her eyes drifted to the invisible black wall before her, and her muscles finally relaxed. She accepted the smell, the wet, warm, dirty feel under her thighs, and sat there. Bleak had won. She couldn't get out. She'd die in here and eventually they all would die out there. At least the nightmare would be over.

The silence became a soothing amenity now. She felt relaxed. She would try to die relaxed. Even the sliding noise didn't bother her now. That woody noise she'd heard earlier, she heard it now again. But now it wasn't to the left of her.

It was right behind her. Oh, God.

The table was right behind her!

She bent her hands back in an awkward position and felt the surface of the table. It was low enough for her hands to reach over.

Suddenly, she heard a screeching whistle and tiny feet paddling against the wood, away from her. It was a mouse, she thought. That noise was a mouse this whole time. She almost laughed. I can eat it, the thought came suddenly. First she had to free herself. She tried to feel around the table with her hands, but couldn't reach past a couple inches. She tried to shove her arm lower into the wire so that she could reach further. Victoria felt the wire scratch up her arm. She forced it lower. Pain vibrated through her arm. She felt something cold and wet. Her forearm was bleeding. She hardly felt the pain anymore. She shoved it even lower, wincing at the immediate pain.

The wire was almost halfway up her forearm now. She reached again for the table. Her bloody hand slapped the table desperately. She twisted her hand from left to right.

Left to right again. Her fingertip touched something. She froze. Hope surfaced again.

She reached out again, she felt it again. She tried to pull it in with the tip of her middle finger. It slipped and her finger rattled over the table. She tried again, this time using her nail to get a better grip. She felt the scaly, shell-like surface. She swiped it closer. And closer. Now she grabbed it.

She felt the sharp blade of the knife.

The knife easily cut through the wire. In a matter of seconds, both her hands were liberated. Then her feet. She removed the tape from her mouth.

Victoria rose from the puddle of her own piss and could barely stand; she'd been sitting for so long and her legs were still numb. She turned on the light and the room existed in brilliant light. Dim light, sure, but to Victoria it was radiant and glorious. She saw two more mice scatter somewhere into the wall. Then she noticed the circuit breaker and smiled.

When she tried to open the door, it was locked.

"Why would it be locked from the inside?" she said, mainly just excited that she could even speak now. She'd look for the key. Bleak probably took it with him, but she'd look. If she found it, she'd go out there and tell the others what happened. The others would decide what to do with him. Probably outcast him to the graveyard.

If she didn't find the key, she'd be forced to wait for Bleak in here. Maybe if she messed with the circuit breaker, it might get Bleak's attention. He'll come back down here for sure.

And when he does...

"When he does," Victoria said, excited. "I'm going to stab him in the fucking heart!"

CHAPTER 14

The ballroom was empty. The smell was still strong, but he was beginning to get used to it. Let them keep searching, Bleak thought as he flicked on the lights. It felt good to be back in his room. This was, after all, the room he and Wendy always slept in. Something about the ambiance here made Bleak feel comfortable. Secluded. The floor was tiled marble, blue and white, like the floors in an Arabian palace. The walls were adorned with golden curtains far larger than the windows they covered.

Bleak shut the door—though it could not be locked—and made his way to the center of the room. She'd always wanted to dance with him. He'd always refused.

“Come on,” she'd say. “I won't laugh.” But she was laughing even as she said it, so he knew she would. Still, he recalled the passion in her eyes. Not a desire to dance, but a desire to dance with him. Her thin lips would fold back into a smile, and Bleak would shy away and keep walking. “Let's go back,” Bleak would say. “I left my dancing shoes at home, anyway.”

Wendy would follow him out smiling, but Bleak knew. He knew that she was disappointed because she wanted it more than anything. She'd even brought it up before her death, he remembered. You owe me a dance, she'd said.

He'd failed her so many times, even on the day of her death.

He turned in the room, soaking in the pain in his heart. There was a chandelier in this room as well, hanging over him in mock dominion. There's nowhere to be alone in this house, he thought. He wondered where Wendy was right now. The occurrences in this house had proved to him that there was life after death, in some form or another.

Maybe she's here, the chilling thought came. His eyes darted around the room again. Coldly, slowly, the hair on his arms stirred erect. Bleak began to shuffle his feet about the tiled floor, listening to the high-pitched sound the soles of his shoes made as they licked the marble. His hands floated up as if he were holding an invisible person.

"I owe you a dance," he whispered.

He twirled, dipped, slid across the floor, his eyes closed. He imagined classical music in his mind. He kept his hands curled; let the knuckles of his fingers stiffen with familiarity. The touch. The chill.

Wendy was here. He believed it.

He lost himself in a blind dance, tottering at times, nearly bumping against the wall on some turns. Spinning, he let the chandelier guide him around the room; he let the tiles be his map. Bleak took a shaky breath and found that it came too easily, felt his mouth shut like a fly trap. He knew it was the start of another breakdown even before the tears came crumbling down his face. His lower lip throbbed rapidly, his hands felt weak. Yet, on he danced.

"I owe you a dance..." he said again, this time hating the way his voice melted.

Instantly, Bleak collapsed to the ground. He was shaking rabidly. "Oh God," he cried. "Wendy... Wendy... Wendy... I miss you so much."

With his eyes shut tight, he didn't even notice the chandelier lights flickering on and off.

***

Victoria's hand jerked up and down, slowly, as to not damage the electricity indefinitely. Stalling, she left the light on this time and removed her hand from the switch. She glanced around the room. Her stomach growled, and she pressed her weary hands on it.

There had to be a way out.

She approached the desk and examined the tools in the box. Wrenches, drills, a hammer, screwdrivers. She picked up the drill. She popped in the largest drill bit she could find and plugged in the cord to the outlet nearest the door. When she pulled the trigger, she heard the drill roar and vibrate in her hand and the tip spun to a blur. Positioning herself, she angled the drill against the door and pulled the trigger. The drill slipped against the surface, so she tried again. This time, it caught against the wood and began piercing through. Even if she couldn't get through, maybe they would hear it if they were just outside. It was a long shot, but she had to try.

It didn't take long before the drill was submerged to its maximum depth. But it wasn't enough. She figured she was maybe a quarter of the way through. They probably couldn't hear it, even if they were just outside.

Slouching, she lowered the drill. Hunger was consuming her every thought. She thought about the mouse again and flung the thought away. She had to focus if she wanted to get out.

Victoria stood and went to search for the key again. Even if Bleak took one, there was a chance that there was a copy key somewhere. There had to be. This is what she told herself to keep her body searching. She checked below the desk and above the shelves lining the walls. There were books here too; as if the library didn't have enough books. Victoria began pulling and tossing the books off the shelves, hoping that perhaps the key was hidden there, or in one of the books. She was growing desperate. And her stomach was gnawing with hunger.

Look on the bright side, she told herself. You're out of the chair and out of darkness. It was true; she hadn't even hoped for this much, but still, there was the issue of food.

She heard a high-pitched squeal and turned. The mouse was stalled in the corner of a bookshelf. Victoria's breathing faltered and she rolled her eyes to the knife on the table. She knew the mouse had a hole to which it could escape through. But what if she caught it first?

Victoria took a small step towards the mouse and it flinched. When she took another step, the mouse bolted away behind the book shelf.

"Shit!" she cried, nearly tripping over some papers on the floor. She stepped over them and crept closer to the bookshelf. The floor was sticky, dirty, and her sandals made a ripping sound as she walked. She looked behind the shelf, her cheek pressed against the soggy wall. Through the slit of darkness, she could still see the mouse, just sitting there; its tail facing her. She retracted her head and grinned. There was no hole for him, after all. He was cornered back there.

Victoria stood in front of the shelf again and estimated the weight to pin-point how much energy she'd have to exert. She figured she could do it.

Positioning her hands, she grabbed both ends of the shelf near the bottom and took in a deep breath. Her feet were stamped in a perfect arch, ready to pounce.

Counting to three, she pushed the shelf against the wall as hard as she could. It slammed hard and she thought she heard a sound. She had to have killed it. There was no way it could survive that.

Victoria moved to the side again to peer in, but when she did, the mouse was gone.

"Damn it!" she shouted. "No, no. Shit!" She pounded at the shelf and bumped her forehead against its surface. Forget it, she thought. She didn’t know how she would have eaten the damn thing anyway. It was a mouse, for heaven’s sake! Still, what was she going to do? She was going to starve in here if she didn't find any food soon. And water posed a larger threat. She looked around the room. She hadn't realized how thirsty she'd been. Where could she find water?

Victoria began skirting the walls, looking for anything she'd missed. Her lips retracted to a smile when she noticed the air conditioner in the room. She approached it and lowered herself. At first, she didn't see anything and her heart sank. Then, she saw the knob that controlled the temperature, and rotated it to the coldest setting. Maybe if the unit got cold enough, the air would condensate to water and start to leak out. She'd seen it happen before, in hotel rooms when she'd gone on vacation with her parents.

In a few minutes, to the left of the unit, there it was! It wasn't much, but the unit was dripping water on the floor. She could collect it in a container and drink it. For the time being, she lay on the ground with her head posted beneath the A/C and let the slow, miniscule drops plummet into her mouth. Most of them landed on her tongue. She felt excitement as each cold drop landed; her veins felt electric at the touch. She started to feel disoriented and got up. She felt the soggy urine cushioning her underwear and grimaced. Before even attempting to find a usable container, she removed her pajamas and then her undies, tossing the wet mess to a corner in the room. She then put her pajamas back on; it was still wet and gross, but the undies were the worst of it.

Victoria found a white mug on the desk. She placed the mug under the dripping unit and waited. Okay, she thought. The water situation is solved. Now I need some food in me. She knew the mouse was still her best bet, but she hadn't seen one in half an hour. Forget the stupid mouse! her mind shouted. We need to find a way out of here! Victoria felt her scalp itching with pending insanity. She couldn't bear staying in this room for another minute.

In a state of frenzied panic, Victoria began knocking all the books off the shelves and tossing the drawers over. The books came down like a waterfall. Flapping in their descent, they tumbled over the floor; some of them landing closed, most of them landing open to some forgotten page. She pushed over the last shelf and had to jump out of the way as it came folding heavily over. It crashed to the ground, pulling the cord to the only lamp in the room. The lamp was tugged and smashed on the ground. The sound of crumbling glass came with a bright flash.

Then darkness.

You stupid moron, she thought chillingly. Now you're dead for sure.

"Now we can be alone," a voice whispered in the darkness. Victoria froze. She couldn't tell if the voice was feminine or masculine.

Her muscles felt like they'd turned to bone. "Who's there?" she said.

The voice didn't answer. She knew she hadn't imagined it. It was real; it was across the room, not in her head.

A scratching sensation filled the inside of her chest, her lungs, as she found one of the walls. I need to find the circuit breaker, she thought. I need to keep trying to warn them. She was walking slowly, afraid, because she was going in the direction where she'd heard the voice. But she knew the fuse box was there. She fought away the dark thoughts, but each time she flung them, they were launched back into her mind like leeches.

She found the fuse box, and sighed in relief. She already knew which switch to pull, and pulled it down. She waited a second—then up. Then down.

Then up.

"We're alone at last," the voice whispered again, this time closer to her ear.

Victoria's hands began trembling, her teeth clapping together. She felt hollow and freezing inside, her spine had run away.

She pulled the switch down. It felt heavier this time. Or she felt weaker.

"Alone at longg last."

Ignore the voice, she thought numbly. Keep pulling. They'll come rescue you soon. Bleak will come, or they'll make him spit out the truth.

She pulled the switch up.

Why did it have to be this dark? she thought. Why this insanely dark?

Lever down.

The voice wasn't talking now, but she heard it breathing. Shaky, slow breaths. Louder and louder, until she felt the warm breathe tickling the back of her neck. She tightened and almost screamed. But she didn't scream. At least, not yet.

It was when she pulled the switch up again, and felt a hand come over her own—a cold hand, like frozen plastic—that's when she screamed.

***

"Not the damn lights again," Michael said, looking ahead at the chandelier from atop the staircase.

They'd just finished searching the entire second floor and were making their rendezvous downstairs to the main hall. Earlier, the group had split up—Winston and the girls, and Kevin with his posse. Winston had trailed behind Sasha for the majority of the time, evidently sending the message that he was upset with her and still hadn't forgiven her for sleeping with Kevin. Sasha got the hint, but she didn't bother to let him know that. If he wanted to be a child, it was fine by her. She had too many real problems to worry about him.

 "It's coming back on," Geo said, hopeful. They hurried downstairs and watched as the chandelier blinked on and off numerous times. About every five seconds or so, the room would shift from light to dark.

"What's going on?" Sasha asked.

Winston's eyes shifted to all the lamps in the room. The timing was too measured, too exact to be an electrical malfunction. He wondered aloud. "Is it Abner?" he said.

They looked at him.

"To scare us?" Michael said. "It isn't even scary."

"Not after everything we've seen," Geo agreed.

Michael looked nervous as he took a few steps towards Kevin. He tapped him on the shoulder.

"What is it?" Kevin asked turning.

"It's about Bleak," he said.

Kevin's face shifted to anger. "What about him?"

"Look," Mike said. "I can't say for sure, back when Bleak told us that Victoria was dead, I remember going downstairs...to get water...and I saw Bleak. I didn't see him coming from outside though."

"Why are you telling us this now?" Kevin asked.

"Well because I didn't think that was sufficient evidence to blame him for a crime like that..." Mike started, but truthfully it was because he was still feeling guilty about Wendy and wanted to make it up to Bleak. But if there was even a chance that Victoria was alive, he had to tell them now. "...but," he continued, "I think it might be possible...that he did something to Victoria. Because right when I saw him was about the same time the lights came back on. And now this."

"So you think he knows where the circuit breaker is?"

"I think it's a possibility."

Kevin stepped closer, to the center of the room, until he was standing beneath the chandelier. He looked up, hopeful. "And you think Victoria's shifting the lights."

Mike was silent.

Ashley looked at him. Sasha shook her head. "But..." she started. She didn't know how it could be possible, but she couldn't disprove it, either.

"Maybe she's trapped somewhere. Like a basement. That's where circuit breakers usually are, right?"

Geo nodded. "Hey, he's right."

"Let's check the wine cellar again," Kevin said. "Maybe we missed something there."

This caught Michael's attention immediately. He blinked and made a sound from the edge of his throat.

"What?" Kevin asked him.

Mike debated on keeping his mouth shut and letting them find Emily's corpse themselves, or steering them away from the cellar. What if he left some evidence behind? Something that would prove he'd been down there with Emily's body? Or what if she said so herself? What if she ratted him out? That would ruin him.

"I don't remember seeing any fuse box in the cellar," Mike said.

"Well, we should check again just to be sure."

"But I didn't see Bleak coming from that direction." Mike tried again. "I was in the kitchen getting water, remember? I saw him as I was going back upstairs. I know for a fact he wasn't in the wine cellar."

Kevin pursed his lips and nodded. "Okay then. Let's go find Bleak and set the record straight then."

Mike felt relief surge through him. Ashley took a step closer to the open ballroom door. The lights were on as she walked in. Turning, she looked at the group and they looked at her in return. Their stares spoke something to her, but she couldn't tell what. Walking in, her hands suddenly stiffened.

"Oh my God," she choked out. Her hands gripped her mouth. She eased with backward steps. She bumped into Kevin as he and the others walked in. They came to a halt.

"Holy fuck," Geo said.

"Get everyone upstairs," Kevin ordered, his eyes fixed ahead of him.

No one moved.

Bleak was standing in the center of the room, smiling. His eyes were rolled back to look like tiny boiled eggs. Kevin saw his hoodie discarded to the side of the room. There was a trail of blood leading to it. Bleak's hands were behind his back. He started to chuckle, making a ghastly sound with his throat. Like a frog; he sucked in the air and laughed.

Then, as his hands came forth, they saw that he was holding a gun. The group froze, Sasha gasped.

"Bleak," Kevin said, holding his arms out as if to prepare for a blow.

The gun was raised to Bleak's sweaty temple.

"No, Bleak!" Ashley said.

"Look...at...you...all," Bleak said. His voice was foreign. He croaked the words, again, like a frog. "You...don't...gget it, do you?"

Bleak cocked the gun. "I ownn you nnow. You're mine bitches foreverr. I'm ggoing to kill you all oone by onee."

Kevin's eyes widened. "I know this isn't Bleak. I know this is Abner Ashmore speaking."

Bleak began laughing. "I know this is Abner Ashhhmore speaking, please and thank you very mmuch," he mocked. "If I were Abner Ashmoree, would I do tthis?"

Before they could stop him, the trigger was pulled and a loud shot echoed in the dry room. Chunks of Bleak's brain splattered on the marble ground, right near his sweater.

CHAPTER 15

The others waited. Kevin didn’t bother looking back at them; he didn’t want to see their terrified faces. Didn’t want them to see his face.

He knew they were waiting on him, but he was too afraid to move. Afraid that his legs would not reach their destination. It was hard enough to even stand up.

With a slow step, he heard his shoes clipping the marble floor, heard the echo in the room. But he did not feel like he was moving. I’m a ghost, he thought. I’m a ghost like Bleak will now be. The amusement was gone. He was about two feet away from Bleak’s body when he stopped. Searching, he found the gun nipping only one of Bleak’s fingers. As he lowered himself to the ground, the joints in his knees cracked—the sound made him feel unpleasantly exposed. Kevin took the gun and stood. He began backing away from the body without turning, somehow afraid that Bleak might jump up at him, rise from the dead like the corpses in the graveyard. The idea didn't seem too preposterous.

Sasha stopped screaming, and it was then that Kevin realized she’d been screaming in the first place. Ashley was sobbing, and all the boys were chugging heavy gulps of air, panic on their faces.

He reached the door, finally, and looked at the gun. It was a semi-automatic pistol.

"Are we gonna get Bleak’s body out of here?" Geo asked. "It’s gonna rot up the place. I ain’t gonna touch him then, when he’s all…rotted up."

Kevin looked up from the gun, almost forgetting there were people around. "Give me a minute," he said. "Let’s get everyone upstairs for a meeting."

"Meeting. Town meeting upstairs," Mike hummed colorlessly.

They all began walking out. "Ashley, you hold up a minute," Kevin said.

She looked over-shoulder and nodded. After the rest left, Ashley crossed her arms and circled around Kevin. "What?" she said.

Kevin fingered the gun. "I really think Victoria’s alive."

Ashley stopped. She shuddered. "I know you do... I know, but..." she said.

"But what?"

"I'm scared we won't find her," she said, her eyes darting in different directions, holding back fresh tears.

"Well I'm scared we're not trying hard enough," Kevin said. "I'm scared she's here somewhere. Alone. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe she's here, but dead. Either way, I want to try. I have to try."

Ashley had never heard Kevin defend anyone this way, let alone Victoria.

"Where do you think she could be?" she asked.

Kevin swayed his hand back and forth, the hand holding the gun. "I think she’s sending us a message with the lights. It’s so obvious. The way they’re turning on and off, the timing, it all means something."

"Yeah…" Ashley said. "Somewhere with a fuse box."

"It would have to be the first floor."

"The wine cellar."

"That's what I'm thinking. Could be anywhere, though." He glanced around the large room and sighed. "I don't think this will be easy."

"Do we need to get everyone?" Ashley asked.

"No. Leave them. We can handle this on our own. I’m sick of all their fussing. If anything, they’ll just slow us down."

Ashley wiped away the streak of hair that was matted on her perspiring forehead and nodded. She didn’t understand why Kevin was suddenly interested in saving Vicky. He hadn’t been this way about Icarus, or this affected by any of the other casualties. Did he really believe Vicky was still alive? Ashley felt horrible for saying it, but she had already come to terms with the realistic possibility that Victoria was dead—whether by the hand of Bleak, or some other phenomena in the house. Abner was a real threat now; they all saw what he was capable of. If Bleak was lying, then he killed her. If he was telling the truth, then, according to his story, Vicky was dead too. It seemed unlikely that he had her trapped somewhere. But still, there was the mystery of the lights. Kevin was right about that, she supposed. It had to mean something. Abner had already manifested himself in bigger ways, so why would he waste his time putting on a light show? It just didn’t add up.

Ashley stopped behind Kevin, just as they rounded the corner into the hallway that led down into the wine cellar.

"Do you smell that?" Ashley said, searching the air.

Kevin turned around. "It’s narrow in here. Let’s hurry before they come looking for us."

Ashley continued following him, but she had to press her nostrils together; had to breathe through the round air pocket her cupped hand formed.

The narrow hall grew obscurer and colder; the air itself felt as if it were absorbing the life around her. Even as the smell intensified, Kevin didn’t cover his nose once.

This is the same smell that Wendy emitted, Ashley thought, horrified. Could it be Vicky? Was Vicky’s dead body in the cellar? Ashley stopped abruptly. Kevin continued walking without noticing.

"Wait—please wait," Ashley said, doubling over. "That smell. What if it's Vicky? God, my God! What if that's Vicky in there?!" She began to weep again.

Kevin turned around again, but just when he was going to lash out at her, he saw her eyes fixated on the ground.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

"Turn away. I’m going to vomit."

Kevin looked ahead again, feeling sorry for her. Wanting to help somehow. But he knew he couldn’t. He smelled it too, that awful stench. She’d be crazy not to puke.

Kevin heard gagging from behind him. A watery hacking coming from Ashley’s throat—it made him feel sick inside. Don’t make me vomit too, dammit.

One more grotesque gurgle from her mouth—even more watery this time—was followed by a sound like pouring soup on the ground. Kevin kicked his feet up, not wanting any of the puke to touch his legs. She vomited four times before finishing. Kevin could hear her crying and breathing in titanic breaths. Turning, he saw the mess on the ground. It looks like soup, too, he thought, disgusted. All water, though, the sad realization came.

"You done?" he asked, appalled by his own insensitivity.

Ashley had a film of sweat mapping the regions of her face and neck. She looked up, one arm resting on the wall. "Go without me. I can’t stand to see her if she’s…dead in there."

"We don’t know she’s dead—"

"She’s dead, Kevin. What do you think that smell is?"

Kevin glared at her without a word. "Just go upstairs, Ash."

He looked down, noticing her icy weeping, the way her hands shook like a vexed rattlesnake. Ashley stood so quickly that he jerked back, then she ran out of the hallway and he could hear her footsteps falling overheard as she climbed the stairs.

He continued walking to the cellar door. The gigantic metal blockade stood before him now, closed but not locked. Slowly, ever carefully, he pried it open. It made a loud clanking noise, reminding him of a jack-in-the-box. A clown, a ghost, a monster is gonna get me, he thought, feeling all those things lurking in the dark shadows.

The smell grew thicker, like smoky filth invading his lungs. He coughed once, gagged and a little vomit floated up the tunnel of his throat, then he swallowed and coughed again. Come get me, Jack. Come if you dare. I’m not afraid to die.

As soon as the door was halfway open, he strained to listen in the silent vacuum and noticed a small noise. Whispering, or…no. It was crying. Someone was crying.

Victoria!

His heart leapt as he stepped inside. It was pitch black, and the light from the hall outside did little as nothing to help. The ailing odor blended with the air, sending streaming chills up his spine.

"Victoria?" he called. "It’s Kevin... Bleak is—dead."

He couldn’t trace the source of the crying voice. It seemed to be moving all around the stuffy room.

"Victoria? We can leave now. You’re safe now."

Safe? he thought. Are we safe anywhere? He moved quickly and blindly to the wall near the door, searching for the light switch.

"Kevin?" he heard a sad voice say.

Kevin turned; no use, really, when everywhere he turned was black. "Hello?" he cried. "It’s…Kevin." His hand continued its slapping race to find the light, but he couldn’t. Giving up, he let his hand fall. He reached into his pocket and fished out his phone. There was no service, but earlier he'd turned off his phone to consume battery and now he could still use it as a flashlight. He turned on the phone and waited a moment as it started up. Once it did, he held it up like a badge and strode across the room.

"Victoria, call out to me. I’ll come get you. I can’t see… Vicky, are you there? Are you hurt?"

The halo of light caught a moving figure ahead of him, and he stopped. His hand jerked to the figure and he saw the girl’s head look away. Her hair whipped to the side and made flashing shadows on the wall.

"Oh my God," Kevin said. "What did that bastard do to you?"

She was sitting in the fetal position. He could see her body now, brown and bruised, in the light. She was all skin and bones, and more bones than skin. Her hair was a dead rodent, tangled and dirty.

"Vicky, I’m going to go get help. I just need to look at your face. Make sure you’re okay. Can you hear me? Vicky…"

Her head wagged one way, then another, and her shoulders began fluxing down, then up. Kevin took two steps back, and she started to make a hacking sound with her throat. Her eerie figure was in perfect spotlight. In her position, her skirt rode high up her thighs, almost up to her thin waist, revealing her pink underwear, now a muddy brown. Kevin turned away, feeling embarrassed for looking.

Wait… he thought. Vicky came in pajamas.

Kevin gripped his phone tighter, then his hands began trembling. The bruises, the brown skin, the dead smell.

The skirt.

"Emily?" Kevin said, not much louder than a whisper.

Her head began to sway his way, slowly, behind the rocking light. "Can’t I be the one you came for?" the girl said. It sounded like a girl, and that’s all he knew at the moment; he was too shit-scared to decipher the tone.

"I came for Victoria," he said.

The girl was facing him now, but her hair was covering her face. She began to stand. Christ, Kevin thought. Am I dreaming, this time?

Or does it only get worse in this house?

"You already know I’m not Victoria, baby boy." She was inching toward him now, taking draggy steps. "Do you know who I am?"

Kevin was taking an equal step back away from every step she took toward him. He wanted to put down the phone, have full control of his body, but he couldn’t imagine being in complete darkness with her.

"I know—" he started. "But you’re not her. You’re not!"

The girl, or corpse, raised her chicken-bone fingers to move her hair. But instead of the hair tucking neatly behind her ear, it slipped from the roots and made its casual descent to the ground. Kevin could see multiple bald spots now. He could also see her face—he couldn’t breathe as soon as he did.

"I’m not her?" said the bloated face, her barren jaw contracting into a smile. There were what seemed to be pools of blood tucked beneath her tight skin. He couldn’t even tell if it was indeed Emily.

He wanted to say, You’re dressed like my friend Emily, but he couldn’t speak. He just stood there, retreating back in a trance, stuck between disbelief and panic.

The corpse's hair continued to fall in grouped strands, trailing behind her like a grotesque wedding veil. Her skirt was so loose-fitted around her waist that it appeared as though one swift movement would cause it to slip right off.

"You're not Emily," Kevin managed to say, feeling incredibly silly for even suggesting it. Of course she wasn't Emily.

"Yes, I am," said the corpse.

Of course you're not! Kevin wanted to scream. He thought he had, but he had only been crying. He was near the door now (not that he noticed; in his mind he was trapped in some towering nightmare, unable to be rescued).

Emily's corpse began stripping. It happened so suddenly that Kevin didn’t have a chance to stop her. She let her skirt fall to the ground, then her underwear. Kevin couldn't move now. He thought he was going into shock and he wanted to throw up. Emily raised her shirt above her head and pulled it off. It brushed off the last remnants of her hair, leaving her completely bald. The shirt hit the floor, but it was too dark to even see where it landed. Her bra fell finally, revealing her sunken breasts. She was a bony scarecrow, brown and rotted away. The smell was all inside him now, in his lungs, replacing every molecule of oxygen in the room. No, he couldn't be breathing oxygen now. It was all poison. He was in a poisonous room with a venomous corpse. Disease-ridden.

She was only a couple feet from him now, inching closer.

"I've always wanted you, Kevin," she moaned. Her eyes were still in her sockets, but he could only see the white sclera, like blind shells. When Kevin didn't speak, as he had no ability to, Emily went on. "Sasha always got your attention, didn't she? She always had a shot with you. I—never did. But I'm dead now. I get what I want now, you understand?"

In one hurried movement, faster than Kevin could respond, she gripped his wrist and forced his hand on the area between her legs. He touched her for a miserable second before pulling his hand away and screaming. He shook off the feeling fitfully, not wanting to think about the rough, leathery texture of her thighs.

"Don't leave me here," she said in a saddened voice. "It's dark and...I don't want to be alone."

Kevin didn’t fall for the plea, of course, but he wondered how he could reach—or even find—the door in time before she could grab him again.

"I won’t leave you," he said. "But help me find the light."

"Why? You want to see my beautiful face?" she said, and in the dim hue of the phone’s light, he could see her teeth exposed behind a thin, almost non-existent layer of flesh.

"Yes," he said, hoping she wouldn’t catch the disgust in his tone. He was reaching out for a wall, any wall, behind him, with one arm.

"Why don’t I believe you?" she said in a teasing tone. It gave him shivers.

"You should," he said. "Because it’s the truth." His hand felt a wall.

"I bet you’d be afraid if you saw my face."

My God, he thought. She really does sound identical to Emily.

"I won’t be afraid," he said. And he’d already found the light switch; felt it cold between his fingers.

"Yes, you will. I make you afraid, don’t I, Kevin? All you ever wanted was Sasha. Sasha, Sasha, Sasha! Well Sasha’s going to die next. You hear me? I’m going to kill her next. Just because I can!"

"No, Abner—you can’t." Kevin quickly shifted the light on and the room lit up. Emily looked around the room like a trapped animal. She was hideous in the light, like a mummy unwrapped. But Kevin didn’t let it distract him. In a fitful rage, he pressed his hands over her skull and pulled with all his might. He twisted and struggled as she screamed, until he was able to get her neck locked under his arm and twist her head right off. It made a ripping, crunchy sound as the bones and flesh dislodged. Her body fell to the ground and he dropped her head. Black blood came gushing from her for a while.

"There you go, you little bitch!" he shouted, a grin forming. "How do you like that?"

He spat on Emily’s corpse, then kicked her limp body over and over again. And again. And again.

Stop it, something sane said in his mind. This is Emily’s body. Your friend’s body.

"My God…" he murmured, backing out of the room. “My God, Emily, I’m so sorry.”

He ran out into the hall and climbed the stairway to the second floor of the Ashmore house. Crying the whole way there.

***

Victoria couldn’t remember the point in time when she collapsed on the ground, giving up on the pipe dream that her friends would catch onto her patterned circuit breaker signal. They didn’t know where she was; Bleak hadn’t told them. She lay in the darkness, wondering if her friends believed Bleak’s outrageous story. She wondered if Ashley believed her to be dead, and what she was going through right now. Surely this was hardest on her. Okay, stop, stop! she thought wanting to scream it. Stop all the thoughts… I just want to die already. To die in silence, in peace. She thought about the voice she'd heard earlier, the hand she'd felt graze hers, and then dismissed the thought. She’ll only come back if I let her, in my mind. I must think peaceful thoughts. It was hard, though. Victoria felt a raging pain in her stomach, and swollen emptiness that wouldn’t let up; begging for food.

They were all going to die here. That was the truth that she and the others had to accept. She would die in this room, and they would all die elsewhere—their bedrooms, perhaps, in their sleep; Abner would come in some form, or possess their bodies, and destroy them each until the house was his own again. They may die separated or together, but it wouldn’t matter. They'd be dead in the end. The house would win. Abner, in the end, would win.

Victoria was just another one to die. Maybe it was women. Emily had died, then Wendy, now she would die next. Maybe Abner had something against women. Maybe it was his way of getting revenge on Evelyn. A way of killing her over and over again. Perhaps once they were all dead, the boys would be free to go home. Perhaps Icarus was home now, unaware of everything that was happening here. Was that a notion worth betting her life on? Again, it didn’t matter. Her life was no longer hers to gamble. She couldn’t find a way out of this room, and the others would surely never find her here. Unless Bleak told the truth, or set her free. She doubted he would do either.

In the dark, lying on the floor, Victoria took a deep breath and tried to clear her mind. She focused on contented thoughts. She pictured Brian Brooke, her father, on Sunday mornings when he would watch football in the house with his friends. When Victoria was younger, she would help her mother prepare the hors d'oeuvres. Daddy’s favorite was stuffed mushrooms, with Romano and Mozzarella cheese. Victoria loved it when Mom made chicken fingers. She could almost taste them now, the crispy breaded exterior, flaky and slightly burnt, and the juicy inside, bursting with buttery meat.

Victoria found her mouth watering and scratched her nails desperately against the floor. I’ve got to stop. I’ve got to think about something else, she willed herself.

Jesus, she thought—and it was the thought that would change her way of thinking from then on, she knew—I’m going to die soon, one way or another. She took in a deep breath as her eyes flitted across the darkened room. What would that undiscovered country of death look like? Would she just be another lost ghost roaming the earth? She wished that she at least had some liquor to ease the blow, to fade out this inextinguishable night and take her away peacefully. Kevin was right about wanting that. She even wished Kevin was here.

But he wasn't. She had nothing and no one with her, nothing left to do but wait. Wait till Death came rapping his hairy knuckles at her door. Abner had won, she thought again. And sorrow swept over her.


Abner had won.


CHAPTER 16

The moon is always in the same place, Kevin thought. At least move an inch, won't you? At least sway for me.

He was upstairs now, after locking up the cellar door for good (that was the only door in which they couldn't, even if they wanted to, break the lock). The rest of the group had been in Winston's room again, speaking secretly. Winston's room had become sort of a rendezvous point for them now. Since the sitting room downstairs was polluted by the smell of death, this room, the largest bedroom in the house, had taken its place.

Kevin felt the silent buzzing of conversation even from outside the door, and finally walked in.

They looked at him. He stood there, then continued walking. He knew what they were all thinking, but strolled past each of them with no trace of emotion on his face. His letterman jacket, which was prominently red originally, was now a wetter, harsher red, from the dirt and blood, with rips and scratches in areas. His hair, too, was a noticeable upset.

"What were you all talking about?" Kevin asked.

"Kevin, what happened?" Geo said from the bed.

"Did you find Vicky?" Sasha said after.

Kevin sat on a chair near the fireplace and relaxed his shoulders. The cushion of the chair melted around his muscles and he sighed.

"Kevin!" Sasha said again. "What happened?"

Kevin's head turned slightly, then he looked at the fire. "I didn't find her," he said.

Winston was standing over the nightstand, carving his family's name into the wood with a small knife. PATEL, it read. He didn't care anymore about the condition the house was in. They'll all be dead by the time anyone found them. Dad can't kill me if I'm already dead, he thought. He continued carving as he spoke.

"So what happened to your clothes, then?" he said.

Kevin shook his head. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."

"Try me." Winston almost laughed, still carving. "Now if you told me something good happened, maybe then I wouldn't believe you. Like if you found food or..."

"That's what you all were talking about, wasn't it? About food." He said it as if he were utterly disgusted by the thought. As if he thought they should go on forever without eating.

They were silent.

"Well?"

"It was," Mike said. "Because we're all dying. Something needs to happen."

"Something like what?" Kevin asked, wanting to gag because of the smell on his jacket.

Michael looked at Geo. "We were thinking about Bleak," he said.

Kevin's eyes looked hollow for a moment. "Okay," he said.

This time Winston stood up and paced the room. "He's dead now," Winston said. "Don't you think...?"

"Don't I think we should eat him?" Kevin finished for him.

"Well, yeah. I mean, this is survival now," Geo said.

The girls were silent and looking down, but their eyes announced that they agreed with this idea. Their starving eyes.

"I wish we would have thought about that earlier..." Kevin said, shaking his head. "It's a good idea. But I just came from down there. That body is festering away; no way we can eat it now."

"I did think about it earlier, goddammit!" Mike shouted.

"Then why didn't you say something?"

"Well I don't know! I was scared. I was confused. Dammit!"

Kevin shook his head again, squeezing the nape of his tense neck. "It's too late now. We could get real sick if we eat that body now."

"Well I'm willing to take that chance." It was Sasha who said this. She was sitting on the bed with Ashley. Her eyes were wild and shaky, milky and large, her mouth looked dry, her lips cracked.

"You don't understand," Kevin said. "I've worked on a farm all my life. You can't just eat meat that's been dead that long. We would die much more painfully, and probably quicker."

"But what if you're wrong?" Ashley said.

"I'm not wrong."

"But what if you are?"

"Jesus, Ash, I'm not!" he cried, pounding the arm of the chair. He pounded it weakly, though, because all his strength had left him.

"Then what do we do, goddammit! We haven't eaten in over three weeks!"

"I don't know."

Geo's face took on a solemn seriousness. "We can't ignore it any longer... We had hoped to eat Bleak's body, but that's no longer possible. Right?"

"Right," Kevin confirmed.

"Now we know what the only solution is."

"Oh," Winston muttered.

"And what's that?" Sasha asked.

"Oh you know it! I'm not the only one thinking it, dammit!" Geo screamed, his thin neck protruding with veins.

Sasha nodded. Her eyes had dark bags underneath them. Her face looked bonier than before.

"We eat someone," Geo said.

"Yes! Yes!" Mike cried. "That's the plan! That's the one!"

"One of us?" Ashley said, her eyes seeming to gaze at nothing and everything.

"We eat someone," Kevin exclaimed, sinking lower into the seat. "I know how to cook 'em," he said. "I'll cook 'em."

"Who's to say we don't eat you?" Winston said. "Why do you automatically exclude yourself? Why not eat you?"

Some dark, fresh evil danced in the room. The hunger they had all kept secret came bursting out now, announcing its indefinite stay. It stuck in the crevices of their eyes like paste, blinding them to see anything but this new idea. This salvation: to eat one of their own. They had all been thinking it for days in secret, but now that it was out in the open, an idea sitting neatly on the sill of an open window like freshly baked pie, they were all seduced. Or more than seduced; they were possessed.

"You can't eat me," Kevin said. "I won't let you. I'm the leader."

The girls looked frightened now, shrinking back on the bed like mice before a great cat.

"Ha!" Winston cried. "The leader? Where have you led us? Only to our deaths!"

"I'll kill you if you touch me, Winston," Kevin said, his eyes sharp and his hands clenching the arms of his chair like talons on a prey.

"How do we choose then?" Mike said.

"Yes..." Kevin said weakly from the chair. "How..."

"Are we really considering this?" Sasha said, almost speaking to herself.

"It would have to be fair," Mike added.

Kevin looked around and saw the empty whiskey bottle on the floor. He stood lethargically and approached it. He could hear Geo clicking his teeth in disgust, and Winston muttered something indistinctly.

He picked up the bottle.

The two girls looked at each other in pure disbelief. "We're doing this..." Ashley said, fear pulsing something fierce in her veins.

"Well, considering that there are only two girls," Geo said, ignoring Ashley. "We need to exclude them from this. We need women, you know, in case..."

The men understood, the women didn't.

"In case what?" Ashley said incredulously. "So you can have sex with us?"

"Jesus, no, not like that," Geo said. "It'll just help keep us sane. Give us something pretty to look at. And, well...I guess sex if it's ever needed. We just need women, dammit! It's important for a man."

"When is it ever needed?" Ashley asked, appalled.

"Ashley, shut up," Sasha said. "They're excluding us. That's a good thing."

"And how do we choose?" Mike said.

"Yes, how," Winston said.

"There's four of us. We'll spin it five times. Whoever it lands on twice...well, yea."

Color left the face of the three boys watching him. Would they really do it? If one were chosen, would he let himself be killed? We're spinning to see who gets cooked and eaten, Winston thought bizarrely.

It had come to this.

"I don't know if I wanna play this game," Winston said.

"Me either," Mike added.

"It's not a game," Kevin said, a stoic look on his face.

He escorted the girls out of the room. My Sasha, Winston thought. What will I do if they pick me? I'll have to fight back, of course. I can't leave Sasha alone in this place.

But you can't let her starve to death either, another voice said. You'll die to save her. That thought helped a little, and he hung on to it.

The other boys were friends. He was the only outsider in this circle. It only made sense that they would rig the game somehow so that he lost it.

They removed the rug in front of the fireplace and sat there, in a circle, letting the fire cast a demonic light over them, shuffling shadows all around them. Winston was closest to the fire, and could feel the heat breathing on his back. He could swear he heard fire whisper something to him. You're done, boy, he heard it say. Get used to this heat, 'cause you'll be in Hell soon.

Kevin placed the bottle on the ground.

It was already facing Winston.

"Why is it facing me?" Winston spoke out.

They looked at him. "Relax," Kevin said. "We're each going to take turns spinning it." Kevin then turned the bottle and let it face himself. "Better?" he said.

Winston nodded.

"You can start," Kevin said, looking at Winston. "We'll go clockwise."

My hands are shaking, Winston thought as he reached for the bottle. That might affect the spin. Stop shaking! The bottle was olive green, empty and dry in the firelight. The other boys held in their breath.

The bottle was twisted.

It whirled and whirled rapidly, like the propeller of an airplane, but looking more like a ticking time bomb, waiting to go off. As it slowed, Winston's heartbeat accelerated. It passed him, then came around him, slower this time, and passed him again. Then came around again. This time it was going too slow. Too slow. Then it stopped. Facing him.

Winston let out a sorrowful yelp, then blinked. The boys looked at him. Their faces showed compassion, but he knew that they were glad. Glad it would be him and not them.

But not yet. He still had a chance. At least, that's what he told himself.

Geo spun it this time. It twirled fast, casting tribal shadows along the floor. This time it landed on Mike. Winston didn't care to show his obvious relief.

Kevin spun it. It landed on himself. He grunted.

Everyone began breathing heavily, knowing that the next spin could determine the loser. Geo had none land on him, so he was safest.

Michael let his hand fall over the bottle and had to will his hand to stop trembling. It didn't work, however. In any case, he spun the bottle and sat back in despairing impatience. The bottle flexed in circles and seemed to go on forever. Winston wanted to scream at the bottle. You don't realize, do you? he wanted to shout to it. You're going to kill me and you don't even know it. You're only a stupid bottle and you're going to choose me to die. You have no power in yourself, and yet you have all the power to decide my fate.

The bottle slowed down. And slowed.

Until its narrow end landed right on Winston. He made a sound that wasn't human.

Before the group could say anything or even breathe, the bottle began moving.

It was moving on its own!

It turned slowly, impossibly. Geo wanted to scream, That's not fair! but was frozen in ultimate shock. The bottle turned in a slow, unnatural way, defying gravity itself. It passed Kevin, kept going...

And stopped on Michael. He made an animalistic sound like Winston had, and waited for it to move again.

It didn't. They waited almost a full minute, but it remained fixed on him. He was sweating, staring at the idle bottle that was, in a very alive way, staring at him.

"What the hell does this mean?" Mike said.

The others gave him a pained expression.

He rose and crashed the bottle over the mantle. "What the hell does this mean?"

***

Michael stood in defense, holding out the sharp end of the whiskey bottle. He waved it around, shifting over the three other boys.

"Don't come near me," he shouted. "I'll cut your neck!"

Kevin was too famished to have compassion anymore. "Mike, we had a deal."

Mike laughed. "The hell we did. You all cheated. The bottle landed on Winston. You all saw that, didn't you?"

Winston projected a look of quiet concern.

"It moved," Kevin said. "We don't know how, but it moved."

"It wasn't a fair match," Michael said, and now there were tears in his eyes. Despite his desire to survive, Kevin felt sorry for him. He knew it was unfair, of course. Of course he did. But he couldn't admit it. He couldn't agree to a rematch. That would mean risking his life again.

"I'm sorry, Mike. That's the way it's gotta be."

When Mike saw that they'd made up their minds, that they didn't care about him living or dying, he screamed and swung the sharp glass at them. The broken bottle pivoted near Winston's neck and he darted back. Geo threw his hands up in defense and was cut in the palm; he cried out in pain as he, too, moved back. Michael sensed Kevin's presence to his left side and rolled his arm spitefully at him. Kevin anticipated his move and ducked, then tackled him. Mike's head pierced the rocky surface of the mantle and he hissed as his body was brought down. He still had hold of the bottle, but Kevin's knee was already suppressing him; he couldn't break free of his arm.

"Damn you," Mike cried out. "I thought you were my friend!"

"Mike, I'm sorry," Kevin grunted, feeling weak but trying not to show it as his body rustled and writhed over Mike's fidgeting chest. "This is the end for you. I'm so sorry. This is how we survive." He said the last part to reassure himself.

Mike kept trying to shuffle his way out as tears blurred his vision and formed tiny pools in his eyes. His mouth quavered as his body gave up. He relaxed a little, still trembling slightly. He was still gripping the bottle with his right hand. Peacefully, he fingered the harsher edges of the bottle and felt them dig fresh cuts into the ridges of his finger.

"Abner moved that bottle, didn't he," Mike said, shifting his wet eyes to Kevin. It wasn't so much a question as an acknowledgement.

Kevin frowned. "Yeah."

"It wasn't fair," Mike said, his voice a small sad whisper in the room. Geo left the room to tend to his bleeding palm, and Winston followed him out.

"Yeah, man," Kevin said again, not knowing what else to say.

A look of regret coined existence in Michael's face, and he had to almost laugh in pathetic reprise.

"I did something bad, Kevin. And...now it's come back to haunt me." He said it so low that Kevin wasn't sure he heard him right.

Kevin moved his face a little closer. "What do you mean?" he said.

Michael looked at him again. "I deserve this. I know that. Abner knew that, and I guess all of it was some big test. He tricked me. After I'm gone, don't let him trick you, too."

Kevin looked at him quizzically. "I still don't know what..."

"You saw Emily down there, didn't you," Mike said.

Kevin's face became pale. "How did you..."

"Reach into my pocket."

Kevin didn't know what he meant by any of this, but Mike dropped the glass bottle and flicked it away to show that he wasn't trying anything slick. Probing, Kevin found a key inside Mike's left pocket.

As he examined it curiously, Mike spoke. "That's the key to the ballroom door."

"I don't understand," Kevin said, turning the key over in his hand.

Mike's lips formed a tight line, and his eyes transmitted the most despair that Kevin had ever seen in his life.

"Yes, you do," he said. "Please don't make me say it. I can't say it again."

"But..." Without even realizing it, Kevin's knee held off some of the pressure on Mike's arm, but Mike didn't try to retaliate. Why? Kevin wondered in bewilderment.

In answer, Michael explained what had occurred. How Abner had spoken to him, promising to resurrect Emily if he simply locked the door. He didn't know that Wendy would be killed, but he didn't let himself consider the possibility, either. He wanted Emily back. And he made the selfish decision to get her back at whatever cost.

"It's not just this house that I hate," Mike said. "I hate myself more than anything. I hate what the house has revealed about me. I'm not good, Kevin. All those times in school when we would bully Icarus and the other kids, we thought we were kings in that school. We were nothing, Kevin. Nothing."

More tears came, in brutal flushes. And now, even Kevin had to hold back his own tears.

Mike forced himself to stop crying and kept speaking. "I don't know why any of this is happening to us. And I don't know that we're so bad to deserve it. All I know is that I can't go on like this. The longer I stay in this house, the more I hate myself."

Kevin felt it too, and now he was taking hollow, shuddering breaths.

"I won't let Abner bring out any more evil in me. I don't want to die that way." Michael quickly reached for the broken bottle again and shoved the smooth neck of the bottle into Kevin's hand. Kevin flinched, but wasn't afraid of him. Mike closed Kevin's fingers around the neck of the bottle and made sure he was gripping tightly.

"I won't let Abner steal this," Mike said. "The last chance to love my friends."

A tear ran down Kevin's cheek. Michael was his friend. He was a good person. Kevin loved him. Kevin wanted to tell him these things, but he couldn't. Because if he did, he wouldn't be able to do what needed to be done.

"Kill me," Mike said, his eyes fixated on the fire and forlorn. "And don't blame yourself. This is Abner's fault. Not yours. And this is how I make it right, at least for myself. But don't tell the others about Wendy. Promise me that."

Kevin nodded, his chest convulsing. "Let me at least...get the gun," he said. "It'll be quicker."

"No," Mike said. "Do it now. Do it right now, please, Kevin. Please."

Michael let go of Kevin's hand. Closed his eyes. Kevin lowered the sharp edge of the bottle slowly and held it against Michael's soft neck. Kevin closed his eyes as well. This is how we survive, he thought again.

Behind the darkness of his shut eyelids, he felt the glass rip at his friend's fleshy skin. Felt the cool blood sprinkle over his hands. Heard the choking gurgle from Mike's last breath.


CHAPTER 17

They began the cooking process immediately, while the body was still fresh. Kevin, Winston, and Geo (because in their feeble state, it took all the three of them) carried Mike's body downstairs into the kitchen, while Ashley and Sasha trudged behind them. The girls had the flushed look of recent tears on their faces, holding hands and chewing the nails of their free hand like bubble gum. It was evident, though they didn't say it, that they were relieved Michael had been chosen instead of one of the other boys. Sasha now considered herself "emotionally entangled" with Winston, feelings that conflicted with logic if dealt outside the parameters of this house. In it, however, the conflict between them gave her something to live for, or even just something to keep her distracted. Ashley was just glad Kevin hadn't been chosen; she had a newfound respect for him that she never thought was possible. And though she'd lost faith herself, she wanted desperately for him to press on, to have enough strength to find Victoria. If she's even alive, Ashley thought.

They used a fresh stored tablecloth and hung Mike's body upside down on the chandelier in the kitchen; they had to push the dining table out of the way first. Next, they placed a relatively large tub used for washing under him. Kevin turned to the girls, who were standing idly by the door.

"No way you two can stomach this, I'm telling you now. We can call you when it's ready."

The girls looked at each other, communicated something with their eyes, and looked back at Kevin. "We'll be out in the hall," Ashley said.

When they left, Kevin found a sharp steak knife in one of the cabinets and retrieved it.

"What do we do first?" Geo asked.

Kevin knew the process from his days at his uncle's farm. The property was close to Ashmore house, as a matter of fact, about a hundred yards away in Whitlock Park. Every November and December, he would stay over at his uncle's place and help him cook the pigs for the townspeople on their Thanksgiving Day, Christmas and New Year's Eve festivals. Kevin knew the process for pigs and lambs and cows, and took the same precautions with Mike, with a few alterations that just made sense to him.

He started by approaching, then grabbing, Mike's hair and holding his head back. He made a clean incision from ear to ear, moving beneath the jaw. The neck was already cut from earlier, so it was slightly easier.

The blood came rushing out before Kevin had even reached half of his neck. For a few minutes, they waited while all the blood was drained and contained in the tub beneath. In the end, there was almost six liters of dark red blood in the tub. They all held in the urge to vomit, but their hearts were hammering away in their chests and they felt sick inside. Geo and Winston dumped the tub outside, in the backyard of the house. It was so heavy that some of it splashed over their legs. They kicked back, cursing.

When they came back inside, Kevin had already moved the table back alone. And had dropped Mike's body from the chandelier.

"I'm going to need you to find me a hacksaw," Kevin said.

"A hacksaw?" Geo said.

"Yeah. Was there a toolbox in the backyard porch?"

"No."

"I know where we might find one," Winston said. "The renovation crew was working mostly upstairs. I remember seeing some tools in my bathroom. I'm pretty sure there was a saw. Not a hacksaw, but still."

"That's okay. Can you go get it?"

Winston nodded and went. To their relief, the saw was in the bathtub like Winston said, and when he brought it down, they continued their work.

Next was beheading. Kevin used his knife first to cut deeper into the neck, slicing through muscle and ligaments, until he reached the spine. That's where the saw came to use. They washed it first—because there was some dry paint caked over the sharp edges—then Kevin began sawing rabidly at the bone. The chafing of the saw on bone sounded like wood. They tried their hardest to forget that this was a friend of theirs. Now, it was only an animal. And they were hunters feeding.

Once it was loose enough, Kevin twisted Mike's head until it cracked and snapped off. He panicked and dropped the head. It made a loud thump on the ground. As it rolled, it landed against the wall and Mike's petrified face stared at them while they continued the process. Kevin had to step outside to vomit.

"I ain't touching that head when we're done," Geo said as Kevin walked back in, looking tired and flushed of all energy. He was appalled by how nonchalant the whole ordeal was.

They stripped Mike and washed his naked body from the shoulders down, scrubbing the skin hard and carefully. Each wipe left a trail of white froth bubbling over Mike's pores. Once cleansed, they skinned him. This part was as nauseating as the removal of the head, but they took turns to be fair. They obtained the skin by lifting up and peeling back with one hand, while bringing the knife in as flat to the skin as possible to cut away connective tissue. The soggy blankets of skin were discarded outside until a fairly clean exposure of muscles was present. This was the part of him they would cook.

They then proceeded to gutting the body, removing the arms, halving the carcass, and finally separating each body part into chunks.

This was Mike, the thought came to Kevin. Walking, talking Mike. Now dead and chopped up.

"God dammit, shut up!" Kevin shouted.

They turned to him. "What?"

"Nothing. Put these in the freezer," Kevin said, handing Winston the arms. They dangled as he walked them over and stored them in the freezer. Geo brought along the thighs, then the torso, and so forth until all of his body was neatly stored. It should be able to last them at least a couple weeks if they were careful and ate in rations.

"We'll have a thigh tonight," Kevin said, still feeling his stomach turning. The rest was easy. They cut the thigh into bite-size chucks, and put it in a pot with boiling water. The thigh was slow-cooked in the stove for several hours, and near the end the aroma of cooked meat filled the air. It smelled good. The boys' mouths were watering, and when ready, they brought out the pan and separated the food onto five plates, their hands trembling like leaves from the wind, almost without patience.

Finally, Winston poked his head into the living room. The lamp was on; Ashley and Sasha were sitting like statues, their faces grave and concentrated. They looked up when they heard Winston come in.

Sasha stared. "Is it...?"

"It's ready," Winston said.

***

They didn't bother with utensils. They were famished animals at that moment. No one looked at each other. The chandelier overhead was slightly tilted from when the body was hung, and it cast an oblong light that reflected off the plates. Ashley and Sasha sat down across from Kevin and Geo. Winston brought glasses of water to each person and set one glass down for himself.  As he seated himself, he caught a trace of the smoky meat and felt his appetite regain itself again.

"It looks good," Sasha said. "Is it safe? You sure you did it right?"

Kevin nodded. "My grandpa taught me everything. It was a little different with Mike than with pigs and cattle, but..."

Ashley winced, shutting her eyes. "The name," she said.

"Sorry."

"Can we fucking start already?" Geo said.

They didn't waste another moment. They grabbed the meat on all ends of the table, and their moist fingers drummed against the dinner plates. Their chewing was rapid and open-mouthed, sounding like a flock of birds in flight. The meat was tender, and more delicious than they could have imagined.

Despite her best efforts, as she was gnawing on the meat, Sasha realized she was eating Michael, but her teeth wouldn't stop chewing and swallowing. Stop! her mind cried. But her body was celebrating. Stop! Chewing and swallowing. You're eating him! Chewing and swallowing. It was a horrible conflict of agony and excitement.

After a short while, they were finished. And for the first time in weeks, they felt their stomachs filled. They all sat back behind their empty plates, trying not to think that Michael sat in their bellies.

"We should clean the whole first floor tonight," Ashley said. "Now that we have the strength in us again. I like it downstairs better, anyway. We have the library, the sitting room, the ballroom. Those places are nice."

"I don't like the ballroom," Sasha said, looking down.

Ashley shrugged. "Okay, well the sitting room and the library then."

"Pass me a napkin, please," Geo said. Sasha did.

"So have we thought about a way to leave yet?" Winston asked, eyeing his empty plate through his glasses.

"What better plan is there than walking out the front door?" Kevin said. "But we tried that, and it didn't work. I wasn't having a mental breakdown when I said that we were all going to die here. I meant it."

Kevin stood with a groan and went into the main hall, immediately smelling the dead carcass rotting in the ballroom. He was afraid that Bleak might rise from the dead like Emily had, but he was sick of feeling afraid. He decided to get started on Ashley's request to clean out the first floor. It seemed like a manageable task; something he could wrap his head around right now.

Funny how you can grow accustomed to anything, he thought. Even the smell of dead bodies. One thing was for sure, though, it was a scent he would never forget.

He stepped into the ballroom and found that the lights were left on. Bleak's body was at the center of the room, like a homeless man asleep. Only this house was a palace, not the corner of a highway underpass. All the same, the kid looked alive. Asleep, the thought came again. Maybe it was paranoia. Fear that he'd bounce up and attack him. The scary part was that it wasn't such an irrational truth after all. Hadn't they seen countless possessed corpses since their arrival here? Emily included. Hell, Abner was having himself a class act puppet show. Bleak could be just another pawn in his game.

Kevin approached the body slowly, suspecting nothing and everything. He stooped down and grabbed Bleak by the legs. Kevin was a strong young man and found it relatively easy to drag Bleak out of the room. He pulled his body straight into the kitchen, skipping the dining room where the group likely remained. He opened the back the door and hauled Bleak outside, grimacing at the pain in his stomach. Maybe they ate the food too fast, he thought for a moment. Didn't matter. The pain would pass.

Kevin tossed the body in the yard. He could hear crickets chirping behind the trees. Strange that anything living was out there; that there was a living world outside the horrors of this house. He walked back inside and snuck his way into the main hall. He wanted to be alone for a moment. Without questions and probing, without negativity. Alone to clean. That's all that was on his mind.

He went back into the ballroom to clean the rest of the blood. He stopped in the center of the room.

That's when he noticed the pink telephone in the room, unhooked from its cradle and facing him. He remembered the night they arrived (oh no). The voice he'd heard on the phone in the sitting room. The call coming from the ballroom (no no). The muffled voice he'd heard.

The gunshot he'd heard. (no!)

Everything swarmed together in his mind, a feeling like Déjà vu (it was bleak on the phone bleak on the phone bleak!).

That's when he fell to his knees.

And that's when he found the library key that had slipped out of Bleak's pocket; a tiny copper island in a sea of blood.

***

Kevin darted out of the room, nearly slipping on the blood, and almost slid into the dining room. It was empty, so he opened the kitchen door and found the four there. They were huddled around Sasha, however, who was on the floor trembling.

"What the hell happened?" Kevin shouted, feeling stuck between helping Sasha and wanting to show them all the key.

Winston wore clear fright on his face, and he looked back. "We don't..."

"She just started making this sound, you know?" Geo said, speaking above the sound that Sasha was currently making. Like a shriek, but leveled. Not necessarily loud, but enough so that it frightened everyone in the room. Her teeth were wrought tightly together, and her body was vibrating.

"Get her to bed. I can't deal with this right now." Kevin approached her and lifted her off the ground. Sasha slapped him hard across the face. The noise thundered in the small kitchen.

Ashley jolted and grabbed Sasha's arm. "It's not her fault. She's in shock."

"Just...get her out of here, dammit!" Kevin said, rubbing at the stinging in his cheek.

They took her out of the room, and he heard their footsteps collecting above him as they made their way upstairs. Alone in the kitchen, he thought about Victoria again. He thought about the possibility that she might still be alive. He didn't know why, but the thought was an invasive wasp in his mind, willing to forfeit torment only when he knew the answer for certain. The key he'd found wasn't an ordinary house key, it was small and thin, too specific to be for any generic room. He'd hidden her somewhere, Kevin knew it.

Taking Sasha's breakdown as an opportunity to investigate alone, Kevin went out to the back porch. The moon wasn't visible on this side of the house, and he invited the change of scenery. In the purple glow of the night, he saw Bleak's body, right where he'd left it. Maybe there was another clue that he missed earlier. He crouched near Bleak and turned his body over. Bleak's face was like white wax, and Kevin tasted bile rise in his throat. He checked all of Bleak's pockets. He found a cell phone, receipt, condom, and an empty container for pills. He wasn't sure what the pills were for, but knowing Bleak, they were meant to be abused. He wondered about the condom. The obvious explanation was that it was for Wendy, but then he thought about Vicky again. Had he raped her? Or tried? No, Bleak wouldn't care to use a condom for that. It was possible, but he didn't want to think about that anymore. It only distracted him from his mission.

He checked the cellphone. Battery was dead. Okay, Kevin thought. So what do we know? This key means something, but does it mean what I want it to mean? And if so, where could that room be? Bleak and Wendy knew this house more than the others did, because they used to come exploring all the time. It was very possible that Bleak knew about a room that the others didn't know about. Where would it be? A basement or an attic, most likely. And then it hit him.

Wendy and Bleak had never explored upstairs.

Of course. They both mentioned that on their first night. They were too afraid to go upstairs. And the lights. The flickering lights from earlier, the ones that began the same moment that Vicky disappeared. It had most likely come from a fuse box that was probably located downstairs.

Everything was starting to come together now. Vicky was kidnapped by Bleak. This is the key to the room. And she is somewhere downstairs. A new burst of hope flooded Kevin as he turned to go back inside.

Just before he reached the door, something grabbed his leg. He felt the penetrating grip and flared back, turning to see Bleak crawling beneath him. Kevin kicked his arm and it cracked the bone beneath, releasing a snap like a celery stick. Bleak went into a rage of fury and pulled Kevin with his other leg, then he began chopping away with teeth, or what remained of them, trying to bite Kevin. His face was caked with a mask of dry blood from the gunshot wound. Kevin heard Bleak's teeth tapping together like drum sticks.

Kevin kicked back again, this time landing the heel of his shoe on Bleak's jaw. He saw Bleak's neck contort in a way that no living human's could. The dark veins revealed themselves in a moment of surrealism, then he was on Kevin again, snapping his jaws and growling like some fervent beast. Kevin managed to roll the knob of the back door with the tip of his fingers. The door fell open.

"Help!" he shouted, hoping his friends were back in the dining room and not upstairs. "Help me!"

They weren't near, he knew. Kevin used the door as leverage and pulled his body into the house just as Bleak was nearing to bite him. Bleak scratched Kevin so hard that it made a tear in his jeans. Kevin cried out as blood coated the fabric of the jeans. He quickly pressed the door against Bleak's temple and he fell back into the dark night. It was enough time to pull his whole body into the kitchen and shut the door.

Kevin's heart was a swollen hot engine in his chest. He hissed at the blinding pain in his leg. He was hardly able to stand on it. He locked the door (they hadn’t broken the knobs to these entrances and exits in case there was another emergency with the corpses from the grave) and hobbled into the hall. It was quiet and empty.

He shuffled along the walls, the dragging of his leg creating a reverberating sound that flowed along the high walls. He tried not to grunt at the pain, because the sound was always doubled in a ghostly echo, making him feel completely and utterly alone.

Stopping, he looked up at the turn leading to the stairs. He was hesitant on calling for backup, and even if he wanted to, he didn't think his leg would make it to the top.

He heard a loud thump coming from a distance. He flinched. His head shot to the kitchen. Bleak is trying to get in, his mind screamed. I need to hurry.

He thought about the floor plan of the house; separated the rooms in his mind. Library, sitting room, dining room, kitchen, wine cellar, ballroom. That was it, as far as he knew. If there was a secret room, where would it be? He decided it'd be best to search everywhere, room by room.

He'd start with the ballroom, the first room on the left, and go clock-wise from there.

***

Drifting in and out of consciousness, Victoria remained grounded. She felt only half alive; the missing pages of her lost in a far off dreamscape. Every movement brought pain with it. She could feel her muscles cramping only at the thought of moving them. Strange, she thought. I don't feel hungry anymore. Or thirsty, for that matter.

The pain in her body overshadowed any pain caused from hunger or thirst. In fact, just the idea of eating made her feel nauseous. She remembered that she hadn't drunk much water since she began filling the container. Maybe she should—

No. She couldn't move. Her body was in too much pain to carry her own weight. How long had she slept on this hard ground? There was no way of knowing. She only knew that it was a long time. She thought for a terrifying moment that perhaps the rest of her friends had escaped the house already. That she'd been left behind. Claustrophobia overtook her and she felt like her breath was trapped in some diminishing pocket in her lungs.

She licked her lips and felt them dry. I need water, she thought. Even if I'm not thirsty. Even if I can't bear the pain to move.

The container must have been filled with water by now. If she could only reach it...

She counted to three and flipped her body over, letting her chest fall to the floor. Her teeth clenched at the pain that followed; running from her legs all the way up to her arms. In a frenzied movement, she tried to stand. She twisted around, but it all hurt the same. Her legs couldn't hold her weight, as she imagined, and she fell again. Well dammit I'll just have to crawl then, she thought. Her knees felt like crushed, spoiled fruit as they bit the ground in a slow race for the water. Her palms felt bare to the bone, shooting rivulets of pain up her arm. Her hands and knees palsied, buckling with each minimal step. She wasn't sure how close she was, but she was pretty sure she was going in the right direction. God, she hoped so. The alternative—exerting precious energy to travel in the wrong direction—was too painful to imagine.

Victoria felt the last bookshelf in the dark, felt her hand move across its dusty surface. She was close to the air conditioner. She had to be now. She dropped her hand weakly from the shelf and felt it crash over something. The noise dribbled off as water enveloped her hands. No, she thought. For God sakes, no! She lifted the empty mug and fingered the circular rim, finding only pointless driblets of water left.

"Fuck!" she screamed. "Fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck!"

Her hands slapped the ground fitfully, feeling the water clap against her palm. She lowered herself and began sucking on the floor, licking wildly. The taste of the cool water stirred her slumbering thirst to life again. And that was bad now. It was futile.

She began sobbing while she felt around for the leaking corner of the air conditioning unit, the part that had emitted the droplets of water. She found it soon enough, and for that she was thankful. Lowering her aching body, she turned on her back and felt the drops land subtly on her forehead, then positioned herself until the drops were hitting her lips every eight seconds or so. The impact was subtle, but she relished each drop; her heart seemingly beating in perfect rhythm as each fell.

This was better, but she thought about food again. A hollow cry blasted from within her, threatening to drive her completely insane. She forced a casual breath to quiet the blast, but it did little to help. I'm losing it, she said in her mind. The weak-minded die in this house. And my turn is up.

Don't think that way! another voice beckoned. Or else the woman might come back.

Oh no. She hadn't even thought about the woman until now. The female voice she'd heard earlier, the one who touched her. Now that she was thinking of her, the thought would not perish. Christ, is she here now? Victoria heard breathing at the other end of the room. But how far? Was it even really there? Was she imagining it? Why had she only noticed the noise now, when the thought came? Didn't that prove that it was all in her imagination? Of course it did. This whole cursed house was imaginary. Everything they'd seen till now. It'd driven them mad. Something in this house had driven each of them insane. That made more sense... That made more sense than...what? Ghosts? Demons?

No—insanity made much more sense.

The breathing at the other end turned into a whisper. A whisper zipping at a hundred miles an hour. It was vulgar, spitting, like the old woman was murdering children with her words. Don't listen, Victoria thought. Think about something else. Mom's cooking again.

"Don't listen," Victoria said aloud, just as the whispering began to swell to an audible voice. The drops of water were dripping over her forehead as she forced herself up. Keep quiet, she wanted to tell the leaking water above her which, other than the whisper, was the loudest sound in the room.

Victoria's arms gave in under her weight, and she fell hard to the ground. She moaned, twisting to relieve the ache in her back. She heard another voice. This time it was a hollow cry. It made her more afraid, which didn't seem possible. And yet it did. But this was a different fear. This was the end.

And that's when she literally felt her sanity rip like a weak flag of cotton.

This is it, she thought. I feel it. I'm losing my mind. She began laughing, even as the voice called her again. Each time she heard it, she chuckled louder, until she was releasing a full laugh from her belly, relishing the insanity. Breathing it in.

Yes! she thought. Take me to hell with you! I want to feel the heat on my back! She laughed harder. She imagined Emily being pulled under the earth.

"How fucking funny!" she bellowed, unable to control her swarming hysteria. She thought about Wendy vomiting blood over the window.

"Hahaha!" she cried, twisting and holding her stomach. "Hahahaha!"

Her eyes were closed, but she felt a presence in the room. All along. Calling her to insanity. She welcomed the voice. She heard footsteps approaching, tapping numbly on the floor, faster, faster, faster! The voice! Louder!

Then it grabbed her. She didn't even flinch. She wrapped her arms around the dark figure and bit into its neck seductively.

"Come closer," she hissed. "Get inside of me. Fuck me! Fuck me in Hell!"

The figure lifted her up and pulled her in. Before she could bite its neck again, a brilliant light shone and she hissed and cried out in discomfort.

She fainted just as she caught a pale white glimpse of the main hall, and Kevin carrying her upstairs.


CHAPTER 18

Victoria was delirious. Kevin could see it in her face as she writhed beneath the covers of his bed. As he'd been coming upstairs, he'd heard commotion coming from Sasha's room. He looked at Victoria again. She'd lost so much weight since he last saw her. And her hair was warped and greasy, looking like wet vines floating in a swamp. He knew she'd pissed herself, because the smell was eminent. Either way, he was overwhelmed with joy that he'd found her. I saved her life, he thought. I did something good in this house of evil. A spit in Abner's face.

He rose from the bed and glanced back, thinking about Sasha again. She needed him too. Maybe his presence might save her life in the same way. Ok, he decided. Only for a minute, though.

He walked out of the room and could hear noise coming from behind their closed door. Voices trying to calm her tantrum. He didn't bother knocking and opened the door. Sasha was on the bed weeping, or laughing, he couldn't tell. Ashley and Winston were looming over her, rubbing her hair and back gently. They looked up.

"Oh man. What happened to your leg, Kev?" Geo said, concerned.

Kevin ignored his question. "How is she?" he asked.

Winston nodded and side-glanced at Sasha. "I think better. We're not sure."

Kevin nodded also and combed his fingers through his hair. "Winston, can you watch Sasha for a sec? I need to talk to Ashley alone."

Winston's suspicion flickered away as soon as it came and he nodded. "Sure."

Ashley looked more suspicious as she rose to follow him out of the room.

"What is it?" They were outside of the room. Kevin was resting his arm on a statue, keeping the weight off his leg.

"It's good news. But brace yourself anyway, because it's big news."

Ashley's eyes lit up, but confusion was apparent in her face. "Go ahead," she said.

"Vicky's alive. I found her."

Ashley didn't say anything, but began to stumble in waves. Kevin caught her.

"Tell me..." she said, her voice stiff with speculation. “Tell me this is the truth.”

"It's the truth," Kevin said, even as she began to cry.

"Where is she?"

Kevin took her over to his room. Vicky was on the bed, asleep now. Ashley was trembling.

"I swore she was dead," whispered, afraid that Vicky might hear. "I heard voices, Kevin. For days I heard voices. They all laughed at me, they kept telling me she died. When I slept, I would see Victoria rotting somewhere underground; her body was bloating and her face caved in with rot. Abner convinced me, Kevin. Convinced me she'd died. I was certain."

Kevin put a hand on Ashley's shoulder. And then he turned her body toward Victoria, who was breathing as calmly as a child, her eyes stirring in dreams behind her eyelids.

"Kevin..." Ashley turned to him and embraced him. She was still crying when she turned her head and kissed his cheek.

"I can't believe it," she said, wiping her tears away.

Kevin smiled. Ashley laughed through her tears when she saw his expression. They both turned their heads to look at her again. Poor thing, Kevin thought. Bleak deserved to die for doing this. Then again, perhaps not. Maybe that's why Abner made him kill himself. To make sure Bleak would never say a word.

"Kevin, I love you for this," Ashley said. "Vicky will love you for this, too."

For some reason, the idea of Victoria loving him felt like a prize he desired, perhaps because he'd never been known for anything good. He smiled.

"I suppose," he said, still looking at her.

Ashley moved around the room until she was standing over Victoria. Her face looked drowned with concern. "How long do you think until she wakes up?" she asked.

Kevin shrugged. "Not long, I think. We just need to get some food in her as soon as possible."

Ashley turned and nodded. "I'll get on that right away. Just...go check on Sasha please. She won't listen to us, but she likes you; maybe you can calm her down. See what's going on with her."

"Sure," Kevin said.

Ashley glanced at Vicky one more time before twitching into movement. When she walked out of the room, Kevin hesitated for a moment, his eyes blooming over Victoria's unmoving body, then drifted in her direction. His steps were lost, misguided by churning indecision. Once he was hovering over her, he stopped to observe his breathing and hers. He began to breathe like her; slow, secluded, separate from this house and its horrors. When their breathing was synchronized, he lowered himself and brought his hand to her cheek. It was damp with sweat, and soft. He felt hot air puff up her cheeks as they breathed in time. He pulled his hand away when she began to stir, her eyes still clamped shut. As gently as he could, without waking her, Kevin lowered his face and kissed her softly on the lips.

***

A minute later Kevin was in the hall again, lumbering toward Sasha's room. The hall was fairly dark, lit only by the ambient moon glowing through one massive window at the end. The door was already open when he poked his head in. Geo was sitting on the bed next to Sasha, Winston on a chair beside the bed. Sasha looked calmer now. Or, at least, she wasn't crying or screaming. Her eyes, however, were sunken and downcast, her lower lip quaking.

Geo nodded a greeting to Kevin as he walked in.

"How is she?" Kevin said.

"I'm just fine," Sasha said in an unconvincing voice. She looked up at him. He could see her eyes red and glazed with old tears. Well at least they weren’t dealing with some kind of demonic possession like Bleak’s case. Maybe not yet, but they had to be careful. It was obvious that the vulnerable ones were more likely to fall prey to the house. He had to make sure that Sasha wasn't the next victim. Kevin believed that he could prevent another death from taking place in the house, if he could just convince the group to keep their heads straight.

"Can we talk about what happened?" Kevin said to Sasha.

She gave him a dry look. "What ever do you mean?" she inquired.

Kevin stiffened. "Sasha, don't fuck around. That's exactly what I wanted to talk about. I know that you—no, all of us—have been through a lot. Stuff that has traumatized us for life. But I think I know how we can at least prevent anyone else from dying."

Sasha chuckled. "Oh do you now?"

"Sasha," Kevin said, his voice rising, but then leveling again to a stern tone. "Yes, I do."

"What about when we get hungry again?" she asked.

"We'll figure it out when it happens."

She lost her smile. Looked at him coldly. "You know, you're right about one thing," she said. "I have been through a lot. I lost my best friend, I was practically raped by a ghost, I had to eat another friend to stay alive. I think I have fucking permission to be upset, don't you?"

Kevin's face burned red with anger. "We've all had to witness and do horrible things in this house. That much is understood. But you can't put the rest of us in danger by going off the deep end. If you can't take the pressure, there's a gun in my drawer that you can use on yourself, but don't fucking put us all in danger by going psycho."

"Kevin," Winston said, giving him a look of disapproval. Kevin didn't care. He'd had it with her bullshit.

"I might take you up on that offer," Sasha said.

Kevin shook his head. "No. Don't do that. I'm sorry. Look, I'm just upset too. I feel like I'm holding onto my sanity by a thread. But I figured it out. That's what he uses. Abner, I mean. He takes the weak ones. Makes us do things."

"I've lost all hope," Sasha said. "I just don't see why it matters anymore. Even if Abner doesn't kill us, what's the best case scenario? We keep eating Michael until we run out of food, then kill the next person, and so on? Until we're all dead? That's the best we'll get, Kevin. Do you understand that?"

Kevin didn't know how to respond. She was right, though. But for the sake of his own sanity, he had to deny it as truth. He tried to hold onto the only ounce of hope he had any evidence of: Victoria being alive when they'd thought her dead.

"I found Vicky," he said.

Sasha looked away. "Is she dead?"

"She's alive," Kevin said. "She's in my room right now, sleeping in bed."

Sasha hesitated for a moment, thinking that he was lying to her, then jolted off the bed and ran to the other room. The boys followed her.

She stood at the door and watched. She stood watching Vicky breathing gently in the quiet room. Her stomach rising and falling beneath the vanilla-colored comforter.

"My God," Sasha mumbled.

Kevin snuck up behind her and peered over her shoulder to see Vicky again. He noticed that she'd shifted her body from the left to the right side. He thought again that they had to feed her soon.

"I'm going to go check on Ashley in the kitchen," he said. "Be back with food in a bit."

"I'll come too," Geo said.

They left toward the stairs and disappeared within seconds.

I should have gone with them, Winston thought regrettably. His nose wrinkled beneath his glasses. Sasha seemed to feel the awkwardness in the air as well; he could sense it in her stiff shoulders. Surprising him, however, Sasha turned and looked up at him.

"I want to tell you something," she said.

Winston's face hardened and he did his best to nod. He still wasn't good with face-to-face confrontations.

"You need to promise to keep this between us," she said.

"I will," he said.

"Say you promise."

"I promise, then."

Sasha looked in his eyes to test him, then nodded. "Okay," she said, then sighed. "I'm leaving."

Winston wasn't following what she meant. "Leaving?"

"Yes," she said, trying to steady her voice. "Leaving the house. And I'm telling you because I want you to come with me."

Winston suppressed a smile at the ridiculousness of what she was saying. "Sasha, we can't leave. Leaving means dying. You're asking me to die with you."

"We're going to die either way, Winston. You can die with them or you can die trying to escape, with me."

"How could you do this to me? Put me in this situation," he said, pain in his eyes.

"I'm telling you because I care about you. And because I trust you. And I want you there with me...you know, in case I do die. I'd rather be with you when it happens."

Winston was frozen in a mental debate. "Do you have a plan?" he said finally.

Sasha's eyes flitted around. "Sort of. My plan is to have weapons with us and run. We can attack those things, the monsters. No one says they can't be killed."

"Yeah, but what if there's too many?" Winston whispered. "Then what?"

Sasha was growing irritated at his dubious questions. "I don't know, Winston. I'm leaving. You don't have to come with me, but you already promised you wouldn't tell. So if you're not coming, then keep your mouth shut. Please."

Winston wasn't angry when she spoke to him that way, because he wasn't sure what he wanted to do. Leaving, even risking his life to leave, sounded like a better outcome than whatever was going on here. Their fate here was far much worse. Being here wasn't living. It was just lasting. And Winston didn't know how much longer he could last.

"I almost wish you didn't tell me," he said.

Sasha shrugged. "I just thought I owed it to you. If I die tomorrow, I don't want to feel like that went unfinished, you know?"

Winston knew.

"I also owe you one more thing," her voice was shaky. "But I can only give it to you if you go with me tomorrow."

He clamped his lips shut and swallowed. "What is it?" he asked.

Her sudden smile sent flutters to his heart. "I'll sleep in your bed tonight and you can find out for yourself."

***

Kevin stepped into the kitchen, Geo tagging along behind him. The door swung shut behind them.

"What's taking so long?" Kevin asked Ashley, who was looming over the pot, twisting the chunky meat in a pool of boiling water. Smoke was clouding her face. "It takes a while, Kevin. I'm almost done."

Kevin snuffed his next eruptive words and nodded. He was growing anxious, seeing Vicky starve to death in bed. The idea that they'd all eaten their fill and she hadn't tasted food in almost a month irritated him.

"Hey, maybe we should cook all of it," Geo said, holding the freezer door open and peering in. "It might go bad in a few days."

"We'll do it in a few more days then," Kevin said. "We gotta make it last."

They sat around the kitchen for another ten minutes before Ashley strolled across to check on the pot for the hundredth time and perked up. "It's ready!" she announced.

Geo bounced off his seat on the counter and landed straight on the ground. He handed her a plate nearby and Ashley raised a big spoon from the pot. The meat looked yellowed and tender. It plopped onto the plate with a dull thud, and Ashley dipped into the pot for another few pieces. They had to feed Victoria slowly, so the small portion would suffice for now.

The three of them headed upstairs—Ashley came last, balancing the plate carefully so the meat wouldn't slide off.

Only Winston was in the room with Victoria when they came in. Victoria seemed more alert than she had been before, but her eyes were still dozing open and closed. She seemed to hear people coming in and forced her eyes open. Through her skewed vision, she saw Ashley first and groaned. Ashley pulled up the small, plump vanity chair beside her and sat down, placing the hot plate on the nightstand.

Victoria's gasped at the warm air the moment she smelled the food. Her hands shifted beneath the covers.

"We'll take small bites," Ashley said, cutting the chunks to smaller pieces. Victoria watched her anxiously, feeling her stomach murmur groans of desperation.

"Here we are," Ashley said. As she lifted the fork, Geo and Winston hurried to the other side of the bed to help Vicky sit up. She rocked back and forth before settling.

Vicky's mouth fell open as the fork sneaked its way in. The entrance of the warm meat was like that first kiss of sunlight after a season of darkness in Alaska. Vicky chewed the meat robustly, breathing through her nose only when deemed necessary. Ashley continued to feed her for a while until, as they expected, the plate was scraped so clear that it appeared to had been washed.

"Where... How did you..." Victoria started afterward, trying to sit up straighter. Her voice was hoarse, but it was nice to hear it.

Kevin approached from the doorway with a glass of tap water. He handed it to Vicky and she took it. It was empty in seconds.

"I saw a pig in the field from the window," he said. "It must've escaped from my uncle's farm. He lives right across this park, on the opposite side of the cemetery."

When she looked at him skeptically, he added: "The pigs have escaped before. We got lucky."

That was good enough, he thought. They couldn't tell her the truth. Ever. There was no need. Eye contact was traded around the room and they all knew—Mike died some other way, not a victim of cannibalism. Either way, Victoria didn't pry any further. She had a filled stomach, and to her that was all that mattered.

Later that night, Victoria requested to speak to Kevin alone. Ashley found him downstairs in the ballroom, cleaning as he had before. He was mopping the floor in inexperienced strides, and Ashley smiled at the sight of this tough-boy jock keeping things tidy.

"Kevin," she said, her voice echoing in the massive room.

He swung his gaze to her, gripping the mop tighter.

"Vicky asked for you." Her words hung in the empty air like slow-falling leaves before settling on the ground.

"She did?"

She nodded. "Drop the mop, Mary Poppins."

They went upstairs together, and all the while Kevin was dreading speaking with her. It wasn't all dread—a part of him was excited that she'd asked for him personally—but he had the sinking feeling that it would turn out more awkward than anything else. After all, Kevin had seen her in her most vulnerable state. No way had Victoria felt comfortable with that. She had always been the composed one; the one who held the group together. Kevin had seen her dirty and to the point of death. Wet with piss. He didn't expect her to ever see him the same way again. Victoria had always despised Kevin in high school; now she owed him her life. Of course, he would never say it so bluntly to her, but that was the reality of it.

As he entered the room, Victoria was still sitting up in her bed. She was examining her cracked nails as he came in—the lining of her nails were covered in pasty blood that seeped from beneath them.

She looked up, startled, then motioned for him to sit. Kevin took a seat beside her and rested his elbows on his knees, clamping his hands together.

"How you feeling?" he said, feeling good that he'd taken the initiative to speak first.

Vicky looked down at her fingers again, which were hidden from Kevin's sight, and shrugged. "I shouldn't be alive right now, so considering that, I guess I can't complain."

Her voice was small, a frail thing in the luxury of the room, but Kevin felt delighted to hear her speak again. To him, it was a token that signified that he'd been right all along. Now, here was the proof—sitting right before him. It gave him a sense of hope and accomplishment. That voice, this girl, still exists because of me. Because I fought the voices in my head, because I tried.

"I asked for you to come because I wanted to talk to you in private about what happened." She stopped for a moment then smiled weakly. "And I wanted to thank you for saving my life."

The words, the way she'd said it, made his veins feel alive as if for the first time. He had to fight the urge to lean in and kiss her again. He couldn't, now that she was awake. He shrugged and nodded at about the same time. He didn't want to say anything stupid, so he said nothing at all.

"How did you find me?" she asked, in a curious tone. "I'm guessing Bleak told you?"

"He didn't," Kevin said quickly, as if to disarm any credit given to Bleak. "He's dead, actually."

Victoria's eyes shifted to her bloody nails again, and while she screamed in her mind, she was composed on the outside. "Who else?" she asked, fearing the answer.

Kevin waited a moment before answering. "Mike," he said.

"I'm sorry." She meant it.

They were quiet for another minute, then she asked, "What happened with Bleak?"

"I think Abner got to him," he said. "He wasn't quite himself at the end, let's just say. Then he took a bullet to the head."

When Victoria looked at him in confusion, Kevin clarified. "He found an old gun lying around somewhere in the house."

Victoria shook her head. "So wait—how did you find me then?"

Kevin sat back straighter in his chair and fumbled with his hands. "I'll try to explain. First off, I didn't trust Bleak one bit when he told us that you'd been killed outside on the porch."

"Wow," she said.

He nodded and went on. "I know. Then there were the lights. That was you, wasn't it? Of course it was. I knew it meant something. I knew you were alive. I can't really explain more than that, because I'm not so sure myself. But when I started cleaning the ballroom and disposed Bleak's body, a key fell out of his pocket."

Victoria pursed her lips and nodded, suddenly finding the connection.

"Yea," Kevin said. "That confirmed my suspicion."

"So you got the group to split up and find me?"

Kevin was quiet for a moment, deciding whether he should tell the truth or not. But before he could decide, Victoria figured out the answer.

"You looked for me by yourself?" she said.

Kevin looked at her and nodded again.

Victoria tried to suppress her smile but couldn't.

It was infectious and made Kevin grin as well. He coughed a laugh. "What?"

"I'm just surprised, that's all."

"Why surprised?"

Victoria lowered her head and shrugged. "Honestly? I guess I'm a little hurt that Ashley didn't help you. Or Sasha, for that matter. And at the same time, I can't believe that you, out of all the people in this house, went out of your way... It's—just not what I expected you to do."

"This house has done a lot to us," Kevin said, and the words flowed as if he had this speech prepared his whole life. "So much so that I wanted to die already. I couldn't take any more of it. When I got that notion, just that one idea that you might still be alive, I had to run with it. It was the only way to keep my sanity. Do you understand?"

Victoria nodded.

"Anyway, although it saved you, it kept me sane, so in a way, it saved me, too. I don't know if I'd still be this alive if I hadn't tried to save you. That gun still has bullets in it, and I was tempted to use them on myself. You were a symbol for me. I know that sounds silly, but it's true. Finding you meant finding a hole in Abner's game. And that was enough to keep me going at the time, when deep down I just wanted to blow my brains out like Bleak did."

"Do you still do?"

"No," he said. "I don't think so."

"Good," Victoria smiled. "Because I want you here with me."

***

Winston lay in bed, shirtless and head propped against the steel headboard. It was icy against his warm neck. He watched with a pulsing heart as Sasha undressed slowly before him. She lifted her cheerleading shirt over her head, and her blonde hair flopped messily before adorning itself in fluid strands over her shoulders. She was wearing a black bra, and her breasts swelled tightly as she took a deep breath. Winston felt heat conspiring like a heated oven in his cheeks, palpitating with vibrancy and fire. His heart was beating everywhere in his body; through his veins, the blood made his temples and fingers pulse in titanic throbs.

Sasha lowered her pink skirt and it made its slipping crawl down her silky legs. She was wearing a thong; black as well. Winston had never had sex, let alone with someone like her, and a sense of panic and dread consumed him. I'm going to screw this up, his mind screamed. She's a professional at this.

Sasha bended her elbows back and began to unhook her bra from the back. Winston didn't even notice that he was fully erect, watching the show before him with the steady eyes of a surgeon in the operating room. He felt that if he moved, or so much as twitched, this glorious house of cards would come swiveling down.

The bra fell lifelessly on the floor, and Sasha's luscious breasts were staring Winston down; her hard nipples gazing at him like lustful eyes.

Winston swallowed. He noticed that he was trembling and willed himself to stop. It didn't work. Sasha smiled and lifted her legs onto the bed, then shuffled on her knees closer to him. His breathing was sporadic now. He wasn't sure whether breathing slowly or quickly would help. Sasha grabbed his shaking hand and placed it on her right breast. He cupped it in his hand. It fit perfectly. It was soft and responsive to his touch. He could see her smiling in the dim light.

"Have you ever done this before?" she chuckled.

Winston blushed and remembered that he was shaking again. "No."

"I can tell."

"Jesus, don't tell me that," he said, twisting his head in embarrassment.

She laughed. "It's okay, just an observation."

"Well it's not helping set the mood."

"It is to me," she said, her breasts absorbing most of the attention in the room. "I like that you're new to this."

"Okay," he said. He rested on his elbows and she hovered over him.

They made love for the rest of the night. At first Winston was afraid, then, for the latter part of the evening, he became consumed by passion. Hours went by before they both were completely satisfied and resided to cuddling beside each other. This as well seemed to go on for hours. Or at least until they heard a knock on the locked door. Or more of a bang than a knock. Hard, fisted.

"Open up," Geo yelled. "Open up quick. We have to leave!"

Sasha tumbled away from Winston and shuffled off the bed, collecting her garments on the floor. Winston did the same.

"I'll be out in a minute," Winston yelled, hopping one leg into his jeans.

"It can't wait a minute! Hurry up!" The voice was muffled behind the door, but its urgency was apparent.

When they were dressed, mostly—Winston hadn't buttoned his shirt all the way nor had he slipped on his shoes correctly—Sasha opened the door. Geo stood before them with an honest grin on his face. A grin so natural that they'd forgotten such a thing existed.

"What is it? Where is everyone?" Sasha demanded.

Geo swallowed, as if he were out of breath. "They're all downstairs. On the porch. Waiting for you—"

"The porch?" Winston interrupted, shaking his head in bewilderment. Victoria would never be so stupid.

"We got food packed, and everyone's ready to go," Geo said, ignoring Winston's question.

"What's going on?" Sasha cried. "Go where?"

"Didn't you hear the gunshot?" Geo said. "Right outside?"

They looked at him in confusion.

"Someone out there has a sniper rifle," Geo said. "Someone out there knows what’s going on! And they're going to lead us out of here."


CHAPTER 19

The front door burst open. Victoria was leaning against the railing, gripping the bar. Her knuckles were white and bloodless. She tiptoed, trying to see past the shadowy trees. It wouldn't work. She thought about the last time they'd tried to escape; how the distance seemed endless when those ghouls came out. They came from out of nowhere, it seemed. And she questioned whether this shooter would have enough time and ammunition to protect all of them. Regardless, it was their only hope. Even if only one of them made it out alive, it'd be worth it.

"Is it true?" Sasha said from behind Victoria, tears in her eyes.

Victoria turned around and stepped to the side. A shaky red dot floated off of Vicky's body and blinked over Sasha's stomach. The laser from the rifle.

She didn't flinch. The shot wasn't for them; it was for the monsters.

"Maybe this will work," Victoria said.

"How could this person know?" Sasha asked, her eyes fixed on the dot on her shirt.

"Maybe he's been watching us."

There were a lot of “maybe's” floating around her lips, not enough certainty.

"So what do we do?" Sasha asked, still watching the laser dot rave across her shirt in twitching jerks.

"We make a run for the woods and pray that this shooter can defend whatever attacks us," Vicky said. "I doubt we'll have time to reach the town, so I'm thinking we follow the laser beam and see where it leads."

"Vicky," Ashley said. "We don't know where it leads to."

"I know, it's risky. But if we make a break in the other direction, there's a chance the shooter could lose our visual, then we'll be vulnerable to whatever's out there."

Kevin nodded, staring off into the shadow-swept woods. The wind picked up suddenly and he felt its current land an icy kiss across his face. This may be the last day he lived, the thought came. Still, it would be a better death. More painful, maybe. But dying this way had to be better than hopelessly withering away in that awful house.

"Any last questions?" Victoria asked, not bothering to make eye contact with any of them.

The group looked around apprehensively and shook their heads together.

"Good," she said. She pushed off of the railing with a slight jump and heaved the backpack filled with food over her shoulders. "Let's get weapons and let's get the hell out of here."

Shovels, knives, gardening tools, the iron poker and shovel. Those were the prominent weapons available for them. Then, of course, there was the gun. Kevin took that one. But since there were only two bullets left, plus one in the chamber, he slipped a knife under his belt as well.

Victoria had the shovel, the same one they'd used before during their last escape attempt through the backyard. It was typically used for the fireplace, to toss and flip coal and logs. It would make a fine killing tool against those things.

"All set?" Victoria asked, glancing over her shoulder as Winston shut the front door, holding a knife in hand.

"We're good," Kevin said.

Vicky found the red laser on her chest again, buzzing around in small circles fitfully.

"Do you see the beam?" she said, pointing ahead.

It was dim, hardly traceable, but they could all see it; a thin red line, catching dust in its wake until it reached the dot spearing Victoria's chest.

"Okay," she said, inhaling a shaky breath. "Follow my lead."

Victoria looked ahead into the swallowing woods that seemed a mile away and began waving. She waited a moment before the red laser point began swaying up and down, from her head to her toes. It was the shooter's acknowledgement that he saw her.

"Okay, then. Here goes. On three. One...two..." Victoria started, bending her knees a little. "Three!"

Starting with Victoria, they each leaped off the veranda as far as they could and began kicking into a sprint. Victoria felt the world stop turning and all became quiet. She only heard the panting of stiff breath in her lungs and the stomping of her friends' feet behind her. They were breathing heavily as well, somewhere in the darkness behind her, but she was too afraid to look back. The air was rushing past her like silky curtains as she bolted, nearing the woods. She heard the wet crumbling of earth beneath her as corpses began sprouting from the ground like a hell harvest. Victoria hopped over a clutching hand, nearly tripping.

"Watch out!" she yelled to whoever was behind her.

She heard a scream. Knew that it was Ashley. Victoria looked over her shoulder and saw Kevin already turning to her aid. Kevin pried open the ghoul's hand, setting Ashley free. Victoria could hear the popping snap of the dead fingers as they cracked apart. A second later, however, there were three more ghouls gathering around them. Before they could get close, a snapping gunshot sounded in the crisp air. The bullet whipped across the head of the ghoul nearing Winston. The ghoul's rotted face exploded into gory shards.

"Jesus!" Winston cried, pummeling to the ground and clapping his ears shut.

"Get up!" Geo yelled, clutching Winston's arm and pulling him up.

They both stumbled into an arm-locked hurdle, passing falling corpses as more gunshots sounded. The sniper took over. He took down three more ghouls as the gang reached the wooded area. The laser beam was clearer now as they approached what looked like a shack. In the distance, they could see the tiny shack illuminated inside. A new steam of adrenaline fuzzed inside of Victoria as she saw this undiscovered place. For weeks, she'd been convinced that she would never leave Ashmore house. Now they had.

"Get inside! Quickly!" said a man who erupted from the bushes near the house. Victoria couldn't get a good look at him, but by his burly voice, she guessed he had to be above the age of fifty.

The acoustics shifted drastically as, one by one, the kids toppled into the shack. Some dived in; others fell straight onto the wood-paneled floor, hacking inconsistent breaths. The sniper man was the last to enter. He stood at the door with wary haste and looked into the black, smoky night in all directions. Vicky saw him shut the door and lock it with three—yes, three—customized locks. The man then ran to the windows and tested the firmly upholstered metal shutters. Victoria was right—he had to be above fifty. His grisly eyes announced his age even more than his weedy beard, or the aged, spotted wrinkles on his forehead. He holstered his rifle behind his back and wiped the grimy sweat from his forehead.

"Everyone okay?" he asked in a grumbly voice.

The kids looked around, unsure whether to nod. Strange that Victoria would think of her group as kids now in the presence of this man. She'd forgotten that there was such a thing as a future; had come to grips with life peaking itself at eighteen years old. And yet, here was this grown man, administering real leadership and rescuing them.

"Who are you?" Sasha asked.

"That's a big question," the man said. "Right now it's better if we keep things anonymous. Until we know more."

"Know more?" Kevin asked, forcing his aching body off the ground. "What do you know?"

The man sifted his eyes across the room, evaluating the group, before scrimmaging into his pockets. He brought out a napkin wrapped in a tight ball and opened it. There were four white pills inside and he swallowed two, without water.

He grunted to clear his throat, then looked at Kevin. "I work at Whitlock Cemetery. I'm the caretaker here."

"Oh are you?" Geo said. But by the look on the old man's face, he didn't catch the sarcasm in his voice.

"I am," he said. "And you should know that I've been a victim to this house long before you were."

"How so?" Victoria asked.

The man stopped when he heard her voice. Her voice rekindled what he knew from his months of research. And it confirmed what he'd suspected when he first saw the group arrive at the house. This had to be Victoria. The soft flesh above his throat twitched as he swallowed. His eyes were bulbous thorns, living and growing behind his thick glasses.

He noticed that everyone was staring at him expectantly, and he turned away.

"I'll tell you what I can, then," he said. "My name is Edwin Habernal. And I've waited a long time for you, Victoria."


CHAPTER 20

"How do you know my name?"

"So it is you then."

"How do you know who I am?"

"It's a small town."

"Yeah, but I don't know you."

"I know that your...mother was killed. Near the cemetery, if you recall."

"Yes, I know where she died."

"Of course."

The scratching and clawing outside persisted for only half an hour before the ghouls gave up and the noise subsided. The group remained quietly huddled in the center of the room, surrounded by darkness (the only light in the room was supplied by a single lamp, also in the center).

"Are they gone?" Ashley said, lifting her head to match the window's height. Though the window was boarded, there was a thin crack of light glowing from the bottom.

"I'll check," Edwin said, rising to the window. He placed his eyes near the slit in the window and peeked out. His eyes swayed from left to right. There was no movement in the dark.

He scooped up the lamp from the ground and replaced it by his bed. Then he turned on three other lamps, all in opposite corners of the room. The room lit up conclusively, the old lamps humming and buzzing faintly.

"This is a cute home," Sasha said.

Edwin forced a smile. "Thank you. I try to keep it clean."

Apparently he doesn't try hard enough, Victoria thought. The floor was sticky; as Vicky and the others explored the room, she could hear the sound of their shoes licking up off the muck-glazed floorboards. There was also a smell in the air. Granted, any smell was better than the smell of dead bodies at Ashmore house. This smelled more like old food.

Victoria turned hastily to Edwin. "Do you have food here?"

Edwin raised his eyebrows. "I do. Are you all hungry?"

They traded looks. Sasha felt a knot in her stomach the moment he spoke of food. And she couldn't possibly eat what she’d eaten before. She'd been able to do it before only because it was a matter of life and death. If she had options, she'd choose anything else. "What do you have?" Sasha asked.

Edwin hobbled over to the refrigerator and pumped it open. His face glowed in the light as his eyes scanned the contents of the fridge.

"Let's see," he grumbled. "I have apples, grapes, and bananas. Milk...err, the milk's two days expired. I have water, mango juice." He straightened up and glanced at them. "Sorry for all the fruity stuff. I don't eat meat."

Geo glanced at the bag filled with Michael's cooked body parts and felt a chill run up his spine.

"Please, we don't want meat," Sasha said, wrapping her arms around her stomach.

"Seriously," Kevin said. "The fruit is fine."

"Very well," Edwin said. He lowered himself again and brought out three plastic bags. They were see-through. Through their stretchy, glazy exterior the fruits were visible. He placed them on a small, albeit tall, circular table.

"Have whatever you want," he said, turning back to the kitchen—though the kitchen took up one-fourth of the room. Victoria noticed the sound of the sticky floor again. The sound made her attuned to feel the dirt in her pores; she seldom showered these days. And the water worked at Ashmore house, so why hadn't she? She decided it was the depression she felt while living there. When you’re depressed, she concluded, you don’t really feel the energy to get clean. Dirty feels right when your soul is dirty.

Sasha and Geo were the first to lift off the bed and open the bags. They began eating at the apples feverishly, snapping their tongues with each mastication.

"Where did you get this food?" Victoria asked, sounding more skeptical than she intended.

"The market in town," Edwin said. "The Carter's own the place. You must know it."

Victoria squeezed her eyes with her two fingers, shaking her head. "I thought you said you're a victim here."

Habernal held in a breath before releasing it through his nostrils. "A victim, yes. But not like you."

Kevin raised his eyebrows. He'd been watching Geo and Sasha eat—examining the way their jaws contracted and swished the food around in their mouths. This conflicting statement made by Mr. Habernal, however, caught his attention enough that he turned.

"What, were you being poetic when you said that then?" Kevin said.

"Maybe I was," Habernal said. "I didn't always live here. I lived in town, just like everyone else. I worked here for many years, that's for sure. But this furnished shack you see now used to be an old storage shack. Nothin’ but shovels and stone tablets and cockroaches." He hobbled over to the far right side of the room (which, in perspective, wasn't very far at all) and picked up a black notebook. Beneath the notebook was his Ouija board; sprinkled with dust on the corners. He drummed lightly on the notebook with his old, hairy fingers.

"I moved everything here, to this old shack. My whole life. Granted, I didn't have much of a life to start with—I never married and this was the only job I was ever any good at. But my house? I sold it. The things I couldn't fit in the shack, I sold them too. What I was left with is what you see now."

"Why?" Geo asked.

"Yeah," Victoria added. "Why'd you go through all the trouble?"

Habernal felt grinding chills board his spine and he shook his head as though each movement pained him. "I had to watch this house every day. I was a victim." He pointed to his binoculars in the corner of the room. They looked pristine and expensive, sitting on an old weathered counter.

"I watched that house, ran experiments on a nightly basis. I became familiar with the occult. Really, I became obsessed. I read fifteen different books on paranormal activity, haunted houses, demon possessions..." He stopped, momentarily lifting his gaze to the Ouija board. "I'd never toyed with junk like this. As a kid, Ouija boards and ghosts terrified me. They went completely against my religious beliefs. But this was the only way I knew how to communicate with spirits. So I began practicing." He reached over and grabbed the planchette. He rotated the triangular device in his hand and held it out to show the kids. Their eyes glowed with intrigue.

"I'm assuming you all believe in ghosts," Edwin Habernal said. "From what you've seen in the house?"

They all nodded.

"We've seen a lot of crazy shit—" Geo stopped and clicked his teeth. "We've seen crazy things, sir."

"Done crazy things," Winston added.

Habernal nodded. "I can only imagine. A lot can happen in that house, even in one night."

"One night?" Victoria said. "Well we were there at least three weeks. Maybe longer."

"Not so," Habernal said. "I saw you first arrive at the house about five hours ago."

"That's impossible," Kevin said, feeling a rotten stir of uneasiness in his stomach. "Weeks passed. But daylight never came and we couldn't leave the house. We nearly starved—"

Habernal was rattling his head, his eyes closed. It seemed as though he were getting angered at the revelation as well. "An illusion, children. I clocked you in at 12:38 AM just a few hours ago. Today is October 31."

"We don't understand," Ashley said, her voice lifting to a fearful shrill.

"I don't understand it, either. But it could only mean one thing..."

"What?" Kevin asked.

"Insanity," he said, appalled by his own spoken word. "Dementia."

"Dementia?" Sasha repeated.

"The house did it. Abner Ashmore did it. Whatever has happened to you in that house, whatever you had to do, it was all an illusion from the start. It's only been five hours. It's impossible that you would all be this hungry. It was all mental. This is really quite astounding. For instance, I saw you running out the back door of the house—"

"Then you also saw us getting nowhere," Victoria said. "The distance never closed. That fence never got closer."

"Wrong," Habernal said, shaking his head again. "Wrong, wrong. I saw you all. You were all over the fence. You turned back yourselves."


CHAPTER 21

They sat in numbing silence, petrified by the reality they'd heard. And as much as they wanted to negate it, it made perfect sense. That insanity had wiggled its way into each of them, making reality subject to whatever force influenced their minds. In this case, Abner Ashmore.

Could it be? Victoria thought. Of course, it could. There was no other explanation. The eternal twilight, the ever-stretching distance between the fence and them, perhaps even the sightings they'd witnessed in the house. If they were really only there for a few hours, was starvation really an illusion as well? All these thoughts bubbled in eruptive spurts inside Victoria's mind, showing no form or sensible order. She nipped away at her fingernails, avoiding the dry blood crusting at the edges.

Sasha took in a breath and released it. "I don't think I understand totally."

Kevin looked at her dubiously.

"I mean," she went on, "how can you say we were there for only a few hours when we all felt days go by? Doesn't our word beat yours? We had watches, for Christ's sake. And they were all stuck. Like time was frozen."

Habernal pursed his lips. "Not frozen—but, in your mind, very, very slow, yes."

"When did we...lose it?" Kevin asked. “Our minds.”

Edwin observed the sad group in the dim setting of the room, then shook his head. "Hard to tell. What's the first strange thing you remember happening?"

They thought about it for a moment, unable to put any of the events in chronological order. It all felt so long ago. Then Kevin remembered.

"I heard a gunshot over the phone," he said.

"A gunshot?" Habernal said.

"Yeah. And it—"

"No," Ashley blurted out. "That wasn't first. Our friend Icarus disappeared before that."

"He left the house," Geo said. "That doesn't count as something strange. Mr. Habernal's talking about weird shi— Sorry... Weird stuff."

Habernal's face was caught in a stiff position, nearly frozen in time. "You saw this friend leave?"

"No," Victoria said.

"Neither did I," Habernal said in confirmation. "Maybe I missed it. I was busy at times, or asleep. Impossible that I could catch every second of the hour. But if he left, and this happened at the beginning, then I'm surprised I didn't see it. I was watching for at least a full hour since you first arrived."

"Wait..." Kevin's vision became glazed and narrow. "You saw us outside the house, and you let us go in?"

Habernal was quick to counter. "I didn't know what would happen. I didn't know about the hallucinations or any of that. I didn't even know about the corpses rising from the grave. I had to let you in to see what would happen."

"See what would happen?" Ashley said with a sour taste in her mouth. "Our friends died. That's what happened."

Edwin lifted his hands in defense, contemplating a way to explain. "Okay, okay. There's more I haven't told you. Will you let me finish?"

They grew quiet, but the tension was thick in the room. "Alright," Habernal said. "Now, I left out something very important. Those books I read on paranormal activity, that Ouija board over there—I began running tests…or séances, really, to find out what I could about the house. About Abner. At first nothing happened. But after a while, I started making progress. I was shocked even to see the planchette move on its own."

"Planchette?" Geo said.

"This." Habernal tossed the small device to Geo, he flinched before catching it near his lap. "You ask a question to certain entities and, if you're doing it right, they should respond."

"What does this have to do with us?" Winston asked.

"It has a lot to do with you all. Especially Victoria."

Their heads swayed to her. She was standing in the corner, pale-faced.

"Why me?" she asked.

"I'm not sure why," Habernal said. "All I know is that when I asked all the big questions, your name came up as the answer."

No one spoke.

"So...what does that mean?" Victoria asked, frightened.

"Jesus," Geo said. "And Vicky almost died."

Victoria looked at Kevin, who was sitting by the bed. Kevin looked back at her for a moment, then flung his head away.

"Well thank God she didn't. I'm not sure if saving you all could even work without her."

"Saving us?" Sasha said. "But we are saved, right? We left the house. We're here now. Those things aren't attacking us anymore."

The room was quiet again. Ashley shifted her weight and the floorboards cried out in a screech beneath her.

"I don't think you understand this insanity complexity," Habernal started. "You're at the mercy of whatever entity is influencing your mind. Even if you were able to leave this yard and enter town, there's no telling what lunacy you'll encounter there. Life as you knew it wouldn't be the same. It wouldn't be like before. I told you—you were all over that fence. But you didn't even know it."

"This...entity," Kevin began. "You mean Abner, right?"

"Abner Ashmore is certainly present. But it isn't necessarily limited to him alone. In my readings I've learned that powerful spirits can attract other misguided souls. Usually dark, evil souls. Spirits that linger nearby other like-minded spirits. The stronger the energy is, the larger the attraction. Even without their knowing, they might be drawn into the house magnetically by all the 'noise', if you will, that Abner is making. So any demonic possessions, rising corpses, or anything else that you might've encountered in the house, they could be other evil spirits and not necessarily Abner."

"So what do we do?" Victoria said. "If we can't leave and more of them are coming, how is there any hope for us? There has to be a way to get rid of Abner."

Habernal's eyes were fixed on nothing in particular, lost in some aloof reality. "If there is, I don't know of it."

"What do you know?" Geo asked, growing frustrated. Habernal avoided his question just as Ashley was about to speak.

"What did the spirits tell you about Victoria?" Ashley asked. "I mean, wouldn't that be the first obvious thing to look into?"

"Yes," he said, running a palsied hand through his gray hair. "All I know for sure is that this group—you all...were meant to come to this house. You all play a key role in some way. And of the group, Victoria would be the one to lead you out. I know that's vague, but it's all I got from the readings."

Victoria felt an unnerving weight of responsibility. Why her? she thought. She'd come here by accident. It wasn't her idea to even enter the house. Then she thought about the way she'd felt when she first arrived. It felt like a lifetime ago—had it really been only five hours ago? That dreadful cold, and the pull she felt. As if she was being absorbed into the house by some indiscernible force. Why didn't I run away? she thought in dread. Why didn't I listen to Ashley, turn, and run? Run for my life. She got a momentary thought about home again, and shoved the thought away. Insanity, she thought. Maybe they needed Edwin to tell them they were insane to believe it themselves.

Victoria looked up. "What if we burn down the house?"

"That may help for future visitors," Habernal said. "You'd all still be lost, though. I think it's wisest to keep the house intact until we can figure out a way to help you all."

"I don't want to be crazy," Sasha said in a trembling voice, her hands beginning to tremble fiercely. Winston came behind her and stroked her shoulders.

"If we can drive Abner out of the house, then we might have a chance," Habernal said.

"How do we do that?" Kevin asked.

Edwin leaned back against the headboard of the bed, and then drew forward again. "Since you first arrived at the house, I can almost bet that Abner had his eye on one of you. He singled out someone weaker. Someone who's still alive now and vulnerable. One of you.

"Some spirits may have the ability to possess certain weaker vessels, you see. Or maybe vulnerable is a better word for it. Anyway, if that vulnerability is apparent and obvious enough, the spirit—in this case, Abner—may attempt to possess that body."

"That makes sense," Kevin said, thinking about Bleak.

"Of course," Habernal went on. "These entities, no matter how powerful, have their limitations. And in order to channel their power to its fullest potential, they may try to focus their energy on one individual."

"Our friend Bleak got possessed," Winston said. "But he killed himself."

Habernal shook his head. "That might've been Abner, but I don't see why he would waste his energy for a suicide. Like I said, there may already be other...intangible beings in the house, other than Abner Ashmore. Other dark spirits who are desperate for a human vessel."

Kevin thought about Bleak again. What had Bleak said before he shot himself? If I were Abner Ashmore, would I do this? Maybe it really wasn't Abner.

"So Abner is after one of us?" Kevin asked.

Habernal shrugged. "I would guess so. But you all seem so lucid and docile. He would have been working you from the start."

"I was possessed in my sleep," Ashley said, her eyes welling up with tears. "Am I the one?"

"I wouldn't worry about that, honey," Habernal said. "That's insubstantial. I'm talking about something bigger here."

"Oh my God..." Victoria mumbled. She said it very low, in her corner of the room, but for some reason the others heard her and turned. In the obscure light, her shocked features were pressed and rigid, dancing smoothly in the lamplight.

"He never left the house," she said. "Icarus is the vessel."


CHAPTER 22

Victoria flung herself off the bed and wrought her shovel, which was leaning against the door. It slumped on her shoulders and she adjusted it to place again.

"What are you doing?" Ashley asked.

Victoria didn't respond. She turned back and walked over to the table. Snatching an apple, she bit into it. Her mouth snapped open and closed, tiny chunks of saliva-riddled apple escaping in bursts through her teeth. In less than a minute, the apple was stripped to its bony core. She slammed it on the table and turned toward the door again.

"Victoria!" Kevin shouted, so loud it made everyone in the room start. Victoria, however, didn't flinch a bit. She only turned slowly. "What?" she said.

"Where are you going?"

The flesh on her throat pulled up as she swallowed. "To the house."

"Are you insane?" Sasha cried.

“According to Mr. Habernal, we all are,” she said.

“Dammit, I’m not joking!” Sasha shouted.

"You don't have to come, Sasha," Vicky said. "None of you do. I swore to protect Icarus—that's why I came here in the first place, remember? If Mr. Habernal says I'm supposed to fix this, then I'm going in there. I'm going to confront Abner."

"You'll die in there!" Kevin shouted.

"He's right," Habernal said. "If this friend of yours is already lost, finding him would be too dangerous. Truthfully, I don't think you'll want to find him."

Victoria gripped the shovel tightly and then loosened her hold. "I should be dead already. And if I don't do this, we all die a slow and torturous death regardless."

"But what are you going to do to stop him?" Ashley asked.

"I don't know," she said. "I'll figure that out when I see him."

"By then it might be too late," Habernal said. "Come. Let's at least be smart about this."

Edwin spun around, his eyes searching, until he found his candles, snuffed and blackened. He rolled them into his hands and situated them around the room. Then he took the Ouija board and moved to the center of the room. The group moved out of his way. Edwin tossed the bags of fruit onto the bed and slid the table to the center of the room. The table whined and cried as its legs scratched the wood-paneled floor. Once centered, the Ouija board was placed in the center of the table. Habernal stuck out his hand to Geo and pumped his palm open and closed.

"The planchette," he demanded.

Geo fished into his pocket and brought it out, thinking to himself that he hadn't remembered putting it in his pocket. When it was handed, Habernal placed it on the board.

"What are we doing?" Victoria asked.

"We're going to need more information if we're to do this right," Habernal said, lighting the candles around the room. Their tiny flames sparked to existence and wiggled about in a flickering dance. The lamps were shut off, and now the candles were the only things visible in the room. They made the walls splash with dim orange light.

"If we can all reach the spirits together now, perhaps they'll show us more. Let's sit in a circle," Habernal said. They did.

"I'm sorry," Winston said. "But what are we expecting to hear?"

"Well," Habernal said. "Now that we know about Icarus, we can ask the spirits more specific questions. We may get a better lead on where he might be, or why Abner has decided to do this now. You see, that house has been under renovations in the past, and yet the workers in there never had this sort of problem. Some complained about strange noises upstairs. Or cold drafts. But nothing like this.

"Okay, let's not waste any more time." Habernal instructed everyone to hold hands.

"The planchette," he said, breathing shallowly. He placed his hands on it. "One of you," he said. "Hold it with me."

Geo was the first to react and clapped his hands over the triangular device.

"Hold it by the edges," Habernal warned.

They began rotating the planchette in small circles, then bigger ones, until everything in the room was completely quiet.

"Spirits of the past, move among us. Be guided by the light in this room and visit upon us." Habernal had repeated those same words so often that they flowed automatically from his lips. He repeated them. This time, he shuddered and released his grip from the planchette. Geo did the same. "It zapped me," Geo said.

Habernal frowned. "This shouldn't take long." He replaced his hands on the device, and Geo hesitantly did the same. As the official medium of the séance, Edwin asked his question again. This time, the planchette started moving on its own. But it didn't zip across any letters; instead, it directed their hands to the stamp on the bottom of the board marked "GOODBYE".

"Goodbye?" Geo said. "What does that mean?"

"Keep quiet," Habernal said. "We'll try again."

They tried again. Habernal asked. The planchette moved straight to "GOODBYE" again.

"Are you doing that?" Geo asked.

"For God sakes keep quiet!" Habernal slammed his fist against the table and the board and planchette hopped haphazardly before settling. "Jesus, I'm sorry," Habernal whispered, his eyes scanning the table regrettably. "I don't know what's happening. I got angry for no reason."

The group stared at him with confused caution.

"Maybe we should stop," Ashley suggested, more out of fear than sensibility.

Habernal let out a weary breath. "There's no time. I won't let it happen again. I promise."

Victoria drew her eyes away from him, unsure whether she should believe him. Her grip tightened around the hands she was holding.

Habernal tried again. He said the same words, with more feeling, more heart. Though he knew that heart had nothing to do with it, but it put him in the right mental state to control himself and the séance.

Just as the final words left his lips, the Ouija board was flung across the room. Everyone in the circle flinched, but only gripped harder instead of letting go of the hands they held.

A rushing wind swept the room in an instant, making the walls shudder like falling logs. Six candles wobbled and dribbled off their holders. Their flames blew out. The room grew infinitely darker; the only candle remaining was the one in the center of the table, near the place where the Ouija board was.

There were startled gasps heard sweepingly around the table, but nobody screamed or even said a word.

Not even Sasha—which, to Victoria, was nothing short of miraculous. Vicky briefly associated the darkness with the secret room she'd been imprisoned in just hours before. The sole miniscule flicker of flame was all that held them back from black, eye-staining darkness.

In her limited vision, Vicky could see the pasty, glowing faces of some of her friends. Most of them, though, were hooded by darkness. She heard their labored, scratching breaths, because that was something none of them could hide.

Then suddenly, Sasha, who was mostly hidden by shadows, arched her back and began rolling her head. Her sweaty blonde hair cascaded in messy layers over her shoulders and face. She rolled back her shoulders, and began moaning loudly. When she looked up suddenly, her eyes were peeled back white; the bloody veins in her eye balls the only visible color against the eggshell white.

The group panted and hands were released, starting with the two holding Sasha's hands. Her neck craned back until she was looking at the ceiling, drooling carelessly on her chin. The warm streams dripped onto her shirt.

Just as Kevin was going to speak up, Edwin Habernal gripped his wrist and shook his head. Kevin swallowed and nodded.

Habernal spoke firmly. "To whom am I speaking to?" He addressed this to Sasha, whose head was still lolling about.

"I am innocent," Sasha said, but it wasn't her voice. It was the voice of an elderly woman. "I only want rest." Her voice sounded dry and strenuous, as if she were speaking without taking the time to inhale oxygen.

"Your rest may come after you aide us," Habernal said, though he wasn't sure if it was true or not.

"It's been so long," the old voice muttered.

"Help us."

Sasha sighed. "Very well," she said.

When she didn't say more, Habernal spoke. "Do you know where you are?"

Sasha's head rolled to either side blindly, her hands clenching over the table at the air.

"No," she said. "But I've strayed far from home."

"Do you know what brought you here?"

"Yes. I was pulled here. Something powerful brought me here."

"Something, or someone?" Habernal asked.

"I don't know," the old woman said.

"You must know."

"I don't know!" she yelled, and Sasha pounded once on the table. The candle almost fell, but stayed in place.

"You are just outside the former home of Abner Ashmore," Habernal said.

"Abner...Ashmore," she repeated.

"Do you know who that is?"

She didn't answer. Her white eyes looked onward at nothing.

"Am I speaking to Evelyn Ashmore?" Edwin asked.

Sasha hissed a small laugh.

"Evelyn," Habernal said. "Are we outside your home?"

Sasha almost laughed again, but the noise was choked away. "I'm not Evelyn," she said, her voice more sinister. "Evelyn is dead."

"But aren't you dead as well?" Habernal asked.

"I don't know what I am."

He didn't want to steer the conversation in that direction—in making this about the elderly woman. There was no time to appease foreign spirits. So he asked: "Can I speak to Evelyn's spirit?"

Sasha twisted her head to face Habernal. "Of course."

"How?"

"With your words." Sasha's face became concerned, as if Habernal's questions were utterly nonsensical.

"But..." Habernal started. "Where is she?"

Sasha raised her arm with her index finger pointing fixedly onward. The finger pointed straight ahead over the candle. To Victoria.

"What trouble do you find?" the old woman said, Sasha's finger wagging beneath shadows. "This girl is Evelyn."


CHAPTER 23

Victoria could only stare; face flushed, eyes staring with concentrated stillness. Sasha's hand came down to her side again, thumping clumsily against the table. Then, Sasha dropped her head against the table, and a louder thump sounded. Winston jerked her way, but everyone else stared at Vicky.

"What did she mean?" Kevin asked. "What did she mean about Vicky?"

"I don't know,” Habernal said.

Victoria knew, though. Those proceeding moments felt like a lifetime. The thoughts she ingested were heavy and many, crammed into those conflicting minutes of her life. She thought about her arrival to the house; the magnetic pull she felt as she neared the estate, the voices she heard in her head, inviting her in. She thought about the way she felt upon arriving at the house. The living room, the library, the sitting room—there was this gnawing familiarity about the entire place, something she could never explain. She assumed that they'd all felt it. Apparently not. It was her. Because she'd lived there once.

She thought about the letter she'd read. It was like reading an old birthday card; something from your past that brought nostalgia. It never felt brand new, it felt brought up. Rekindled.

And the white dress.

"I'm Evelyn," Victoria said aloud, trying how the words sounded in her mouth. "Abner killed me."

Habernal looked at her quizzically. "We don't know anything for sure."

"Yes," Victoria broke off, and looked up at him. "I know for sure. It has to be true. It's why all this is happening."

Ashley lent an arm over Vicky's slouched shoulders, and rubbed gently. Meanwhile, Victoria fiddled with her hands, contemplating if she should continue to Ashmore house as she'd meant to before. In those endless minutes, she decided that, yes, she would go.

Causing Ashley's hand to fall from her shoulders, Victoria rose and picked up her shovel again. She headed for the door.

"Where do you think you're going?" Kevin demanded, getting up as well.

She spoke without turning back. "You already know."

She was outside before they could stop her. The moment she was absorbed into the wooded darkness, she decided to sprint for the house. The trees became a black blur on her sides, and she could feel the thick roots beneath her as she treaded over them. Below her, she felt herself sinking into the soft dirt, chucking up wet grains of soil as she went. The house was in full view now, massive and gloomy before her. The smoky sky hung in the backdrop of the mansion like the head rest of a royal throne. In the cold night, she heard something on either side of her. Fear struck her. The corpses.

As soon as she reached the steps, something came out at her from behind the veranda. The figure was skeletal and wormy, with frail white hairs sprouting scarcely atop its bleached-white skull. Its eyes were sunken deep as it reached for Victoria. She screamed and kicked it in the jaw. The bony corpse fell back against the rocking bench. It rose and came at her again. Victoria tried to make a leap into the house but it threw its arm in between the closing. The door slammed shut on its arm and it made a dull cracking sound.

"Let us in!" she heard faintly from outside. It sounded like Kevin.

Victoria flung the door open again, and the corpse rushed at her. She buried the shovel into its skull and its head came rolling off. Shoving the corpse aside, she opened the door fully and saw all of her friends, including Mr. Habernal, running wildly through the shadowy grass. Behind them, she saw in disbelief, were at least ten corpses hobbling towards them.

"Hurry!" Victoria shouted.

As soon as they reached the veranda, they each ran into the main hall of the house. Victoria shut the door.

"Are you insane?" Habernal was nearly spitting out the words, taking in staggeringly painful breaths, hot and burning in his chest. "You almost had us killed back there."

"I told you to stay!" Victoria said.

"We couldn't after you barged out of the door like that!" Habernal was standing upright again, balancing oddly to shake the strain from his legs. "They swarmed us; you led them right to us!"

"Guys, shut up," Kevin hissed, following the echo of his voice with a strange recollection of where he was. Ashmore house, he thought with dread. He thought they'd finally escaped the place. Thought they could bag up the sum of horrors they'd witnessed here and call it a day.

Not anymore. They were here to stay. The idea made his vision blur for a fragment of infinitesimal time.

Kevin glanced around the room, seemingly for the first time. It felt like revisiting a nightmare; he had escaped this horrible dream only to find that he had never truly awoken.

The lights were all off; some rectangular shavings of light were reflected on the walls and tiled floor but, other than that, it was pitch black. The light was pale blue, making the room seem colder than it really was. Regardless, it had to be at least below 63 degrees in the house.

"I'm sorry," Victoria said.

Habernal nodded, wiping the wrinkles on his shirt. Some dirt sifted off.

Kevin walked slowly with his hands ahead of him, inching closer to the lamps at the sides of the room. When Geo noticed what he was doing, he moved to the opposite side to help. Together they turned the two on and were able to find the switch to the chandelier overhead. It blinked a new world into existence. While the others quivered at the sight of the familiar room, Edwin Habernal couldn't help but marvel, just like the kids had when they first arrived, at the luxurious beauty. It showed in his eyes, in the way they gawked at the chandelier and the shiny marble statues to his sides.

He let out a raucous grunt and turned. "Great," he said. "Now I'm dead too."

It was strange hearing the old man sound so bitter, but not surprising. Kevin made his way to the center of the group and gestured to all of them.

"We should split up," he said. "If Icarus really is here, we have to be in every room at the same time to find him."

"Right," Geo said. "He mighta been moving about in the dark while we were asleep."

Kevin nodded. "He must've been. It's the only explanation."

Victoria hadn't planned it to be this way. She didn't want anyone else to die. And now they were all at risk. Truthfully, she didn't know who to blame for all this. She almost blamed herself. But that wasn't fair either. She never wanted to come to this place. It was Kevin and his stupid friends, their stupid manipulation on Icarus. They brought this on them all.

She closed her eyes tightly until her temples ached. No, she thought. This was fate. No one was to blame. She opened her eyes to the lit hallway again.

They were right where they needed to be.

***

They split up individually to search each room. There were too many rooms to pair people off, so the risk had to be taken. Sasha didn't like the idea of being alone in the library, but Winston promised to stay right next door in the sitting room. Geo checked the ballroom and Kevin checked the cellar. Victoria checked the kitchen and Ashley the dining room. Habernal kept watch in the main hall, occasionally glancing up the staircase.

In a few minutes, they all returned distraught.

"Second floor now," Geo said.

And again, Habernal stayed behind to make sure nothing strange occurred downstairs.

They split again and checked each room upstairs. The bedrooms remained exactly the way they had left them; undone beds, bathroom light left on, and a small stain on the rug of Winston's room, where Geo had spilled some whiskey nights before.

"He isn't here," Geo said when they regrouped in the hallway. They kept all the lights on this time, making sure that, if Icarus was here, he had less of an opportunity to slip between shadows. But after they had thoroughly checked every room in the house, even the secret ones, they were considering other possibilities.

They began to make their way to the stairwell. No matter how lit this house was, Victoria thought, the dread was imminent. It was in the air she breathed, a mad science. She thought again about what Sasha's possessor had said. She felt silly for thinking it true so wholeheartedly. Was there any real proof that reincarnation even existed? Of course, she now believed in ghosts for a fact; she'd seen enough in this house to know that truth. And possessions were very real as well. But could she really possess the same spirit as Evelyn Ashmore? If so, why couldn't she remember anything about that life, even here? Sure, she felt glimpses, but being in this house should have rekindled distinct memories, shouldn't it have? Thinking back, she'd even read one of Evelyn's letters. The words were nostalgic, but they were also foreign, clearly someone else's work.

She trailed behind the group, midway down the creaking stairs. I live in a mansion now, she thought humorously. I never thought living in a mansion would be this exhausting.

She giggled. However, the noise was cut off by the cry Kevin let out when he reached the first floor landing.

"Let him go!" he cried, looking far ahead to the front door of the house. Victoria couldn't see who he was addressing. She pushed through the small crowd and landed on the first floor.

She froze. The others cried out.

It was Icarus. He was standing maybe twenty feet away. He looked malnourished and devious, his eyes swollen with madness behind his thick glasses and his teeth cut back into a ruthless grin. His hair was a black tousled mess, and he had Edwin Habernal in a choke hold, holding a sharp kitchen knife to his throat.

***

"Icarus, let him go," Kevin said again, slowly approaching him with hoisted, surrendered hands. Habernal's hands were positioned in a way where he couldn't do much to avoid the knife. If Icarus wanted, he could instantly slash Edwin's throat open. He was at the mercy of the sick boy.

"Icarus," Kevin said once more. The word rolled off his tongue carefully, as if he were holding it over a blazing fire.

The boy was non-responsive. He only continued to grin and wag his eyes wildly. His hands shook fitfully; they were cutting on Habernal's rough skin, but he knew that if he swallowed, the knife might cut deeper into his flesh.

Habernal looked as if he were thinking up a plan. But coaxed by fear, his ideas ran thin.

Something sparked in Victoria and she began approaching Icarus. But too quickly Kevin stopped her. She spun angrily and shoved him. Again, he wouldn't let her take another step. When she finally stopped and faced him, his eyes were sharp and serious, his lips arched in anger. But there was something else there, Victoria noticed. Something in his eyes. In the way he looked at her, through her. He shook his head.

Then Kevin began approaching Icarus again. "Let him go," Kevin said. When he was close enough, Kevin could see that Icarus's eyes, too, exposed only the sclera, white and vacant. He was maybe ten feet away from him now.

Then, without warning, he heard Ashley and Sasha yell from behind him. Indistinct warnings, but with petrified urgency.

Before Kevin fully turned back to see, Victoria was already running past him at full speed. He tried to grab onto the sleeve of her tank top but missed, and she continued in a blur toward Icarus.

Kevin didn't have time to scream at her, he only chased after her. Icarus's smile seemed to broaden, his egg eyes widened, as he shoved Habernal to the ground and raised the knife to Victoria. She saw it too late and couldn't stop the pace of her speed in time. Just as the knife came down at her in violent quickness, Kevin shoved her viciously to the wall, where she collided.

As she hit the wall, she heard screams all around her. Cries from her friends surrounding her. The horrid sounds echoed off the high ceiling of the room.

But the cries weren't for her.

No, she thought. No, no. She turned, unblinking, terrified of what she somehow knew. As Icarus ran off laughing into the kitchen and out the back door, Victoria was no longer scared for her own life.

***

Victoria didn't notice the blood already pooling around Kevin's body, and half-slipped as she lowered herself to her knees. The blood coated the fabric of her pajamas by her knees. It stuck coldly to her skin like a wet adhesive. Kevin was still trembling, blood beginning to bubble out of his shivering mouth. His eyes were watery, gazing around helplessly until they found Victoria.

She grabbed his hand. It was cold. Cold enough to make her wince. He held her hand loosely, shakily. Victoria was in tears now, thinking of what she could say.

"I'm here," was the first thing that came to mind, so she said it. Letting her words come unfiltered. She knew he couldn't respond, so she kept talking.

"I'm here, Kev," she said weeping. She began stroking his sweaty hair.

Her stupidity. Her stupidity to attack Icarus did this.

She squeezed her eyes shut and a tear streamed down her cheek. "I'm sorry, Kevin. I'm sorry."

He began drumming his finger across hers lightly, as if to console her. How? she thought. Who was this vulnerable, brave and beautiful man in her arms, and where had he come from? Kevin Cooper was a cruel, heartless bully for years. Why did he hide himself for so long? God dammit, why did he reveal himself now, when it was too late?

And then she knew in that moment. Staring into his eyes, watching the life leave them, she knew.

"Sebastian Ashmore," she whispered to him. "It's you, isn't it?"

Nobody heard her. Only Kevin. She saw a flicker of a response in his eyes, and then it was gone. It was too late.

His blood bubbled and boiled in his throat and, not having the strength to take another choking breath, he let the blood choke him. His eyes glazed over like marbles and his cold hand loosened on Victoria's grip.

Sasha was crying in the back of the room, held by Ashley. But nobody approached Victoria or the body. They knew they couldn't. Victoria looked too hostile for anyone to get near her. So they just watched her from where they stood. Watched her weep bitterly into Kevin's letter jacket. Watched her rub her palsied hands through his blood-soaked blond hair.


CHAPTER 24

Winston and Geo carried Kevin's body out through the kitchen and left him on the soil just off the porch. It was too risky to bury him properly; they had no idea where Icarus was waiting and the graveyard corpses might come out if they stayed out there long enough.

The girls and Mr. Habernal waited in the hall. Nobody spoke. Sasha had stopped crying, but she was still sobbing, though her tears were wasted. Victoria sat in the corner of the room closest to the door, only a few feet away from the spot where Kevin had been stabbed. The sloppy puddle of blood was evidence of the precise location. She stared on blankly, numbly, and heard the unnatural sounds of Ashmore house sway around her mind; the creaks as the others walked through the house, the sound the windows made when wind rushed against them.

Ashley was watching her from a distance, and Victoria felt her eyes on her. But she didn't care. Nothing felt real anymore; whether they lived or died. She just wanted it to be over.

"We have to kill the boy," Habernal said, breaking the awkward silence.

Geo and Winston stepped in from the kitchen. The door swung shut.

"What's that?" Geo asked.

"The boy," Habernal said. "We have to take him out."

Everyone knew who and what he meant. And nobody dispelled his idea. He was right. If Icarus was such an easy target for Abner, he had to be eliminated. Otherwise...

Otherwise, Victoria thought, what? They'd all be killed. Sure—but how long could they last here regardless? This was a hopeless place, and everyone in this house was going to die at some point or another.

"Then what?" Victoria said.

They were surprised to hear her voice so soon. And so composed.

"Then..." Habernal started, shaking his head. "I don't know. But it must be done."

Victoria stared at the blood. "Why don't we all take each other out?"

"What?" Ashley said.

"Why don't we use that gun Habernal has? Or hang ourselves one by one?"

Habernal blinked, fingering the cold metal barrel of his gun. "I'm sure there's another way."

"You haven't been here long enough," Victoria said. "We know there isn't any other way. I mean, you said it yourself. We're too fucked up in the mind to even leave the house. All we'll ever see is darkness." She looked at the fresh blood stains on her pajamas, from when she was kneeling.

No, she thought. She couldn't let her innocent friends die. Not until she confronted Abner herself. Standing up was an effort for Victoria, but as she rose, she was already formulating a plan in her mind. The first of which: to get everyone safely in their rooms. Or, at least, in a safer place than the main hall.

"I want you all to go upstairs," she said. "I'm going to deal with this myself."

"We have to deal with this together, Vicky," Ashley said. "We need a plan."

Victoria raised a gesturing hand to stop her. "He wants me, Ashley. I'll lead him to me and deal with him."

"No offense," Geo started. "But I don't think you're strong enough to kill him. Icarus is small, but that demon inside him ain't. He'll take you down in a fight. You're gonna need us to at least—"

Victoria cut him off. "Please, Geo. Just take care of the others upstairs. I already told you that I'll deal with it. Now do what I say."

Hesitantly, they boarded the stairs and climbed to the top. Victoria followed them, because there was something she needed from Evelyn's bedroom. Or her bedroom.

If she was really Evelyn Ashmore, then she was going to play the part.

She reached the dark corridor and told the others to wait in Winston's room. When they were out of sight, she went into her bedroom. The door whined as she opened it slowly, taking a step in. She knew there was no one there, but she was afraid nonetheless.

She walked over to the shelf to the right of the room. The drawer opened with a grainy wood sound, like soft-rough sandpaper. In the purple night, Victoria saw the gloriously white dress sitting messily where she had tossed it days—it seemed—ago.

She picked it up and felt the rich fabric between her fingers. Accidentally, she'd forgotten to clean herself up first and marred the dress with a big stroke of blood. She hissed and dropped the dress. She undressed and stood naked in the closed, dark room.

The thought pumped through her mind like a nightmarish reminder: Kevin is dead. And he was Sebastian all along. That was why this had happened: Evelyn and Sebastian were reunited again, even without knowing it, and it brought upon Abner's wrath.

She thought about her plan again, then thought about what the others had said. They told her that killing Icarus was the only option. The only hope. Little Icarus... He'd murdered Kevin, but it wasn't really him, was it? No, that, along with every other incident in this house, was Abner's fault.

Victoria thought about the promise she'd made to herself upon arriving at the house—that she would protect Icarus from any maltreatment or influence caused by the others. And now... Now he was being maltreated, influenced, by a worse force than Kevin or his friends. And now she was expected to murder the boy for that.

She sat naked on the bed. She peered over at the white dress in the drawer again. In the dark, she couldn't see it very well. Only saw that it was a different color and was the only item not being swallowed by the hovering darkness.

"This isn't just a dress," she said aloud. For some reason, she'd never thought of it before. She'd dismissed the dress as only that, giving it no true significance. But then why had she felt so connected to the dress before? Why did time seem to rush by whenever she held it in her hands? No, it wasn't just a dress. It was Evelyn's wedding dress.

The one she never got to wear. Until now.

***

Instantly, she felt a fit of anger grow inside of her. It made her chest swell with fierce ignition and made her fingertips quiver. She rose automatically as if her body was moving without her permission. Reaching the drawer, she fished out the white wedding dress. The air was cold and intruding, and she shivered as she slipped on the dress. Surprising her, it fit fairly well. Evelyn must have been about her size and height.

Okay, Abner, Victoria thought. You want Evelyn? I'll make it real easy for you. I'll play the part, you son-of-a-bitch. She went back into the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror. She turned on the lights. After about half a minute of wincing in the blinding light, her eyes adjusted and she saw herself.

She was beautiful. The dress was perfect; exactly what she would have chosen for her wedding. Good choice, Evelyn, she thought. She noticed the large blood stain near the mid-section of the dress and couldn't help feeling upset. She'd tainted a perfect dress. That was okay. It would have to do.

As she gazed into her own reflection, into her own brown eyes, she got a thought. It surprised her, but not as much as she thought it should. She debated saying her thought aloud to herself in the mirror. Saying it meant that it was true. And that everything from now on would be for one thing. Should life be for anything now? Yes, she thought. Let me say it.

"For Kevin," she whispered.

***

Victoria felt the wooden banister as she descended the stairs. In this dress, every movement felt graceful. Time was lost; she could have been in the late-1800s and she wouldn't know it—with the dress and the antique novelties and furnishings in the house, it felt more likely that she was somehow in the past rather than the present.

She reached the bottom step and let out a shaky breath. She was barefoot. The dress, however, was long enough that it flowered over her feet like a veiling umbrella.

She reached the center of the main hall and looked around. She was alone, and she felt it this time. She wondered how she could call Abner's attention. Did he see her all the time, wherever she was? She knew very little of the afterlife, and again, she was worried that her plan wouldn't work. Regardless, she walked around the room and turned out all the lights, until she was in darkness.

Walking into the kitchen, she grabbed a dining chair and pulled it out into the main hall. It was heavier than it looked, and she was forced to drag it the entire way, until it was situated near the front door. She sat down. The room was quiet as she waited, feeling awkward in her dress. Come find me, Abner, she thought. Your Evelyn is waiting for you. She waited for almost a full hour. Reflecting on the ludicrousness that her life had become, she waited.

Finally, she heard a voice whispering indistinct words in the darkness. It spoke slowly, confidently.

Victoria was stunted and couldn't speak. Her head just jolted from side to side in the dark, looking for any figure.

At last, she saw, in the corner of the room near the staircase, a dark silhouette. It was still and statue-like, the only movement was its body rocking back and forth. She felt a bomb of fire course through her veins.

"What do you want from me?" she asked.

The figure was silent, and didn't move.

"Did you hear me?" Victoria said, knowing that he had.

More silence. Icarus stepped into a rim of purple light and stood gazing with white eyes. His hands were shaking like electric cables.

Suddenly, making Victoria twitch back in horror, he began screaming and fell to his knees. He began pounding at the marble floor with closed fists. The dull cracking sound of Icarus's knuckles hitting the floor. She couldn't see very well, but by the sound she knew that his knuckles had to be broken and bleeding.

"Shut up!" she yelled, standing up from the chair. "Shut up. Shut up, shut up!"

He began laughing. His manly voice—not Icarus's young voice—rose maniacally through the air.

"I said shut up, goddamit!" she yelled, her eyes moistening. "I never loved you, you hear me? Evelyn never loved you. She was in love with Sebastian. You hear that? Sebastian. So go fuck yourself, Abner! Leave Icarus alone!"

My big mouth, she thought immediately. But fear had overtaken her and she didn't know what else to say. Either way, what did it matter? If she died now or later—in a day or two—what difference did it make? Whatever fate death would bring couldn't be worse than abiding in this house. At least, she hoped.

Icarus stood again slowly, and Victoria could see his bloody fists, dripping trickles of watery blood on the ground. His smile was gone, no more laughter. He just stared in Victoria's direction. Those eyes chilled her bones.

He began to walk up to her in slow-paced steps, leaving a saturated trail of blood drops behind him. Victoria couldn't move. It wasn't that she was too afraid to move—which she might have been—she simply couldn't get her muscles to react. It was some form of paralysis. Move, run! her mind screamed. Move right now! Move your legs, your arms, anything! Her body wouldn't respond. She tried to blink. She couldn't do that, either. Icarus was only two feet from her face now; so close that she could hear his nasally breathing. His mouth gawked open a little, thin webs of saliva unbuckling themselves. She could see his ghastly eyes clearer; the pupil-less, bulging white bulbs, fixed on a point she knew not where. Those eyes could just as well be peering into her soul.

He was inches from her now, and she still couldn't will herself to move away. Now she could feel his hot, moist breath greet her face like a hot vapor. She had her lips woven shut, and could hardly move them either. The only thing that could move, it seemed, was her racing heartbeat. And even that moved so quickly that she was afraid it would stop beating altogether.

She let out a small whimper, because it was all she could do, as Icarus's lips landed on hers. His thin lips moved sloppily over hers like ravenous dogs, and he roped his thin arms around her waist. She flinched, but it was all the movement she could muster. His lips gradually became wetter, as his tongue annexed the crease between her lips and moved into her mouth. She whimpered again in vain, knowing that she was at the mercy of Abner now.

Move, dammit! her mind begged. Move anything. Move anything! She tried to direct all of her focus on something simple. Her fingertips. Try to move that, she thought. She tried to move her index finger for almost two minutes as Icarus continued kissing and sucking her face chaotically, then moved to kiss and lick her neck.

Suddenly, she felt her index finger twitch slightly. Her eyes moved from side to side and she tried again.

Twitch.

She instantly gained limited access to her body and used that crucial second to shove Icarus to the ground. He stumbled backward before collapsing to the floor, looking confused. Victoria could move again. She was about make a run for the staircase, but before she did, she heard a cry below her. Icarus had his hands shielding his face and was sobbing.

A trick, she thought. She turned nonetheless and approached him with caution. He lowered his tear-soaked, bloody hands. Looked up at her.

His eyes. They were normal again. There were streaks of blood mingled with the tears on his face, and his face was a mask of utter confusion and horror.

"Icarus?" Vicky said.

"What's happening to me?" he asked through broken sobs.

It was really him, she thought. It had to be.

"Nothing," she said. "You're safe now."

She turned her head, then turned back to him. "Wait here," she said.

Victoria ran halfway up the stairs and stopped. She wouldn't go all the way up and risk losing sight of Icarus again.

"Help! Help!" she yelled.

The group must have been in the hall already, because they showed up only seconds later.

"Vicky!" Ashley cried, embracing her. “All that noise! We didn’t know whether you wanted us to come down or not.”

“No, no,” she assured her. “You did good by waiting.”

The rest of the group followed, smiling or crying of relief.

"What happened?" Winston inquired. "Where's Icarus?"

"He's downstairs," Vicky said. "He's fine now."

Habernal frowned. "You didn't kill him?"

"I didn't have to," Vicky responded. She looked down at her wedding dress.

They reached the first floor landing and Icarus looked up at the coming group. He shuffled back, afraid.

"We're not gonna hurt you, Icarus," Victoria said. "You're safe with us."

The others didn't know that for sure. And they were worried that she had made the wrong choice in saving Icarus rather than killing him.

"So where is Abner?" Geo asked.

"He's gone," Victoria said.

Mr. Habernal was skeptical. "Gone?" he repeated.

"Yes." Victoria motioned to the dress she was wearing. "This is the wedding dress that Evelyn Ashmore wore on her wedding day. All it took was for Abner to see me wearing it and he left. He left Icarus. Left the house entirely, I think."

Habernal stalled for a moment, watching the young boy who had just recently been possessed. Something felt wrong.

"You're saying you scared him away with that dress?" Habernal asked, still keeping his eyes on Icarus. "He just...left?"

Victoria swallowed. No, she thought. He didn't just leave. He laughed, then physically harassed me. But she was too ashamed to mention that part. But mostly, she just wanted to believe it was finally over.

"Yeah," she lied.

There was a small noise coming from outside the house.

"Did you hear that?" Winston asked, touching Sasha's shoulder.

"Yes," Habernal said. "You all hear that?"

They did. It grew louder. A hollow laughter pouring in through the windows. It was coming from the fields outside. The graveyard, the trees. From all directions. They stood frozen in the dark as the sound approached.

"What is it?" Icarus cried.

Victoria, Geo, and Mr. Habernal hurried to the front of the house. They looked through the windows.

Outside, they could see the graveyard. But no one there.

The laughter grew louder, a thousand voices, a thousand souls, laughing from beyond the grave. It seemed to be coming closer to the house. Soon there was a rattling on the windows. Then a pounding.

"They're coming in!" Sasha cried.

The next couple minutes were a blurry scramble. The group was panicking, shuffling from room to room, trying to look for wood or anything to board up the windows. Victoria, however, remained at the window, watching the glass shake uncontrollably.

"Victoria Brooke!" Ashley screamed from the kitchen. "Help us look, goddamit!"

Habernal stormed into the hall. "There's nothing we can use. What do we do? I thought you said he was gone!"

"What's that damn noise!" Sasha cried, clutching Winston's arm.

"Where are you going?" Ashley asked as Vicky moved past her. "Hey!"

Victoria could barely hear her. She stepped in front of the entrance door.

The sounds from outside grew louder, a shrieking symphony of disharmonious laughter.

"What's the plan, Vicky?" Ashley asked. It was what they all seemed to wonder.

Victoria looked down at her blood-splashed wedding dress again, and thought about Kevin.

Suddenly, the laughter, the throbbing windows, and everything stopped. The entire house was quiet.

And everyone froze as something miraculous happened.

“Sun…” Sasha uttered.

In an instant, every window was filled with bright light as the sun rolled up the sky outside. At first, it was too bright to see, and they all had to shield their eyes. It was glorious and warm and everything they wanted. Ashley began to laugh.

“The sun is back!” she cried, grinning.

But just as fast as it had come, they saw the sun dip behind the other side of the house. And darkness returned. Victoria had never felt lonelier in her life.

“No! Dammit!” Geo shouted, kicking the ground.

“What did that mean?” Sasha cried.

Vicky meanwhile was just doing her best not to faint.

And then the doorbell rang.

***

Everything slowed down in that moment. The gang waited hesitantly. Victoria eyed the doorknob.

The bell rang again.

Victoria's hand moved slowly towards the knob.

"Victoria, don't—" Habernal warned.

She ignored him and twisted it open. She pulled the door towards her and froze. Her jaw fell open.

"Hey, baby," Victoria's dad said, holding a bakery box. "You're here early. I left my costume in the car. I figured I’d change here once more people started coming. I like your costume, though." He gazed down at her wedding dress. "I think you might have overdone it with the blood, though, baby. It's dripping everywhere."

Victoria couldn't move. It was impossible. Impossible.

Finally, Winston ran over to him. "What are you doing here?"

"Oh, I'm sorry. I know the flyer said nine, but I thought I'd come early to help set up."

"Set up, set up what? What are you talking about?" Winston cried.

Her dad frowned. "Oh, I think I ruined the surprise. I'm sorry. Your parents are throwing that Halloween party you wanted."

"What?!"

"Who told you this?" Ashley asked.

Vicky's dad handed her the invitation. It was printed on fancy-looking card stock.

YOU ARE INVITED TO ATTEND

THE SCARIEST HALLOWEEN PARTY IN THE WORLD!

COME ONE, COME ALL!

When: 9 PM, October 31st

Where: Ashmore House

Food, drinks, games, face painting, oh, and of course, GHOSTS!!!

Vicky lowered the invitation in disbelief. She pushed back the tears from her eyes. So now this, she thought. Everyone I know will perish as well. Including Dad.

Her dad smiled and walked past them, stepping over the tiles where Kevin had bled to death just moments before. "So," he said with a bounce in his step. "Where can I put the cookies?"


END OF BOOK ONE

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