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CHAPTER 16 – Monsters

Matti didn’t allow herself to pause at the bottom of the stairs to contemplate who or what was waiting for her at the top. She knew how powerful her imagination was, and she didn’t dare to give it a chance to explore possibilities. She knew, logically, that there was no reason not to search for more food or anything else she could use. But if she allowed herself the time to call up demons, they would chase her away for sure, even if their only existence were in her mind.

The third step from the bottom squeaked loudly in the stillness of the house, but she didn’t pause or step backwards to take her weight from it or even hop on up to the next.

“Just take each step slowly, and go right on to the next, and the next. Now, you know there is nothing up there listening to you comin’ up and waitin’ to grab you and – dammit! Stop that! One step at a time. One step at a time.”

The body of another dog sprawled across the steps about half way up. Again, something had gripped its neck with tearing teeth, and slashed it or shook it like a rag doll until it hung lifeless, all but decapitated, then dropped it or threw it from the landing above.

“Don’t stop. Don’t stop. It happened yesterday, or the day before. It’s long gone … long gone.”

The heat in the upper level of the house was oppressive. It was bad enough downstairs, but up here, breathing was downright uncomfortable. And the house felt sad. She couldn’t understand how a house could feel sad, but it did.

“Why not? Makes as much sense as a dying dog telling me he’s mad ’cause he’s dying. Can a house be mad? Sure, it can be lonely, I guess. But mad? What could a house have to be mad at? Maybe it’s getting eaten up by termites. Would that make it mad or in pain? This is getting sillier the further I go with it. Now I’m thinking I’ve gone and stumbled onto a real, live haunted house … or would that be a real, dead haunted house? Sillier and sillier. That’s good, though. That’s good. If I’m thinking silly thoughts, there’s no room for scary ones. I can do without scary, right now.”

She reached out to the door that faced her as she topped the stairs. Still not allowing herself to consider dangers – fantastic or otherwise – she turned the knob and pushed the door fully open.

The pause when she opened the door was a natural thing, but it broke her cadence, allowed time to see the foolhardiness of blundering ahead in an unknown and possibly lethal situation. She clenched her eyes shut and tried to will her senses out beyond her body, hoping to feel any movement before it was close enough to grab her, or to hear any heavy breathing, or even to smell the stench of breath made foul by unholy meals.

She stood still, hardly able to breathe … waiting.

The large teeth, dripping with foul saliva, eager to rend her flesh … waited.

The huge, powerful hands, misshapen with horned knuckles and nails that hooked over like black talons … waited.

After a period during which her mind simply waited, afraid even to think, she thought, Well? Are you dead yet? Told ya so. Now get hold of yourself and pay attention: There. Are. No. Monsters! … Well, okay, yeah, there are, but they left a month ago. Now, open your eyes and get on with it.

The nearest end of the bracket-shaped landing was just to her left where a door was standing open. It was a large bedroom. The queen-size bed was un-made on one side but appeared to have been that way for a long time, maybe even since the town burned. Dust was clearly visible across the comforter and pillow shams. There was also some on the exposed sheet, but not so much. Someone had been sleeping there after the fires, but not for a while, now. A large closet held clothing for a man and a woman, so Matti figured it was the master bedroom. She allowed herself a few moments to ponder the fate of those two people before going back out onto the landing.

The next door faced the top of the stairway. It was closed, and it was a bathroom. On the right, beneath a mirror on the wall, was a round sink basin in a tile-covered countertop. A little farther, between the counter and the curtained window looking out over the back yard, sat the commode. To the left … a bathtub filled with water.

The whole damned thing was filled with water almost to the overflow!

Afraid to believe, Matti dropped to her knees and lowered her hand tentatively to the surface of the clear, clean liquid. She half expected it to disappear when she touched it like the mirage she knew it had to be. She dipped deeper and swirled her finger, almost giggling at the soft gurgle it made. It was real water … luscious, precious water.

“First, a room full of food, and now gallons and gallons of water,” she whispered, fearful of saying it too loudly lest someone hear her and take it all away. She felt light-headed. She felt like jumping up and shouting and dancing.

After a couple of handfuls carefully scooped up and slurped down, she sat back against the little door to the space beneath the sink and gazed at her new wealth, as precious as a thousand coins of purest gold – more so, because it held the promise of life. She could almost visualize herself sitting in the tub, soaking in the luxurious liquid, feeling the grime from the past weeks of sweating and living in a world filled with smoke and dust and death simply floating away from her. She had, at times when she was feeling downright nauseating, considered bathing in the river. Not drinking, of course, just bathing. But, even if she could get past the slimy mud of its banks with confidence that she would be able to climb out again, she would be exposed and defenseless. Not a good way to prolong her survival.

She remembered how in times past she would bathe or shower every day without even thinking about it. She never even watched it as the water, hardly dirty, swirled down the drain, leaving her skin clean and soft. How could she not have appreciated the magnificence of the wealth that had surrounded her back then? All the water she could possibly drink or bathe in or cook with or wash her clothes in or ….

And the food! She had never given it a second thought when she would sit down to a table laden with steaming dishes Momma had prepared, picking and choosing only those morsels that particularly appealed to her and leaving the rest to be tossed out. Such wealth!

She allowed herself only a few moments to luxuriate in the find, to relish memories of events that would never be repeated.

Okay, get back on your feet and stick your nose into the rest of these rooms. That tub didn’t fill itself. Someone was here even if they aren’t now.

From the bathroom door, the landing passed to the left side of the stairs. Two other doors on the landing stood open, one that was part way along it and the other at the far end. On the floor about between them lay the body of another dog.

The first open door revealed another bedroom, smaller than the first. It contained model airplanes hanging on strings from the ceiling, a baseball mitt, closed lap-top and a game control with disconnected leads cluttering the top of a chest-of-drawers, a bat across the foot of the made bed with a couple of pairs of denims and several shirts. A couple of towels and some underwear lay strewn about on the floor. Just a kid’s bedroom. Could be Jamal’s. Nothing unusual here. And still no monsters.

Back out on the landing, she knelt to look at the injuries on the dog’s body. It had the look of a pit bull, although it was torn up so badly, she could only assume it was a dog because all the others were. Both front legs were broken, and one had been nearly bitten off. She looked closer and decided that particular damage had been accomplished with a single bite. Bites covered its body; ripping, crushing bites that may have been done even after the thing was dead. And whatever had bitten it had a mouth big enough to grip both sides of the heavily muscled neck, ripping it open in several places.

Matti lifted her gaze to give it a rest from the gruesome thing on the floor and realized the wall was splattered and smeared with blood. One large splotch appeared to be where the poor thing had probably been slammed against the wall three feet above the floor. She could almost sense the mindless violence that had occurred on the landing infusing the carpet and the wallpaper like musk.

The last door stood open and appeared to be to another bedroom. The grief in the room was almost palpable. She inhaled the reek of death with each breath, and the room felt even sadder than the landing. It curled around to take up a good portion of the front of the house and probably abutted what she had assumed was the master bedroom, and this one was even larger. An attached bathroom, with another tub filled with water, would indicate it was the master bedroom, even though its bed was only a full size. Besides the bed with a huge oaken headboard with built-in bookshelves, the room contained two chest-of-drawers, a free-standing armoire made of rich, reddish wood of some kind, a dresser with a low vanity top in the center beneath a massive, beveled mirror, and a large, plush chair that filled the corner on the other side of the bed. The room was cluttered, but not as much the boy’s. A few clothing items that appeared to be for a young girl were scattered around, but mainly on the chair and the bed. The floor was clear, unusually so. It was as though care had been taken to assure easy passage, nothing left on the floor to obstruct unsteady feet – or wheels. A wheelchair sat empty in the corner beside a large pile of drapes beneath one of the tall windows. She looked back at an odd item she had failed to recognize in the corner just beyond the bathroom door. It was a small enclosure with latticework railings just about large enough to hold the wheelchair. It must be an elevator, a wheelchair elevator, and the lower end would be in the room to the right when she entered the front door.

She wandered on around the L-shaped room. All pretty much the same as the other rooms, she was about to decide, when she spotted what was left of the girl. The fragile looking body lay in a sprawl behind the large chair. She looked young, eight, maybe nine, but she was also small even for that age. And she was thin, really thin. Matti wondered how much was due only to missed meals since the town had burned. She surmised someone had survived the fires with the girl but had since been absent for several days or weeks. The wheelchair made her suspect years of illness and the wasting away of what bulk her weak body managed to accumulate. Her legs were little more than skin-covered bones. Matti avoided looking too closely at the ravaged throat, arms and abdomen where something had torn into her.

“Oh, dear God. With no power for the elevator, she must have been trapped up here.” What happened to her parents? Was that her mother or her father in the other room? Where’s her brother? Where did everyone go? She couldn’t have been alone all this time. She died no more than a day or two ago … just like the dogs. She’s been chewed up but not eaten … just like the dogs … except not even the rats chewed on her. How come? The door is open, so they could have gotten to her. What kept them away? Something killed all those dogs, and then killed her. Wonder why it didn’t eat her. Wonder why it didn’t eat the dogs. Maybe it did. Maybe it went out and caught all those dogs and brought them back here to eat. Maybe there were lots more dogs before. Now there’s only a half dozen left. … No, it looks like they were all killed in the house. Were they killed for her, for food? No, she’s chewed up, too.

Matti looked around the room again, standing near the foot of the bed and turning around slowly so she faced all directions, but no one was there. Then why did she have such a strong feeling that someone—some thing—was watching every move she made? “Watch it, now. You’re gonna spook yourself so bad, you’ll be seeing –” eyes.

Eyes stared at her from beneath the pile near the wheelchair. The drapes had fallen or been pulled down on that side of the window, or so she had assumed. Maybe it wasn’t a pile of fabric, after all. The drape still hanging on the other side wasn’t all that big and bulky to make such a large pile on the floor. There had to be something beneath it … and it was looking at her.

Although the eyes weren’t between her and the door, she would have to pass within just a few feet of them on her way back out. Of course, she had already passed them on the way in and hadn’t been eaten, but that was before she saw them; maybe even before they saw her.

After a moment that seemed to stretch into forever she realized that it still wasn’t moving. She began breathing again. She probed her body with minute movements and decided that she was no longer paralyzed with fear, that she could run if she had to. But how could she get past the thing without it jumping up and ripping her apart?

Images of slashing teeth and blood-smeared fur drifted across her mind’s eye like dried leaves caught in the slow whirl of an eddy, like almost recalled memories of recent events – memories, but not hers. Accompanying the images were feelings of deep sadness and loss quickly reverting to a rage so savage it startled Matti with its intensity.

“Oh, God, how do I get into these things?” she mumbled with her voice aquiver. “Why in the world did I come up here? I had enough clues that if I came up here, I would die.”

As she kept a knuckle-whitening grip on her knife handle, her feet moved slowly, first one slid forward a few inches and anchored itself back to the floor then the next one did the same.

Inches at a time.

Closer … ever closer.

The gaze of the eyes stayed on her, never wavering, never turning to the side. They stayed just inches above the floor. The thing’s head lay on the floor with amber colored eyes peering up at her. A fold of the curtain lay across its muzzle leaving only the eyes exposed, not moving, like a statue. They glistened like the glazed eyes of a fine, ceramic sculpture.

“It is a sculpture – has to be. Nothing but a dumb, lifeless, drapery covered statue –” with eyes that just blinked!

Just that small, innocuous movement of the thing caused a squeaky shriek to involuntarily jump into Matti’s constricted throat, but she fought it down.

Can’t show fear. Even the sound of fear may be enough to encourage it to spring.

Her feet continued their careful tread, moving her closer, closer to the door – or to death.

Good feelings for bringer of food.

And that’s all it was, just a feeling, like the sadness had been. And, for just a few moments these new, good feelings almost completely supplanted the feelings of sadness. But included in the feeling was the definite association with some provider of food.

Ohmigod! It’s thanking its gods for bringing food to it!

As terrified as she was, though, she was also curious. Why was it waiting? Surely it didn’t hesitate for fear of her. Maybe it wasn’t hungry. But, to just lie there and watch a source of food walk out the door ….

Maybe those dogs it slaughtered fought back. Maybe it’s hurt. Maybe it was more vulnerable than she was. Maybe if she attacked now, she could kill it while it was unable to defend itself.

But she couldn’t do that. Even while she considered the best place to inflict mortal wounds upon it, she knew she could not do that to an animal that had not, yet, made any actual threats to her. It wasn’t like she would be killing it for food. That would have been different. She had done that more than a few times and had no problems with it. But she was not a killer.

The pile of rumpled curtains stirred and slid to the side as the creature began rising.

Matti’s feet anchored themselves to the floor with tingling spasms from the knees down locking them in place, her toes involuntarily curling under inside her sneakers as though to grasp, and the rest of her body seemed to turn to cold, hard, immobile stone.

As it gained height, there seemed to be no end to it. It was as though the huge body grew out of the floor and the walls and the very substance of the old house.

Eat again. It was a feeling that was almost a thought. Matti recognized anticipation of filling an empty stomach.

Frigid fear coursed through her body, emanating from a whirlpool coalescing in the pit of her stomach like a lump of glacial ice floating in acid.

In the confines of the room, its head seemed as huge as that of a small steer or maybe a dragon. Amber, brooding eyes gazed at her from behind a sooty black muzzle sheathed in mounds of muscle to drive bone crushing jaws. Flews great enough to hide rows of T-Rex-like teeth draped each side. Its body, tawny with dark streaks and flecks, looked like a Great Dane on steroids, or maybe a pit bull on growth hormones. After its four-footed stance raised it to where the eyes peered across the room and into Matti’s from a height she had never seen before in a dog, the beast paused for a moment and lowered its haunches, as though cocking its mighty muscles for the springing attack.

“Oh, jeez! Oh, jeez!” was all she could manage. Fear paralyzed her body as she waited for the inevitable launch of that horrible killing machine crouching before her.

Well … maybe it wasn’t exactly crouching. It seemed to be more like … well … just sitting. Sitting and watching and … waiting.

For what, reinforcements?

“Good boy. Stay,” she said to the monstrous hound whose muscle-sheathed body probably outweighed her presently undernourished frame by at least a hundred pounds. “Just stay right where you are. That’s right. You can lie back down if you’d like … or not. I’ll just kind of edge on past you and won’t bother you any more. Not at all. No, sir. You just forget I ever blundered into your little hide-away, and I won’t mention that we ever met. Yessir. You’re a good boy.”

Her voice was low and even, and it seemed to have a soothing effect on the huge animal, although its eyes never left hers as she slowly inched toward the door. Its massive head tilted sideways like it was trying to figure out this strange creature that had come into its presence and persisted in rambling on. Perhaps it was the encouraging sound of her voice, or because it evoked good – or bad – memories, or even maybe it was becoming impatient and its hunger had returned. But, for whatever reason, its hindquarters rose off the floor, and it came into a full standing position again. In the same movement, it moved one front foot forward.

Unknown person. Stranger. Food? It was another almost thought.

“No!” Matti’s reaction was reflexive. She dropped into a slight crouch, sort of a flinch and a move for better balance, and she threw her hands out toward the huge dog, palms outward. Her voice quivered with rising panic, but she managed a semblance of authority in her voice as she commanded, “Down! Stay!”

It stopped. The front foot withdrew back to rest on the floor beside the other one. Then, with fluidity, it lowered itself back down to lie on the floor. When it was fully stretched out, its broad head continued down to rest between its front paws. Its eyes appeared almost tearful.

Then, almost as unexpected to Matti as fully articulated speech would have been, the great beast emitted a high-pitched, long, drawn-out whine. Accompanied with an intense feeling of renewed sadness, it was like hearing the mournful cry of a lost child.

Sad. Lonely. Aching.

Matti was stunned. Her rigid body, tensed to receive the impact of the charging beast, began to quiver with the surge of adrenaline. She forced herself to take a deep breath and to continue to breathe. The strange thoughts-feelings that had grown in strength with her climb up the stairs continued to buffet her.

As she straightened back up, she took a quick glance over her left shoulder to verify the distance of only a few feet to pass the elevator and the bathroom door and to the open door onto the landing. As her gaze swept back toward the strangely behaving animal on the floor, it stopped, snagged by the jumble of items on one side of the dresser top, captured by two images she had to think about to understand their significance. She had probably seen them when she first entered but didn’t give them a second thought at the time.

They were a pair of eight-by-ten photographs in a double frame, enlargements of snapshots of a girl and a brindle-colored dog. In the left one, the girl was young, three or four, and the dog had the oversized feet and general appearance of a juvenile, although he looked about the size of a normal large, adult dog. The girl was sitting in her wheelchair and the dog sat at her side with his head turned to look at her profile. A look of ecstasy stretched the girl’s face into a broad grin with her eyes pinched nearly closed. In the right photo, the girl appeared to have aged to seven or eight. With her blond hair tumbled below her shoulders, she was standing with the aid of crutches. In the background, in the shadow of the big tree that formed the backdrop of both pictures, sat the empty wheelchair. The girl peered into the camera’s lens with big eyes and a bigger grin. The oversized dog against which she leaned even though she had the crutches, and which seemed to happily welcome her touch as it leaned into her insignificant weight, was, itself, wearing what could only be described as a warm smile.

Matti looked back at the monster on the floor. It was the same animal.

Her mind lost its focus on immediate survival when struck by the sudden, forced reversal of a firmly held, preconceived notion. The strange and apparently devil-bestowed ability that had led her to safety in a buried creek had not been called up in the weeks since, and she had almost allowed herself to forget the reviled deed had ever happened. When she first began to pick up feelings and perceptions after her arrival at this house, she had forgotten the mind-tweaking mechanics she had developed on the spot back then that were necessary to receive them, to read them. Now, as her mind opened itself for the new version of truth it perceived on the dresser top, it also opened to the images and memories buffeting her.

Like a huge wave, they flowed into and around her, overwhelming her. She saw images of dogs rushing into the house and others of the same dogs charging or fleeing. Sounds of snarling and snapping jaws merged with sounds of crunching and snapping bones. Among the universe of scents of which she suddenly became aware, most dominant were fear and blood. Rage filled her as she sensed fear for another, fear of being too late, fear of loss. Rage fairly exploded in her mind with the image of the girl on the floor and the pit bull over her, its snapping jaws ripping and dripping gore. At that point, rage became an all-consuming red torrent that obliterated all else. After a moment, other memories emerged of earlier times, times in the back yard with the laughing girl nearby. Feelings in mixed swirls of joy and grief, love and rage, empathy and loss, became debilitating clouds that engulfed the consciousness that was not her own.

“Oh, dear God,” she muttered, staggering under the intensity of the mental assault. She had yet to learn how to dampen the reception. “I had it backwards. It was the other dogs that killed her, wasn’t it? And you came back from wherever you had gone and found her dead, and you went berserk. You went into a rampage and destroyed every one of her killers. Oh, Jesus! You poor thing! And you’ve been lying here, pining away for her to come back to you, but knowing she was gone. And to think I was accusing you of – of eating her. Why, you would starve to death before touching one drop of her blood, wouldn’t you?”

The dog’s eyes continued to peer up at Matti as she spoke in soft, compassionate tones, but it showed no sign of rising.

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