©2004 Fenix -- all rights reserved
I watched, weary-eyed, as a lone figure, thick and puffy in a winter coat, made the slow, and arduous journey up the snow-covered drive. Its plight was marked by the steady beam of a car's headlights shining up from the main road. I couldn't say I felt sorry for whatever fool had picked this night to come up here to console me. A winter storm had dumped nearly two feet on the town, and it showed little sign of stopping as the night wore on.
"Company," I muttered, and slammed down the blinds, drenching everything around me in black. Power had flickered, and finally gone out maybe two hours ago. It happened once or twice a winter, and I already had a small arsenal of candles spread throughout the house.
I traced the wall with my hand, shuffling slightly till I felt my foot hit the edge of the single step leading from the living room into the main hall. A few more feet and the raised edge of the doorway was under my hand. I groped for the knob and swung the door open to the winter storm.
I regretted not fumbling for my jacket on the rack beside the door as the force of the wind pressed around, chilling me to the bone. I raised an arm to cover my face from the biting cold, and peered out from slitted lids. The headlights hit me directly, bouncing a thousand times off the myriad of snowflakes falling to the ground, and making the light all encompassing, as if it were shining in from all directions. Then wind shifted directions, and the effect was lost, and the solid red of the visitor's coat materialized thirty feet down the walk from the door. The hooded head looked up at me, and I recognized the figure as Debbie Gebler.
"Hallo!" she shouted, the wind stretching the words until they were whispers, despite her close proximity.
I waved back, hoping she couldn't see the grimace stretched across my face as she steadily approached. Debbie had been good friends with my wife up until she passed; visiting every day in the hospital. The woman nearly moved in when I made the decision Laurie would go at home, and not in some strange hospital bed two counties away in Edinburgh.
"What brings you out here tonight?" I tried to sound conversational, normal, but it was hard when I still had to raise my voice over the wind even though we were standing nearly face to face.
"Soup." She smiled brightly, as if the cold wind never caressed her cheek, and then thrust a large thermos into my hands. "I figured you'd be looking for something warm to eat tonight."
She straightened up and tried to look over my shoulder and into the house as she talked, but I shifted into the frame blocking whatever it was she was looking for. She looked up at me, cross, for a moment, but I just smiled back, feigning innocence.
"I haven't seen your head much in town in the last month, Frank. None at all in church."
"I've been busy trying to finish everything up with Laurie. I've even begun cleaning house a bit, settling back down."
It was a lie, of course. The last few weeks seemed like nothing. Sleeplessness could do that, blurring days into meaningless smudges. I could remember lying in bed, eyes wide in the dark. Listening. Wishing for the quickened beat of my heart to stop so could hear just a little better. Everything is closer in the dark.
Debbie seemed to catch my thoughts, and gave me a dour expression.
"I haven't been sleeping well either," I confessed.
Debbie seemed to digest this for a moment. Then spoke carefully.
"I'm glad you're starting to get past it all, Frank. You and Laurie were well liked in town, but folks are beginning to talk."
I rolled my eyes, but Debbie caught it, and gave me a scolding look.
"I'm worried about you, Frank. Up here by yourself, sitting in the dark with the blinds drawn." Her eyes tried to move past me again. "I thought you bought a generator at the beginning of last winter."
Uh-oh. I reached up, scratching the back of my head. "Yeah..." I searched for an excuse. "I tried starting it up, but couldn't seem to get it up and running."
Debbie clucked her tongue. "You'll freeze tonight. Look, you're letting out all the heat now standing in the doorway." She began shuffling forward, "Why don't we go in before we both catch something."
I held firm in the doorway. "You can't."
"Why?" Debbie was not a woman who was used to her doting going unheard.
"It's a mess in here." It was, but you couldn't even see it in the dark.
"Didn't take long, did it."
"You still miss her a lot."
"Yeah." I slumped down. "Please Debbie, I know why you're here, and that you mean well, especially coming out here on a night like this, but I just want to be alone. Maybe by thaw, but not now. Not tonight."
Alone. Was that what I wanted? Lying there awake at night, I knew what I wanted. Sometimes there would even be evidence of it. As if a new reality was pressing down through the dim cloak of the night.
Debbie's eyes softened. "I understand, I'll let you be for now." She stepped back. "I want to see you in church on Sunday though, you hear me? I'm coming back over if you don't, and I won't be so soft."
"We'll see, Debbie." I waved as she began to move down the drive.
She turned again. "Be there, please. It'll be good for your health, and I'm not talking the physical kind."
Another nasty look, and then she turned around, saying something, but losing it in the wind. Curses probably.
I waited a moment, watching her to the car, and then I shut the door to the outside. Leaning upon it I let my eyes adjust a bit to the dark.
I remembered the thermos, and a pang of guilt ran through me. Too late for 'thank you's now. I brought it up to my face, but could only discern a brief outline in the dark. I twisted off the lid, feeling the warm vapors rise to my face and into my nose.
Who needed to see, when so much was readily available with the other senses? Footsteps. The smell of perfume coming up from the vents. Things a man can miss in the light, but they're all he can think about all alone, tossing and turning in a bed too big for just himself.
I pulled away from the thoughts, screwed the lid back on the thermos, and began moving back into the living room toward the dim, warm, glow of the candle sitting on the coffee table.
It flickered making an ever shifting sphere of light, a beacon in the dark. Beside it, a bouquet of dead flowers left since the funeral. A few steps beyond that, another candle shining from the top of the upright piano. I slid my finger along its length as I walked by, felt the dust of disuse. Music had never been my thing.
I moved along my rudimentary trail of light, like a priest walking along a sacred trail to an altar that wouldn't even be recognizable in this age. The moon cloaked in shadow, and only a few wayward torches guiding my passage. I could hear drums, heavy bangs of bone against pulled skin. It echoed in the back of my skull.
I laughed stepping into the kitchen, feeling along the far wall till I came to the cellar door. Sitting on the floor at both corners were my two biggest candles. I leaned over, adjusting one slightly so that the one could see the finest crack in the old oak. The candle sputtered, speaking its foreign tongue against me. I stepped back making sure the light was right.
I was still smiling as I moved to toward the third and final candle nestled among a growing pile of dirty dishes on the kitchen table. Not wanting to eat among the mess on the table, I pulled out a chair. It scraped loudly across the linoleum floor. The sound shattered the silence of the room. I sat down, placing the thermos between my legs, and unscrewed the top. I laughed again, louder this time, but its sound seemed hollow and dead, weighted with the overbearing silence.
Carefully, using the red light of the candle I poured a portion of soup into the bowl-shaped lid. It went down warm. Homemade, too. It was a pleasant surprise, after weeks of canned stews and TV dinners.
My eyes were drawn back to the cellar door, the shadows of the panels danced on both sides in the dual candle light. I watched, mesmerized as I sipped on my soup. Candlelight has that effect, that urge to just stare until it burns blue and purple blurs onto the inside of the eye. Moths drawn to the flame. I had a friend when I was younger who stared into the sun too long. He went blind in his left eye. Almost in the other as well. He just always said he was looking for something, that there had to be something up there.
Young boys. That cellar door is probably one of my strongest images of growing up in this house. Its remembered corners not quite as warped as nowadays, its wood slightly more polished. The sunlight streamed in from the between blue and white checkered curtains. My mother stood along the bright counter basking in the morning light, the same counter that was now all but invisible outside the candles' short warmth. The clatter of dishes, and the sound of a whisk... I sat in the chair pulled in tight to the table, remembering an empty bowl of cereal drained of everything but the mushy milky slush always left on the bottom. A victim of lazy summer mornings when there's nowhere quite to go until somebody pulls up on a bike for a game of baseball or two. I scooted the chair out from under; its sound not quite so loud in morning forty years past. I could feel it, I knew what's coming next, inside I feel almost ashamed of my sheepishness, but I tried to slink for the door to the living room before she can call me back.
"Honey," Trapped. "Be a dear, and go get me a bottle of cherry preserves for the cookies."
I winced, turning to see my mother's face across the room. It's blurred, not quite there, the details already lost to my memory. Her voice was still as strong and forceful as it was then. She sensed my angst...
"You do want these cookies for later, don't you?"
I slumped, rolling my eyes at her, but still turned and headed for the cellar door. Stupid, I know, but it was one of those old kinds, the ones without a light switch at the top, and only one single bulb swaying down there somewhere in the dark.
Slowly, I opened the door, I turned to see my mother already back at the counter, humming a nameless tune from another time. The whole thing was dumb. That cold feeling when I heard the first creek on the wooden step leading down. There were fourteen in total. I knew it by heart, and each one grew harder as I went. I used the wall as a guide for the first five steps, but then it too pulled away, cornering into the cellar's ceiling. On the eighth step, just like clockwork the door above me began to silently close until there was nothing but a slim toothpick of light shining in. Blame it on a tilt. Blame it on the wind. All I knew was that I was too shame-faced to ever try and use something to hold it open when I was up there. I was afraid my mother would think me as crazy, or even worse a coward.
Step fourteen, the bottom, was pitch-black. It seethed around me. Anything, absolutely anything could be moving only feet away behind its thick curtain. I held the thought for a minute, and then stepped down onto the cellar's cement floor. Childhood is built on two things. Trust that there will always be dinner waiting for you when you come home tired and sweaty. Trust that rainy days always turn back to sun. Trust in the good things. But fear, that's the part that never really fades for some. Fear that there's a hand between the stairs. Fear that there's something under moving under the bed, or in the closet, or God forbid, on sunny summer mornings, down in a small town cellar.
I shuffled forward slowly in the dark. Imaginary objects, purple blurs leftover from the world of light above seen to swing out. Somewhere in the distance I heard drums.
Five steps past the stairs and I knew I was under the light cord. I reached up with both hands, and on tip toes, consciously aware of my own physical awkwardness. If something wanted to slither out and grab me now, I would go without a fight. Unreal, I think it, my fear is tangible, a slick metallic taste in the back of my mouth, but I know it will fade as soon as I'm done. It was an ageless ritual. I would be bounding back up the steps in two's and three's with the cherry preserves in hand; the thoughts of the cellar already gone, and seeming more foolish than before. My stretched fingers made contact with the string, I gripped it, pulled it taut, but not down. I held still for a minute; time collecting to this one point. The drums were louder. They seemed to reverberate out of the wall somewhere to my left. There was a door there, and two boarded-up windows; disused for years, and too expensive to replace for my mother. Beneath me I swore I felt something wet and sticky slide past my foot. A cold shiver ran up my back, and I pulled tighter on the cord, still afraid. I peered open-eyed into the dark around me. The drums continued to grow in volume, harbingers of something older than the cellar, older than the dirt it's built on.
My eyes squeezed shut, but my ears were open, listening in the dark, listening for anything that may warn me not to pull the cord. Fatalism is a keen knife in the mind of a ten year old. I heard a whisper from behind me. A voice I could not, should not have heard for decades.
"Come with me."
The drums continued to pound away, and I couldn't take it any longer. I pulled down, light flooding the room, making me squint in the sudden blast of brightness. I had to put a hand up to shield my eyes, and through the seeping streams between my fingers I could see a form moving toward me. It came at me, even in light that now seemed too bright. Blinding like the sun. Blinding like a thousand snowflakes. I could make out its outline, as it charged forward. I screamed, scrambling backwards, falling, and then it's over me.
My head jerked up, the little lid of the thermos flying from my hands as they shot forward reaching out to protect myself from a creature a half a mind away. I sighed, my body relaxing back into the chair. I reached up rubbing my face with a hand, trying to massage out the sleep. If it could be called that. I hadn't really 'slept' in the normal sense of the word for maybe two weeks. I would doze, usually in the day when I least wanted to, but they were always filled with dreams and memories, mostly bad things. Nightmares, I guess. What I did know was that I always woke up feeling more tired than when I had dozed off.
That wasn't sleep, it was a fever.
When I just beginning to walk, I fell down the cellar steps while my mother was sleeping. I didn't even know it had happened until my mother told me, years later, right after she had her first stroke. She said I broke both legs right through the skin. I nearly bled to death down there at the foot of the steps without making a sound. She never understood why I didn't call out, didn't cry at all. She said I probably wouldn't have even made it if she hadn't come into the kitchen for a drink, and noticed the door slightly ajar. She didn't get it, but I think I did a little. Sometimes it seems the worst thing you can do is call out in the dark, because who knows what may hear it.
For the first time I noticed my feet were in something sticky and cold. I looked down unconsciously. I knew it was the spilt soup that had fallen from my lap maybe hours ago. Now it was ice cold, congealing between my toes. In fact the rest of my body was cold and shivering as well. I turned to the candle, and let out a breath, watching my breath rise in the cold air. We used to play dragon like that when I was a boy.
The thought made me turn my eyes up to the cellar door.
I was not surprised to see it slightly ajar. That crack running vertically like a slit between the flesh of the wall. I watched the candle on the floor beside the opening sputter as if a draft was coming from down below.
Still stiff from disturbing slumber, I stood, moving to the door and opened it wide. The wood moaned in protest, revealing a dark cave leading down into the depths of the house. Another rush of cold air traveled up the stairs to meet me at the top, and sending my teeth chattering.
I began to wonder if a falling branch from the woods had broken a window. One of the first things I did when Laurie and I moved back into the house was to unboard the windows, and refit them with glass. If it was what happened, and even if it weren't, there was still the problem of freezing. The house felt like a crypt. The dark I could handle, maybe even secretly enjoy, but now I had to get the generator on to work the heater, and if it came to it, board up a broken window or two.
I took up a candle, shining it down the old wooden stairs, but still I hesitated. The rituals of childhood still pressed firmly in my brain. I knew no bogeymen or slithering tentacles, they had been lost in the years, pushing them back into that cave of the subconscious, only to come out in the dim twilight of the edge right before dreams set-in.
"Bears." I muttered. It was possible. Sometimes they would seek better shelter in a warmer place during violent winter storms. It was possible one had knocked down the door from the woods, and... and...
It was foolish and I knew it. Using the light, I stepped down onto the first step, the candle showing maybe five more below that. I took another, a third, and then I halted. Down below, the sound of small feet bound up the stairs toward me. I held out the candle unconsciously, as if I had deep down been expecting it. My mind froze. Then there was the brisk sensation of someone running past me. I turned, not sure if it was to mark its passage, or to make a break for the kitchen. Both were useless. Up above I heard the sound of the cellar door slamming closed.
I stood for a moment, unsure what I should do next. As if in response, a slight breeze began to blow past. There was a fragrance on its wings, one I had sworn I had smelled late in the night, and sworn I hadn't the next morning. I hesitated again, reminded of my pause before I pulled the string to light the basement on those trips for my mother's something or other. Not knowing what was there to be afraid of, but afraid all the same.
"Laurie?" The words were raspy, barely above a whisper.
I had lost my mind.
But I found myself listening anyway. Just as I did the times I awoke from slumber, her name on my lips, its sound echoing through the house. My body drenched in sweat, the cover tied in knots.
There was never a reply, and none came now, so I continued moving deeper. At the bottom I halted again, feeling a bit more in control. I began to turn left to head for the generator, but thought twice, and kept moving forward until the old shelving on the far wall came into view. It was disorderly, a random display of the things that gathered in the basement. A hatchet, still glinting coldly even in the warm candlelight. Beside it a row of rusty paint cans, a broken toaster underneath those, a project put off when Laurie got sick. Junk, all of it.
Scanning the shelves, I found a half opened box of fireworks was displayed on the fifth shelf near the end. A long charcoal lighter lay on top of the pile. I picked it up, and pushed it deep into the pockets of my sweatpants. The last thing I wanted was to be down here alone in the dark, trying to get the generator started, if another burst of wind decided to take my candle by surprise. I turned, to head for the generator, when I grating sound of something rolling on cement came from behind. I turned to see a small jar roll into the candle's glow. It continued impervious, until stopping beside my right foot. I bent down to get a closer look. The inside was smeared red with jelly; I reached in with a finger, wiping a portion off and brought it to my nose.
Tentatively I brought it to my tongue, but pulled back grimacing as soon as the two met. Its flavor wasn't sweet, certainly not jelly, instead it was tangy almost metallic in taste. I could almost swear it tasted like, well like, blood.
I kicked the jar away listening to it skitter and. I closed my eyes, and rubbed the orbits of my eyes, trying to blank my mind.
I stood up, and began walking towards where the jar had rolled from. There was snow on the floor on this side, a broken window or door seemed pretty likely at this point. A few more steps, and the snow continued to thicken, at the edge of my candle light I realized it must be around six inches thick. I went forward anyway, my feet stinging in the cold. A few steps more and I should have been at the far wall, somewhere near the window right to the door. I looked to my right, focusing on my steps forward. I had failed to notice that the wall beside me had vanished. In its place was the same inky blackness as my front.
Stepping nervously I turned, holding the candle out at arm's reach in the direction I had come. At the very edge of its light I could see where the snow began to lighten and the cellar floor regained control, no footprints marked my passage. A few more steps out, and there would have been no reference to where I had come from.
Swinging around again, I held the light up high, squinting, trying to discern anything but the white snow and the black above it. There was nothing. This was nowhere. The woods came right up to the house, I should have seen a least the faintest outline of a tree or two.
Nothing. The candle seemed weighted in my hand, as if the black around it were pushing down on its little sphere of light, trying to swallow it. Carefully, I set the candle down in the snow, building a little mound to stand it up. I crept past it, towards the fringes of its light, and stopped only when the dark took away the snow beneath my feet as well.
I looked back at the candle, then again at the dark, which seemed more a solid wall than an absence of anything. It seemed to have a gravity of its own, as if I were about to fall sideways into its stretching maw. I felt my head swim, nauseous, and trying to take in something too large for it to hold.
Squatting, I pushed my hand down into the snow. When I was about to soil my fingers in soft dirt, I stopped. No floor here. Quickly I pulled out my arm and held it close, blowing on my hand to warm it back up. In my preoccupation I didn't notice the shadow lean up beside. I didn't see it bend over towards the light.
In the silence I heard its intake of breath, and its quick exhale.
The dark charged forward, suffocating me in itself. I leapt backwards, half twisting in the air, trying to make purchase with the candle. I felt nothing, but the cold sting of snow, as it soaked over my belly and chest through my T-shirt. My fingers dug deep, searching, but they found nothing but snow.
I was three again, afraid to move, afraid not to. My eyes were squinted shut. Even in the dark I feared the shadow.
Warm flesh wrapped around my own hand, pulling on it, urging me to get up.
"I found you."
It was Laurie. Her voice was, soft, almost sing-songy. It was a sound I'd waited to hear for months, and now that I was, I didn't know what to do.
"Stand up, Frank. We have to go."
I did. I opened my eyes to the inky black. It hugged my sockets, in the same vise embrace, I held my wife. I could feel her back, her arms around my shoulders, her breath on my cheek. It was all there. All real. I began to cry.
"You're not supposed to be here," I reached up, running my hand through her silky waist length hair. The same hair I had slowly watched falling out over weeks of treatment. "None of this is."
"I've been here the whole time." She laughed, as if I should have already have known that.
Laurie pulled away, one of her hands taking my own. She tugged gently, to urge me forward. Except, I didn't know where forward was.
"Come with me."
Her words were intoxicating. I felt as if I had been preparing for this moment, like this whole scene had been playing out for weeks. I wanted to go. I wanted to follow her anywhere.
Another tug, more forceful, made me step forward. My foot hit something solid, and smooth. The candle.
"Wait." It sounded less like a command and more like a plea. "Let me go back. Let me get my shoes. A jacket."
"There's no time."
She was over me again, flesh against mine.
"We'll keep each other warm."
I held still, held from leaving by only the lingering thoughts of my dream. Lying there, bloody on the floor. Something slithering around just out of reach.
"Let me at least get a light."
"Its okay, I can guide you. I've been this way before." Her answer was quick, impatient.
"I want to see your face." My hand, slipped into my pocket, carefully wrapping around the plastic handle of the lighter. I wanted to go, but not in the dark. I had to see, at least once. I wanted to gaze upon her face. See the healthy glow on her cheeks, the fire dancing in her eyes.
I wanted to see that she loved me forever.
I pulled the lighter out, holding it up at face height, and struck it.
A hiss. A click, and the world opened up a few feet. I saw Laurie, her head down, the hair on the top of her head shining in the small flame. I smiled, feeling joyous, ready to go where she led me. Her head lifted up towards mine, and I felt my smile begin to twist. My embrace around her waist dropped, and I stumbled back a step.
She was smiling, that same one she always gave me when I came back from a long day at work, her cheeks flushed with color, but her eyes were black pits. Empty, boring down forever. I felt like they were pulling me in, like I was already there, halfway in them.
"We don't need that anymore Frank."
Laurie reached out, trying to grab the lighter from my hand, but I swatted her away.
"You're not my wife."
She moved forward. "Don't be silly, I came here for you, who else would do that?"
Her flesh was pale now, cold as ice. I watched as a portion of her cheek swelled outward, bubbling up. Another began to form on her forehead.
"Please Frank. Hold me. Turn out the light, and it'll go away."
I stepped back again, my eyes darted from her to the candle now under her feet. Everything was wrong, this wasn't what I wanted.
"Who are you?" I asked.
Her hair fell from her head in large clumps, the flesh underneath swelling, growing putrid and black. It was the cancer, it was out of control.
"Turn off the light, Frank." Her voice was desperate now. She made another motion to retake my hand, but I jerked away; her fingers grew long and sinuous, flapping this way and that like little tails. "It's hurting me. It's killing me. Is that what you want?"
"You're already dead!" I shouted, ending it in a sob. I think it was the first time I had ever acknowledged it in those words aloud.
"Hold me. Make it all go away. Just come with me." Her arms opened wide. The clump on the top of her head moved forward. A head grew from it, little red eyes stared back at me, and then it pulled itself free and dropped to the snow. More did the same, leaving gaping holes around her head and shoulders.
Her whole body seemed to heave, bits and pieces moving independently and randomly. A thousand, pink hairless tails rose up, flicking this way and that. Her arms drooped then came apart, dropping in crawling pieces to the ground.
"Please Frank. Come with me." It was like a recording.
"Tell me who you are!"
Those black sockets continued to stare up at me, even as the flesh around it turned black, and furred, falling to the ground.
"You know who I am." Her jaw came alive, backing off her head, and falling to the ground. She tried to step forward, but it only shook her more apart, the pieces flying everywhere, short limbs stretched out for the landing.
I turned around, disoriented, looking for any sign of the basement within the range of the lighter. There was none, I needed the candle. I had to get out. I had to get back upstairs
I yelped, kicking away a large rat as it began to scramble up my foot. There was more, all trudging slowly toward the snow toward me. I looked back up at the remaining clump, no longer with any discernible human form. It tried to move forward one more time, but instead collapsed in a mess of squeaks and claws.
I stepped forward, reaching down into the squirming mass. A moan escaped, easing its way between my lips. Their flesh was warm, soft, and almost as if there were a million worms in each one straining against the skin, ready to burst. I reached snow, and began to sweep side to side for any feel of wax. They were all over now, climbing up my sweatpants, and onto my bent back. I could feel their little claws, digging in through my shirt, their weight trying to push me down into the mass below me.
Then I had it! I half-grinned, half grimaced as I wrenched it up. One rodent held tight as I lifted it up. Its tail wrapped around my wrist, its little nails dug into the top. It turned to me, and hissed. I snarled back, and thrust the lighter held in my other hand at its face. It gave a human scream as it let go, flinging its burnt body below and disappearing into the flow of its sisters.
I held the lit candle high, watching around as the sphere of light stretched outward slowly. I did not move, even as they reached my neck, and began crawling through hair, others reaching further moved up my arm up towards the candle. I was afraid any movement might whip the flame out, so I stood, eyes open, searching, my body motionless except for the weight of the rats.
Just as I began to believe I had moved too far, I gazed to my left, and finally saw a dark brown shape through the snow -- the edge of the basement. I moved awkwardly, calm at first, but by the time I reached the floor I was sprinting like a man on fire. I jumped through the rat-mass, feeling them squish beneath my feet, my left arm batting them off wildly, while my left still held the candle high. I shook my head wrenching them from my hair as I reached the floor. Solid foundation.
I never stopped screaming, not as I reached the foot of the stairs, not as I tripped going up, my candle flying from hand, bouncing in the darkness, before going out. Still I pulled them from my body, as I scrambled up the rest of the steps on all fours, no less an animal then the things moving about me. I hit the door, reached up, feeling the cold metal of the knob. I turned it, pushing all my weight on it wood, and falling onto the kitchen's linoleum in a big heap. I pulled the last of the vermin off my frame, then flung it down the stairs, slamming the door before having the chance to here it land below. I pressed my weight against the frame, the scream on my lips devolving to an uncontrolled sob. I reached up twisting the lock on the knob, then curled up into a ball against the door, and wept.
I don't know how long I lay like, my eyes closed to the dim candlelight emanating from the table, and the second candle by the door. It may have been hours, it may have been minutes, I didn't care, I waited for the inevitable.
And it came too soon.
The sound of footsteps from below. A knock on the door. A voice.
"Come with me." They were the same words, same tone, but they held no meaning anymore.
"You're not my wife." I tried to sound firm, but my voice trembled despite my best efforts.
Its voice shifted, dropping an octave or two, turning raspy and dry. It sounded familiar.
"I can bring you to her, Frank. Come lay with me awhile, let me hold you in my grip, and I'll carry you to her quietly. No pain. I promise."
"It's what you want. It's what you've been thinking about night after sleepless night.
"It'll be quick, Frank. Lay with me. Let the worms and rats eat your eyes and burrow through your rotting husk."
"Shut up, damn it!" I banged a fist back against the door. It hurt.
It banged back. I felt the whole frame of the house shudder, the sound of its solitary blow echoing enough to make my ears ring.
I watched helplessly as both candles dimmed then snuffed out, leaving me in the dark. It was nothing like the black I had felt below, but I knew it could be. It could be very soon.
"You think you're safe up there, Frank, but you're not. As long as there's a shadow in a corner, I'll be there with behind you, whispering. I don't have to stay down here, Frank; you've already paved the way for my coming."
"Who are you?"
"Don't play games with me."
"Don't ask questions you don't want the answer to."
I turned around on my haunches to face the door.
"You've been here a long time haven't you?"
It laughed. "I've been here for years, Frank. You fell remember? You fell and bled. I was there, in the dark. Waiting."
"It true, I was there hiding in the dark."
"You sound like a coward."
More chuckling, "I guess that makes you one as well."
I looked around into the surrounding dark, thinking of slinking along my little path of candles, the rest of the house hidden in night. I had no reply.
"I'm only trying to protect you, Frank. You don't have to know, you don't want to know. Just take my hand, and we'll go. You'll never have to see my face."
I stood up, beginning to feel angry now. This thing, it still wanted me, but I was no longer ready. Somewhere, behind the doors, I could hear a steady beat begin to pick up pace.
"I've seen your face."
"Candlelight lies, it plays tricks. You've seen nothing."
I clenched my fists, facing the door. Fear and anger competing for space.
"I'll ask you again. Tell me who you are."
"I am Frank --"
"-- I live in Tod, North Carolina, in my old family home --"
"-- I screwed my wife nearly every night of our life together hoping to have a child, but too ashamed to admit I couldn't --"
I covered my ears, screaming now.
"-- when I was three I fell down the stair, and nearly died of blood loss, because my mother was too drunk to come look for me --"
"That's a lie!" I moved forward, shaking my fist, shouting at the door. Behind it the steady beat grew louder.
"But it's not, because I know, so you know it, so I know it, so you know it --"
"They're all down here with me. Its good reading, if you know what I mean. There's one in particular though, something we've been thinking about night after night. Sometimes in bed, sometimes in sitting, alone, in the dark, in the bathroom, thinking about your own --"
I gave a scream, and charged the door, flinging it open. I could see nothing standing in the stairwell, but I sensed its surprise.
I gave the thing no chance, but instead blindly leapt forward tackling it, throwing both our bodies tumbling down the stairs into the dark abyss below. We went as one, somersaulting end over end, my fingers digging into its face, rage and curses streaming from my lips.
I hit the wooden floor hard, my left arm twisting up at an odd angle, tightening, and then coming loose, with a loud snap.
The pain overloaded my system for a minute, and when I finally wrenched myself up from the floor the thing was gone. I could hear it moving in the dark, a sick wet sound, somewhere just out of sight. I grinned maniacally. It would end soon, but before it did, I would see it. I would see its face, and spit in its black hole of an eye. Down here, the booming beat was almost deafening. The very air around me seemed to pulsate in time.
I scrambled haphazardly, guiding myself with nothing. A few steps and my hunched head slammed into something that had loomed out of the dark. It split my skull, letting blood flow freely down my face. I laughed, screaming into the black. It was the heater; beside it was the house's generator. I bent down feeling along its flank, reaching, fingers dancing. They found their prize, and I yanked it hard, so hard, I thought it might snap, ending it all there. But it didn't, the choker, caught, and the generator roared to life.
I turned, heading toward the middle of the cellar, both my hands waving madly in the air, feeling for the cord to the cellar's light. My left broken arm seared with pain under the motions, but I ignored its pleas, and instead moved outward.
Behind me I heard it coming, following behind me, like a shadow. Something reached for my shirt, but I lunged forward, out of its grasp before it could have me, laughing the whole time.
My broken arm struck string. I wrapped both hands around it, like a man preparing to ring a church bell. I pulled down until the cord was stiff, then my laughter faded. I hesitated. Maybe I didn't want to know. Maybe going quietly was for the best.
The thought halted me for only a moment, but it was enough. Something slimy, something out of the nightmares of a ten year old, jerking it out from under me. I reached out grappling for purchase, and finding it in the shelves along the far wall behind me. They teetered, and I released before they could fall on top of me. Objects clattered in the dark around me, a large heavy something that registered later as a paint can found my face, flattening my nose. The thing around my leg began tugging, pulling me towards the end of the cellar and into the black abyss, into the snow. The beat running through grew irregular, chaotic.
Grunting, I stretched for something to hold onto. I would go quietly no longer. My fingers wrapped around a wooden handle. Taking it up, I heard the ping of metal.
It was the hatchet.
I sat up, raising the hatchet high over my head, and bringing down in front of me, it met flesh that felt only centimeters from my own. The thing in the dark shrieked, and released my leg. I stood up quickly, wincing as I put too much weight on my broken arm. I reached up, finding the cord almost automatically.
No hesitation, no thought. I pulled it down, the fluorescent bulbs bursting to life, filling the room around me with steady white light. I winced, bringing a hand to my face to cover the sudden brightness that blinded me. I could see the walls pumping in and out with the beat in the air. Random objects and shelving were all pushed away, and they contracted and expanded in an organic fashion. From behind I heard steady footsteps moving in my direction, with a smile I turned ready to face, ready to see its face.
I turned, able to hold onto my assurance only a moment, then my smile dropped as quickly as the hatchet from my shaking hands. I turned to face myself, a dead man walking, my arms outstretched before me, wrists cut lengthwise, blood clotted and old around the wounds. My body was bloated with water, as if I had been in a bathtub for days. I dripped steadily, the sound mixing with the slow slosh as I approached myself. My eyes were rolled back, congealed, and unused.
"No." I took a step back, unable to turn around, unable to look away from myself. I knew one thing and one thing only: that I wished I had gone quietly.
I reached out, moving falling forward, to catch myself. My arms -- slick, cold and wet -- wrapped around my body, pulling the warmth from it.
"I tried to find her. I tried to find Laurie." my voice was gargled, water spewed from my mouth as I spoke. "I couldn't though. I got lost."
I squeezed myself, taking away my breath.
"I'm so lonely. So lonely."
I gave no resistance, unable to do anything but stare up at my own swollen face. I could remember now. Little things, that I did, that I just as soon forgot. Things like the rope I bought at the hardware store three weeks ago, or taking out my old straight razor from years ago, even though I used an electric now. With it all came understanding, light filling the back of my head. I knew what I had to do.
"Frank." I looked down at myself in acknowledgement, my eyes meeting. "I understand now. I am you and you are me."
I gripped the sides of my sopping head, the flesh wrinkled and spongy underneath. I stared into my own clouded, decomposing eyes. Around the edges of my vision everything began to blur, as unconsciousness continued to gain steady ground. I closed my eyes, and brought my lips up to meet another pair. There was a sudden struggle, but I held tight, squeezing as tight, as I myself was being held, our lips locked. Around me the drumbeats grew weaker, I wasn't sure if they were halting or if I was drifting out into the void myself. At that moment it didn't matter, I knew nothing but my grip, and a locked kiss.
The whole room shuddered, the floor beneath quivering in a final act, and then lying still. The body on top of me loosened, and I broke our lips, gasping for a lungful of air.
With that I heaved my weight, detaching it from my body. It slumped to the side as I stood up wearily, still gasping for breath. All anger gone now. Its own strength fading.
The thing in front of me turned, looked up at me with the helpless eyes of a three-year-old. It form shrunk down, lying prostrate at the foot of the stairs. Both legs twisted around at inhuman angles, blood pooling around its lower half.
"Please, I promise only an end. That's what you want, isn't it?"
I raised the hatchet high, looking down into its pleading eyes. I could no longer deny it was wrong.
"Yes, I want peace. But never like this."
The blade sailed, my whole body flung into the motion. It came down slicing cleanly to the wood floor below. I raised it up again, and then back down. There was no sound, no more pleas or spoken words, only the sound of the hatchet cutting over and over. I may have come down on it a thousand times. I lost track of time, all sense of place, my mind a perfect blank. When I finally came to there was nothing left, only myself, my blade, and the remnants of the old antique floor mirror my mother had once used. Pieces of it lay around me. I looked down into them, seeing my blank face staring back a million times over.
I turned from the mess, surveying the rest of the room, which was in similar shape. The far wall was back, both windows and the door intact. The whole room was a mess, probably hadn't been cleaned out in years. I knew something similar probably waited in the light upstairs. Tomorrow, after I called Debbie to take me down to town to see the doctor about me arm, I would have to begin to clean. Little by little, room by room.
I looked down at the hatchet in my hand, and brought it up to my face. The blade was red, congealed with lumps of tissue. Not from my body, but my own all the same. I dropped it, watching it clatter to the ground at my feet.
Stepping over it, I made for the stairs, tomorrow the work would begin, but tonight, tonight there would be sleep.
Sweet dreamless sleep.