It's the hill house, she thinks. Gutted windows. Peeling white paint. Sagging picket fences like disjointed teeth. It's the crux that every urban legend (the ones not about alligators) seems to revolve around. And here she is, standing in front of it. Thinking of going in.
"Well, are you going to?" Tommy is not a mind reader. He might as well be.
"Are you going to quit bugging me about it? I'm taking in the scenery. I want to remember my impressions properly when I get back to the dorm." She tells herself that it's not because a little part of her is curled against her ribs, scared.
"Sure. Whatever you say. Are you done memorizing the front lawn yet?"
"Yes. Probably. Maybe." Tommy plants a hand against her back and pushes her forward across the lawn. It's twilight, and the dark grass whuffles softly against their feet. Her skirt swishes in counterpoint. "I think this is working."
"You mean you're getting scared?" He grins and she tries to think up a suitable protest. "Nah, don't bother. That's the point, right? So you can write your dealy-thing?"
"Dealy-thing? That's very specific of you."
"Your word-story-bloby-majig. For class."
She pretends like she's thinking for a moment, resting her chin on her fist as he continues to propel the two of them across the lawn. It's a big lawn, grown savage and unkempt after years of disuse. They have to wade through it like explorers. "Oh, yeah. That one. I was thinking of some other story-bloba-majig. You know, the one written by the person at the place?"
"Well, now. If you're going to make fun, then you can walk on your own." He pulls his hand back and stands beside her, waiting for her to take a step. "Assuming you can, of course?"
She starts to think that maybe she can't, and Tommy's mouth creaks open a hair. To keep it from opening all the way and letting out something demeaning, she throws a hand over it and starts forward again. Tommy smiles against her palm and they keep going, finally emerging from the lawn at the front door.
"Well, do you want to knock?" He asks.
"Don't be silly. This kind of house is always deserted." She gestures at a little real estate sign leaning drunkenly against the porch. It's rusted and rain-smeared. "He agrees with me."
"So, what you're saying is that you're scared to knock, mmm?"
"Okay. Fine. Have it your way." And she walks up the porch, pulls aside the broken screen door, and drops her fist once, twice, three times on the wide wood frame of the house. "Anybody home?"
"Just the wind…wind…wind," An evil chuckle emanates from behind her. She smacks Tommy across the shoulder. "Seriously, if you are there, then you'd best get the shotgun out. We're about to break in."
She hits Tommy again, lightly, but she's laughing a little now as well. It helps break the tension. After a minute, when there's no immediate reply and Tommy's looking impatient, she walks over to one of the gaping windows and throws a leg over the sill. "Alright. Come on, then." The humor floods her veins a little, making her feel warm and brave. At least until her other foot slides in through the open mouth of the window and lands on the floor. Then she turns around hurriedly and stares into the darkness of the house, daring it to move. It doesn't. Dust, stirred by her entrance, dances helices in the air.
From behind her there's a little thump, and she half-whirls before she remembers that it's Tommy. Okay. Maybe he didn't see that.
"Nah, I definitely did. Scaredy cat."
Crap. "I was making sure you didn't trip or anything. These old houses can be pretty dangerous."
"Especially when they're…haunted!" He pulls a face; wide eyes and twiddling fingers. "Ah-boogedy-boogedy-boo!" She bops him lightly on the nose and turns back to studying the interior of the room with a sniff. It's too dark to really make out any solid details. Outside, night is drifting in over the lawn.
"Tommy, could you please-" a mechanical click and a narrow flashlight beam floods the room, "Yeah, that. Thanks."
The beam plays out across the floor, illuminating furniture. Dust shrouded, cobwebbed, sometimes draped over with protective blankets. But it's still furniture. Bizzare. "I know. You'd think they'd have taken it with them. But where they went, there's no need for furniture…ah-boogedy-boogedy-"
She interrupts his waving fingers and oscillating eyebrows with another swift jab to the nose. He backs up a step, grabbing his nose with his flashlight-hand and looking mildly annoyed. "Hey, easy there. This is face too pretty to wreck."
She almost says 'you wish', but at the last moment decides not to participate in this silliness about noses. Instead, she says "Well, if you're done being childish, shall we explore further?"
"I'm never done being childish. But your wish is my command, milady." He sweeps and awkward bow, waggling the flashlight wildly as he does so. She blinks rapidly to avoid being blinded with courtesy. Then grabs him by the wrist and tugs him around the furniture to the nearest door.
For a moment, she can only half suppress a smile. Tommy tries really hard, all the time, to not take things seriously. Sometimes it's contagious. Like with this expedition.
She had been sitting on the edge of her bed, talking about how she was completely writers' blocked on this horror story for class, and he suggested going to a haunted house for some first hand experience. She told him rather flatly that she didn't feel like spending the money. And then he told her that he meant a haunted house, not a carnival attraction. An honest-to-God ruin. Or at least a deserted building free from squatters. They had looked up a good one in the area, and then hopped a campus bus over to it on the same day. Tommy was both spontaneous and persuasive. A dangerous combination.
"And a terrible burden. I hear that's what all the women want these days."
"No, you're thinking of vampires."
"Close enough…close enough to be irresistible!" He raises his hands to his mouth, miming fangs. "Blah!"
She shakes her head, ignoring him for the moment as her dark-blond hair shakes and re-settles around her shoulders. They're standing at the foot of a staircase now, having already circumnavigated the ground floor. There are a handful of dusty rooms half filled with furniture, but nothing particularly scary. The staircase, though, looks like it would be perfectly at home in Bangor. All eldritch angles and winding designs. Narrow, pre-modern-carpentry steps. And a banister. Not a hand-rail. A banister. She puts a hand on the cool wood, hikes up her skirt slightly, and begins to climb.
Tommy follows reasonably close behind. He's holding the flashlight higher overhead to illuminate the path in front of her, and consequently has to take his time choosing his own footing. "So, are you inspired yet?"
"Not really. Unless there's something particularly scary about deserted houses. Maybe I should just go back to that parody I was doing…"
"What, the 'creature from the black lagoon' thing? There was some potential there. Maybe make it about a public swimming pool. And have it come up through the filters, all chloriney and gross. Kids won't swim for weeks after reading it."
"That is not the kind of effect I want to have on impressionable youn-" she fumbles her footing for a second and grabs the banister with her other hand. It groans, but doesn't move. "Crap. That was close. Why don't you give me the flashlight."
He shrugs, throwing the light every which way. "Well, I suppose it's either that or have you fall and crush me. I mean, don't get me wrong," he hastily amends. "You'd be light as a feather, but I am of a very frail disposition and I might be-"
She turns and snatches the flashlight from him with a hmph, then resumes climbing in silence. He follows behind dutifully. And carefully. Eventually, they reach the second floor hallway.
"Left or right?"
"Eenie meenie miney moe?" He offers.
"Nevermind. Left it is." They turn and start down the corridor. After a few steps, a curious electrical feeling overtakes her. It tingles around the edges of her fingers and inside her chest. She's really here. Really breaking into this old house.
"Yeah. This is what all the cool kids do in their time off. Tromp around in condemned buildings."
"Pfft. You couldn't be a cool kid if you tried."
"I'll have you know that I was Mr. Popularity back in the forth grade. Particularly with the ladies. They dig a guy who can play foursquare. Or so I'm told." He flexes, but she's not looking, so it doesn't really matter. Instead, she's got her hand on a doorknob and she's turning it open.
The door swings aside on quiet little room. There are a few bookshelves on the walls and a little bunk-bed in one of the corners. There's also a desk with a bulky old computer resting on it. "I can't believe they left that behind," she breathes.
He shrugs. "Well, it is a Mac. Maybe it's haunting the place." He slips around in front of her and crosses over the bunk-beds. Heaving a fake little sigh, he flops over onto the bottom bunk and layers his arms under his head. "Mmm, I think I'll take a little nap right here. Have fun exploring." He closes his eyes. She steps back and closes the door, dousing the room in darkness.
"It was a joke! Get back in here!" There's a hasty scrabble of limbs, and then a dull clunk. She stares at the door for a moment, listening to the muffled cursing coming from within. Then she throws it back open and hastens across the room to where Tommy half-sits, cradling his head.
"Are you alright?"
He pulls one hand away, showing a small daub of red. "It hurts a lot, but I don't think it's mortal. Probably. Ow." There's a tiny scrap of flesh hanging white near his hairline, and it's bleeding a little bit.
"You big baby." She sits on the edge of the bed and props the flashlight between her knees, leaning in to get a better look at it. Because of the way it's angled, the flashlight beam rests directly on the ceiling of the bed. The expression that Tommy is making causes her to forget about the head wound entirely. "What is it?"
Still holding one hand to his head, with the other one he points. Upward. "That."
"What?" She leans back a little, squinting against the shadow to get a good look at the ceiling. What she sees there causes her knees to weaken and the flashlight to slip, throwing its beam against the far wall. But the image is almost etched into her mind. A crude sharpie drawing of a man. Well, more of a man-shape. Something about him is just wrong. Menacing. Underneath is written in a spiky, childish hand…
I want who droo'd that.
"What…what the hell?" Tommy manages shakily. She shakes her head, unable to think of a good reply. "That's not creepy as fek' all." He continues, sitting up. "How's that for inspiration?"
"Uh, it's plenty, thanks." She sits up next to him. The flashlight rolls again, fixing on the far wall.
"Yeah, no kidding. You could probably start with that picture as your opening scene, or something. Maybe come back later and take a picture for reference, if you're feeling brave?"
"Uh, not so much right now. No." At the moment, she isn't embarrassed to admit it. "In fact, I kinda want to be going."
"Well, I won't object much…what was that?" She thinks that he's joking (in incredibly poor taste, too) for a few seconds until she hears it. A kind of muffled thump-drag coming from the hallway. Headed towards the open door to their room.
They both just sort of freeze there. Caught in the impossibility of what's happening. A long, long time stretches by. The sound gets no closer. And then, suddenly, it's right there. She snaps off the flashlight—plunging the room into darkness—and grabs onto Tommy. Childish instinct takes over and they roll, taking the bed-sheets with them, and spin themselves a half-cocoon.
It doesn't cover them completely. The bed was designed for someone much younger. There is a little crease in the blankets where the outside can get it, but it's facing the far wall. Away from the door. Which is where the noise stops.
They lay there, tangled, hardly daring to breathe. Tommy has a hand snaked around the side of her face and pressing against his own mouth. His nostrils flare warm and silent, periodically washing the side of her neck with hot air. She doesn't dare move either of her hands. They're holding the blankets in place. But she keeps her mouth wide open, taking in slow lungfuls of air.
For seconds, minutes, small eternities, there is silence. It hangs stifling over the inside of the blankets. She can feel herself choking on it. And then with a thump-drag it's beside the bed. She can feel it standing wide. Looking over them. Breathing sharp, ragged gasps. Almost in time with her.
She stops breathing and the noise stops. Not a second before, or a second after. At the exact same time. Horrible realization slides over her. She was breathing loud enough to be heard. Tommy knows it too, and underneath her he starts trembling. For a dizzying moment, she is aware of how close they are, pulses racing in tandem. Then terror wires back into her brain and she thinks only of the thing beside them. Waiting out in the dark. Unmoving.
She feels something touch the blankets over her back. A series of five points that creep down the fabric, headed for the opening. She rolls her hands a little, trying to pull it further shut without moving. She tugs a little too hard. The covers pull tight for a second, and the creeping stops. The points withdraw. But not the presence.
It waits there by the bedside, patient as fear. It waits there for a long, long time, during which all she can think of is the drawing on the underside of the top bunk. The drawing right overhead. Her heart feels like it wants to burst. To hammer its way out of her chest and burrow into the far wall. She can feel something forcing its way up through her throat, and the thought makes her light-headed.
And then all at once the presence is gone. She hears a thump-drag over by the door, and the hairs on the back of her neck slump against the skin. She sucks in an impossibly long breath of air, and lets it out in a wheeze. And then lies stock still, waiting for the thing to come back. It doesn't.
Underneath her, Tommy does the same. Hearts racing, not even considering the possibility of what if it came back, they simply live and wait for the chemicals in their systems to balance out again.
It's Tommy who whispers first: "We need to get out of here."
She nods, banging her head against his. "Do you think we can make it to the window?"
"Maybe. We have to try."
"I don't want to."
"But we have to."
"And if we don't go now, I might not be able to get up."
"Or it might come back."
"Don't say that."
"Don't. Let's just go, and think about it later. Please."
"Okay. Um…should we use the flashlight?"
"No. Yes. Maybe. I don't know."
"I don't know, either. Maybe if we're quick about it…"
"Okay, come on."
She rolls the blankets back, dragging him with her up out of the bed. The flashlight clicks on, and they dart from the room and head down the hallway. The beam jounces in front of them, flicking back and forth from the floor to the walls as they run. In moments they reach the stairs. Then they stop. The flashlight snaps off again. Down at the bottom of the stairs, something moves in the dark. It's only there for an instant, but as it turns a corner and disappears they hear the tell-tale thump-drag. They freeze.
"Whatever it is, it's down there."
"Maybe…maybe there's another window up here." She thinks that maybe the house had a little overhang on top of the porch. Something to step out on. Grabbing Tommy's hand, she pulls him down the darkened hall. She keeps her hand against the wall, where it slides until it bounces off of a door knob. They stop there. She opens the door and they enter, closing it behind them.
The pale glow of the flashlight comes back to life, throwing shadows across the master bedroom. They paint the walls in twisting, writhing shapes as she studies the layout. A four-poster bed. A large, wooden-bureau. There's still a scattering of personal junk across it. Framed photographs and bits of art. One big, gilt-edged family portrait. She steps closer, leaving Tommy by the door.
A faded family gazes back from the face of the portrait. They're yellowed and weathered, but their features are still fairly clear. A mother and two sons are standing in the foreground of a freshly painted white gazebo. The boys are dressed in their Sunday best, but their wavy brown hair is slightly mussed. Probably by the wind. Off to the side of the three is a tall man with broad shoulders. He's wearing a striped dress-shirt and a black suit-coat over it. His eyes look…well, they look hard.
Next to the picture is a little black book. There's a red ribbon rolling out from between the pages like a beckoning finger. She picks it up almost instinctively before she realizes what she's doing and steps back from the dresser.
"What the hell's going on over there?" Tommy hisses.
"Nothing." She whispers back, as loud as she dares, before resuming her search of the room. There aren't any windows, but there is a big, oaken door by the bureau. She hesitates beside it for a moment, then throws it open and shines the flashlight inside. Coats, boots, and dresses hang there dully in the light. It's a closet.
"Did you find anything?" Tommy asks, just as the door behind him bulges and bursts open.
She is only dimly aware of shutting off the flashlight before she can really see what's standing there, framed in the doorway. She's even less conscious of the quick, almost practiced step that takes her inside of the closet. The door practically closes itself behind her and her hands work on their own, tearing down clothes off of their hooks. Piling them on top of her. Making a mound of fabric on the floor, under which she dares not move. Even if she can feel her feet sticking out. Sounds from outside the closet come in muted through the door. She doesn't listen to them. She concentrates on making her pile of clothes as perfect as possible. As still as possible. After a while the noises stop and a little draft sweeps her bare ankles as the closet door slides open.
There's silence outside, but she can feel the presence again. She knows it's there. Waiting. Her heart quickens and the fabric stacked on her face blocks her breath but she stays absolutely motionless. She pretends that she's a pair of shoes, or a feather boa draped on the floor and forgotten. She doesn't know why, but it works. Against all logic, the presence leaves. And the door closes after it.
Every bone in her body (at least, the ones not pretending to be a fur coat) tells her that it's a trap. A trick. She listens to them and doesn't move for a while, but finally instinct loses out to the need for oxygen. She sits up, keeping as many coats as possible stacked on top of her, and begins to breathe. There's no retaliation. She looks down at her hands. She can't see them in the dark, but she feels them clenched around something hard and flat. And something long. The flashlight and the book.
She thinks about them, and then she thinks about what happened to To—no, better not to think about that. She thinks about the book and the flashlight.
Clumsily, she fumbles the light on. Keeping it close to her chest. Keeping the beam low. She flips open the book and begins to read.
I've been told that it's good for me to write this. To work out my latent issues, or something like that. That it would be good for the twins, too, if they could be persuaded to even think about what happened. I'm not sure I believe that—any of that—but I'm willing to take the chance. If it'll stop the nightmares, just about anything is worth it.
I had another one last night. Can't remember too much about it now, but he was there again. Standing by my bedside and breathing. Not moving. Not reaching in to…no, just breathing. But the way he was doing it terrified me.
Apparently the kids have dreams like that sometimes. That he comes into their rooms and stands there. Almost daring them to move. To scream for me. They haven't, which is strange. When they were younger, they used to yell for me every time the hallway floor creaked. Now they're perfectly silent for the whole night. I guess their nightmares are just as bad as mine.
I've been assured, of course, that they'll pass. That they're a natural reaction to trauma. I don't know about that. If I had to venture a guess, I'd say that they were causing more trauma. Forcing me to think about Derrick.
I feel unclean having just written his name like that. I'm done with this damn diary.
Okay, so maybe I lied. I do that sometimes. Writing that little bit a week ago helped. I think I slept okay that night, but the dreams came back pretty fast. Two or three days tops. The twins had it really bad last night, and I had to let them stay home from school today.
Oh, God. I'm a wreck.
I think that maybe, just maybe, I could face things. If it weren't for the way they kept getting thrown back up in my face. Co-workers asking me if I'm okay. My boss complaining about the few extra sick days I tacked onto my schedule. Friends with their prying little "I was just a little concerned about you and the kids" phone calls. Give me a week's break from all of that, and I just might have things back under control. Or maybe not.
He was there again last night, pulling back the covers. He's never done that before. I couldn't move. Couldn't burrow down deeper or swat his arm away. Sleep-paralysis, I think it's called. He tugged the covers down right over my chest and then just stood there, staring and being. It was horrible.
And then of course I woke up with the covers down around my waist, neatly tucked over, and screamed bloody murder until the twins woke up and came running in to find me. I didn't explain it to them, but then again I'm not sure I needed to. They just had this look in their eyes like they knew.
We stayed up until dawn together, sometimes watching TV re-runs. Sometimes with me reading stories to them. I think we got through the entire "Book of Three" before I phoned in to school and work, telling them not to get their hopes up. Marcy at the office got my call and she sounded very understanding, but I'm half expecting rumors to swarm the place in my absence. I don't want to even consider what this is doing to the twins' lives.
Why couldn't this have all been dumped on someone else? I can't deal with it. My upper arm stings every time I think about him.
I'm doing better, I think. At least, it's been a while since I've written. I haven't dreamed much lately, and the well-paid man whose job it is to talk to me says that I'm getting better. He also says that a change of scenery would be for the best. Forget Derrick. Forget what he did. He's gone away anyways, sleeping underneath the yard out front of St. Peter's. The last resting place for bastards.
I need to get out of this house, and the twins do too, so we're moving. To a quiet little
The entry stops there, and she stops with it, confused. She flips through a handful of pages, rustling white under her fingers. Nothing on any of them. And then the last page in the book brushes by and she stops. Etched in a spiky, childish scrawl on the back cover are the words
Yu muve I muve with yu
Her heart bullfrogs up into her throat and crouches there, pulsating quietly. She has to get out of here. To leave the house.
Keeping the flashlight off, only half-trusting her memory of the layout, she stands up. Clothing sloughs off either side of her, hitting the floor in a tangle. She leaves the diary with it when she opens the closet door and steps out.
Walking across the bedroom floor, she picks her steps carefully so as not to hit any of the furniture. Once, just once, she plants her foot in in something wet, but she keeps going. No stopping to think.
The hallway she navigates by means of a hand on the wall. Long, pulse-racing minutes stretch out into a blurry eternity until at last she finds the blank spot in the air where the stairs are. Carefully, she grabs onto the banister and picks her way down the steps in the black.
Rounding the corner by the end of them, she walks down a long, narrow hallway to the room where she had first entered the house. Moonlight is streaming in though the empty-framed window at the far side of the room.
She passes around the furniture like ghosts, making a third pair of footprints in the dust. When she reaches the window, without bothering to think, she sits on the sill and throws both feet over the ledge. Which is when something grabs her from behind. Big, solid hands on her ribs.
She screams and swings wild, bringing the flashlight around in a ridiculous arc. It connects with something solid. And somehow, at the same time, it passes through that something. She falls forward, tumbling out the window, and she runs.
The grass parts in a susurrus around her ankles and the lawn flees underneath her. She doesn't look back. Doesn't dare to encourage the possibility that behind her something inky is climbing out of the window and standing on the front porch, watching her go. She doesn't stop until she hits the bus station, two miles away down the street.
When she gets back to the dorm, she's trembling. But she's safe. The world feels somehow more real around her when she's on campus, surrounded by street-lights and late-night couples. She can breathe again. The adrenaline starts washing from her system, leaving her drained.
It is the matter of half an hour to get back to her building, and a card swipe to get in. Her room is just a key-click away, and she walks in quietly, careful not to wake her roommate. Who happens to be snoring loudly. Obliviously. It makes the rest of the night seem utterly unreal. Maybe it even was unreal. She sinks down on the edge of her bed and feels the warm-press of Tommy's skin against her again, for just a moment. Then the sensation is gone, dissolving like a snowflake against her. She isn't sure.
Some time later she sleeps, in spite of it all. In spite of needing to stay awake until the dawn. And in the dimness of dreams, he comes.