I barely recognized the man behind the door. My brother had retained a healthy amount of baby fat well into adulthood, but this man, with cheeks gouged from his face and eyes lost in wells of shadow, was an imposter.
“What’re you doing here?” he asked.
“Making sure you’re still alive.”
He glanced at the suitcase in my hand. “You can’t stay.”
“Sure I can,” I said, shoving past him into the house. He couldn’t argue. It was a five hour drive from my home to his, and I wasn’t about to shell out for a hotel room when I had a free bed right here. Setting my bag on the floor of the entryway, I examined my brother’s house. It was dark. All the curtains were drawn, and I felt my nose stuffing up at the scent of dust, which hovered visibly in the air. Like my brother, the place had changed.
“You aren’t answering your phone,” I said. “Or your emails. I considered writing an old-fashioned letter, but figured I’d just as well come over myself.” I paused and stared at him until he returned my gaze. “Everyone’s worried. I know things are rough for you right now, but you can’t get through it alone. We’re here for you. You have to let us help.”
“Don’t you think I’d have answered the phone if I wanted your help?” he asked. “You can’t do anything. Not you, not Mom, not Dad. I don’t want…I don’t want you here.”
“Well that’s too bad, because I’m staying, at least until tomorrow.” I didn’t need him to show me to the guest room, so I picked up my bag and headed upstairs. Behind me, I could hear my brother following.
“I wasn’t prepared for company,” he protested. “The place is a mess, there’s nothing to eat—”
“Don’t worry about food,” I said. “We’ll go out.”
A half hour later, we were sitting in a booth waiting for our dinner. Outside of his dreary home, my brother looked even more pathetic. He sank into his seat and threatened to disappear before my eyes.
He caught me staring. “I’ve looked worse, I assure you. I’m sorry you drove all this way for nothing, but I really don’t need your help. I’m fine. Better than I’ve been since…” He shook his head to clear the thought. “I’m going to sell the place.”
“Really?” It was the first bit of good news I’d heard since coming here.
He nodded. “I’m okay, you know. You shouldn’t be so worried. There’s just some stuff I have to take care of first.”
“Anything I can help with?” I offered.
“No. Just get out of here first thing in the morning. When I’m ready, I’ll call you.”
“Is that a promise?”
“Well,” he said with a shrug, “if you don’t start minding your own business, I might forget the phone call, just to irk you.”
“You’re my brother; that makes you my business.”
He scowled, then our food arrived.
“Hi Mom, it’s me…Yeah, I made it here alright…What’s that? You’re breaking up a little…Oh. Right. He doesn’t look too good, but he says he’s okay…I said he doesn’t look good, but he…I don’t know. He said he wants to sell the house soon…What?…W-why would you say that?…Mom? You still there?…Yes, I…What?…Mom, what are you talking about? Hello? Hello? Why are you…Mom, is that you? Is that…Who is this? Hello? Hell—”
That was bizarre, I thought as the signal went dead. I tried calling again. This time there was no answer, so I gave up.
I hadn’t seen my brother since we got back from the restaurant. I could hear him fiddling with things downstairs, muttering to himself occasionally. Despite what he insisted, he wasn’t alright. He’d let his appearance slip, his motions were uncertain—even his voice was wrong.
And speaking of wrong, what was up with Mom on the phone?
My brother had been through so much in the past year. Too much. First his wife had left—no surprise there, really considering how much they argued. One time, a neighbor had actually called the police after hearing them scream at each other. The divorce turned into just another fight over the house, the furniture, the cat. She’d gotten the cat, but my brother kept almost everything else. The only interactions he had with her afterward were indirect. Every weekend, a taxi would drop off their daughter. Every weekend until six months ago.
It was getting late, so I switched off the light and went to bed.
“Say that again?”
“Amy is dead. I just talked with your brother.”
I stared at the phone in disbelief. How could this happen? Amy wasn’t sick. Was there an accident? A moment later I realized I was expecting Mom to answer without having voiced any of my questions. “W-what happened?”
“It’s not pretty.”
I woke up in the middle of the night with something sticky on my face. I knew what it was before I reached the bathroom mirror. I got bloody noses sometimes while I slept, but it was usually in the winter when the air was dry.
It was a bad one this time. I’d inadvertently smeared it across my face by rolling around in my sleep, and I guessed my pillow would be a mess as well. It was. I returned to the guest room after cleaning myself off, and there was a big dark stain on the pillowcase. I thought it looked funny, like the blood had splattered instead of being rubbed into the cloth. It had a large central mass, and five streaks coming out of it like—
I looked at my hand, but of course there was no blood on it since I’d already washed it off. Even still, my hand was bigger than that.
It’s just a random stain, I thought as I tore the pillowcase off so I could wash it in the morning. Just a coincidence. I let the pillowcase fall to the floor, and that’s when I noticed the footprints.
They meandered in from the hall, came all the way to the bed, then turned around and left the room. They weren’t neat prints with every toe clearly marked; they were smudged and blurred and red.
They had also definitely not been there when I left to wash my face.
As soon as the realization hit me, I heard a chaotic series of thuds coming from the stairs. There was a crack, then silence.
My first thought was my brother had tripped and fallen, so I rushed out to see if he was alright. The crack at the end had made my stomach queasy, and a morbid voice in my head thought how ironic it would be if—
I reached the stairs and looked down. I couldn’t see much in the darkness. There was a shape down there, but it wasn’t human. Just a formless blob on the landing. As I ran down the stairs, it became clearer, and I realized it wasn’t a three-dimensional object; rather, it was just a mark, a stain in the carpet.
I knelt down on the landing and examined it. In the darkness it was black. I don’t know why I did, but in an attempt to confirm what it actually was, I reached out a hand to touch it.
At that moment, a drop of something cold hit the back of my hand. I stared at the splash for a second, then slowly tilted my head up—
It wasn’t long after the first great shock that we received a second, lesser one. My brother’s ex-wife, two days after hearing the news, committed suicide. She’d left a note saying Amy was the one good thing that had come from her years with my brother, the one bright light in her life since then. Without Amy, the world was dark, and she wanted to go where the light was.
I woke up with a nasty headache and the first gray light of dawn in my eyes. I tried to touch my head and massage the goose egg there, but my arms wouldn’t move. A second later I found out why: they were bound to my sides by a thin rope. A few more seconds and I’d ascertained my surroundings. I was propped up in a tight space with a view of a small bedroom. I recognized it as Amy’s.
Footsteps approached, and soon my brother was standing in front of me. “I told you to mind your own business,” he said.
I squirmed in my bonds; my legs were tied also, and the space I was in was tiny. “What’s going on?”
“I’m making sure I have a head start. I don’t expect you to keep quiet about what you saw, but by the time someone finds you, I’ll be long gone.”
What I saw? What had I seen? I remembered investigating the stain at the bottom of the stairs. I…I remembered something dripping on my hand. That’s right. Something was above me. I’d looked up, just before the back of my head exploded, and saw…
I’d never believed in that sort of thing before, but what else could that thing have been? I stared at my brother in shock, my body going cold as I pieced it all together. “W-why?”
He considered a moment. “I guess I can tell you that much. It wasn’t that I had anything against Amy, but my ex, she loved her. Hated letting me have her for the weekends.”
I felt my face screwing up. The words were wrong coming from my own brother. I tried to picture the thing I’d seen last night, her neck askew from the fall, her skull open where it had struck the corner of the banister. “But she was your daughter!”
“She was her daughter. And I got her good in the end.”
I tried to lunge out of my cramped space—as best I could tell, it was just a hole in the wall—but something tugged on my neck and held me back as I choked. Another rope tying me to one of the studs.
“Mom knows you’re here, right?”
I glared at him. He was dragging Amy’s old wardrobe into view; it was white and painted with pink flowers.
My brother took my silence for a yes. “In that case you shouldn’t be stuck here too long. Conserve your energy. Scream when you hear someone come in.” He shoved the wardrobe into place over my prison, and I was plunged into darkness. I heard him walk downstairs. The front door opened and shut. His car started up and drove away.
I wanted to shout, but no one would hear me. I had no idea how long it would take for Mom to suspect something was wrong. For all I knew, I’d be stuck in this hole for days. Weeks. And alone all that time.
There was a footstep beyond the wardrobe.
No. Not entirely alone.