There was very little to note about the village of Karkwood. Its most interesting feature was the field on the northern end, and in particular the house that occupied it.
It was a gray patch of land. Decades of rain had rinsed all the color out of it, leaving nothing but smudges of green, brown, and black. The occasional stunted tree twisted skyward, but it was mostly dead grass and rocks.
The house seemed to grow out of the landscape. It struggled to rise toward a sun which rarely shone, but the ground held it fast and dragged it into the earth.
The boy knew nothing about that field or its house, but one cloudy evening he was walking by and happened to see a girl standing there. She wore a white, sleeveless dress, though in the overcast dusk it seemed to reflect the anti-color of her surroundings. Her bare arms glowed pale, and the wind threw her dark hair in jagged waves. In one hand she held what looked like a doll.
“Hello,” called the boy, waving to her from the road. When she didn’t respond, he pointed at the house and asked, “Do you live there?”
The girl said nothing, but stared at the boy. For a few strange minutes, the boy stared back. Neither of them moved. Then the sky groaned with thunder, and the first raindrops began to fall.
“I’ve got to get home,” the boy shouted over the rising storm, and instinctively turned to do just that. But he paused. The girl still stood there, motionless as stone. Even as the rain washed what little color remained from the earth, she didn’t stir. Mud swirled between her feet—her bare feet, the boy noticed—staining the hem of her dress.
I should help her, he thought. He began shrugging off his jacket, thinking she could use it as an umbrella until she reached her house, but then the girl finally moved.
It was a small motion. She tilted her head slowly and perfectly. As her cheek came to rest on her shoulder, a gust of wind seized her hair and splashed it across her face like a black, clawed hand.
The boy felt as if a similar hand had clenched his heart. Its blackness crawled through his chest like a swarm of insects, and forgetting his chivalrous intentions, he fled, not stopping until he’d reached home. There, he was scolded for being late.
“Your father was reading in the paper,” his mom said, “about a man who went missing a few weeks before we moved here. I don’t want you wandering around at night.”
“Don’t scare him,” the boy’s dad replied. “The police never found signs of foul play. In fact the article I was reading said they dropped the case. The guy probably just moved somewhere else without telling anyone.”
The boy’s mom rolled her eyes, but said nothing more. The boy didn’t tell them about the girl.
The phone rang, and Shawn winced. He knew who it was before he answered.
“You’re dropping the case?” said a shrill female voice.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Dorane. There’s just nothing more we can do. Your husband didn’t leave any clues.”
“You say that like it’s his fault.”
“Well,” Shawn said, “our best guess is he just wanted out.”
“He wouldn’t just leave! Not without telling me!”
Shawn didn’t feel up to explaining to Mrs. Dorane that she might have been the very reason her husband vanished. “If he left any clues, we can’t find them. Unless you’ve got a new tip for us, I’m going to say goodnight.”
“Have you searched that old house?”
“Which old house?”
“Don’t get stupid on me. You know exactly which house.”
Shawn felt a tugging on his scalp and realized he free hand was pulling at his hair. “Uh, yes, Mrs. Dorane, we did.”
“I don’t like that place. It’s always given me a feeling, but ever since he went missing, it’s made me downright mad. Should be torn down. It’s such an eyesore.”
“I’m sure a lot of folks agree with you, Mrs. Dorane, but I’m afraid that’s not going to happen. The historical association would start a riot. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get some sleep.”
Mrs. Dorane started to say something, but Shawn hung up. He was glad Mrs. Dorane hadn’t confronted him in person. He couldn’t keep a lie off his face.
The storm raged that night. The boy lay in his bed listening to the rain as it hammered the roof. His bedroom was over the front porch, with a window overlooking the lamp across the street. The electric glow set the raindrops on fire as they splashed against the shingles of the porch roof.
Thunder boomed at regular intervals, mumbling its low song beneath the drumming of the rain. The boy had outgrown his fear of storms, but something tonight was different. He found himself smothered in blankets, cringing whenever the room flashed blue with lightning. In the wake of each strike, spots throbbed before his eyes, spots of crackling light, and in between them loomed the shape of a dark hand.
It would help, he realized, if he shut his curtains. At least it would dim the lightning’s brilliance. The boy climbed out of bed and crossed the floor. At the window he seized the curtains and tugged them closed. He started back for bed, but a noise stopped him: a knock.
It came from the window.
The boy stood paralyzed, and after a few seconds the sound repeated itself. A cold tap tap on the glass. Slowly, the boy looked over his shoulder.
The light of the streetlamp was now diffused by both the rain-streaked glass and the curtains, creating a dim, rippling glow. A dark blur occupied the center. A shadow. As the boy watched, the shape moved, and there was another tap tap tap.
Who can say where the line between fear and curiosity lies, and what may cause one to become the other. Although his insides turned to ice water at the sight of that shadow, the boy compelled himself to look. He raised an arm and reached for the edge of the curtain. Beyond, the shadow waited, motionless, formless. For all the boy knew, it was just a trick of the light; the tapping was the sound of rain blown against the glass—
The curtain was yanked aside, and there she was. The girl from the field.
The boy stifled a scream. She looked exactly as she had before, arms bare, dress soaked and stained, black hair plastered across her face. She even had that doll tucked in one elbow. She reached a finger to her forehead and pushed her hair aside, revealing a young face and large eyes. Her lips moved, but through the glass the boy couldn’t hear anything.
“What?” he whispered, at the same time realizing she probably couldn’t hear him either.
She tapped on the glass again, her movement made alien by the distortion of the water droplets, and then the boy understood. He unlatched the window and pushed it up. Immediately, the roar of the storm consumed his ears. Rain splashed inside, and the girl came with it, crawling over the sill and coming to stand on the floor next to him. Worried about waking his parents, the boy quickly shut the window again.
“Thank you,” the girl said. “I’m sorry for scaring you.”
The boy couldn’t respond. He couldn’t stop staring at his strange visitor. Rainwater shed from her like a miniature version of the storm outside, spreading a wet stain over the carpet at her feet. Her muddy feet. She was still barefoot, just like she’d been in the field.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
Zach gave her a funny look. “No, short for Zachary. What kind of name is Zachariah?”
The girl offered neither explanation nor apology. Instead, “My name’s Persephone.” She thought for a moment before adding, “Long for Seph.”
A loud crack of thunder shook the bedroom. Zach jumped, but Seph didn’t move. Feeling embarrassed, Zach asked, “What are you doing here?”
“I saw you earlier, by my house.”
“So you do live there.”
“What were you doing there? Why did you talk to me?”
“Just trying to be friendly. Why didn’t you answer?”
“I’m answering you now.”
Zach looked down at her feet. “Why aren’t you wearing shoes?”
“I don’t have shoes anymore. They fell apart.”
“Can’t your parents buy you new ones?”
“My parents don’t buy me things.”
Zach stared at her dirty feet for a few more seconds. “Hold on.” He went to his closet and came back with a pair of old sneakers he’d outgrown. Seph’s feet were smaller than his, so they’d probably fit her. “You can have these. I was going to throw them out anyway. At least you won’t have to worry about stepping on anything sharp.”
She studied them, then slipped them on. They looked ridiculous beneath her dress, but they fit perfectly. After examining her newly shod feet, Seph caught Zach’s eye and said, “Thank you.” She turned suddenly, throwing a frightened glance out the window. “I have to go.” She pushed open the window, once more letting the wind and rain rush inside. As she climbed out, she paused and asked, “Can I come back tomorrow?”
Zach hesitated. He barely knew who this girl was, but she seemed nice, if a little strange. He nodded.
Seph smiled quickly, the expression vanishing like a mouse caught in the open by a prowling cat, then she disappeared into the storm.
Zach looked for her at school the next day. He didn’t recall ever seeing her there before—certainly not in his class—but she might have been in a lower grade. At lunch he scanned the cafeteria. No Seph.
When he returned to his classroom, he asked his teacher, “Does a girl named Persephone go here?”
The teacher stared at him, her blank expression slowly turning to something unpleasant. “Where did you hear that name, Zach?”
Frightened by the tone of her voice, Zach shrugged and kept his mouth shut.
The teacher sighed. “One of the older boys told you, didn’t they? Don’t worry, they were just trying to scare you, that’s all.”
Zach had actually never spoken with anyone from the upper grades, but he decided the best way to get more information from his teacher was to play along. He let his face take on a worried cast and nodded sheepishly.
“You know better than to believe in ghost stories,” the teacher said, and that was the end of it.
Shawn was nodding off in his patrol car when the figure passed by. He was fishing for speeders; out here on the edge of Karkwood, people were a little lax with the speed limit. There didn’t seem to be much traffic today, though.
At first the figure startled him, seen out of the corner of his eye and moving quickly. Then he recognized it as Mrs. Dorane, and it terrified him.
Oh no, he thought, remembering their conversation last night. Then he saw the direction she was headed.
Alarmed, he got out of his car and caught up with her. “Where’re you heading, Mrs. Dorane?”
“Angel House, Shawn.”
“I can see that, but why? I told you we searched it already.” He wasn’t lying. He had told her that last night.
“Forgive me if I don’t trust your expertise,” she answered, pressing on toward her destination.
Just let her go, Shawn ordered himself. Let her look. She won’t find anything. But he continued to march at her side. “Can I convince you to stay out of there?”
“Not likely. You coming with?”
Shawn didn’t answer, but soon they were both standing in front of Angel House’s porch.
“You’re the cop,” Mrs. Dorane prompted after a minute.
“You’re the one who wants to go in. I should really get back to my car.”
“Go ahead then. I’ll search the place by myself.”
They stood there for a while longer, then Shawn sighed and turned away. “Suit yourself, Mrs. Dorane. You won’t find anything we didn’t already.” He jogged back to his car and climbed in. Even from a distance, he could still see Mrs. Dorane standing in front of the house. She made no move to get any closer, then Shawn chuckled. She wasn’t going inside. Not by herself. He turned the key and drove off.
That night after supper, Zach logged onto his computer and did a search for “Persephone Karkwood”. There were few results, so finding the story his teacher had referenced was easy. Persephone was a girl who’d gone missing from Karkwood eight years ago. There was no trail for police to follow, and the case went cold. Most people believed Persephone had been murdered.
Clicking through related links uncovered a few other stories about missing people, but these were uncommon and uninteresting enough for Zach to lose interest. He was more concerned with tonight.
A spot of dirt on the carpet greeted Zach when he entered his bedroom. His eyes kept darting to it while he changed into pajamas. It was proof. I didn’t dream it last night. She was standing right there. But she’s…
Maybe it was all a prank. Maybe she just pretended to be Persephone, sneaking into kids’ bedrooms at night to scare them. But she hadn’t been trying to scare him. She’d been nice.
If what I read online is true, if what my teacher said is true, if that spot of dirt on the floor is real…what does that mean? He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to think of some other explanation. In the dark of his eyelids, patterns danced, forming the shape of a black hand.
Zach climbed into bed and reached for the lamp on his nightstand. His fingers paused over the switch. He didn’t really want to turn the light off. What if she did come back? What if she really was a—
“Lights out, Zach!” called his dad from beyond the bedroom door.
There was no helping it. He twisted the switch and the night overtook him. He lay there for hours, staring at the ceiling, rolling over and staring at the wall, turning again to face the other wall. He looked everywhere except the window.
I should have closed the curtains.
Too late now. He was wrapped in the bedsheets, and nothing would make him leave their safety. Every noise made him twitch—the groan of settling timbers, a cough from his parents’ room. Around one o’clock, his eyes got so heavy he could barely maintain his vigil. Maybe she’s not coming. Maybe it was a dream after all.
Tap tap tap
Zach’s eyes flew to the window, and there she was, her silhouette, at least. The street lamp behind her created a fiery halo and cast her in shadow.
She’s solid, Zach thought. Dead people are supposed to be transparent, right? Slightly comforted by this thought, he got out of bed and went to the window. After he unlatched and opened it, she crawled in.
“Hello, Zach, short for Zachary.”
Zach quickly took in her appearance. She was wearing the same dirty white dress, as well as the sneakers he’d given her last night. They were covered in mud. She still clutched her doll under one arm, and Zach couldn’t suppress a shudder as he got a good look at it. Its dress was even dirtier than Seph’s, and its face was broken. Cracks meandered over its cheeks, spreading from a jagged hole in its temple. “I need to ask you something,” he said, tearing his gaze from the damaged toy.
Seph tilted her head, just as she’d done in the field that day, and Zach’s heart skipped a beat. “What?”
“I-I…I mean…are you…”
“Am I what?”
Zach swallowed. His face prickled with sweat in spite of the cool breeze from outside. “A ghost?”
“That’s a very stupid idea,” Seph replied. “Who put it in your head?”
“No one,” Zach said, which was true. His teacher had barely said anything, and the internet never mentioned ghosts. He’d simply come to that conclusion on his own, but he didn’t tell Seph that. “Why do you keep coming here?”
“I really shouldn’t,” she said with a shrug. “My parents would be angry if they found out.”
“Your parents don’t sound very nice.”
Seph looked out the window at the night sky. “Maybe that’s why I come here. But what about your parents? Are they nice?”
Zach glanced back at the bedroom door. “I guess so. They wouldn’t like you being here, but I don’t think they’d ground me or anything.”
“What if you ran away?”
“They might be angrier then. But there’s no reason for me to run away.”
“You’ve never tried it?”
“You should. Maybe tonight. Come to my house.”
“I can’t,” Zach said. “I have school in the morning.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Seph asked with an odd grimace.
“School’s important. If I’m not there, people will notice, and I’ll get in trouble.”
“Don’t be such a baby,” Seph snapped. Then her face softened and she whispered, “Sorry. That was mean. I don’t want to be mean. What I meant was you won’t get in trouble as long as you get back before morning.”
“I still can’t. I need to sleep. In fact, I should be sleeping now.”
Seph’s eyes brightened. “You like sleeping?”
“Well, not really. It’s boring. But I have to so I can get up for school.”
“You like school, then?”
Zach snorted. “No one likes school, but we have to go. It’s the law. By the way, where do you go to school? I asked my teacher about you, but—” He cut himself off, remembering where that conversation had led him.
“What did your teacher say?”
Seph scowled at him, then her expression changed. Her mouth tightened and her eyes grew wide. She curled up her arms, squeezing her doll against her chest. “I need to go,” she hissed.
She didn’t answer. Instead she darted for the window and got halfway out before Zach grabbed her arm.
“Wait! Why can’t you stay just a little longer?”
She turned back to him, and the wind sent her hair clawing across her pale face. Her eyes peered out between the fingers of black and fixed on Zach’s hand. She perched frozen like that for a second, then whispered, “I really have to go now. I’m sorry.”
Zach released her, and she scrambled away over the porch roof, then disappeared over the edge.
Mrs. Dorane couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. Her anger at the police had burned out, and without it she started to see the sense in their conclusion.
Did you really just leave me? Is that all there is to it? From the moment the police had first raised that possibility, she’d been desperate to deny it. It couldn’t be true. She needed them to find something—a drop of blood, a ransom note, a…a body. Anything. Just so long as he hadn’t abandoned her.
What was wrong with me? What was wrong with me?
She wiped her eyes, and when she took her hands away, her bedroom was black.
Nothing but black. Usually, a light from outside offered a little illumination, but it was obscured more completely than if she’d had the curtains shut. Even the numbers of her bedside clock were darkened.
Are you here?
Mrs. Dorane sank into the mattress at the voice. Each word hit her like a punch out of the shadows. It echoed in her skull, and she clamped her hands over her ears in an attempt to silence it.
Are you here? Open the window.
She felt a jolt of realization. What if it was him? What if he’d finally come back to her? It was! He was there, just outside, waiting to offer an explanation.
Open the window. Now.
Mrs. Dorane threw off the blankets and hurried to the window, stubbing her toe on the bedframe but not caring. She found the latch and threw the casing up. Instantly, something moved passed her. She felt it against her skin as a breeze, but in the dark there was nothing to be seen. It left cold in its wake as it circled the room. Then it came to rest in front of her.
Where is she?
“M-me?” Mrs. Dorane breathed. “I’m right here.”
There was a snarl, and a second later Mrs. Dorane couldn’t breathe. Ice and fire squeezed around her neck, and the floor dropped away beneath her.
Mrs. Dorane felt the words pierce through her as surely as if she’d been stabbed in the belly. The invisible hand around her neck tightened. Two points of light appeared in the darkness, red like dying coals.
Do not speak again.
And then she was falling. It seemed to take forever for her to hit the floor, and by the time she did the light was back—the street light and the fainter glow of her alarm clock. She was alone. She got back to her feet and returned to the bed, then slept.
Zach overslept. When he arrived downstairs his mom shoved a plate of cold eggs at him. “Eat quickly or you’ll miss the bus again.”
His dad was there, too, absorbed in the newspaper. “You’ve been late the past couple mornings. What’s the matter, not sleeping well?”
Zach shrugged as he swallowed a mouthful of eggs. “Just can’t seem to get out of bed.”
“It’s because you’re staying up too late doing homework,” his mom said.
That wasn’t it at all, actually, but he humored her. “You want me to stop doing homework?”
She gave him a dreadful stare. “No, I mean you should stop wandering around outside so much and get your homework done earlier. “Where do you wander off to, anyway?”
The sound of the bus horn saved him from having to answer. He knew he hadn’t gotten out of it completely, however. His mom would ask again. As he was ferried to school, he thought about what he’d say. Could he just tell them the truth? That he walked by the old house in the field in the hopes of seeing a girl? You know, the girl that used to show up in his room every night? The one he stayed awake for, just in case she came back?
He didn’t see that explanation going over too well.
Where are you, Seph?
Shawn couldn’t believe his luck. Mrs. Dorane hadn’t called him for three days now. Maybe she’d finally accepted the official explanation.
The phone rang, and out of habit he winced. No. It’s not her. “Karkwood police, how may I help you?”
A few minutes later he set down the phone and shook his head. He couldn’t believe his luck.
Shawn pulled up outside Mrs. Dorane’s house in time to see her being carried out on a stretcher. She was alive, her neighbor had said on the phone, but she didn’t respond to anything. She didn’t answer questions, she didn’t even seem to register anyone’s presence. She lay there, eyes open, staring at nothing.
“Any idea what’s wrong with her?” Shawn asked one of the paramedics carrying the stretcher.
“Appears to be shock. The only sign of injury is some bruising around her neck, nothing too serious. We’re taking her in for a more thorough examination.”
“When did it happen?”
“Hard to say. The neighbor hadn’t seen her leave the house for a few days, so decided to check on her. It could’ve been any time since three days ago.”
As they loaded Mrs. Dorane into the ambulance, Shawn entered her house. Another policeman was already there, inspecting the first floor, so Shawn headed upstairs. As he ascended, a faint smell reached his nostrils. It was too weak for him to identify at first, but as he progressed through the hallway it got stronger. It smelled old, like books or dirt or…something else. He reached the master bedroom and peeked inside.
This is where they found her.
The smell was coming from inside. Now there was a hint of sweetness, but not the kind that made Shawn think of cake. More like…vomit. He put a hand over his nose and stepped through the door, half expecting to find a stain on the carpet around the bed. No such thing. The room was tidy. Shawn checked in the closet, under the bed, around the dressers and nightstands. He couldn’t find a source for the odor.
Unable to bear the stench any longer, he made his way out. Downstairs, he met up with the other policeman.
“Find anything up there?”
“No,” Shawn said. “Just a really bad smell.”
“Same here. It looks like she was attacked, judging by her bruises, but there’s no sign of violence in the house, no trace of forced entry.”
“Think she could’ve done it to herself?”
“It’s possible. I guess that’ll have to be the official story unless something else turns up.”
Zach gasped awake several nights later, flailing beneath his blankets. Something had woken him, and it evoked bad memories. But what was it?
Tap tap tap
It couldn’t be!
Tap tap tap
He sprang out of bed and ran to the window. Seph stared at him from the other side, her hand resting against the glass. Zach threw the window open and stepped out of the way. “Where’ve you been?” he asked as she crawled inside. “I didn’t think you were coming back.”
Her face silenced him. Darkness hung beneath her eyes, and her cheeks were paler than usual. Her mouth was small and her colorless lips clamped tightly shut.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
Seph gingerly reached out and touched his hand. Her fingers were icicles. “You’re warm,” she muttered. The words barely escaped her lungs. “Soft. I’d forgotten what…what you felt like.” Her eyes found his. Zach was shocked at how red they were, then he happened to glance down.
“Hey, what happened to the shoes I gave you?”
Seph looked at her bare feet. “My parents…” Her shoulders began to tremble, and the next thing Zach knew Seph was crying. She squatted down on the floor and hugged her knees. Zach didn’t know what to do. He was worried his mom and dad would hear, but before he could say anything Seph’s sobs faded. “When you sleep here, do you have good dreams?”
“Can I stay?”
Zach studied her, looked back at his door, then back again at Seph. She was still wearing that filthy dress, still hugging that broken doll, and she seemed tiny all curled up on the carpet. “Fine. But you have to stay under my bed, and if my mom or dad comes in, hold your breath and don’t make a sound.”
Seph nodded. She stretched out on her belly and slithered under the bed. When nothing more happened, Zach climbed on top of the bed and slipped under the covers.
Shawn’s patrol car crept down the road, dragged along by the stark beams of its headlamps. The lights of Karkwood receded in his rear-view mirror, while the blank darkness of Angel House Field loomed closer.
Why am I here? Shawn groaned. His shift was over. He should’ve been at home, but instead he was straining his already tired eyes for a glimpse of the village eyesore. He tried to put together a logical string of events. Mr. Dorane goes missing. His wife goes looking for him at Angel House, and that’s the last anyone sees of her before she’s turned into a vegetable. Did Angel House have anything to do with it? No one had searched the place. No one wanted to. But what if…
The car came to a halt and Shawn stared down the house’s silhouette. What am I doing here? The black, boxy shape sagged into earth, the sight of it spreading rot into Shawn’s stomach. It made him think of the odor in Mrs. Dorane’s bedroom. The memory was powerful—too powerful. Shawn could smell it blowing in through the air conditioner.
Are you here?
Shawn jumped as something slapped against the rear driver’s-side window. He instinctively checked the side mirror, but the reflection showed nothing except the night. Probably just a bat, he thought. I should get out of here. The place is making me jumpy.
Shawn went to shift the car into reverse, but before he could it happened again: Slap!
Are you here?
This time, instead of checking the mirror, Shawn turned around in his seat. Something was standing next to his car, stooping down to peer in the window.
Open the door.
Shawn reached for his gun. He couldn’t see much of the figure, couldn’t even tell if it was a man or woman. It was black—black, black, black—and it was shaped funny, less like a human than a diseased and twisted tree. Its edges were unclear, like its form was bleeding into the night. The one distinct feature was a hand pressed against the window. Its fingers curled slowly, causing nails of shadow to shriek along the glass.
OPEN THE DOOR!
Shawn noticed his own hand was shaking. He struggled with the door handle for a second, then threw the door open and pointed his gun toward the thing outside—
Something rushed around his face like an icy wind, and that smell. The gun fell from his grip as he doubled over and retched. Behind him, he was aware of something moving around inside the car. He didn’t dare turn to look.
Where is she?
The voice whispered directly in Shawn’s ear. It stabbed into his skull like an icicle, piercing in one side and exploding out the other. Even if he’d had the faintest idea what the voice was talking about, he couldn’t answer.
The night grew darker. Shawn felt something squeezing in around him. Go into the house. Go into the cellar. Go now.
Shawn found his feet and staggered away from the car. Angel House reared over the field, throwing its shadow over him like a net and drawing him in. Behind him, there was a sound like something large being dragged across the road, but Shawn didn’t turn around. He crossed the field, mounted the porch, and disappeared inside.
The first thing Zach did in the morning was lean over the side of his bed and peek underneath. There’s no way that happened last night, he thought. I dreamed it.
No. There was a lump of dirty white fabric, a glimpse of pale skin. Zach considered waking her, but decided against it. Last night, she’d looked like she hadn’t slept in days. Besides, there was little chance of her being discovered as long as she stayed quiet.
He was distracted at school. When he returned home at the end of the day, he went straight to his room. Dumping his backpack on the floor, he knelt down by the bed. She was still there, just as he’d left her.
“Seph?” Zach whispered. She didn’t reply, so he reached in and poked her. “Seph, are you awake?”
After a few minutes, he gave up. How can she still be sleeping? He thought back to last night. She’d seemed scared. Come to think of it, fear almost always cropped up when she came to visit. Usually when she had to leave, but last night…
She’s afraid to go home. Is it her parents? In Zach’s experience, parents weren’t scary. Sure, they punished you sometimes, but it was usually because you did something wrong. Seph was sneaking out every night, but it seemed backward. Zach got the impression she was running from something.
And then there was her appearance. She always wore the same dirty clothes. No shoes. And that doll.
Zach peeked under the bed again, and there it was. It had fallen free from Seph’s grip and lay on its side, facing him. One eye was missing, lost in the same disaster that had punched a hole in its head, but the remaining eye stared at him, uncannily clear and bright in the darkness. Any other child would’ve thrown it away, gotten a new one. But Seph hung on to it like it was her most prized possession.
If that’s the best thing she owns, Zach thought, her parents must be really terrible.
He returned downstairs when his dad came home from work. They ate supper, and all the while Zach studied his parents. Did they know he had a girl hiding in his room? Had Seph been under the bed all day, quiet? Or had she made a noise, a cough, a sneeze?
“What’s the matter?” asked his dad. “Does your mother have something on her face?”
“Do I?” Zach’s mom asked him, dabbing at her lips with a napkin.
“No,” Zach said, lowering his gaze and blinking. “Just zoning out.” He quickly finished his dinner and excused himself, saying, “I’ve got a lot of homework” before retreating to his bedroom and shutting the door. Should I lock it? he wondered. No. That would be too suspicious. Besides, his parents always knocked.
Zach went straight to his bed and knelt down. Seph was still there. He tried waking her again, but to no avail. She didn’t die, did she? Panic gripped him. What should he do? He couldn’t just tell his mom and dad he had a girl under his bed, a girl who might be dead. But she’d been down there all night and all day. It was getting dark outside, and she hadn’t moved since—
“Zach, is that you?”
He got down on his stomach so he could see her. “It’s me. Were you sleeping this whole time?”
Seph nodded. “I was quiet, just like you said.”
“You should probably get out of here,” he hissed.
Seph began squirming out from under the bed. “I don’t want to. My parents know I snuck out, and if I go back…”
“What if I go with you? You can climb out the window like you always do, and I’ll meet you outside.”
“No!” Seph clamped a hand over her mouth and cast a nervous eye at the bedroom door. After a second, she added, quieter, “Don’t ever come to my house. Never.”
“But the other night you said—”
“I changed my mind! I don’t want you coming to see me ever. If I want to see you, I’ll come here.”
Zach took a step back, shocked at the vehemence in her voice. He stared as she turned to face the window. “I don’t want to, but I need to go now. I shouldn’t have come at all. They’ll be looking for me, and if they find me here…” She spun back to face him. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I’ll see you again.”
Instead of answering, Seph said, “You’re going to die someday.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I think I’ll be sad when that happens,” she continued without explanation. “Everyone dies, eventually.” She gently reached out and took Zach’s hand. “Zach, have you ever kissed a girl?”
Zach blinked. He hadn’t, at least, not apart from his mom. He cautiously shook his head.
Before he could protest, Seph planted her lips against his. She stayed there for only a second, then she pulled away and headed for the window.
“W-wait!” Zach called, struggling to keep his voice low. “W-what was that about?”
Seph paused at the window and gazed over her shoulder at him. “Goodbye, Zach, short for Zachary.”
“Listen to this,” Zach’s dad said Friday morning at breakfast. Reading from the newspaper, he continued, “A cop’s gone missing. They found his car in the woods a few miles outside of town, all banged up like he’d got in an accident.”
“But he wasn’t inside?” asked Zach’s mom.
“No, no trace of him.”
At school, Zach approached his teacher and asked, “Do you know anything about the old house on the edge of town? The one in the field?”
The teacher peered at him over her glasses. “Why do you want to know about that?”
“I’m just curious,” he said.
The teacher set down her pen and leaned forward on her desk. “No one lives there. It’s been empty for as long as I can remember. I don’t know who owns the land.” Zach’s confusion must have shown on his face, because she asked, “Is something wrong?”
“I met someone the other day who said she lived there.”
“Was she a student at this school?”
The teacher thought for a moment, then said, “I think someone is playing games with you. No one lives in the Angel House—that’s what people call it, by the way.”
“Because of all the angel decorations on it. If you take a good look, you’ll find them all over the place—above the doors and windows, carved into the woodwork. Don’t get too close though. It’s an old house and not safe. I think it should be torn down so no kids wander inside and get hurt. The historical association would never stand for that, though.”
Shawn had never known a darkness so complete. It was more than closing your eyes in a dark room; it was having them forced shut by an external force, invaded and perverted so they repelled light instead of collecting it. Shawn could feel the light being sucked from his eyes, leaving his skull a vacuum for something else to get in. And there was plenty trying to do that. Darkness was far from the worst thing about Shawn’s situation.
Worse was the stuff he was surrounded with. Cold. Wet. Putrid. Shawn could barely keep his head above it, whatever it was—not water, of that he was almost certain. Some of it was his dinner, but even the thought of floating in his own vomit wasn’t the worst part of Shawn’s situation.
Even worse were the things below him. With pruny fingers he could feel their forms: hard in places like bone, soft in others like skin. There were two of them down there, beneath the surface of that unknown fluid, lying still. They provided a spongy surface for Shawn’s knees—he couldn’t seem to get up any higher than that. His lower legs didn’t work right. Didn’t feel right. Didn’t feel at all.
There was a scuffing noise from above. Shawn shivered but didn’t bother looking up. There was nothing but darkness up there. Liquid darkness all around. Solid darkness beneath his numb legs. Even darkness inside him, pushing sluggishly through his veins, pushing all his blood into a heart that was never meant to hold it all at once. He could feel the pressure building, the muscle fighting to keep his circulation going, the inevitable push of the darkness and he thought he might explode—
Light. It flickered overhead, a tiny prick bleeding in the darkness. Shawn lifted his eyes and saw a tiny face, barely illuminated, peering down at him. There was a splash as something fell into the fluid next to him. The face retreated.
Shawn cried out. A face, a human face! He called after it, praying for salvation.
Silence answered him.
Silence, and movement from below.
Tears rolled out of Shawn’s eyes, but he made no sound. The surface beneath him was restless, like someone waking from a nightmarish sleep. Several points of sharp pain burst into his thigh, icy spikes digging in, sucking, draining. Numbness spread, and Shawn quietly wept in the darkness.
After supper that night, Zach headed out the front door.
“Where are you going?” his mom called.
“I’m not sure you should go out tonight, not after that policeman disappeared.”
“I’m not going far. I’ll be back before dark.” Angel House wasn’t that far—within easy walking distance—but Zach wasn’t entirely sure how long he’d stay. That depended on whether his teacher was right about the place or not.
He knocked on the front door when he arrived. While he waited for an answer, he looked around at the woodwork of the house. Angel House was a fitting name. The door was topped by carved feather wings, each window shutter was adorned with a cherub. Even the pillars that supported the sagging porch roof were crowned by a series of angelic visages to guard the threshold. They were all weathered, gray and splintering. Some of the faces were hardly recognizable, their features polished away by wind and rot.
A minute passed, and the only answer Zach got was the groan of the old house. He tried the door and found it unlocked, so he went inside.
At first he thought he’d made a mistake. This house wasn’t abandoned. There were curtains in the windows, furniture arranged invitingly in every room. Everything was just as he’d expect to find in any other home. The only thing different, really, was how dirty it all was. Dust was everywhere, little clouds of it bursting from the floor with each step.
Then Zach came to the kitchen. Like the rest of the house, it was set up for living. The table was even laid out for supper. That supper, however, had been sitting there for a very long time. Whatever hadn’t rotted away was now a scaffolding for cobwebs
Zach grimaced at the piles of spoiled food before continuing his search. “Hello?” he called. No answer. Seph had said she lived here, right? Had she been lying? His teacher had said it was abandoned, but she’d also waved off his claims of knowing a girl named Persephone. Seph wasn’t a ghost, so what was going on here?
Maybe her family’s homeless, he realized. Maybe they were just hiding here, keeping quiet so no one would come kick them out.
He was about to search upstairs when a door caught his attention. It looked like every other door in the house, framed in white-painted molding, flanked by little carved angels, but this one had a unique detail: a stone cherub’s bust mounted above it. It was the largest angel Zach had seen in the house. From where he stood, Zach thought the sculpture’s eyes were looking right at him, and the thought made him shiver. Still, the door seemed special, so he opened it.
It led to a cellar. The steps were stone, and beyond them was darkness. “H-hello?”
Zach’s voice returned to him warped by echoes. I have to go down there, he realized. He returned to the kitchen and began looking around for something he could use for light. The house was so well furnished, there had to be something.
The kitchen table had a couple candles on it. Zach freed one from the cobwebs before hunting down some matches. These he found in a drawer by the sink, hidden in the back corner behind a pile of insect husks.
Once the candle was lit, Zach headed into the basement. The stairs twisted in a square-shaped spiral before depositing him onto a dirt floor. In his small sphere of candlelight, Zach found several stone pillars—each bedecked with angelic figures, of course. The pillars connected in a series of arches to support a heavy ceiling. As Zach moved deeper into the cellar, he realized it was a veritable maze of such pillars and arches. It filled the footprint of the house, and Zach had the impression he was standing in a tiny chamber lined with mirrors. Once he even thought he glimpsed a reflection of himself darting behind one of the archways.
No, he thought. Just the candle throwing shadows. He made himself keep going. Seph was here somewhere, and he wanted to find her.
He reached the edge of the cellar and found an opening in the wall. It was another arch, and at its peak rested another stone face with round cheeks, curly hair, and full lips curled in a smile. Its blank eyes burned into Zach with an expression of…what was it? Invitation or warning?
Zach couldn’t look at it for very long. The flicker of the candlelight sent shadows dancing, and made the angel look like it was breathing. He scampered beneath its unblinking gaze and through the last archway.
The chamber beyond was nothing more than a hole dug into the earth. The walls were shored up with a few rough timbers, but nothing more. The main feature of the room was a pit in the center of the floor. It was perfectly circular and deep enough that Zach’s candle couldn’t find the bottom. On the far side of the pit was a stone slab. It was about five feet long. Four short chains were affixed to the rock, and at the end of each was a shackle. The top of the stone was sunken, and this depression gathered into a narrow channel. The channel ran to the lip of the stone and ended at the edge of the pit. But Zach paid little attention to either the pit or the stone slab; his eye was held captive by the bones.
They were everywhere. Shoved into the corners, scattered across the ground, ringing the edge of the pit. Zach couldn’t tell if they were animal or human. Please let them be animals.
He picked his way through the bones until he stood before the yawning hole. He held his candle over it, but there was nothing except black beneath. He kicked a small bone over the edge and waited. Seconds later, there was a faint splash. Along with the sound rose an awful stench. Zach doubled over and gagged.
“Is someone up there?”
Zach instinctively scrambled away from the hole, his heart pounding. There was a man down there, somewhere in the darkness and the reeking wetness. His voice was weak and quavering.
“Please, help me! Help me get out of—”
There was a thick splashing sound, and the voice was smothered in a series of gasps and gurgles. The stench from the pit came surging up, and Zach reeled away from it. He kicked bones out of his way and staggered out of the chamber, coming to rest against one of the stone pillars while his stomach calmed down.
Once he’d recovered, he glanced back. There was no more noise. The angel over the doorway smiled down at him, and Zach thought he saw something different in its eyes. Maybe it was just his imagination, combined with his newfound knowledge of what lay beyond that doorway, but for a moment he expected the statue to blink.
Eager to get away from those stone eyes and that cold smile, Zach hurried out of the basement, sparing only a passing thought for whoever was trapped in that pit. He had to get himself out lest he suffer a similar fate. He tripped his way up the steps and stumbled onto the first floor of the house. There he was hounded by the smaller wooden angels that were gouged into the trim and furnishings. The one over the cellar entrance seemed to be laughing at him.
An icy breeze from the basement extinguished his candle. The sun had set while Zach was below ground, and the house was dim. Shadows crawled up the walls, and falling temperatures caused the building to grumble.
From below, in the darkness, came the sound of something scraping through dirt.
Cold hands seemed to grab Zach’s ankles and manipulate his legs like a marionette. Before he knew it he was at the front door, then—
There was Seph. She stood in the doorway, staring at Zach in disbelief. “What are you doing here?” she demanded.
Zach took a moment to catch his breath, then said, “I-I was looking for you. I went into the basement—”
“Do you know what’s down there?”
“Yes, I know what’s down there, and it’s something you shouldn’t have seen. I told you not to come here! Why didn’t you listen?”
She glared at him, and Zach could barely return her gaze. Those eyes, those black eyes. In the dimness it was like staring at a skull. “I wanted to see you again. You stopped visiting.”
A bad smell was filling the hallway. Somewhere, there was a creeping sound. It made Zach think of rats scuttling across the floor, fat rats whose bellies dragged beneath them and who took great, gasping breaths like each would be their last.
“I had to!” Seph explained. “They said if I ran away like that again—why did you come here? Why did you have to come here?”
Zach realized she was crying. He watched as tears formed in her eyes and dribbled down her face. Black tears. Blacker than could even be explained by the weak moonlight. The creeping noises grew louder. They seemed to be coming from the direction of the basement door.
“You’re going to die, Zach. You’re going to die because you were too stupid to listen.”
Footsteps. They came up the basement stairs, heavy and slow. Zach felt the dusty air of Angel House pressing against his back. A presence. It filled every corner, worked its way into Zach’s stomach. Seph was wide-eyed, looking at something over his shoulder, but Zach couldn’t make his head turn to find out what it was. Something that didn’t breathe—didn’t have to breathe. Something that made Zach want to hold his own breath.
“I didn’t want it to be like this,” Seph hissed. “I’m sorry, Zachary.”
For a second Zach couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Seph’s face rushed toward him, her eyes buried in darkness, black tear tracks clawing over her cheeks. Grim hair flew behind her. There was no softness in her expression, just a cold, hard mask.
True panic hit the same time her icy fingers did. They clamped around Zach’s neck and twisted. Zach was pulled up and around, spinning and falling. Angel House blurred past in streaks of sable, then a crack echoed through his spine, down his legs and up into his skull. He couldn’t remember anything ever hurting so much, then he could barely feel anything; he was all pins and needles fading into emptiness.
“Dead, as all things must eventually be,” Seph spoke, but not to Zach. To the emptiness. To the darkness. “Let me keep his bones.”
The air trembled silently, threatening to split open in wrath. Shadows deepened.
“Allow me this, and I’ll never rebel again.”
This time a voice answered. It gasped and shuddered, “As you wish. But for your insolence you shall not drink again until the next black moon.”
The air stilled. The bad stench seemed to recede, and the hallway felt emptier.
Something moved in Zach’s peripheral vision; Seph picking something up off the floor: an arm. When Zach felt himself rolling and sliding across the floor, he realized it was his arm, and that she was dragging him toward a set of stairs. He wanted to ask her what was going on, but he couldn’t move anything. Even breathing was a challenge; he could barely get a trickle of oxygen before an intense pain spiked through his chest and suffocated him.
Zach’s head hit the first step, but Seph tugged him over it. They continued like that up the stairs, thumping and banging, rising and falling. Zach wondered how many bruises he had. Why couldn’t he move? Why had Seph attacked him?
They reached the top and Zach was dragged down another hallway to a bedroom. There Seph released him—not that he could move, anyway—and shut the door.
“I broke your spine,” Seph whispered. “Several ribs. You have minutes left.”
Zach was lying on his back. Seph walked over to a window and fiddled with something. There was a sound of groaning wood, then Seph returned with a rusty nail in her hand. “I said you would die someday, but I didn’t want it to be like this.” She knelt down on top of Zach, her knees digging into his chest.
Zach’s heart went cold and he tried to struggle, but his body wouldn’t move. There was only pain, and where there wasn’t pain there was numbness. Seph raised the nail—
—and drove it into her own throat.
What little breath Zach could gather stopped as the first drops of blood hit his forehead. Seph leaned over him so the wound leaked over his face and began dragging the nail through her skin. The metal slowly carved an irregular gash across her neck, and the drops became a cascade. Zach was buried in the smell of it: rotten meat and rusted iron. Blood poured in his mouth and choked him. He wanted to cough, but couldn’t. Blood went down his windpipe, and his shallow gasps turned to gurgles. His lungs burned. Black spots filled his vision, and soon they took on the form of dark hands. The hands clawed at his sight until he was blind, then everything vanished.
The nightmare stretched on forever. A fire burned in his chest, slowly taking him apart cell by cell, atom by atom. It spread through his entire body, eating flesh and bone. All he could do was lie there and feel the pain.
At first Zach thought he was imagining the scraping sounds. Hadn’t the fire consumed his ears? But the noise was too persistent, too real. Was the nightmare over? Was he awake? Had he ever really been asleep?
Zach tried moving his arms and legs, and they responded. He let his hands roam the dark space, and they felt nothing but soft fabric above, below, and to the sides. A cloth-lined box.
Something landed heavily on top of the box. There was a quiet squeak of hinges, and cold air swept across Zach’s face.
“Zach, wake up!”
His eyes opened effortlessly, and he sat up. There was no waking fog, no disorientation. His entire body felt numb except for his throat, which still felt like it was caught in the nightmare’s inferno.
“Hurry! We have to get out of Karkwood before they find out what I’ve done!”
Zach turned his head and found Seph hovering beside him. It was dark, he could tell, but she looked as clear as if she were standing in full sunlight. “What did you do to me?”
“Saved you,” she replied, grabbing his arm and pulling him up. “Now get moving or it’ll have been for nothing.”
Zach looked around. They were in a cemetery. More specifically, they were in a freshly dug grave.
“Hurry!” Seph urged. “If they find out I turned you—”
“What do you mean by that?” The fire in Zach’s throat was growing hotter. He glared at Seph, waiting for an answer.
“I’ll explain it once we’re safe.”
“No!” protested Zach. Memories were returning to him. Seph carving out her own throat with a rusted nail, him choking on a waterfall of cold blood. “I’m not going anywhere until you explain exactly what happened!”
Seph’s face quivered, then she said, “I made you like me.”
“And what are you?”
“You haven’t guessed?” She snarled, baring her teeth.
Zach’s tongue explored the edge of his gum line until it encountered them. Small and sharp, like a kitten’s teeth. “You killed me.”
“No, I saved you!”
“But I’m dead, right?”
“So you killed me. I thought you were my friend, Seph! But then you go and do something like this. Didn’t you think that maybe I didn’t want to be a monster like you?”
Seph was speechless. She stared at him, then she sank to her knees. Her doll was there, hugged to her chest. Seph’s fingers tangled themselves in its matted hair. Its single, glistening eye glared at Zach.
The heat from his throat reached into Zach’s brain, and he found himself panting, growling. He was so angry. And that doll kept staring at him.
He grabbed it from Seph. She whimpered, but she was so caught off guard she couldn’t offer much resistance. In one savage motion, Zach tore it away and smashed it against the gravestone—his gravestone. The porcelain head shattered, and the body fell lifelessly to the ground.
Seph’s eyes bugged out of their sockets, then she buried her face in her arms and sobbed. Zach watched her cry for a moment, then turned to leave.
A pillar of shadow blocked him.
Zach froze. The pillar split, and there were two figures, formless and black. They pulsed and made scratchy, gasping sounds. Zach realized they were speaking.
“Persephone, what is this?” The cemetery’s shadows throbbed with every syllable, like a sick, irregular heartbeat.
Seph was silent, still curled in on herself and whimpering.
Her unresponsiveness was answered with an angry snarl. The two figures lunged forward. One wrapped billowing arms around Seph and dragged her away. The other closed in on Zach and cut off his escape. Fangs dug into the back of his neck and lifted him off the ground, then Zach was flying. The cemetery was replaced by the lights of Karkwood, then those receded and Angel House rose into view.
“No!” Zach heard Seph scream. “Let us go, just let us go! We won’t tell anyone about you. Please, don’t don’t don’t!”
“Zach’s captor carried him across the threshold and up the stairs. Seph’s cries became louder, and then Zach was thrown to the floor. He rolled until he hit something: a bed.
Seph was tied up. Her feet were bound together by rope, and her wrists were affixed to the curtain rod above the window. She looked like she was hanging from…from a cross.
A hand grabbed Zach’s hair and tugged him upright before slamming him into the bedpost. He was stunned for a moment, and by the time he recovered he was tied to the bed. “What are you doing to us?” Zach asked.
“Punishment,” responded one of the shadows. Now that Zach could get a clear look at it, it had a vaguely human shape. Its voice was deep and masculine.
The other shadow, this one with a higher female voice, added “This little calf was supposed to bring us blood. Instead she made a friend.”
The male went to one of the other bedposts and snapped it in two. The motion was so effortless, the wood fell away like a twig in his fist. He stripped away splinters until all he had was a single, sharpened shaft. “There are too many of us now. We cannot all feed without raising suspicion, so some must be sacrificed.” He strode over to Seph, and without another word shoved the wood into her chest.
Seph couldn’t scream. A wet gasp escaped her gaping mouth, turned to a gurgle, then faded away. Dark blood spilled from the wound and dyed her dress black. Her body shuddered for a second, then her head lolled to the side, and she moved no more.
The two shadows didn’t spare another glance at their victim. They drifted from the room, and Zach was alone. He sat there in shock, unable to move even if he hadn’t been tied down. Seph hung there in the window, her bare feet dangling above the floor.
Hours passed. At one point, Zach heard a scream from downstairs. It sounded like a baby. There was a thud, and the screams were silenced, replaced by a sucking sound and a dry rasping. Zach felt fire building behind his eyes. The heat spread and began carving its way down his cheeks, and soon his shoulders shook with sobs. The motion pained him; his bonds were so tight there wasn’t enough slack to allow for it, and his joints felt like they were being pulled apart. Seph’s dead eyes continued to stare blankly.
A few more hours. A foul smell reached Zach’s nose, and he realized the room was growing steadily brighter. Seph’s body began to smoke. Tiny particles fell away like ash. Zach watched, horrified, as the darkness beyond the window turned to gray. Seph’s arms slipped in their bonds, growing thinner before Zach’s eyes. One of her legs fell of completely and withered away on the floor. The rest of her quickly followed. Flesh disintegrated, bones crumbled. As the last of her burned away, the grayness outside turned to gold, and all that remained of Seph was her blood-stained dress.
The sunlight burst through the window and hit Zach full force. He screamed so loud his throat spat up blood and his ears rang. He could feel his veins bubbling, popping, turning to steam. He tried wiggling free of his bonds, but they were too tight—at least, they were until the chafing ropes began pulling his charred skin loose.
Black sparks speckled Zach’s vision, then bled across his eyes until he was blind. The sunlight reached into his skull, and Zach’s last thoughts were of regret.