Bodies Not Recovered

Okay, remember how I was gonna write ya'll a horror story for Halloween?  I didn't lie, I just failed.  But the only reason I failed is because it's not two weeks ago.  Since it's a long sucker (nearly 11,000 words, flirting with novella-hood) I wanted to take the time to polish it up and be respectful of the time you'll have to invest if you read it.  That was more important than some self-imposed deadline, I thought.

Just a lil' warning, I always write horror with bad intentions, and I tried pretty damn hard to scare your ass with this one.  I want your SLEEP.   I think I did ehhhh-yeah-maybe, but you be the judge... I'm a little not-crazy about it 'cuz it shares too many scare-tactics with a novel I wrote called -Signal 30-, but since nobody's ever read that, that's probably one of the things that's only gonna bother me.  I'm even re-using the Black Keys opening quote from it, because it just seems appropriate.

Feedback, as always, is wonderful.

Anyway, here goesy, hope you enjoy, and hope it does some damage. 


                              BODIES NOT RECOVERED

"You'll know what the sun's all about
When the lights go out."
- The Black Keys

    "I oughtta know what a god-be-damned hole sounds like!  I've dug, like, fifty-fuckin'-eleven of 'em since nine this morning!" Mark yelled.

    "Those are the blisters talking," Sam told Lacy, although he was pretty sure it was Mark's misguided attempt to impress Lacy that was really making him cuss so much.  Mark had been loud and uncharacteristically obnoxious ever since Lacy had shown up on her motorcycle that morning.  She was obviously badass so Mark was assuming she'd go for tough guys.  And he wasn't one.  And it was turning out he wasn't even good at faking it.  The extra profanity was conspicuous and embarrassing.

    "Listen to that," Mark yelled, stabbed his shovel into the earth a few more times, then spread his hands in a see-there? gesture.

    "I don't hear anything special," Sam said, then looked over at Lacy, who twisted a side of her mouth and raised her eyebrows.  Sam couldn't blame Mark for trying to impress her; she was gorgeous and radiated cool without trying.  He was glad Mark was failing, but he doubted he'd do much better.  Lacy McKee didn't seem like the kind of girl who got impressed with things.  She did the impressing and gave back fuck-you.

    "Well, maybe if you came over here you'd hear it.  In fact, I'm pretty damn sure that would happen."  Mark rocked his sapling around like a dance partner and pulled a face.  The only bad-boy he was coming across as was the kind that got sat in corners.

    Lacy sighed, rolled her magic green eyes at Sam, narrowed them, then slung her shovel across her shoulders and trudged up the hill toward Mark, like Christ carrying his cross to Golgotha.  If she was going, Sam was going, and apparently Ambrose and Kate felt the same, because they were dropping their shovels and walking over to indulge Mark.  It wasn't hard to get distracted from this job, anyway; planting trees to stop erosion had turned out to be harder work than it had sounded, repetitive, boring, and paid just enough to keep it from being strictly volunteer.  And now that the morning was gone it was starting to get hot on top of everything else

    They gathered around the hole Mark had dug and he stared at them with his fake attitude.  Dirt had given him half a mustache, Sam noted, and decided not to tell him.

    "Go ahead, make the magic," Lacy sighed, kicking a dirt clod back into the hole with one battered motorcycle boot ("not my good ones," she'd explained).

    "You mind?  I'm trying to get the dirt out of the hole," Mark said.

    "Wanna take enough out to make a grave of it?" she asked, real deadpan.

    He grinned back at her and said, "I like funny chicks."

    "Well, peep peep peep."

    "Okay, listen now."  He jammed the shovel into the ground with a whump.  "Hear that?"

    "It does have some bass to it," Ambrose said.  He took off his red-fading-to-pink cap ("not my good one either," he'd told Lacy), forearmed sweat off his forehead, and squatted down.  Ambrose had just turned twenty, but Sam was pretty sure he'd be bald in a couple of years.  Poor guy, like the big round nose and receding chin hadn't been punishment enough from the DNA fairy.   His nickname was "Turtle" but he didn't know that.  "Do it again."

    Mark tossed the shovelful of dirt out of the hole and struck again.  "Whoomp.  There it is."

    "Weird-oh!" Kate said.  She put her hand on boyfriend Ambrose's shoulder and squatted next to him.  She'd taken this tree-planting job because she was desperate to lose some weight, but Sam didn't think she was fat at all.  Neither did Ambrose, who'd yelled "Oh, shut up!" at her twice already when she'd made fat jokes about herself.  Lacy'd branded her a lunatic and had taken to calling her Annie.  Annie Rexic.

    Mark levered the dirt out and attacked the hole again.  Whoomp.  "See?  Somethin' fuckin' down there."  He wiped his face with the hem of his tee-shirt, probably trying to show off his abs to Lacy, or at least his lack of pudge.  Maybe just his puberty.  Sam was sad to see the face-wiping had taken care of the half-'stache.

    "Could be anything," Kate said, looking up the hillside.  Little pine saplings dotted it like battlefield grave markers, and here and there was a bigger maple like the one Mark was trying to plant.  "When that mudslide brought down half the hill eight, ten years ago, it buried everything in its path.  Houses, yards, cars.  Like God's own bulldozer."  She made a rumbling sound in her throat and pushed at the air with her hands.

    "I know," Mark said.  "That's why we're planting all this shit, trying to stop it from happening again."   He waved an arm at some distant houses down the slope.  "I'm sure it's something got buried, that's a gimmie.  But what?"  He jabbed the shovel again, got the hollow noise.  "Doesn't sound like a Volvo.  It's organic and shit."

    "Hey, I know, why don't we dig it up and see?!" Lacy said, smiling wide and blinking those bright green eyes, then instantly going back to a bored-with-this-and-too-cool-for-it-too look.

    "Yeah, I know we could, but, it's kind of creepy," Mark said.  "Don't you think?  I don't know if I wanna know what's down there.  Bust through and get swallowed by a sinkhole like that jag-off on CNN."

    "Well, the hole's probably deep enough for the tree already," Sam said. 

    "No it's not," Kate said.  "And anyway, I want to know what's down there.  I have a long life ahead of me and I don't want to spend it wondering what that might've been."

    "Me either," Mark said.  "But still... I dunno, don't fuckin' know..."

    "Probably a coffin," Lacy said, nodding.

    "Oh, it is not!" Kate laughed. "There were no graveyards on this hill!"

    "Maybe somebody had one in his living room," Lacy shrugged.  "My Uncle Buddy did.  Kept Aunt Matilda in there.  My rotten, green, fuzzy Aunt Matilda.  Oh, how I hated having to kiss her every Christmas and Thanksgiving."

    "Oh, you are so full of shit!" Kate laughed. 

    "'N' that's why I done gots me a shovel," Lacy said, then nudged Mark with her foot.  "Outta there, Braveheart.  I'll do it."

    "I'll do it, I'll do it," Mark said, but he was already climbing out of the hole, and Lacy was in it, digging.  Mark stood there muttering and looking goofy while the dirt flew and the shovel's thumping turned to scraping.  Lacy cleared a space at the bottom of the hole and said, "I'll be damned."

    "What is that?" Kate said, frowning.

    "Asphalt shingles," Ambrose said.

    "Got us a roof, " Lacy said, tapping the shovel on it.  "Which most likely means we found us a house."

    "Oh, hell naw," Mark said, backing away from the hole.  "A house buried down there?  That's too creepy to stand!"

    "It could be," Kate said, also stepping back from the hole.  "That mudslide was huge.  It buried a big chunk of neighborhood.  There used to be houses all the way up to there."  She pointed up the side of the hill. 

    "But a house?" Mark said. 

    "Probably just a piece of one," Kate said.  "Mudslides usually crush things.  Maybe just the roof, with some air under it."

    "One way to find out," Lacy said, climbing out of the hole.  "That bit felt kind of mushy.  I don't think it'd be hard to hack through."  She pulled the top half of her long, thick, curly brown mane back and tied it with some elastic she fished out of her pocket, then sat down by the hole and started spearing her spade into the shingles.  On the third blow a hole opened, and then enough wet, rotten wood was cleared to make a space big enough for a person to squeeze into.  Cool, damp air rose like musty breath.  It was deep black down there.  Black like sleep.

    "Oh, fuck me, you've got to be kidding me!" Mark said, doing a little squirmy dance.  His macho act had apparently been discarded in the face of this creepiness.  "That is sick!"

    "Hello!" Lacy yelled down the hole, getting back a dead echo.  "Anybody home?"

    "Don't... do that!" Mark sputtered.

    Lacy laughed.  "Think somebody's going to answer?"  She yelled again.  "Jehovah's Witnesses!  I'd like to talk to you about Jesus!"

    "Now I know they're not going to answer," Sam said, and Lacy laughed, giving the happiness in him a little shake.

    "Well, we've gotta go down there," Lacy said.  "We can use the rope we were using to space out the trees.  Anybody got any flashlights?  I keep a small one on my bike."

    "You're shittin' me," Mark said.

    Lacy looked alarmed and glanced over her shoulder.  "Whew, figure of speech.  Scared me for a second, I thought you were falling out of my butt."   She clapped her hands and stretched, making her Motörhead tee-shirt ride up and show a hard tummy.  "No, I'm not shitting you.   I do have a flashlight on my bike, and yes, we should go down there."

    "You'd really go down there?"  Kate said.  "Seriously?"

    "Yeah," Lacy said.   "It's no big thing, I do stuff like that.  Didn't I ever tell you I was a spelunker?"

    Sam said, "Your ethnicity has nothing to do with this, and anyway, I don't believe stereotypes."

    Lacy laughed and pulled his ear.  "I like you, you're funny!  I'm taking you with me."
    "Guess I'm going, then," Sam said, and Kate stared at him open-mouthed. "Me and my friend from Spelunkia."

    "We believe spelunkia can be cured in our lifetime," Lacy said.  "Won't you give?"

     Mark went pale, knowing that if Sam went he'd have to go, too, or look like a pussy.

    "I don't think this is a good idea," Ambrose said, staring into that blackness.

    "That's why I thought of it," Lacy said.  "Look, you stay up here, so if anything goes wrong, you can run for help.  Like Lassie with the stupid-Timmy-fell-down-the-well-again shit, arf arf.  The rest of us will go poke around down there and grow some hair on our funnybits from the sheer bravery of it all."

    "The rest of us?  I hope you don't think I'm going down there," Kate said, half-laughing.

    "Sure you are.  You've got a long life ahead of you and you don't want to spend it with hairless funnybits, wondering what the inside of a buried house looked like.  Besides, there's probably stuff worth money down there."

    "Wouldn't that be stealing?"

    "From who?  Insurance is bound to have paid off whoever owned the place.  And they're likely to have left any jewelry or whatever when the mudslide hit.  I figure you find it, it's yours.  Like a big buried treasure chest."

    "Maybe so.   The whole thing sounds stupid and dangerous, though."

    "Everything fun is stupid and dangerous," Lacy sighed.  "Look, we leave somebody up here...."

    "I volunteer for that," Ambrose said.  "No way am I going down there.  I'm not even curious.  Anyway, we're supposed to be here working, to stop this kind of thing from happening."

    "So we stop the clock on the workday.  This job's not urgent.  Doesn't feel like it's ever going to rain again, anyway."  Lacy wiped sweat off her face, squinted at Ambrose, then sighed.  "Fine, we leave Ambrosia up here to run for the rescue squad if anything goes bad.  But I kinda am the rescue squad.  I go caving all the time.  And this is a house, it's bound to be more organized than a cave.  Man-made floor plan, suburban tract bullshit from the 70's.  Get down there, you'll probably find out it's the same as your houses."

    "Probably rotten to shit," Mark said, dropping a clod of dirt into the blackness, where it made an unimpressive knock.  "The floors would probably cave in on you."

    "That's why we use ropes," Lacy said.  "We test the floor before putting our weight on it.  I know how to handle this from false-floors in caves.  They're called flowstone benches, and we know how to navigate them.  And if conditions are really bad down there, we just come back up the rope."

    "I think it's workable," Sam said.  The idea of seeing what was left of the house was getting him excited now, enough to overcome his fear.  And Lacy was convincing, exuding enough confidence to make him feel like nothing bad was going to happen with her down there directing things.  Besides, he'd be twenty-two at the end of this month and how many stupid things had he ever done?  Not enough.  He was going to join the workforce and get old soon, and he'd need better stories.

    "Of course it is," Lacy said, happy to have an ally.  "Now, who's got flashlights?"

    "My dad makes me keep one in my car," Kate said.  "I still think this is stupid, but I'll go get it."

    "I've got one under my seat," Sam said.  "I don't know how good the batteries are, though.  I let some kid borrow 'em at the lake.  He had one of those remote-control boats, and the batteries in the controller died on him while the boat was out in the middle of the lake.  He was crying and everything, so I let him use my batteries to drive the boat back to shore."

    "That is so sweet," Lacy said.  "Really, it is.  I'll feel safe being in the dark with such a gentleman."

    "Well, I wouldn't take it that far..." Sam said, and she laughed. 

    Mark looked like he was about to storm the beach at Normandy.  "I don't have a flashlight," he said, maybe looking for an excuse.

    "You can borrow Kate's 'cuz no way am I letting her go down there," Ambrose said.

    "Letting her, huh?" Lacy said.  "The ownership papers you got on her... they all notarized and shit?"

    "I'm not a chauvinist, just a loving boyfriend.  And this is a stupid idea.  I wouldn’t let you go either if I had any way to stop you.”

    “Does this mean you’re my loving boyfriend?” Lacy teased.

    “I thought that was my job,” Sam said.  If he was going to be brave about going down a hole, why not be bold, too?

    “Ooo, we’ll see,” Lacy said.
    “Yeah, I’ll borrow the flashlight,” Mark said quickly.  “What the fuck, right?”

    “Exactly,” Lacy said.  “I'll get the light from my saddlebag.  And we’ve already got gloves for digging.  Let’s go.”

    They retrieved their flashlights, Ambrose grumbling that it was a dumb idea the whole time. When he handed Lacy the rope, he said "I'm handing you enough rope.  Maybe you've heard of it."

    "Ha ha, I get it.  Good one, dad!" she said, rolling her eyes and making a you're-a-drag face at him as she took it.  Lacy hitched the rope to a tough little bush, made sure it was secure, and then, holding it, stomped around the edges of the hole, breaking off rotten wood and widening it.  She beamed her light down, revealing kicked in chunks of roof littering moldy pink fiberglass insulation.  A couple of fatty, diseased-looking mushrooms lay amongst the debris.  “Not often you get to look down into an attic, huh?” she said.

    “Be careful, that fiberglass is itchy as shit,” Mark said.  He was looking pale.  Sam wondered if he’d back out, or get down there and pitch a major freak-out.  Maybe taking him along wasn’t advisable.  Surprisingly, Sam felt no urge to back out himself.  He didn’t usually do things like this, but he really wanted a look at what was down there, even though imagining it gave him chills.

    Lacy fed the rope into the hole, then, gripping it, stepped in.  The attic floor was only a few feet down, but Sam was happy to see she was being very careful.  She stood on a beam and bounced a little, then scuffed her boots on it to see if any wood chipped off.  “Pretty solid,” she said.

    “I wonder if the whole house is intact,” Kate said.

    “Only one way to find out,” Lacy said.  “C’mon, you know you wanna.”

    Kate bit her lip.  “Yeah, I do.  Okay.”

    “What’re you doing?!” Ambrose yelled as Kate stepped into the hole.

    “I  appreciate your not letting me, and I love you, too, but... I want to see this.”

    “It’s a bad idea,” he warned.  “Curiosity killed the Kate.”

    “Very clever, and you have my permission to put it on my headstone later, but I’m going.”

    “You want your flashlight back?” Mark asked.

    “No, you can keep it.  I’ll just cling close to Lacy.  That’s the only way I’m going, anyway.”

    “Ah, I was planning to do that,” Sam said, being bold again.  Lacy shot him a grin.  He tested the rope and then followed her down into the attic, duck-walked over to a spot where he could almost stand up, and beamed the flashlight around.  He was half-flinching, expecting bats to come flying at him, but then realized that was stupid; bats couldn't get into a place with no opening to the outside world.  Even if there'd been some when the place got buried, they'd have starved out by now.       

    Lacy crept deeper into the attic, beaming her light around, looking for a trap door as Kate and Mark followed them in.  Boxes and junk were clustered ahead in the dark, and as she got closer their shadows swirled around the walls like sediment in a jar of muddy water.   Kate wasn’t keeping her word about sticking close to Lacy, instead clutching Sam’s arm.  Ambrose was already peeking into the hole and asking,  “What do ya’ll see?   What’s it like in there?  Is it bad?”

    “C’mon in and find out,” Sam said, dragging Kate forward.  Mark hung behind them, using them as a shield, darting his light into every corner.  The angles of the roof closed in and clamped them and already the hot sunlit world seemed a mile away;  it was dark, cool, and close down here, and smelled like a kicked-over leaf-pile.  Sam could feel the pressure of the earth around them like a great muddy fist.

    Lacy gave an ice-cream maker a little kick and said, “There ya go.  Find one in every attic.”

    “Pretty sure there’s one in ours,” Sam said.  “Mom and dad got all excited about the idea of homemade ice cream, found out how much trouble and mess it was, and that’s the last I saw of it.”

    “That’s the story of every ice-cream maker ever.”  Lacy beamed the light over collapsed boxes of waterlogged sweaters being eaten by mildew, a rusty typewriter, a playpen so battered and gnawed-upon it should’ve gone to the junkyard instead of the attic, luggage, an ice chest, a box of artificial Christmas tree limbs.  The paper grocery sack -- bearing the logo of a store that had burned down when Sam was eight -- that had held the ornaments had crumbled in the damp and now they were scattered like fruit under some crazy tree.  “There’s got to be a stationary bike around here somewhere,” Lacy said.  “There’s always a stationary bike.”

    “Of course,” Kate said.  “To burn off the calories from all that homemade ice cream you were going to be eating.”

    Lacy made a shotgun-racking-then-booming sound of approval for Kate’s nailing it.

    Sam peered into a box of water-fattened Reader’s Digest volumes.  “The condensed books ain’t condensed no mo’,” he said.

    “I think something moved over there,” Mark breathed, beaming his light.  A battered tricycle was parked in a back corner, its shadow all crazy angles.

    “I believe you’re right, Mark!” Lacy gasped, and Kate left bruises on Sam’s arm.  “Oh my god, here it comes!”

    “Where?” Mark yelped.

    “In your imagination!”  Lacy said.  “Most dangerous place on earth.  I’m just fuckin’ with ya, fraidy.  But, you were fuckin’ with yourself first.  Weren't no virgin.”

    “I don’t mind you fucking with Mark,” Kate said, “but can you find a way to do it that doesn’t fuck me in the bargain?”

    “Sorry, babe,” Lacy said, patting her arm.

    “Don’t do it to me, either,” Mark said.  “I think I bruised my asshole.”

    Lacy laughed.  “Okay, I may have to like you better now that the macho act is wearing off a little.”

    “You noticed that too, huh?” Kate said.

    “Oh yeah, couldn’t miss it.”

    “I’m not crazy about closed-in spaces, is all,” Mark said.

    “It should be much roomier under that door,” Lacy said, holding her flashlight on a trap door with a folding wooden ladder built into it.  “But if you want to back out, now’s the time.  Pretty sure Ambrose would welcome the company.”   She gestured back at the ragged spot of daylight.

    Mark shook his head no, and Lacy shrugged and set to work on the attic door.  It was stiff, and when it finally gave it went with a horrible rusty twang and crack that was almost too much to take in the darkness.   It sounded like a coffin lid being wrenched off.   Damp, earthy air hissed up from below, and they coughed.

    “Smells like all the dirty socks in the world down there,” Sam said.

    “Wet carpet,” Lacy speculated.  “You’ll get used to it.”

    “I don’t want to get used to that,” Kate said.  “Smells like gangrene!”

    “If you know what gangrene smells like you’ve led a far more interesting life than the one I’d pictured you with,” Lacy said, feeding the rope down and then trying to unfold the ladder on the door.  The hinging was half-rust, rigored with it, and made more awful noise when she pried at it.  Sam closed his eyes, picturing some orchestra of skeletons tuning up in Hell.   This is what a Brueghel painting sounds like, he though, flashing on “Triumph of Death” and then wishing he hadn’t.  Lacy braced herself and stomped at it, announced that she’d gotten it, and extended the ladder down.  “Keep hold of the rope when you go down, and we need to go down one at a time.  The ladder seems in okay shape but I’m not trusting anything down here.”

    “One at a time.  That means one of us will be alone up here for a minute,” Kate said.

    “That’s gonna be you,” Mark said, stabbing Sam with a finger.

    Sam shrugged.   “Better than being the first one down there.”

    “And that’ll be you,” Mark said, pointing at Lacy.

    “But of course.  I’m the mama duck, leadin' mah buh-yootiful ducklin's.”  She stepped onto the ladder and started down, making quacking sounds.

    “Aren’t you afraid of anything?” Kate asked.

    “Sure,” Lacy said.  “Nothing to be afraid of here, though.  This is fun.  C’mon, you next.  Being alone in the dark with Mark is one thing I am scared of.”

    “Funny,” Mark growled, watching Kate make her way down. "Real funny." He followed, and Sam waited, looking at the playpen.  Teeth had left dents in the flimsy metal, and he wondered who was still stuck in a playpen once they had teeth and the strength to bite that hard.  He wondered if all the brownish stains were rust.  He took out his phone and snapped a picture of it and some of the other junk in the attic, then tried to send it to Ambrose but he couldn’t get a signal.  It’d just make Ambrose more frantic for them to come up, anyway.  With the ladder free, he headed down.

    They were in a hallway, littered with chunks of moldy sheetrock.  The carpet was sodden, a puddle squishing up around their feet with every step.  Mushrooms were growing from it, pale and fleshy, like parts sloughed from a corpse.  The walls had a lean to them, not at right angles anymore, and looking at them hurt Sam’s mind.  Doors lined the hall, some ominously closed, others yawning to utter black.  Stepping back, he shined his light into an open room and saw a clutter of knocked-over furniture and a shattered window that had let in a flow of mud.  He could smell it.  A rainbow of mold - black, green, blue, fuzzy white -- and pale yellow fungus grew on everything.  All was damp and chilly.

    “Guess who’s not getting their deposit baaaaaack?” Lacy sang, heading down the hall.  A bathroom on the right was sunken and water-stained, tiles cracked loose. Sheet rock rotted down to the studs and wiring.  The window was intact and looked out on solid earth, a giant dead ant farm.  “Anybody need to pee?”

    “I already did, back up in the attic,” Mark said.

    “Laughing at yourself serves you well, my friend.”  Lacy clapped him on the shoulder.  “Looks like the living room here.  Literally.  The room is alive.  Fungus among us.”   A couch was swollen and turned fuzzy black and stank abominably, sprouting mushrooms and antler-like projections of fungus, like cold fingers reaching in the dark.  Roaches that had never experienced light still instinctively ran from it.

    “Fuck, bugs!” Kate squealed.

    “There’s always bugs,” Lacy said.  “Persistent bastards, they can live anywhere.  Listen, you can hear them, like rain.”   They stood still and listened to the slight -- possibly imagined -- skritch of chitinous legs.  The sound of the dark.

    “I am not going in there.”

    “Sure you are.  Roaches are gross but they can’t do a thing to you.”

    “Yeah?  Ever see Creepshow?”

    “This is Creepshow,” Mark mumbled, and Sam wondered if he was aware that he was swatting at himself.  Mark was obviously fighting back some major panic and Sam felt a little sorry for him, even if being an ass had gotten him into this.

    Lacy beamed the light around but there was much it wouldn’t reach; the house was filled with a chilly, stale-stinking murk, the very air mildewed and rife with spores.   Sam had wanted a shower all day, originally from the sweat of work but now from contact with the air in this place.  It wrapped them like a damp rotting blanket, a feeling like being in a dead thing’s mouth.  The light struggled against the shadows, unwelcome here, darkness wanting to keep its secrets.

    Sam clicked the lightswitch, expecting nothing and getting it.  Lacy laughed at him and said "How hard would you have lost it if the light came on?"

    "Purty-damn.  But, I had to try it, because you just never know."

    "Agnostic," Lacy said.

    “Well, at least let’s not go in there first,” Kate said.  “Give the critters a chance to hide.”

    “They may not know they need to,” Lacy said, “after generation on generation with no predators.”

    “So you don’t think there’s rats or anything, at least?”

    “Probably not.  Closed environment, they’d have starved.  Roaches, though, can eat practically anything organic.  The binding of old books.  Each other.”   She cleared her throat against the moldy air and said, “Okay, we can check the other rooms first if you like.  Probably bedrooms.”   They stepped back into the hall and she beamed the light into the room full of knocked-over furniture.  The bed was under a wash of mud and the mattress was so rotten it was hardly a man-made thing anymore, just one big fungus.  Coins littered the carpet from where someone’s change-jar spilled.  A framed picture still hanging on the wall showed a guy in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts smiling over some tiny sports car.  Hard to believe it was ever that sunny anywhere, after just ten minutes spent down here.

    Mark picked up a nickel and put it in his pocket, just a souvenir.  Sam took a dime.  The date was twenty years ago but surely the house hadn’t been buried that long.  “When was that mudslide?” he asked.

    “Hell, I don’t know,” Lacy said.  “Like, ten, fifteen years ago?  That’s a guess.”

    “I think it was more like seven or eight, but I’ll be looking it up on the internet when we get back, you can bet on that,” Kate said.  “I want to find out who lived here, and call them up and tell them, ‘I was just in your house.  What kind of car were you standing by in that picture?’”

    “Oh, man, they would freak.  If you don’t do it, I’m going to,” Lacy said, then snapped a cellphone photo of the car picture, and another of the muddy bed.

    Sam tried the closed door across the hall.  It was warped shut, but the wood was rotten enough that it gave when he pounded a shoulder into it a couple of times, and it felt like house shifted a little, raising a chill.

    The crack when it gave was too loud, and the door rasped against the carpet as it opened, plowing some of the shag up.  Under the pressure of the mud, the house had twisted, then warped further in the damp, and the door no longer hung true; Sam had to force it open inch by inch.  He wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to see what was in there; the room had a very muddy stench.  He shoved his light in first, in hopes of scaring off any vermin, then looked in and yelped.

    A giant root had invaded the room, smashing its way through the window like the arm of some oversized mummy.  The shadow it threw on the walls reached around in a frantic search, and the effect was so horrible he stepped back.  “Scared the hell out of me.  Jeez, I don’t know if I want to go in there, that shit is way too creepy.”

    “Well, I do,” Lacy said, pressing past him.  She beamed her light around, and amidst the veins of the root were toys.  A large, rotten teddy bear watched her from the corner.  “Whoever they were, they had one strange kid.  Look at this.”

    The others stepped into the room and held their breath at the sight of a cage.  Some of the padding on the bars had been torn and bitten, exposing what appeared to be wrought iron underneath.  Inside was a rubber baby doll that had been gnawed almost to pieces.  The head of an Elmo doll lay next to it.  Just the head, stupid and laughing.

    “Who the hell would put their kid in a fuckin’ cage?” Mark asked.

    “Somebody who maybe had to,” Lacy said, holding up a little amber pill jar and shining her light on the label.  The dresser had a few other medicine bottles on it, and a syringe.  More medicine bottles lined the floor, along with a few books that had spilled off.   The one title Sam could read was a high-level medical text on severe birth defects.  Lacy put the jar down and looked at another.  “Looks like sedatives,” she said.  “And some kind of endocrine-adjusting supplements.  They must’ve had one messed-up child.”

    “Too big to be a baby,” Kate said, pointing out some pajamas draped over a rocking chair.

    “Jesus, what the fuck was going on in this house?” Mark asked.

    “Something private,” Kate said.  “I don’t want you to call those people to tell them we were here anymore.”

    “Yeah, I’m not gonna,” Lacy said.  “Any name off these pill bottles would be an instant win in a game of Scrabble.  Chlorpromazine.  That’s like Thorazine, isn’t it?   Slobberknocker dope. What kind of kid did these people have?”

    “And a cage?  Seriously, what the fuck?” Mark said, kicking the iron bars.  “Sick bastards.”

    “I don’t imagine they did it all the time.  There’s a baby bed over there,” Lacy said.  “It looks to me like they had to have a place to put the kid if he or she went into fits or something.  A lot of these pills are tranqs.  Any drug ending in 'zine' is some heavyweight narco to be giving a kid.”

    “Yeah, I don’t just get meanness out of this,”  Sam said.  “Look how padded the bars are.  They were trying to keep it from hurting itself.”

    “Maybe it was a baby gorilla or something,” Kate said.  “Or a chimp.”

    Sam picked up one of the books on the floor and showed it to her.  It was full of black and white glossy photos of various deformities and intense medical texts describing each one, some underlined with notes in the margin that moisture had blurred.  “I kind of doubt it,” he said.

    “I guess I was wishing,” Kate sighed, and Sam tossed the book onto a handmade pillow in the shape of a daisy, very retro.  The wallpaper had daisies on it, too; someone had struggled to brighten up what must have been a very depressing room.  Lacy snapped several pictures, even though Sam felt certain she’d keep her word about not taunting the parents with them.  Nothing was funny anymore. 

    “Let’s get the hell out of here,” Mark said.  “And by ‘here’ I mean the whole damn house.  We’ve seen enough.”

    “There’s gotta be only a couple more rooms to see,” Sam said.  “Little cookie-cutter house.  Seeing the rest can’t take more than a few minutes, and we’ve come this far.”

    “Yeah,” Kate said.  “I think my friend Cody lives in a house exactly like this.  The layout’s the same.  We’ve seen most of it, might as well see the rest.”

    “Even the part with bugs?” Mark asked.

    “They’ll run.”

    Mark grumbled to himself and rubbed at his arms.  He never should have come down here, Sam thought.  The place is too creepy for him.  And he’s never going to impress Lacy anyway.

    Lacy took another couple of pictures, the flash throwing the root’s shadow on the wall like some vast black aorta, and said, “Okay, let’s go look at the rest before Mark pees.”

    “I’m not gonna pee,” he mumbled.  “It’s just not respectful.  Trespassing.”

    “Yeah, and spooky as shit,” Sam said, punching him on the shoulder.  Mark snorted and rolled his eyes at him.

    “I know I’m going to have nightmares about this place the rest of my life, so I might as well see all of it,” Kate said.

    “Leaving it unseen would be worse, anyway,” Lacy said.   “You’d always wonder what was waiting in that unchecked room.  Your mind would fill it with things way worse than whatever’s actually there.  Which is probably some shitty 70’s bedroom set.  The horror!”

    “Okay, let’s get it over with,” Mark said, and they left the room and went down the hall to another door, which made them pause and stare.

    Someone had taped it shut.  They’d used masking tape in crazy, haphazard patterns that were crumbling off the door now; bits of tape lay on the floor like cracker crumbs.  It would be nothing to tear through, but the fact that someone had wanted this room sealed off -- albeit crudely -- created a bad feeling.

    “Maybe Mark’s right, maybe we shouldn’t open that,” Kate whispered.

    “Damn right I’m right.  Let’s get up the ladder and out of here,” he said.  “Send in some cops, let them tell us what’s in there.”

    “Whatever’s in there can’t hurt you,” Lacy said.  “This place has been buried for a decade, no way in or out.  It’s a closed system.  Anything but bugs starved off long ago.”

    “I don’t know,” Sam said.  “That looks... I don’t know, it just looks wrong.  The tape’s slapped up like somebody didn’t know how to use tape but really wanted to keep something in there.  And were they living in a house with a taped-up door?  The door’s tilted but the tape still fits it.  Like maybe it got taped up after this place was buried.”

    "Oh my god," Kate whispered.  "Oh my god."

    Lacy stared at Sam, chewing on her lip, then put her hand on the doorknob.  “Well, let’s peek.”

    Kate let out a little squeal and backed up behind Mark.  Lacy looked at Sam again.

    “I’m not gonna stop you,” Sam laughed, “but I’m not going to do it for you, either.  This shit’s on you, Pandora.”

    Lacy sighed.  “Pussies.”  She turned the knob and pushed the door.

    A whiff of very old rot wafted out at them, then dissipated and left them with thoughts of dead things.  They paused  again as the door slowly swung in, pulled by the tilt of the house until it bonked against the wall.  The room beyond was blackness.  For a minute, no one even dared intrude on it with a beam of light, the vibe coming out of there was so strong.  Then Lacy finally raised her flashlight.  Its beam was thick with dust, crawling across a carpet littered with dead bugs and husks of larvae.  The edge of dresser.  The edge of a bed covered in a stained white blanket.  More blanket, crusted black.


    A skeletal hand, arm, part of a leg.  Kate cried out and turned away.

    “Holy shit,” Lacy breathed. 
    A skull, with hair and mummified flesh, so clotted with old blood it looked like it had been dipped in tar.   Another head of filthy hair beside it, ribs, dried flesh like driftwood.  The whole bed was caked with long-dried gore and fetid, slimy rot.

    “Okay, let’s go, now!” Mark said, pulling at Lacy.

    “No, I’m going to look,” she said, her voice small and trembling.  “You can stay here if you want, but I need to see what happened.”

    “I don’t, it’s a fucking crime scene, we are going to GO.  NOW.”  He pulled violently.

    Lacy wrenched herself from Mark’s grasp.  “Get your hands off me, asshole!”

    “Alright, sorry, alright,” he said, holding his hands up.  “But let’s go.”

    “In a minute.”

    “Lacy, don’t go in there,” Kate said.

    “I’m just going to see what caused it,” Lacy said.  “They’re long dead, and so is whatever did that.”

    “What did do that?”  Kate asked.  “A bear?  They’re torn up!”

    “That’s what I want to see,” Lacy said, and despite her talk of things being long dead, she approached the bed like she was sneaking up on it.  Sam was surprised to find himself following, almost like he was magnetized to Lacy.  But he didn’t fight it; he wanted to see, no matter how morbid.

    There were two bodies, mostly skeletal, partially mummified, the rest long rotten or devoured.  And that’s what they looked like -- devoured, like the bones left after someone had gone through a bucket of chicken.  Fingers were gnawed to the bone and bite marks remained clear on skin that had dried to leather.  Only the faces had been left untouched, as if the feaster couldn’t bear to defile them.  Blood had thickened, dried, and cracked around them, like shards of black glass.  Though dry, there was still enough stench to make Sam fight against vomiting.   

    “Jesus,” Lacy breathed.  “What do you think?  They died and their dog went at them?  Surely not the kid...”

    “It wasn’t a dog,” Sam said, shining his flashlight (whose beam was going distressingly amber) at the carpet.  Lacy looked down and saw child-sized footprints in old blood.

    “Holy shit,” Lacy said.

    “And look at this,” Sam said, focusing the light on one corpse’s wrist, where a deep slash was evident.  Panning the light around picked up the glitter of the box cutter that made it.

    “Suicide,” Lacy said.

    “To feed their kid.”

    Lacy nodded, panning the light over the damage.  Even dried-out and with the worst of it decayed away it was horrible to look at, and they couldn’t stand to be in the room with it for more than a few seconds.  When they left they shut the door again.

    Sam looked at the old masking tape on the door frame.  “It only goes up to here,” he said, pointing a foot or so above the doorknob.  “The kid sealed it.  He didn’t want to go back in there.”

    “Probably having nightmares about it,” Lacy said.  “Didn’t even want to think about it.  Imagine, having to eat your own parents.  Probably in pitch darkness, gnawing corpses.”

    “Don’t talk about it,” Kate said.

    “You know this means the kid’s still down here,” Mark said.  “So let’s get the hell out.”

    “First, let’s find it,” Lacy said.

    “You are fucking crazy,” Mark said.

    “I want to see it.  We’ve seen this much so let’s see the rest.  It’ll probably be bones, mostly, anyway.”

    “That’s crazy, Lacy,” Kate said.  “After seeing that, in the bedroom, you want to see more?”

    “I don’t want to wonder forever what it looked like,” she said.  “My imagination would just make it worse.  All those books on deformity?  I’ve got to know.  Look, it’s dead by now.  It’s probably what those roaches were eating.”

    “Jesus Christ, Lacy,” Kate said.

    “Well, it probably is.  It won’t be too bad.  Just a mummy.  You can handle it.  But if not, I don’t blame you, this is creepy stuff, so go on back up. I’ll be back up soon.”

    “You’d stay down here with this... stuff here?  Alone?”  Kate said.  “That wouldn’t scare you out of your mind?”

    “She’s already out of her mind,” Mark said.  He wasn’t even trying to flirt anymore; Lacy was too much for him, it didn't matter how pretty she was. 

    “I’m not scared of dead things,” Lacy said.  “It’s sick what happened here, and it’s sad, but that’s over and now they’re funhouse props.”

    “Funhouse props?  Oh my fucking god,” Mark said.  “You want to find that goddamn kid and take it home with you, don’t you?  Use it as a Halloween decoration!”

    Lacy smiled.  “Now that you’ve given me the idea, sure, why not?”

    “You’re not really...” Kate gasped.

    “No I’m not really,” Lacy said.  “I’m just going to look.  You go on up, babysit macho man before he snaps into a conniption fit”

    “I’m not leaving you down here alone.”

    “I’ll stay with her,” Sam said.  “I kinda want to see it, too.  I mean, she’s right, wondering about it forever is just going to make it worse.”

    “God, we’re idiots,” Mark snarled.  “You're a lunatic and I'm a fool for not knocking you out and dragging you out of here caveman style."

    "Be a bigger fool if you try it," Lack said, too casual for comfort.  That hung in the air for a second, throwing frost.

    Mark finally took a deep breath and huffed, "Okay, whatever, let’s find your fucking man-eating devil baby or whatever.”

    Lacy shot Sam a smile, like she’d managed to manipulate Mark and they both knew it.  He grinned back but thought Lacy might be a little too crazy for him to deal with, either.  They were at least one room past sanity already, and it was all starting to feel like a nightmare. She led them down the hall.  Sam’s flashlight beam was going orange now, and he slapped the side of it, urging the batteries to wake up.  As they reached the room with the fungoid couch again, they paused; knowing there was a deformed corpse waiting somewhere in that darkness made them hesitate.  Listening for it was nonsense, but that's still what they did.

    Holding their breath, they could hear skittering, quiet, like a needle scratching the end of a record in another room.  With their new knowledge it was easy to imagine it might be something other than roaches.   There was a presence in that darkness. Could something, perhaps, live on roaches for a decade?  Sam had read that the reason bears in the woods got so fat is they ate bugs and grubs.  And they could hibernate all winter.  Maybe the kid hadn’t died.  Maybe it had fattened up and was hibernating.  Or in suspended animation like a toad in concrete.

    Sam made an angry noise at himself, and Kate whispered, “What?”

    “Nothing.  Just freaking myself out, thinking stupid things.”

    “Keep that imagination in check, boy-o,” Lacy half-sang.  “This is no place to set up a land of make-believe.  Find you a place with better lighting.”

    “Yeah, I’d figure on real bad results from that,” Sam said.

    “I’m already afraid of the dreams I’m going to have about this place,” Kate said, flinching as the floorboard creaked beneath them.

    "I ain't worried about bad dreams, considering I know I'm never getting to sleep again," Mark said.  His voice was getting a warbley whine to it.

    “It’s not going to be as bad as you think, when we find it,” Lacy said.  “You’re probably going to be disappointed that it didn’t meet your...” She stopped as the flashlight beam found a bone.

    It was lying by itself in the corner of the kitchen, and it looked too small to be human.  Lacy beamed her light past it, looking for more, and Sam thought her light, too, was noticeably dimmer than it had been.  And Mark’s was going amber, the color of decaying light.    Sam’s light wasn’t on at all anymore.  He slapped it again and stared directly into it; it gleamed orange then winked out again, like somebody taking a last pull on a cigarette.

    “That can’t be part of the kid,” Kate said.

    “No.  Too small,” Lacy said.  “Besides, what would’ve been left to tear it apart?”   The beam found a dark spot on the carpet, where something had spilled.  “They had a dog.”

    “Oh my god,” Kate said, gasping again as the beam found a ribcage.   Chunks of fur scattered around it like dustbunnies. The dog, approximately beagle-sized, had been killed and eaten in the kitchen.  And that’s where they were going.

    Around them, roaches scurried.  Dead ones crunched underfoot.  One buzzed and flew through the beam, and Lacy yelped and laughed.  The tension was getting to her, and that made Sam want to leave.  He could barely see Mark in the gloom but his silence was baleful; he was too scared to even complain anymore.  This was damaging him.  It wasn't even fun to laugh at him anymore.

    The kitchen was muddy; another window had gone, pouring the sink full.  A thick skin of mildew fuzzed everything, creating a smell that made each breath feel invasive.

    The dog’s skull was on the counter, cracked open, brains gone --- nature’s empty pudding cup.  Smears of wax, what was left of a candle, lay beside it like a garnish.

    Lacy opened the refrigerator.  It had been emptied of most everything, except a jar of olives on the top shelf.  Black olives, though who knew if they’d started that way?  Somebody must’ve really hated them if even starvation hadn’t made them tempting enough to eat.  Or maybe they'd just missed them in the dark.   A plastic catsup bottle lay twisted and imploded, sucked to death.  The cupboards around were open, and empty.  A couple of garbage bags stacked in the corner presumably held the cans and boxes.

    “Jeez, they must’ve been down here starving for weeks,” Sam said.  “I wonder why they didn’t try to escape?”

    “They probably did,” Lacy said.  “But digging down and breaking through a roof that’s been rotting in the ground for a decade or so has to be a lot easier than chopping up through a fresh one braced by a foot or two of dirt.  Plus, they may have been hurt.  I saw broken bones in those bodies and I doubt the kid did that.  They might’ve gotten hurt when the house was buried.  Or were just weak to begin with, I don’t know.”

    “They were probably down here in the dark for a month or more, waiting for a rescue.  And they were just forgotten.”

    “We may end up in the same situation if we don’t hurry up,” Kate said.  “My flashlight’s almost dead and yours looks weaker, Lacy.”

    “And mine’s gone,” Sam added.

    “Don’t worry, I got spare batteries in my pocket,” Lacy said.  “Old spelunker rule, your flashlight’s only as good as the batteries.”

    “Good to know that,” Sam sighed.

    “Fear not, mama duck's looking out for you,” Lacy patted him on the shoulder.  “Now, we’re running out of places for that body to be, so we probably won't even need to change 'em.”

    “Well, it’s got to be here somewhere, we know that much.”

    It was in a cupboard, in the back, hiding.  Its eyes -- dried white like fish scales and gleaming in the flashlight, were the first things they saw when Lacy opened the door.  It was curled in on itself like the husk of a dead spider, and Kate gave a little cry when she saw it.  The face was hardly a face at all now; it probably hadn’t been much of one in life but death had pulled it into even less, just a gnarled knot like the burl of a tree, dead eyes gleaming and tusk-like teeth protruding from a mouth that wouldn’t stay shut.  The teeth looked twice as big as big as they should be, but that could be due to the mummification, Sam thought.  Its hands looked too big for the sticklike arms, and its skin was an awful mottle of ivory, brown, and deep purple-black where blood had settled.  Some flesh was missing and bone peeped through.

    “It must’ve just crawled in here to starve,” Lacy whispered.

    “Probably to get away from the roaches,” Sam said.  “They were probably swarming in here.”

    There was a rustling noise from the cabinet and Lacy crouched down and shined the flashlight in the cadaver’s face.

    It moved, coughing up a clot of cockroaches before it leapt out at her.  They caught a flash of it, just briefly, before Lacy’s flashlight flew across the room and smashed.  The darkness was full of screaming and yelps of pain from Lacy, and under it all, wet tearing sounds.  Sam felt something hot and wet spritz across one of his forearms and he stumbled into a counter and fell, slipping on something slick.  Lacy’s blood, he realized.  He could smell it.  She was still screaming but then it clogged into a gobbling, retching noise, a pneumonic cough.  In the weak beam of Mark’s flashlight Sam saw a scrawny arm reaching down Lacy’s throat and uprooting things before the light winked out.

    Someone tripped over Sam and dropped a knee hard onto the hand that was holding his flashlight.  The pain was alarming; he felt bones snap and roll over each other, and he yelled.  The sounds Lacy and the thing feeding on her were making were impossible to stand. There was breathing - Sam couldn't tell if it was Lacy's or the thing's - that sounded like a surge of mud.  Kate, screaming, had somehow gotten her flashlight back and was trying to make it work.  A brown dimness showed them blood, everywhere, blood, and an impossibly thin dead thing wrenching at Lacy, trying to take some piece off of her.  One thumbnail, gone thick and long, had hooked out one of her eyes.   It was still beautiful green but no longer pretty now that it was out of its frame. She was still moving, wilting.  Then the light was out again.

    Something kicked Sam in the ribs.  Mark, he realized.  Mark had tripped over him and smashed his hand and now he was stomping at him in the panic to get away.  Sam rolled over against Lacy and the thing, felt its hair brush his face, stinking of dust and drains and new blood.  He crawled away from it and scrambled on his belly across the floor.  Across the room Mark cracked against something he’d run into in the darkness and yipped, then wailed, hurt bad and scared crazy.  He was whooping like he'd forgotten how to breathe.

    Sam tried to stand up; the darkness was so total he couldn’t even be sure he was vertical.  Reaching out, he tried to find Kate.  He touched her and she shrieked and slapped at him.  “It’s me!” he yelled, and then she grabbed him and clung too tight, screaming in his face.

    Can’t run, he thought.  Can’t see.  Have to move carefully.  Back through the living room, into the hall.  Find the ladder.  Get Kate and me out of here.  Maybe Mark, but only if he stops panicking.  Can’t panic.  Have to remember where the ladder is.  Have to think.

    It was an impossible task, though.  Terror was squeezing his chest so tightly he felt like he’d burst with it.  He wanted to run into the dark and just hope he didn’t hit anything.  That hadn’t worked well for Mark, though, who was still groaning and thrashing around.  He must have hurt himself seriously.

    They needed light.  But the extra batteries were in Lacy’s pocket, and they might as well be on the moon.  The sounds of the thing tearing at her stopped, and he heard sliding.  A crawling noise.

    It was coming after them.

    Pulling Kate, Sam stumbled forward, waving a hand in the dark.  He wanted to tell Kate to stop yelling and Mark to stop groaning so he could listen for the thing, but his throat was too closed up, and he was afraid to make a sound.  The thing would have no trouble finding him, anyway, with Kate clinging to him and babbling.  Nothing she was saying made sense, anyway, it was mostly “oh god oh god oh god” over and over.   He just kept moving, flinching in expectation of the thing grabbing them.  Any second now it would.

    His knee slammed something and knocked it over, and as he stumbled from that his broken hand hit something else and the pain made him hiss.  But he kept moving because worse pain was waiting.  Being eaten alive.

    Poor Lacy.  How could it have gotten Lacy?  If it got her the rest of us, her baby ducklings, don’t stand a chance.

    There was a sound behind them, and it was enough to make Kate freeze and go quiet.  They listened, the silence smooth as the blackness.  Deaf and blind.

    Then, a board creaked.  Something rustled.  Dried-up skin rasping carpet, bone grating on bone, stiffened tendons creaking.

    Sam ran, dragging Kate.  Mark yelled and there was another scrambling noise as he ran, shoving past them.  The thing ran, too, or crawled.  They heard it go by, passing them to go after Mark.  Sam got a whiff of filthy death and blood like wet rust.

    “We have to get out of here, Sam,” Kate whispered.

    “I know,” he said.  “We’ll keep going forward.  The hallway's this way.  We can’t miss the ladder, it’s...”

    From the hallway came a horrible twang-twang-twang and a slam.

    The thing had put the ladder up and closed the attic.  They’d never find the way out in the dark now.  Even if he could find the door, he’d never reach the ceiling to pry it down.

    From somewhere far back in the house, Mark was sobbing in terror.  From elsewhere, a floorboard creaked.

    It was playing hide and seek.

    “How can that thing be alive, Sam?  It was all dried up!  How can it be alive?” Kate whispered.

    “I don’t know,” he breathed.  “It’s not a normal kid.  Maybe it could hibernate.  Go dormant.  I don’t know.  This is all crazy, it’s a nightmare.”

    “That’s it,” Kate said.  “This fungus.  We breathed it in and we’re hallucinating.  Like mushrooms.  I did shrooms once, did I ever tell you that?  Me and Ambrose.”

    “Kate, that’s...”

    “You wouldn’t think we would, would you?  We’re not druggies.  It was a one-time thing.  Ambrose’s cousin from Florida was visiting.  He had some.  We tried them.  In Kool Aid.”  She laughed, too loud.  "Groovy grape!  Gah-rooovy graaape, duuuude!"  She shrieked with laughter, horrible in the dark.

    “Kate, be quiet,” Sam whispered.

    “That’s all this is.  Bad trip.  Real bad trip.”  She laughed again.  “Bad trip in a bad place.  That’s how it goes.”  She clucked her tongue.

    In the depths of the house, Mark called for them.  Kate yelled back.

    “Kate, shut up!” Sam whispered.  He was trying walking again.  Why, he didn’t know.  With that attic door shut there was nowhere to go now.  No plan to make.  Just waiting to be found.  Trying to delay it.

    “Why be quiet?  None of this is real!  It can’t be real, can it?  You guys set it all up, didn’t you?  Playing a trick on me.  You got me good!”  Kate laughed.  Sam heard water pattering on the carpet and smelled urine; Kate was pissing herself, too crazy to even notice anymore.  She was going to get him killed with all this noise, but he couldn’t stand just leaving her here.  For one thing it was unlikely she’d let him -- her fingers were tearing into his arm -- and for another, even a crazed Kate was better than being alone in the dark with that thing.

    Mark yelled again, something incoherent and mad, ghosts and God.  He was worse off than Kate and never should have come down here in the first place; fear had power-surged his system and tripped all the mental breakers and now he was smashing things back here, breaking glass, maybe trying to dig his way out through one of the windows, probably hurting himself in the process.  Not that it mattered.  The thing was sure to get him.

    In less than a minute, it did.  Mark’s yelling turned into frantic shrieks of “Get off me GETOFF GETOFF GETOFF!”   Kate yelled again and suddenly she was running into the dark.  Sam tried to grab her but his hand had no grip and all he got was pain.  He curled up, holding his hand to his chest, yelling for Kate to stop, come back.

    Kate was trying to save Mark, he supposed. Already too late for that.  He heard stumbling around in the dark, her calling Mark’s name, Mark still screaming, so loud it took over everything, filled the darkness, made it vibrate.  Sam wanted him to die, just to get it over with and bring the silence back, just for a minute.  He couldn’t take this, it was too much, he’d lose his mind like Kate.  Then the screams turned into a loud wheezing and coughing, like Mark was trying to bring something up.  Then the sound became wet and drowned itself. 

    The quiet, now that he had it, was somehow worse. 

    Kate?  She must be waiting out there, in the dark.  He had to find her.  So he wouldn't die alone, if for no other reason.

    Moving as fast as he could through the dark, cradling his broken hand and reaching out with the other, Sam entered the hallway.  Everything was silent.  He whispered "Kate?" and listened. 


    He hated making noise because he knew the thing was listening for him, too, but he had to find her.  She couldn't be dead yet, he'd have heard her dying.

    Floorboards creaked and something squished.

    His teeth wanted to chatter.  It was cold down here, and his clothes were damp from his falls onto the floor.  And fear was shaking him.  "Kate?" he hissed.


    A bedspring creaked, ahead to the left.  Mark must have tried to hide in the room with the muddy bed and that's where he died.  The thing would probably still be in there with him, paused in its feeding to listen.

    Maybe it's as scared as we are, having its home invaded, he thought.  It was just a kid.  But it was dead.  Could dead things feel fear?  If they could crawl around and kill, he supposed it was possible.  Or maybe Kate was right and this was all a hallucination.  That made the most sense, really, because all other possibilities were insane. 

    As he stared at the darkness it seemed to throb and swirl with colors.  Probably just the blood pressure in my eyes.   My heart's going to blow out like a bad tire any second now.  It's not made to beat this hard.

    Something in that room was trickling, like a faucet was running.  Mark's blood, he realized.  He could smell it, almost feel the heat of it.  The room must be sodden with it.

    He stepped past the doorway, flinching, certain something would rush out and grab him.  Where was Kate?  She had to be here somewhere.

    Sam thought he knew.  The bedroom, with the bodies.  Of course!  The kid had taped that room shut, trying to block out the bad memories.  It wouldn't want to go back in there, and so that's where Kate was hiding.  Hope surged inside him.   They could hide in there and wait for Ambrose to bring help.  As nervous as he was he'd probably gone for the cops already, even if he hadn't been able to hear all the screaming through the hole in the roof... and Sam thought it was a good bet that he had, as hellish as it'd been.  Maybe there was a way out of this.

    Something in the bedroom to the left made a sliding sound and a squishy thump.

    Something trying to sneak off the bed and come for him.

    He hugged the wall and ran.  The tape-covered door was open and he ducked inside, hearing the thing scrambling right behind him and making a tubercular sound halfway between a squeal and wheeze.  Sam found the door and shut it and locked it, then stepped away into the dark.  Trying to remember what furniture he'd seen in the room, he drew a blank.  He couldn't remember seeing anything else but the bed and the bodies on it.

    "Kate?" he whispered.

    "Sam?  You made it!"

    "Yeah.  I figure it won't want to come in here.  That tape and all."  He crouched and reached in the dark, wanting to find her but not wanting to touch what was on the bed.  Just knowing he was in the room with it was almost too much to bear.  "We can wait in here until Ambrose sends someone down after us."

    "He will, won't he?  Probably gone to get them already."

    "Probably so."  Sam laughed, even though laughing felt crazy.  "Now I'm glad your boyfriend's such a nervous twerp about things."

    "He was right.  We never should've come down here."  Kate's voice sounded like it was coming from across the room, on the other side of the bed.  God, he'd have to go around those bodies.  "Pretty sure Mark's dead."  She laughed.  "I heard noises.  Bad, bad noises.  I got sick, in the hallway."  She giggled.

    "We'll get out of here.  When that attic door slammed, I thought we wouldn't, but now... yeah, Ambrose will come through for us."

    "I hope he sends somebody else.  I don't want him to come down here."  She sounded closer.

    "I hope he sends in a S.W.A.T. team.  Seal Team Six.  Fucking Ghostbusters.  Where are you?"

    "Right here."

    Sam was annoyed at such useless directions but then thought, what else could she say?  In this pitch black there was only 'right here' and god-knows-where.  There were no specifics.  He reached toward where he thought she was, and something touched him and took his hand.

    But as soon as he gripped it he knew it wasn't Kate's.  Too small, too thin, too withered, too slicked with something.  But it gripped him back and that was the worst part.

    He yelled in revulsion and kicked away from it, and the thing hissed, maybe trying to scream, too.  "IT'S IN HERE!" Sam yelled.  "IT'S IN HERE WITH US!  IT FOLLOWED ME IN!"

    "No!  NO!" Kate yelled, and there was a scrambling noise, a rattle of disturbed bones, and then Kate's screaming intensified, kicked up from terror to pain.  "Get it away from me, GET IT OFF ME!" she wailed, and those were the last words Sam could make out; the rest was shrieking and babble.

    And tearing.  The sickening whisper of flesh parting.  Then, bleeding.  Bleeding sounds.  Splattering.  Gnawing.

    He backed away, unable to breathe.  He was sitting on the floor now, unsure how he'd gotten there.

    Kate's screaming trailed off into strange sighs, then nothing.

    And the nothing went on, seemingly forever.

    He sat there as minutes passed.  Just he and that malformed half-dead thing now, quiet in the dark, listening for each other.

    Should he even run?  Was there any point?  He could hear his heart beating, cursed it for masking possible creeping sounds, and he was aware of every breath.  How many of those did he have left?  The future was a question of seconds.  Maybe the fear would kill him, save him from worse.  His mind wanted to break; he could feel it trying.  He could barely remember words.  He wanted to faint.  Maybe then it could kill him in his sleep and he wouldn't have to feel anything or know what it was doing.

    Somewhere off in the house, past the door, he heard something.  A clump.  Maybe just the house settling.

    Or maybe it was Lacy or Mark, rising from the dead.  If there was one living-dead thing in this moldy house maybe there could be others.  Maybe what was in the room with him wasn't even the kid, but one of the chewed-up parents.  Mark or Lacy, all bloody, walking down the hall, coming for him...

    It was an insane thought but no more insane than anything else that had happened.  He waited, tense, listening.  There were sounds out there, but there were sounds in here, too.

    Around the doorframe he saw a glimpse of light.  Someone shining a flashlight.  Someone called out, "You here?  Where are you?"

    YES!  They were here!  Ambrose had sent someone!  He was going to get out of this after all!

    Sam started to laugh, but then a dark shape rose between him and the light, and his mouth was filled with fingers.

                                                                     THE END

Copyright 2013 by me, so don't get stealy.

Want more?  Maybe not right now 'cuz that was yay-long, but later, maybe?  There's more horror fiction on this blog, so here's links to it:  Please peruse.

My stuff:
Long Tall Sally
The Damp Basements of Heaven
Up The Stairs Where The Windows Are Painted Black
and little descriptions of actual nightmares I've had.

KickerOfElves' stuff:
Men With Knives

Profbolt's stuff:
 East of Rulesville

 Now, to paraphrase Randy "Bisquit" Turner... go write your own horror story!

Yell at me on Twitter.

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