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“You’re lucky you found me to be your agent. This place probably won’t be on the market very long.”

Kevin was speaking as he pushed the key into the deadbolt, and twisted. There was a sound of metal jostling against wood as his key ring flicked against his palm and the surface of the door, and then he was turning the knob and pushing it open, welcoming them into the world of house shopping, a new experience for both of them. They had no idea they were being lied to.

Charlotte was finding it hard to contain her enthusiasm already. Her eyes were as big as plate glass windows, her fingers migrating to her bottom lip over and over for no apparent reason. Jeff had reminded her not to let herself get too excited about the first house, but it was obvious his attempts at gravitas were a failure. If the place was as nice as it looked on the outside, she would be wanting to make an offer before they even finished the tour.

Well, she orgasms faster than most, Jeff thought, the left side of his mouth curling up in a half-hearted grin.

The house was a little further out of the city than they said they wanted, a forty minute drive in fact. As they followed Kevin’s black Lexus out the back roads and watched the familiar buildings and subdivisions give way to fields of tobacco leaves and forest, they had looked at each other and frowned.

“I don’t know about this,” Charlotte had said, biting her nails and looking out the window. The sun danced between the trees and limbs, shooting starbursts of light through the glass. She had her blonde hair pulled back in a pony tail today. He liked that.

The final road was gated, with a keypad by the drive, which had Jeff thinking maybe this place was going to be further out of their price range than the agent was leading on. There was a street sign half covered in rust that read Elm Shadow Lane. The house was a half mile up the hill, at the end of the drive, which was flanked on either side by a row of trees. The tops of the trees overlapped each other, creating a cris-crossing canopy of shadows over them as they drove, like driving down the esophagus of a dragon, or inside the ribcage of a giant snake. It made Jeff feel a bit uneasy, but his unease and Charlotte’s doubt had both subsided when they had seen the exterior of the house. It was beautiful. The flanking trees widened out as the single path divided into a circular driveway, encircling a lush green front yard, and leading comfortably to stopping points either near the front sidewalk, or on around to the two-car garage.

The house itself was half classical Victorian and half modern, as if the architect tried to incorporate both styles into his dream home. There was a single lighthouse-like spire on the rear corner, its top circled with windows. That back half of the house was made to mimic the Victorian style, with the light blue siding and deep red shingles of the roof creating a picturesque ambience that fit nicely with the greenery, the rest of the house seamlessly blended with this aesthetic, but was made with natural rock, painted white. There were two giant bay windows on the front side, and a wooden door stained red, which had two frosted panes of glass ornately etched with decorative vinery. Jeff thought it was amazing. He loved Victorian homes, and he knew Charlotte preferred more modern houses, so this was almost too good to be true.

“Come on in,” Kevin was saying, stepping into the foyer, his shoes creating ghostly echoes on the polished wooden floor, “take a look around your future home.”

He turned on some lights. The place was simply unreal.

“Oh, my goodness, it’s so BIG,” Charlotte said, walking into the living room area.

“Heh, that’s not the first time she’s said that, if you know what I mean,” Jeff slapped his realtor’s shoulder, and chuckled.

Kevin smiled and crossed his arms. “So, you guys have an open marriage?”

“Ouch!”

Charlotte snickered. “Shut up, Jeff. Come look out these windows.”

Jeff shook his head and walked over to her, putting his arm around her waist. The view was impressive to say the least, a gorgeous front lawn that was rimmed with trees. It was like being inside their own island, separated from the rest of the world.

“You know, if we end up getting this, I’m gonna need a riding mower, and two Mexicans.”

“You’re awful.”

Her fingers encircled his and brought his hand over her stomach.

“Can’t you imagine children playing in this yard? Climbing those trees?”

Jeff was thrown off by this. He studied the side of her head for a moment, his thoughts scrambling for purchase. They had been trying to conceive for months, without success, and Charlotte had even seen the doctor twice for fertility tests. They had her on vitamins and fertility pills, and lately she had been talking about it more than usual, as if she were hinting that he may need to be tested as well.

“Sure,” he swallowed a rock, “I can, but let’s not jump to any conclusions. We haven’t even seen the house yet. No need to write checks that we can’t cash.”

“Okay. I love you.”

She kissed his cheek and Kevin followed them into the room.

“As you can see, this is a large living area, the bay windows are an obvious selling point. The house has four bedrooms, two and a half baths, a modern kitchen and dining area, an upstairs with a small office area, and a full size basement. Pretty much as I told you, even without having pictures.”

Kevin had told them that the previous owner had lost their job and there had been a foreclosure. They had just gotten the place emptied of the furniture he had left behind, and put the house straight on the market. He had not even had time to get pictures of the property, but thought they might be interested, and considering it was a foreclosure home, it might be in their price range. All of this was lies of course, but people needed to hear a good story.

“A full size basement is a good thing,” Charlotte said, “Jeff has a fear of tornadoes taking him to Oz.”

“Indeed, when you’ve lived most your young life in a trailer park, you grow to fear the sky. I’d like to see that basement.”

“Of course, but let’s save the best for last, shall we? The entrance to the basement is by the kitchen, which is in the rear of the house. Let’s tour the upstairs and the other living areas first, so you’re sure you like it. The basement will definitely sell you, if the rest does not.”

Kevin gave them a cocky wink and looked at the time on his cell phone. It was just after four-thirty.

“Lead away,” Jeff said, flashing a smile. He had to admit, this was sounding more and more too good to be true by the minute.

“Right this way, folks.”

Kevin lead them around to a hallway and showed them the first of the four bedrooms. It was decent enough for a spare room, with two closets and one of the bathrooms in it. It was also carpeted, and Jeff thought he could smell a faint odor of vomit.

So, the place isn’t perfect. Any old house you get will require some cleaning, he thought as he inspected the closets. In the second closet, there were a bunch of dead leaves on the floor, and the lightbulb was without a cover, just having a silver pull chain instead of a switch, all of which seemed out of place to Jeff. He pulled the chain but the bulb was apparently blown. The odor that he thought was vomit was a bit stronger in the closet.

“Do you smell that?” Charlotte whispered in his ear.

Jeff nodded.

In the bathroom, he noticed that the edges of the tub appeared to be rusting. There were large vanity lights over the sink, and a huge mirror. Charlotte and he looked at one another in the mirror and Jeff shrugged. So, it needed a little work. The previous owner must have been sick or something. It was still nicer than they had expected for sure. Jeff blinked and for a moment felt disoriented, as the room behind him completely changed in the mirror, and then changed back, waving in and out of focus like a flashback sequence from a film. He shook his head. That was weird. For a moment the room in the reflection had looked completely dilapidated and ruined, the walls covered in dust and stains, all light faded into muted grays and his wife a rotted corpse, with black fluid spilling out of her left eye. He rubbed his temples, closed his eyes, opened them.

“Everything okay?” Kevin asked, looking at his phone again. “You’ve probably noticed that faint odor in this room. The previous owner was an alcoholic. We will of course have the carpets cleaned for you.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” Charlotte wrinkled her nose.

Jeff was starting to feel sick at his stomach. Suddenly, he didn’t feel as thrilled about this house as when they had first walked in. And he was beginning to think Kevin was acting a bit strange. The man never perspired as far as Jeff could tell, as if he had his pores clogged with silicone or something, but now he kept wiping his brow with the back of his sleeve, and for some reason kept looking at his cell phone like he was expecting a call. That coupled with the odd moment in the mirror, was making him feel strange, and had his stomach tying itself in knots. Charlotte seemed to not notice any of this, and was still as excited as ever.

They continued on, looking at the second bedroom, which seemed as perfect as the living room, and then going up the stairs. The master bedroom was a sight to behold. It was gigantic, had the polished wooden floor instead of the carpet in the other two rooms, and was connected to the master bath, which had a large walk-in shower. There was a claw-foot tub set next to another bay window as well. It was a bit extravagant. Jeff was starting to feel impressed again. He couldn’t let his overactive imagination completely ruin the moment. He could tell Charlotte was in love with the place. If Kevin had papers already drawn up, she would be asking him where to sign.

There was another mirror, bigger than the one downstairs, set over a two basin sink, which would come in handy on the mornings they both had to work. Jeff studied the reflection for a moment, wondering if the incident from downstairs would repeat itself. It didn’t.

“This is, of course, one of the many high points of the house. A splendid master bedroom and bath. There is an office area at the other end of the hall which connects to a sun room.”

“It’s just wonderful,” Charlotte was beaming, being lead down the hall to the other rooms.

Jeff remained silent. He was standing over the claw foot tub, hands in his pockets, when there was a loud thump against the window, making him jump back and cry out in surprise. A large black bird had flown into the glass, and apparently broken its neck, as it left a streak of blood where it slid down the pane and dropped out of view, for a moment its wings thrashing in death spasms.

“Holy shit!”

Jeff couldn’t believe what he had just witnessed. Charlotte and Kevin trotted down the hall to him.

“What happened?” Kevin asked, and wiped some sweat from his face.

“Are you okay?” Charlotte was stroking his arms, a worried look in her eyes, with a bit of uncertainty as to whether or not she should be amused.

“I just saw a bird kill itself against this window.”

“What? Seriously?”

“Oh, yes, one of the few drawbacks of having large bay windows. Sometimes birds don’t see them. Nothing to worry about, a bird doesn’t weigh enough to break it,” Kevin checked his phone again.

“Are you expecting a call or something? You keep looking at your phone.” That feeling of unease was working its way up his spine again.

“Hmm? Oh, no, not a call. Just have an appointment after this showing. Gotta keep track of the time.”

“What time is it? We have a dinner reservation as well.” Charlotte looked at Kevin, then back to Jeff, as if she had gotten so wrapped up in the house, she had forgotten they still had a life outside it.

“It’s just after five now.”

“Okay, well let’s finish seeing the house, so we can both be on our way.”

They took a different set of stairs down to the kitchen. Jeff couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. First the weird moment in the bathroom mirror, and then a bird dying right in front of him. He felt like he had heard some where that dead birds were bad omens for families. He had heard finding one in your house meant someone was going to die. That bird didn’t die in the house, but it still unnerved him.

The kitchen and dining area were amazing attributes of the house. The counter tops were made of black marble. All the appliances were new and had polished stainless steel finishes. There was an island in the center of the kitchen, with an area overhead to hang pots and pans. The walls were painted a dark green. It was right up Charlotte’s alley. She turned to Jeff and squeezed his arm, a glossy sheen of wonderment in her eyes.

“I take it you like the kitchen?” Kevin asked, stating the obvious.

“I love it! Jesus, it’s like right out of my dream kitchen, the one I’ve always imagined.”

“Wonderful,” Jeff walked over to the sink. He blinked. For a moment he thought there had been an eyeball staring up at him out of the drain. It was gone, but there was an earthworm trying to crawl its way out of the sink. Its body was slick with slime, and it could not make it up the steel surface. “I’m sure your dream kitchen didn’t include worms in the sink though, honey.”

“Gross!”

“No, seriously, there’s a worm in the sink. I wonder where it came from?”

Kevin walked over and observed the worm. “Hmm, maybe the bird that tried to fly in through the window, knew something we didn’t.”

“Maybe.”

Kevin turned the water on and flushed the worm down the drain.

“The utilities are all still on?” Jeff had just realized most houses vacant of owners don’t have working lights and water.

“Oh, yes. We keep all of our homes’ utilities on for the first three months of showing. Then we turn them off.”

That seemed like an odd policy to Jeff, but who was he to argue.

“Well, then, now for the grand finale. I hope you all are ready to be sold, because as great as the rest of the house is, the basement is to die for.”

He walked past the refrigerator and stopped by a wooden door with a deadbolt on it. He twisted it and opened the door, shaking some dust free around the frame, which danced in some beams of light shining in through the window. The hinges creaked in a low whine.

“Door just needs a little WD-40 is all.”

“Question, who puts a dead bolt on a basement door?” Jeff felt like he might puke. The blackness of the doorway yawned before him like an open mouth. He didn’t want to go down there. He didn’t know why.

“Oh, the previous owner put that in actually. One of their kids was a little too young for stairs and they fell down them, broke one of her collar bones I believe.”

It had become so easy to lie to these people. Kevin often wondered if he was even capable of telling the truth any more. It was almost time.

“Come on honey, let’s check it out,” Charlotte seemed to be okay with it.

“Eh, you go ahead. I’m not feeling too well. You tell me how it looks.”

“Oh, really? You do look sort of pale,” she placed a hand on his cheek, looked into his eyes, seeming to sense for the first time his growing discomfort.

Kevin wasn’t about to lose this opportunity. He needed these people to see the basement.

“I hate to tell you guys, but a place as awesome as this one isn’t going to set around and wait for buyers who have been taking their vitamins. Besides, you’ll want to see this pool table. Might have time for a quick game of 8 ball.”

He could feel the sweat starting to trickle down his back. Luckily, his suit jacket would keep the majority of the sweat stains out of view from the potential clients. His forehead was a different matter. He wiped it with the back of his hand.

“A pool table, sweetie, that sounds amazing. You’ve always wanted one of those,” Charlotte smiled and kissed him gently. Her eyes were brimming with that anticipation he recognized so well, that look that declared a forewarning of disappointment to come if things did not go her way. He smiled back at her.

“I suppose I could stomach a quick look down there. But seriously, let’s make it quick. I wouldn’t want to throw up in a home I don’t own yet.”

Charlotte seemed a bit unsettled by that remark, but recovered quickly, turning to shine a smile at Kevin as she started down the stairs, Jeff shaking his head in defeat as he followed. Kevin stood, silent and smiling by the door, his eyes as dead as the blackbird with the broken neck outside.

The stairwell, was dark and had a musty smell about it. The stairs were covered in dust, and creaked like they were a thousand years old, their wood groaning with every step as if they might not hold the weight of them. Jeff picked his hand up from the bannister, and saw it was covered in filth as well, and they had only taken four steps.

“There’s a light switch by the bottom step,” Kevin chimed.

“By the bottom, hell I can barely see where I’m going,” Charlotte’s voice warbled a bit, some nervousness creeping in to it. She couldn’t see the floor the stairs were descending to. They seemed to vanish into a pool of black. Suddenly, that blackness seemed to shift before her eyes, as if it were a living thing. It seemed to break apart like a pile of dirty laundry, and slide to either side of the stairs with silky ease, but there was a sound, like a whisper of a church congregation flipping a Bible page. She gasped and held her breath, her hand tightening around the bannister, her feet stopping in mid-step. She could see the floor now, just barely, but wasn’t so sure she wanted to stand on it.

“What’s wrong?” Jeff said, placing his hand on her shoulder. He hadn’t seen the movement from his perspective, a few steps above her.

“I thought I saw something.”
“What?”
“I don’t know. Something moved.”
“Probably a rat.”
“I don’t think so. Wait a minute.”

In the silence trailing their voices, she thought she heard that whisper again. It sounded so eerily like a sheet of paper being pulled across a stack of more paper, but with a quality that seemed unnatural.

“Did you hear that?” She turned to where she could see him behind her.
“Hear what?” Jeff was getting impatient. He didn’t want to continue the tour in the first place.
“That sound?”

“You probably just heard some water moving in the pipes down there, miss. It’s a common basement sound,” Kevin said. He was still standing at the top of the stairwell, watching them.

“Hey, why aren’t you coming down too?”
“Huh,” Jeff turned and noticed Kevin’s odd position as well.
The question seemed to catch him off guard. “Oh, I have a quick call to make, won’t take but a minute, but the basement gets horrible reception. You all go ahead and I’ll be down in a second.”

For the first time, Jeff knew he was lying.
“Um, I don’t think so. We are coming back up.”

He turned around and started back up the stairs. Kevin’s reaction was one of panic. His eyes widened in a moment of reflex fear, his mouth drawing down into a line, as he jumped back and grabbed the door to swing it shut.

“Hey!” Jeff shouted, lunging up the remaining steps to try and catch the door.
“No! Don’t!” Charlotte was screaming.

Before he could reach the top step, Kevin braced himself with the door frame, and brought his foot down into Jeff’s face. The world was filled with the white noise of pain, blood rushing in his ears, as his nose crunched and his lip smashed under the leather heel, shoving him backward, and completely reversing his balance and momentum. He fell into Charlotte, knocking her back on her heels, both of them screaming and careening out of control, falling with the weight of their own bodies pulling them down, tumbling into a cacophonous whirlwind of flailing limbs and hollow sounds, landing in a twisted pile at the bottom. Kevin shut the door, sealing them in silent darkness, the sound of the deadbolt clicking into place cascading down the stairwell, unheard by their still bodies.

~

It was hard to determine how much time had passed. Jeff pulled his eyelids open with a force of will. They felt like they were sealed shut with concrete. His left arm was twisted at an odd angle beneath him, the elbow folded to where it was under the right side of his chest. Trying to move it sent twinges of pain through his shoulder that felt like bone grinding against glass shards. His face was covered in dirt from the stone floor, clumps of it stuck in the blood around his nose and mouth. He grimaced, trying to brace his weight with his right arm enough to raise himself. His breath stirred a cloud of dust. He could see Charlotte lying beside him, but couldn’t tell if she was breathing.

Please, let her be okay.

Deciding not to force the issue of his own movement too much, he reached out and shook her by the arm, gently. Her skin felt clammy. She didn’t seem to respond. He squeezed the meat of her bicep, trying to feel a heartbeat. It was too hard to tell.

“Charlotte,” he whispered through gritted teeth, feeling a sand-like texture between his molars.
She didn’t answer. But something else did.
“Charlotte....”

Chills of fear crawled like invisible spiders down his neck and along his back. The immobilizing pain in his shoulder faded as a growing dread started to reside in his gut. He tried to look around him. It was too dark to tell what had whispered his wife’s name. The blackness was nearly suffocating, bare silhouettes of shapes outlined in the absence of light. It was miraculous that his eyes were adjusting to see anything at all. The basement was devoid of windows, the only light source coming from the pilot light of a gas water heater, barely glowing from a far corner that could have just as easily been an escape hatch to hell for all he knew.

He shook her a bit harder. She still didn’t move. He didn’t want to speak again, for fear of drawing more attention to himself, but he had no choice.

“Damn it, Charlotte, wake up. Something’s in here with us.”

For a moment nothing answered, but then he heard the response. A raspy whisper that sounded like it poured from the walls through a throat made of creek beds and charcoal.
“...wake up...something’s here....”

~

Kevin backed away from the basement door, his hands were shaking. He tried to lean against the kitchen counter, and instead slipped and fell into a sitting position on the floor. Lying to people was one thing, but killing them was a little harder to get used to. This was one of the rare times he was forced to take matters into his own hands. Most people just walked down the steps of the basement and never looked back. It didn’t matter though. Either way, he was satisfying his end of the bargain. He looked at the time on his phone. He had some before the house would change, but he didn’t like to wait around that long. There could be some unforeseen circumstances from being inside the house when it went through the change. And he didn’t want to risk it. Not when he had that appointment to make.

He took some deep breaths and stood back up, scrubbing his face with his hands. His nerves were almost back to normal. He didn’t want to be inside when the screams started though, so he walked his way through the house. The paint along the walls, which looked new and pristine just minutes before, was already starting to look yellowed in places, parts of it cracking and flaking into crumbling dust. The facade was eroding, but he knew that was nothing compared to what was to come.

Smoothing his pants as he walked and brushing off some dust from the floor, he retrieved a pack of cigarettes from his coat pocket. He opened the front door and the knob came apart in his hands. Chuckling to himself, he went on outside, fishing his lighter from his pants. The air was pungent with the smell of grass, thick with the sound of insects. He put a cigarette in his mouth and leaned against the door of his car, turning to watch the transformation, something that always blew his mind. He tossed the pack on the hood and lit the end of the cigarette, his Zippo making the familiar metal clinking noises that had taken on part of his ritual, as he drew the filtered smoke into his lungs and cherished the tingle in his lips. The courier would be there soon.

Let the show begin, he thought.

~

Jeff could feel the sweat starting to pop up on his forehead. His eyes darted from one dark corner to the other, searching for any movement, any clue as to what was taunting him. There was nothing, long shadows coated everything with their tar, dampened his senses. His heart hammered in his temples. His throat felt like it was full of raw cotton. Drops of sweat dropped onto his eyelashes, set his eyes on fire when he blinked. He could feel his emotions swaying to the edge of panic, strangling his breath into short gasps of air.

“Who are you? What do you want from us?” the question seemed so absurd spoken aloud. How do you satisfy the night?
“...a sacrifice...”
“....sacrifice...sacrifice....sacrifice....”

This time when it spoke, there were more answers that seemed to echo from every direction. Voices that felt close to him, pressing in so their words seemed to drown his own thoughts. There were other sounds now as well, slippery scraping noises, like snakeskin sliding across snakeskin through an otherworldly amplification. It felt like the dark was moving in a circle along the walls around him, something he knew more than saw, as if the nature of what was happening was opening a sixth sense in his mind, touching that unseen void, asking him to embrace the madness of it all.

A madness was seeping into him, but he was not embracing it. He grabbed his left shoulder and forced himself to his knees, biting his tongue and groaning with the pain. Tears rolled down the grime of his cheeks. He rocked back and forth for a moment, feeling as though the white dots in his vision were going to carry him away again, but fighting to stay conscious. His arm was probably broken, his shoulder dislocated. He may have some cracked ribs as well. The pain was vicious, a current of raw nerves rubbed with sandpaper in his skull. But the threat of death anchored him to the moment. Kept him aware.

He reached out with a trembling hand, and shook Charlotte by the flesh of her lower back. She still didn’t move of her own accord. He feared the worst. He could see her right leg trailing past him, the foot cocked at an angle on the last stair, the shoe missing. Her left leg was bent sideways, going out in front of him, the black stiletto still somehow clinging to her toes. He had been lying across it before he pushed himself into the sitting position he realized. Her stockings were torn, the red skirt she was wearing twisted and hiked up so he could see the bottom half of her ass. He had to know if she was alive.

Her right arm was twisted behind her, her hand dangling limply from the wrist, palm in the air. Jeff grasped that arm, just around the wrist, and pulled, dragging her toward him. She slid across the ground, her body coming up on its side, but not letting her fall over onto her back. He reached up when she was close enough, letting her arm fall back to her side, and grabbed her shoulder. Sucking in a breath and holding it, he pulled her over onto her back, not knowing what he might see. What he did see was worse than any nightmare he could have imagined.

Charlotte’s eyes were gone. There were pink, fleshy holes were they had been, and oozing from the depths of these holes was a black, gummy-looking fluid, that ran down her cheeks, the left side going across the bridge of her nose to join with the other stream, going around to the back of her head, where they seemed to vanish into the shadows. This same fluid was pouring from her slack, opened mouth, making her bottom lip quiver as it exited, in a thicker strand of the black substance, that seemed to disappear in the same manner as the other two, trailing down her jawline and gone. As he watched, the black stuff seemed to reach its end, pulling from the holes of her face in strange liquified tendrils of viscosity, almost like used motor oil, as it then receded beneath her head. There was another whispery scrape, like a page of a novel coming free and falling to the floor, and then Charlotte moaned, taking in a deep breath. She was alive.

Oh my God, Jeff thought.

“Charlotte, Jesus, honey, I’m sorry,” he was choking back sobs at the sight of his wife’s ruined face. This couldn’t be happening. He bit his fist, holding back a scream, the pain of his shoulder all but forgotten, replaced with shock.

“...Charlotte.....Jesus.......I’m sorry.....”
“...I’m sorry......I’m sorry.....I’m sorry.....”

The voices were mocking him. Clamoring about in the echoes of the basement like tittering demons. The shadows along the walls and floor seemed to dance with life.

“....a sacrifice....a sacrifice...a sacrifice....”
“...it’s necessary....necessary....necessary....”

“SHUT UP, DAMN IT! SHUT UP, LEAVE US ALONE!” Jeff shrieked at nothing. He grabbed Charlotte’s hand, feeling her fingers close around his. The nothing did not respond this time.

“Jeff, is that you? Where are you, I can’t see...my leg hurts,” Charlotte was speaking, her hand tightening in fear. He could hear her voice breaking around the words, with a timidity that was heart wrenching. If he could, if he could somehow make it out of this alive, Jeff would murder the darkness for this, putting a light in every corner of the world.

“I’m here, babe. Be quiet. We’re not alone.”
“Not alone? Who’s here? The realtor?”

She had no idea what was happening. He had to keep her quiet.

“No, worse. Just hush, hush, let me figure something....”

Something grabbed her then, tugging at her hair and the fabric of her clothes. Jeff saw these things pull taut in an instant, and with incredible power, sliding her backward. She shrieked with uncanny intensity, a scream that would turn the blood of the damned cold. Jeff tried to hold onto her hand, but his palms were damp, and the strength of what had her was far too incredible, her hand slipping from his in seconds, causing him to fall forward on his face, his own scream erupting at what he was seeing and the immense pain as his shoulder struck the ground again. The very shadows of the floor seemed to free themselves from the confines of dimensionality, breaking from the ground in that liquid form and wrapping about her limbs like vines or tethers made of the viscous night, cinching tight and pulling until she was spread out before him, still moving away, as if she was now floating on a river of shadows. More tendrils wrapped about her neck and cut off her air, and still more closed about her, working their way up her legs and arms, sliding up her skirt no doubt into her orifices there, just as they clogged her mouth, pulling her and covering her until she blended seamlessly with the blackness of the floor and walls.

There was nothing else for several moments. Jeff sobbed on the floor, his face a mess of tears, snot, and blood, his mind unable to comprehend what had happened, and what was happening still. Then, there was the sound of dripping, and splashes, as something was spilled out of his view. Another dark liquid rolled out of the shadows in an opaque pool toward his face, only without the qualities of lively electricity the shadow pools had possessed. He realized it was his wife’s blood, and he hurriedly pushed himself back from it, scurrying back against the start of the stairs, despite the pain it caused. As he watched, the blood stopped its progress as sudden as it had began, being spread out like a small lake of death, and then, to his astonishment, it receded back into the blackness, leaving no trace of itself, sliding back into the line of darkened shadow, as if swallowed by it, the void not wanting to waste a single drop of its prey.

“....two lives were needed....two lives were given.......”
“....a sacrifice....a sacrifice...”
“...the sacrifice is accepted....”

The scraping sounds of movement intensified for a moment, seeming to swell in a raucous accord, and then they stopped, leaving him in the quiet, the room lightening just a bit as the weight of the presence was lifted from the air.

Jeff leaned against the wall and sobbed.
“What does that mean?” he asked over and over. He began to scream it. He screamed it even after he had realized the answer. He screamed it until his voice was gone.

~

The house buckled as if made of paper, and its insides were rotted. Kevin watched with fascination as the outsides shifted and fell apart, turning into dust carried off by the breeze. The windows cracked, and then shattered into smoke. The mahogany door seemed to melt, and was left as a screen door, hanging by one hinge, the fabric of the screen peeled from the top and folding in on itself. The white stones blew away as ashes, leaving a smaller shell of rotted wood and falling boards, barely held together by rusted nails, and burn scarred rubble. The roof collapsed and was gone in a cloud of vapor. What roof there actually was, was made of sheets of tin, holes of rust eaten through it to the extent it resembled lace in some sections. Within minutes, the gorgeous dream home of the Beauchamp’s was gone, and all that remained was a burned out two bedroom shack, one of its walls gone to a fire, and the rest barely standing. But Kevin knew, that inside that shack, there was still a door, and that door still lead to a cellar, and that cellar still possessed the most evil power he had ever encountered in his life. If he had never been sent to inspect this property by the Agency, after the previous two inspectors had disappeared, he would have never found it, never bought it, and never made the deal. That deal had changed his life forever.

He checked his phone. It said it was 5:59PM, and as he watched it changed to 6:00. The courier should be there any moment.

On cue, the screen door from the shack was shoved open, and a small figure stepped free of the shadows. Kevin stood straight and put out the remainder of his last cigarette, stomping it into the dirt. The crickets were out in full force, filling the world with their symphony, and lightning bugs were starting to pop up across the yards. Kevin rubbed his hands together and waited. The courier took his time. The last bit of sunlight was fading from the sky, pulling the edges of the trees into silhouettes. The air was damp with the night’s dew.

The courier was old. A man of undetermined age, his skin wrinkled and thin beyond measure, all blue veins and liver spots, and flaking psoriasis. He wore filthy denim overalls, and a black coat that he left unzipped, but he pulled the hood up to hide his face. Kevin had only seen his face one time, and hoped to never see it again. The old man’s shuffling gait made swishing sounds in the soft grass as he approached, his face shrouded in shadows except for brief glimpses of white teeth as he shifted about, taking his labored breaths. He stopped a few feet from Kevin. They stood in silence, as if admiring the crickets’ song.

“You seek your payment?” the courier whispered, his voice a strained rasp, as if through vocal cords made of paper and steel.

“That is the deal,” Kevin stated, his voice cracking on the last word. He coughed and rubbed his throat.

“Indeed.”
The old man reached his hand under his coat, and beneath the front of the overalls. He seemed to fish around for a moment, grunting dryly, and then he pulled out a chunk of what looked to be rock in the fading daylight. Kevin knew better though. He reached out both hands and took it as the courier handed it over, its weight quite substantial.

“You may go now.”
The courier turned to walk away, as if nothing had happened.
“Wait,” Kevin blurted, louder than he meant to.
“Yes?” he turned, his hood half facing him, his discolored chin barely visible.
“How many times can you do this?”

For a moment he didn’t respond, just stood in silence, letting the world breathe and the mosquitos buzz. Then, his teeth flashed a moment of whiteness in the dark as he smiled.
“How many can you?”

With that, he turned and continued on, becoming a silhouette against the house, and then a phantom, disappearing into it, the screen door opening and closing like a shutter blown by the wind.

Kevin shook off a chill and opened his car door. The beeps of the alarm seemed to protest against his immorality, or maybe they were signaling his victory in the game of life. He set the chunk of rock on the passenger seat. In the light of the interior lamp, he could see what it was, and he was not disappointed. The courier had given him a chunk of raw gold, just like all the previous times. This deal was going to end up making him one of the most wealthy men in the entire known world. But first, he had a vehicle to dispose of.

~

Jeff sat on the floor of the basement for what seemed like hours. His sobs had reached their end. He could cry no more, his eyes aching, his body shaking with exhaustion, strands of snot and spit hanging from his chin. The coppery taste of his own blood coated the back of his tongue and throat from screaming until all he could muster were weak croaks of air. He could feel the shock making him numb to the situation, draining him of emotional trauma. He was the drowning victim, accepting his fate. The pain of his shoulder was returning in full force, however, with swelling and tenderness that ached in a fierce pulsating rhythm. He had to get out of this house. Had to find a doctor. Or a hospital. Had to find a gun. Had to find Kevin.

She knew. She knew and she didn’t tell me.
Shut the fuck up. She didn’t know.
She knew. She knew and she brought this on us.
Shut up!

Jeff pushed these thoughts away, shoved them to the back of his mind, where they gnawed like rats at the foundations of his psyche.

Bracing himself with his good arm on the wall behind him, he slowly pushed himself up on his feet. There was a moment that he thought he might fall, his head swimming with dizziness, but he withstood it, and held his ground. His right knee was also banged up pretty good, and he couldn’t put his full weight on it, but he should be able to survive. Grasping the bannister, he took a cautious step up onto the lowest stair.

Just then, as if in response, the basement door opened.

Jeff froze. He held his breath, waiting to see if this would be Kevin, come to finish the job. Nothing happened. The seconds spiraled out like hours. He thought he could hear the whirring of crickets. It must be dark out by now.

“Hello?” he forced the word out, grimacing at the pain in his larynx. If he was going to die, he didn’t want to wait around any longer. He wanted to get it over with.
No one answered.
“Hello?! Anyone up there?” He tried to get more volume from his voice, cringing at the echo in the stairwell, the last word dying off in a throaty whisper. He needed a drink.

More silence. For a moment he thought he heard that papery sliding sound of shadows moving beneath him, perhaps asking him to stay, to fling himself into the dark and embrace the unknown that lay beyond it.

Fuck it, he thought.
He continued up the stairs. His sore knee and injuries made the task a slow one, but he managed it well enough. He paused halfway up and listened for a moment, catching his breath as well. Sweat was pouring off him in rivers. No sounds emanated from the upstairs, other than the faint buzz of what he thought to be crickets, which had grown louder. He pushed himself onward.

When he reached the top, he was unprepared for what he saw, but nothing surprised him too much at this point, considering what he had been through already.
She knew.

Instead of a kitchen, he emerged into a dingy hallway, the floorboards sunken in and warped, the walls falling into ruin and mold. A lightning bug illuminated itself for a moment and flew past his head. He turned right, the direction he hoped lead to the front of the building, and headed down the hall, the floor creaking and groaning like it might collapse with each step.

The hallway opened up into a room with three walls, the fourth being destroyed and revealing the sky and the field below it. He thought he could smell wet ashes. The sound he thought was crickets turned out to be just that, a chorus of chaos that stayed at a constant volume, as if the world was a television set left on a channel of static. He could make out stars, and maybe the faint glow of the moon, shining more light into the house than he had seen in what felt like eternity. If he couldn’t find the door soon, he decided he could just walk out through the open wall, as long as he watched his footing and didn’t fall on any debris. Another hard fall and he might not be able to get back up. He was about to turn and explore the other room, which was to his left, when a voice spoke from the corner.

“Mr. Beauchamp, I presume.”
Jeff gasped and nearly tripped over his own foot, having to brace himself with a fallen roof support beam that was nearby. He turned and faced the corner that the voice had come from, and could see a table and two chairs set there in the shadows. An old man, wearing a hooded coat of some kind, was sitting in one of the chairs.

“Who the hell are you?” Jeff asked, his ravaged vocal cords making his voice oddly similar to that of the old man’s. He strained to make the second half of the question audible, the taste of blood returning.
“I’m the courier.”
“So?”
“You’ve had a rough day. Lost your wife. Lost your firstborn child. Never even got to name him. But that’s no excuse to be rude.”

Jeff just stared at the man.

Never even got to name him. She knew. Never even got to name HIM.

“I’m here to offer you a chance at something that might interest you.”
“I’m not interested,” his voice was full of death.

He was struggling not to faint. What the old man had said kept repeating in his skull, nauseating him to the point of feeling like he had swallowed a live snake.

Never even got to name him. Never even got to NAME HIM.
“Not even in revenge?”
“Revenge would mean killing you.”

The words rolled out of his mouth like dead leaves. He was numb. His knuckles were white from the grip on the fallen beam. This man was old. He could crush his skull with that empty chair. Crush his windpipe with his boot heel. He could tear out the fucker’s throat with his teeth. The effort would undoubtedly push him beyond his pain threshold, leaving him to die alone in this burned out shell of a home, with the ghost of his wife and the corpse of a stranger watching him become food for wild dogs. He could care less at this moment.

“Now, now. Mr. Beauchamp,” the old man whispered. For a moment, his eyes lit up as if with flame, a bright orange glow that sharpened all edges of darkness, revealing a sick lipless smile and a boney face that glistened with blood and pus, imprinting that image forever in Jeff’s mind before the light was gone, and the ghost images of the old man’s eyes pulsated on his vision like translucent moths. “One should never mistake me for something that can be killed.”

For a moment Jeff couldn’t speak. He was helpless as a man who had just watched his wife die. He was human. All the pain that could be felt, was alive in his skin, threatening to drive him to his knees. Nothing seemed real. This had to be a dream.

“What do you want from me?” he managed to rasp.
“I’m here to ask if you’d like to make a deal.”

The End

Written by

Provocative truth teller, author of 14 poetry collections. Cat dad. Dog dad. Currently working from Portland, Oregon. Learn more at: .

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