The town of Arthur’s Wake was dying. At least, that’s what Jamie’s dad always said. The man tended to wax philosophical when he was drunk, which was often. Jamie would silently sit at the dinner table and listen to the man ramble on about how things had been different when he had been growing up, how back then an honest day’s work actually got you something. Jamie’s mother would sit quietly at the other end of the table from his father saying nothing, gaze firmly fixed on an empty space six inches in front of her face, only stirring to refill plates or glasses or to clear the dishes. Many days her unmoving, hollow eyes were ringed with various shades of purple and yellow. On those they weren’t, the bruises were simply hiding, concealing themselves in places less visible.
Once last year his father had been in a particularly black drunk. Profits at the factory were down. Rumor had it that the foreman would be releasing a handful of workers by the end of the week and Jamie’s dad reckoned he might be one of them. Jamie had lain in the bedroom he shared with his brother staring at the ceiling for as long as he was able, tears quietly streaming down his face, listening to the shouts through the thin walls accompanied by heavy thumps and soft moans. Finally, unable to bear the sounds any more he got out of bed and retrieved his little league bat from where it rested in the corner. He made it to the door when he felt a small hand tug on his pajama sleeve.
Jamie! Don’t go, Jamie!
Shut up, Lester!
No, no, Jamie… don’t leave me!
Jamie, he’ll hurt you!
Get off me! Go hide in the closet if you’re scared.
No, no, no…
Jamie pulled his sleeve from Lester’s grip and gave him a slight shove, enough to knock him back onto the bed. The little boy sat there, pitifully sobbing as Jamie slipped through the door. Noiselessly he crept down the hallway towards the living room holding the bat cocked the way his coach had taught. Jamie carefully poked his head around the corner, eyes growing wide at the scene that unfolded before him. His father stood in the middle of the room a half empty beer can in one hand, his belt in the other. His mother cowered in the far corner, hands held feebly in front of her, one eye already swollen shut. A red rage overtook Jamie, the emotion more powerful than anything he’d felt in his young life. In that moment he made the decision to kill his father.
He held his breath, stalking ever closer as the man took a long pull from his drink. Whether he was warned by the slight widening of his wife’s good eye, or through some devilish intuition, Jamie’s father turned just as Jamie raised his weapon. Screaming in anger and frustration Jamie swung as hard as he could, only to have the bat plucked from his hands as easily as a child pulling the wings off a fly.
You little s**t.
The slap hit Jamie hard enough to see stars, his head snapping backwards, and he stumbled against the wall. The next blow crushed the air from his chest and he crumpled to the ground gasping for breath.
Think you’re man enough to take a swing at me, huh?
Jamie tasted blood and heard a dull crack when his father kicked him in the ribs. He curled into a ball as the blows continued to fall.
See how you like a taste of your own medicine, boy.
Jamie raised his arm to defend himself as the bat came down, smashing against his forearm. He screamed as he felt the bone snap.
Don’t huh? We’re just getting started.
Jamie’s eyes widened in terror as his father raised the bat above his head ready to deliver a crushing blow. Suddenly his mother was there, pinning Jamie to the ground, shielding him with her own body.
Frank, you f*****g animal! He’s your son!
Get out of the way, w***e. The boy’s gonna learn.
You’ll have to kill me first. Go ahead and do it, then enjoy being locked up for the rest of your miserable life, you piece of s**t.
You think I won’t?
I know you won’t. You don’t have the balls.
For a moment Jamie thought he would do it, the bat wavering ever so slightly as his father’s eyes narrowed in drunken rage. Then he lowered the bat and turned his back on the huddled pair.
He walked across the room to where the television blared loudly and dropped into an easy chair, tossing the bat into the corner. His mother slowly got to her feet.
He needs to go to the hospital, Frank.
Then f*****g take him.
She helped Jamie up.
Get to the car and lock yourself in, baby. I’ll get your brother and meet you there.
They drove to the hospital in silence save for Lester’s quiet sniffles from the back seat. Jamie’s arm had to be set and put in a cast. The break was clean so the doctor assured them it should heal without any issues. They also tightly wrapped his chest in medical tape, though fortunately his ribs were just cracked and bruised, not broken. Jamie lay lightly dozing in a hospital bed, Lester curled up under his unbroken arm fast asleep, while his mother spoke softly to a woman in the hallway. They talked for a while, ever so often shooting concerned glances at him through the doorway. Finally his mother came into the room and gently sat down next to him.
Who was that lady, mom?
No one, honey. She’s just worried about how you got your injuries. And how I got mine.
What’d you tell her?
What I had to.
Jamie grit his teeth in frustration.
Why do you stay with him, mom? We could leave…
His mother smiled sadly.
You’ll understand someday. Now, you have to promise me something. No matter what happens, never try to do what you did tonight again.
I mean it, Jamie! I would die if anything happened to you or your brother. I can take care of myself; you just have to trust me, baby.
Lying there in the dark, feeling the slow rise and fall of his brother’s chest as he softly snored beside him, Jamie lied to his mother for the first and only time in his life.
All right, mom. I promise.
A nurse came in and adjusted a knob on one of the tubes leading into his arm. Jamie felt his eyelids grow heavy as his mother stroked his forehead.
That’s my brave boy. My brave, beautiful boy.
“Well,” Jamie thought to himself as he drifted to sleep, “it might not really be a lie. I said I wouldn’t try again. Next time I just have to succeed.”
Jamie had slowly healed over the coming weeks. His arm itched under the cast, but the worst part was his cracked ribs ached constantly and sent sharp pains running through his side whenever he took a deep breath.
One night he lay in bed fitfully trying to get comfortable when the dark shape of his father loomed over him from the doorway. Terrified, he remained absolutely still, feigning sleep. To his surprise, the man sat down next to him, quietly weeping.
Oh, my boy, my boy I am so sorry.
He stayed there for several minutes, Jamie trying desperately not to gasp from the pain radiating from his ribs.
What the f**k do you think you’re doing?
Jamie’s mother stood in the doorway.
No. You don’t get to feel sorry for this. You don’t get to touch him.
Don’t you f*****g dare. You are not his father, not after what you did. If you touch either of them again, for any reason, I’m leaving you, Frank. And I’m taking them with me. Now get out.
Shoulders hunched, his father stumbled from the room, closing the door behind him. It was a long time before Jamie managed to fall asleep.
Since then, Jamie had been waiting for an opportunity to kill his father. He’d come close a few times, evenings when his father would be passed out in front of the TV, a line of drool slowly dripping down his chin. But something always held him back; Jamie told himself it was the promise he’d made to his mother, but the small, honest part of his mind knew it was because he was afraid. He still remembered the pain.
For his father’s part, he hadn’t touched Jamie or Lester since that night. It probably helped that, somehow, he managed to avoid the layoffs at the factory. Certainly he still got drunk regularly, and on many occasions would slap his wife around, but things never got quite as bad as that time; there was less shouting involved now. The abuse had become almost a casual action, done out of reflex rather than emotion. Jamie’s anger had cooled from the burning rage it was when he made the decision to kill his father, to a low, calculating heat. He was patient, and he watched, knowing that someday he would have his moment.
Until then, Jamie spent his evenings numbly sitting at the dinner table, listening to his drunk of a father go on about the good old days. Lester at least seemed to be oblivious to the dark undercurrents in the house. Even now the eight year old was making faces across the table at Jamie trying to get him to laugh. Jamie thought about trying to kick him under the table but decided not to; he didn’t want to draw attention to himself.
“This town is going to hell, I tell ya,” his father spoke between bites of roast. “Unemployment through the roof, homeless bums passed out on every other street corner.” He took a swig of beer. “And don’t even get me started about all the disappearing kids. That little Fontaine girl’s the latest one, last week. Her dad stopped by the factory today, out of his goddamn mind.”
Jamie felt a hollow pit appear in his stomach as his mind registered what his father had just said.
He spoke up without thinking. “What? Morgan’s missing?”
“Hmm?” his father frowned. “No, not Morgan. The other one, the sister. Claire.”
Relief washed over Jamie, quickly followed by shame. He’d known Morgana Fontaine for years. The first day of second grade another boy had pulled on her raven black braid and Jamie had shoved him away. Morgan, needing no one to fight her battles for her, turned and punched the boy in the nose. Sitting next to each other in the school office waiting to see the principal they quietly joked about the open mouthed, gaping look the boy had on his face as he sat on the ground trying to contemplate what had just happened. They’d been friends ever since and, for the last year or so, Jamie had felt his feelings toward her changing towards something deeper than friendship.
Her sister Claire was about the same age as Lester. Jamie knew the girl certainly, he often walked the sisters home after school with Lester dragging his feet behind them, but Jamie was really only there to spend time with Morgan. The emotions he felt about her weren’t well defined as of yet, but something in his stomach had heaved in the brief moment he thought she was missing. His relief that she wasn’t was offset by the knowledge that she would surely be devastated by Claire’s disappearance. Neither girl had been in school the last two days, and this explained why.
“Mom, may I be excused please?” She hadn’t finished her nod before Jamie was halfway out the door. The Fontaines’ house was only a few streets down and he could be there in minutes. He’d meant to go see Morgan before now, but the thought of the dark looks her mother always gave him whenever he walked the girls home had warded him off from showing up uninvited.
“Back before dark, boy!” his father yelled after him. “Or you’ll be the next one on the side of a milk carton!”
He’d gone three blocks when he heard a high-pitched voice calling his name behind him, “Jamie! Jamie, wait for me!”
He turned and saw Lester running as fast as his legs would carry him. Jamie stopped and waited for him to catch up. He arrived panting, hands on his knees trying to catch his breath. Jamie frowned.
“What do you think you’re doing, sprout?”
“Mom said I could go with you. Claire’s my friend too!”
“Yeah, well maybe I don’t feel like having you tag along.”
“Mom said I had to stick with you, and that if you didn’t want me to come you had to walk me back home.”
Jamie ground his teeth. “Fine. But you stay right with me and do what I say, got it?”
Lester nodded seriously.
“Right. First things first, keep your mouth shut.”
“What’d I just say? Mouth shut or I walk you home. It won’t take that long to drop you off.”
Lester grudgingly nodded again, his excitement at being allowed to come somewhat tempered.
“Good. Let’s go.”
They continued down the street and made the turn onto Blackwood Drive, reaching the Fontaines’ a few minutes later. Walking up the steps with Lester close on his heels, Jamie knocked firmly on the door. Half turning back towards the road as he waited, Jamie’s eyes fell on the dilapidated building a little farther down the street as they often did when he walked Morgan home.
It must have been really something back in its day, what with its massive stone walls and windows, enormous garden, and high iron fence, but the Wicker House had been abandoned for more than forty years. The walls were dirty and the windows broken, the garden so overgrown it more closely resembled a jungle, and the fence was mottled with rust. The wicked spikes jutting on top of the posts still looked plenty sharp though. Jamie felt an involuntary shiver crawl down his spine. People said the place was haunted, and it was easy to see why, even in the daylight.
Quick steps approached from inside the house and Jamie turned back just as the door swung open. Mrs. Fontaine stood there, a tissue held in one hand and her eyes tinged with red. It was obvious she had been crying.
“Good evening, Mrs. Fontaine. We…we heard about Claire. We were hoping we could see Morgana.” Jamie was always careful to use Morgan’s full name around her mother. Morgan hated it, but her mother was especially particular in that regard. “We’re terribly sorry about what’s happened.” Lester nodded solemnly next to him, so far continuing to obey the order to keep his mouth shut.
For a moment Jamie was afraid the woman would slam the door in their faces and send them packing, but then she bent over and swept both of them up in a hug.
“Of course, of course, boys. Come in. It’s a trying time, and Morgana needs her friends to help her through this. She’s upstairs.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
Lester followed closely as Jamie went up the stairs and down the hallway to Morgan’s room. He knocked lightly and waited a moment. All was quiet. He knocked again and called softly through the door.
“Morgan? It’s Jamie. I’ve got Lester with me. We came to see you.” There was a moment of silence before she answered.
“Go away, Jamie,” her response from within was muffled through the door, “I don’t want to see anyone.”
“Awe, come on, don’t be like that. Even your mom said we should come up. And you know how she usually feels about me even standing out on your porch.”
“Please, Morgan?” Lester piped up from beside him. “We heard about Claire. My daddy told us she’s missing. We just want to make sure you’re ok.”
Jamie glared down at his brother and briefly considered tweaking him on the ear before he heard movement on the other side of the door. After a brief scrabbling at the handle, it creaked open a few inches and Morgan peered through the crack. The interior of the room was dark, and Morgan squinted into the light of the hallway. Jamie’s heart lurched into his throat. She looked awful.
Unlike her mother, Morgan’s eyes weren’t red from crying but were bloodshot just the same. Deep circles under her eyes suggested she hadn’t slept for the last several days and her raven black hair was snarled into a tangled bird’s nest on top of her head. She looked thinner than normal, as if she hadn’t been eating. Getting her bearings she eyed Lester with an appraising look.
“Missing huh, twerp? That’s what they’re saying? That’s what you think is going on?” Her laugh had a slight manic tone to it, and continued for several moments too long. Jamie and Lester exchanged a concerned glance before she finally regained control of herself. “Heh, sorry about that. Haven’t slept in a few days. You better come in before mom changes her mind.” She opened the door wider and made a sweeping gesture with her arm. Jamie walked through the door with Lester following, gripping his hand tightly.
The room was a mess. It was hard to see details in the dark, but Jamie could smell the dirty clothes heaped about the room and noticed piles of used dishes stacked here and there throughout. The only light came from a tiny lamp sitting on a desk at the far wall, the rest of which was strewn with old newspapers. A small leather bound book that looked like a diary or journal lay open in the middle of the desk. Morgan retrieved the book before moving to the bed where she sat, pulling her legs up and crossing them in front of her. Jamie looked around for a place to sit before finally settling for a relatively open spot on the floor, Lester crouching down beside him. Morgan stared at the two boys unblinking, like a bird of prey on its perch deciding what to do with a morsel it had just spied in the field below. Jamie tried to think of something to say but found his mind was strangely blank. Instead he cleared his throat in the uncomfortable silence. Finally, Morgan apparently made up her mind.
“What do you know about Tomas Wicker?” she asked.
“What? You mean the millionaire? The one whose old house is down the block?”
“That’s the one, yeah. What do you know about him?”
Jamie was confused by the line of questioning. “Uh, well… I mean, like I said, he was a millionaire. I think he had some oil fields or something. And he was some kind of an explorer, had all kinds of weird stuff he did in Africa and all over the place. He built that house about forty years ago and he had a wife, but she disappeared a few years after that. And, uh…” he trailed off.
“Yes?” Her face remained blank but conveyed an air of expectation.
“He killed himself,” Lester whispered softly. “He killed his maid and the gardener and then he jumped out of the attic window.
Jamie glared at Lester. “How do you know about that, squirt?”
Lester stared at the ground. “Timmy Boyle told the story at school. But everybody knows, Jamie.”
Morgan’s lips curved slightly up into a smile. There was no warmth in it, “That’s right. Everyone knows. And everyone’s wrong.” She chuckled, slightly patting the book in her lap. “This book… it has the truth. And let me tell you, boys, in this case the truth is a whole hell of a lot stranger than fiction.”
Jamie eyed the book skeptically. “Oh yeah? What is that thing anyway?”
“This old thing?” Morgan’s tone was playful, but her eyes were deadly serious. “Why nothing less than the journal of Tomas Wicker.”
It took Jamie half an hour to page through the journal. He didn’t read it in-depth, other than a few passages Morgan had specially marked, Lester trying to lean over his shoulder the whole time. Finally he reached the end.
“Where did you find this thing?”
“Where do you think? In that f*****g house, buried under piles of papers up in the attic.”
“You went in there? Morgan, you must be crazier than he was. There’s no way the stuff in this book is true. Wicker must have been insane. I mean, he was insane, remember? He killed those people who worked for him, and then he killed himself. The stuff he wrote in here is the rambling of a lunatic.”
Morgan scowled at him. “Yeah? How stupid do you think I am? Seriously? That I’m just going to believe something that’s written in an old book?”
Jamie frowned. “What are you talking about? You mean you’ve got more?”
She rolled her eyes and got up from the bed moving towards the desk. “Loads more. The police report from the night Wicker killed himself. News articles about his so-called wife before she mysteriously vanished. And stories. Tons and tons of stories from people claiming to have seen her after she disappeared.”
“But, that’s nothing. Just ghost stories to frighten kids…” He stopped as he saw her eyes threaten to overflow with tears. Angrily she wiped them away.
“That’s what I thought too, at first. But then…” Her voice broke in a sob. Whispering she spoke, almost to herself, her gaze fixed straight ahead, eyes staring at nothing. “It was just a dare. It was just a stupid dare.”
Jamie felt like he’d been hit in the gut, his breath short like the time his father had cracked his ribs. “Morgan, what did you do?”
She turned to look at him. The tears had come back and this time they ran down her face. “Oh, God, Jamie. I think I killed my sister.”
Jamie felt the world start to spin.
Morgan took a couple moments to compose herself. Then she began. “We’d grown up listening to the stories, you know? Everyone had. You’d think that maybe living down the street from the house we’d eventually get used to it, but I never did. I could never look at it without getting creeped out. I hate being scared, and finally a couple weeks ago I decided to do something about it.” The breath hitched in her throat before she went on.
“I didn’t tell you, or anyone else at school, because I was afraid you’d make fun of me. This just sort of became my pet project. I started at the library. Went through all the old records they had to find out everything I could about the house. There’s a lot. More than a lot. Wicker was basically the closest thing this town had to a celebrity back in the day, so the newspapers carried the story for weeks after he died, hit it from every angle. The one thing they had absolutely no information on was his wife.” She moved over to the desk and picked up one of the old newspapers.
“The only hard evidence I could find to show that she even for sure existed was this article here.” She passed the paper to Jamie. The top article on the page was devoted to the Lady Wicker, recounting stories and speculations that various people around town had made about her. It was accompanied by a picture of the second story of the house, in much better condition than it currently stood, and Jamie could see the fuzzy image of a woman standing in the window, the only detail a surprising sharpness of her eyes.
“Finally I got all I could out of the papers. For the amount of stories they ran after Wicker’s death, they had surprisingly little actual information about him. So last week I decided I’d go inside and see if I could find anything. I figured maybe once I saw what was in there I’d be less scared. Claire insisted on going with me. You know how little siblings are.” She looked pointedly at Lester before continuing.
“I really hadn’t thought we’d find anything, but once we snuck in it looked like the house hadn’t been touched in all this time. Once the police completed the investigation they just sort of closed the front door and walked away. There’s so many creepy stories about the place, I think it’s kept a lot of people out who would have gone through it before now. I wish I would have done the same.” She sighed.
“There’s still a whole bunch of weird stuff in there. Masks and statues and all sorts of things. The room the picture in the paper shows as Mrs. Wicker’s has these symbols scrawled all over the walls. Eventually we made our way up to the attic. The house is all rundown and some of the stairs were pretty rotten but the ladder leading up to the attic was still there. I thought if I saw where he killed himself that would be enough to cure me of my fear. So we went up and poked around. That’s where I found this.” She tapped the journal.
“It was getting late so we went back home. That’s when I first started going through the book. I thought the same thing you did, that Wicker must have been nuts. But the worst part was that my fear hadn’t gone away. Just the opposite, all the stuff in the book made me even more afraid, even though a part of me was telling myself it had to be make believe.
“The next day I was talking to Claire about it. She laughed at me, said I was scared of a stupid, empty house. I told her if she wasn’t a scaredy-cat that she should go spend an hour in Mrs. Wicker’s old room at midnight. I think she was afraid but she didn’t want to admit it in front of me. You know how little siblings are.” She looked at Lester again.
“So last Saturday we snuck out again. That’s the first day the fog really came in. We were practically on top of the house before I could see it. I offered to let Claire out of the deal, but she was insistent, even though she was so scared she was shaking. I told her that at least I’d lower the terms of the dare; I didn’t want to be there any more than she did. All she had to do was go upstairs to the room and wave to me through the window. Then we could go home.
“I had to go in through the gate just to be able to see the window. Claire went up the steps and only looked back once before squeezing through the front door. I don’t know how long I waited, standing there staring at the window, waiting for her to come. It was probably only a minute or two, but it felt like hours. Finally, I saw this figure at the window. It was hard to make it out through the fog, but it was definitely person shaped. I thought it had to be Claire. I mean what else could it be? It was there for a moment, and I could tell it was looking at me, but then it moved away from the window. I think I must have been holding my breath, because I remember I let it out then, thinking that Claire would be back down in just a minute and we could leave. I’d kid her a little about not having the guts to wave to me, but in reality I was glad she was moving as quickly as she was.
“Those were the thoughts going through my head when I heard Claire calling me. I looked up and there she was standing in the window, waving at me clear as day, even through the fog. She had this huge smile on her face, so proud of what she’d done.” Morgan choked back a sob. “She was just trying to impress me, the little idiot. But I couldn’t be happy for her, because I knew,” she looked up at Jamie, “I knew she wasn’t alone in the house.
“I yelled at her to get down from there, to run. First she looked mad that I wasn’t giving her the praise she had expected, then she looked scared. She had this terrified look on her little face when she finally backed away from the window. That was the last time I saw her alive.
“God, I waited there calling to her forever. I was scared that I was so loud I’d wake my parents down the street, but part of me hoped that would happen, that they’d come. I should have gone in there after her, but I was just so scared,” her eyes were tearing up again. “My little sister was in trouble and I was too big of a coward to do anything about it, Jamie.
“I must have stood there for twenty minutes just yelling her name. I never even heard anything from her, not a scream, not a sound. Maybe if I’d heard something, knew for sure that something was happening, that would have spurred me to run in. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. Finally my voice started to go hoarse and I just sat down on the ground and started to cry. I’m not sure how long I was sitting there sobbing before I noticed that the fog had started to thicken even more.
“Suddenly I became aware of this presence. You know how sometimes you can tell someone is looking at you even when you aren’t looking at them? It was like that. I looked up and couldn’t make anything out five feet in front of me because of the fog. But even so I could see this pair of eyes staring at me from near the front door.” She shuddered.
“I don’t know how I know this, but those eyes were happy, Jamie. Happy, and hungry. I thought I’d been scared before that, I thought I’d been out of screams. Boy, was I wrong. I turned and ran so fast it’s a wonder I didn’t knock myself out trying to get through the gate. Even more wonder that I managed to find my way back to my house through the fog. But I did, screaming and crying and blubbering the whole way.
“By that point I actually had managed to wake my parents up with all the noise I was making. They were at the front door when I just about collapsed on the welcome mat. It took them a while to get me calmed down enough to tell them what happened. My dad grabbed a flashlight and headed over to the house. He searched until morning but didn’t find anything, no trace of Claire or of what or who took her. Then he called the police.
She sighed. “They’ve had me tell them my story over and over again, hoping I could give them some clue about who took Claire, some detail. Even if I could have seen more clearly through the fog, I don’t think it would have helped. Did you know there’s a lot of missing kids in the Wake? It’s been going on for a while now, Jamie; I’ll bet even longer than they think or would admit. I’ll bet it’s been going on since the night Tomas Wicker threw himself out of his attic window. Since the night she got out.” She opened the book on her lap and absently started to leaf through the pages.
“It’s all in here. The stuff Wicker saw, that he encountered. She was one of them, that Thing everyone thought was his wife. He kept her locked away up there in that room so that she’d never be free. But she got free. And Wicker decided he’d rather kill himself than face what he knew she’d do once she was.” She paused, blankly staring at the book.
“Now hang on a second, Morgan,” Jamie cut in, “nothing you saw proves anything that’s in the book is true. I mean, I certainly believe that you saw someone in the house, and in all likelihood they’re the one that took Claire. But there’s nothing about it other than those eyes that suggests there are ghosts or demons or whatever that are responsible for this. And that could have just been your mind playing tricks on you. It was probably just some homeless guy. They haven’t found a body; Claire could still be out there.”
Morgan looked up, a small sad smile on her face. “Oh, Jamie. Don’t you get it? They won’t find a body.”
Jamie felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand at attention, “What do you mean, Morgan? How can you be so sure?”
“Because remember how I said when she moved away from the window that was the last time I saw her alive? I didn’t say it was the last time I saw her. It’s why I haven’t been able to sleep.” Morgan shivered slightly, took a breath. “Claire comes to me every night, out of the fog. She looks at me through my window with her black, empty eyes, her hand lightly tapping on the pane like she wants to come inside. But somehow I know that’s not it at all. It’s not that she wants to be let in. It’s that she wants me to come out.”
“But, Morgan,” Lester whispered, wide eyed, “your room is on the second floor.”
She threw back her head and laughed, “I know. Wild isn’t it?” Her eyes narrowed as she looked at Jamie with an accusing expression. “So any more bright ideas or thoughts about how crazy I am?”
Jamie shook his head. “Have you told your parents? The police?”
Morgan chuckled at that. “Told them what exactly? That some demon succubus stole my little sister and turned her into a monster? Come on, Jamie. You know they’d never believe that, even with the journal to back up my story.”
“You could have them stay with you. Show her to them.”
“Already tried it. She doesn’t come when other people are around. Just makes the adults give each other concerned glances when they think I’m not looking. No, I’m going to have to do this myself.”
Jamie’s voice was almost a whisper. “Do what exactly?”
Morgan’s mouth drew into a tight, hard smile, “Why, put the b***h back in her cage, of course.”
Jamie only hesitated a moment before he nodded. “Okay. What can I do to help?”
Jamie silently made his way down the empty streets towards Morgan’s house. It hadn’t been any trouble to sneak out. His dad was drunk as always, passed out in front of the TV. Nights like that, mom went to bed early to avoid the possibility of waking him up and putting him in one of his black moods. It was too easy to walk out the front door with only the slightest creak of hinges to betray his exit.
Lester hadn’t wanted him to go of course; the kid was terrified. But then when he realized he wasn’t going to convince Jamie to stay back, he’d tried to insist on coming himself. That wasn’t going to happen. Morgan had already lost Claire screwing around with this house, and whether he was about to encounter demon women or just some deranged p*******e, there was no way Jamie would let the squirt tag along. Not this time.
Morgan had laid out the bones of the plan earlier that day. The journal never referenced the thing called Lady Wicker by name, but there were plenty of passages talking about “Her” and “She”. Morgan had also found a detailed drawing that resembled the symbols on the walls of what had been Lady Wicker’s prison.
“Some of the symbols were marred, Jamie,” she said, opening book to the page in question. Strange letters that looked nothing so much as random scratches and scribbles covered the paper. “I’m sure that’s what let her get out of there. It can’t be she’s completely free, though, or she wouldn’t still be hanging around the Wake. My guess is that whatever did it just caused the cage door to open wide enough so she could stick her head out and snap at anything that gets too close. If we can fix the symbols, it’ll close the door again.”
It seemed like a good plan, as far as Jamie could tell, except he would have preferred they go during the daylight.
“You think I don’t want that too?” Morgan looked at him incredulously. “Christ, Jamie, going back into that f*****g house is the absolute last thing I want to do, especially at night. But there’s no way my parents will let me go over there after everything that happened, and they keep a close enough eye on me during the day that there’s no way I’d be able to sneak out. We have to go at night.”
And so he reluctantly agreed. Jamie arrived at Morgan’s house and crouched down on her porch. The fog was already starting to heavily roll in but he could still make out the ominous outline of the Wicker House farther down the street. A slight noise made him turn as Morgan slipped out the front door to join him.
“Good, you’re here. I didn’t want to have to wait for you out here alone. No telling if my sister will decide to show up, and I really don’t want to find out what happens if she does. Did you bring the paint and brushes?”
Jamie patted the backpack slung over his shoulder. “Yeah. You have the journal?”
Morgan held it up along with a battery powered flashlight. “To help us see so can we draw the symbols. Let’s go, I want to get this over with.”
In silence, the pair stepped into the fog.
The heavy iron gate screamed loudly as Morgan pushed it open far enough for them to squeeze through. Looking up, Jamie realized this was the closest he’d ever been to the Wicker House. The structure squatted like an insect, the gaze of its paneless windows radiating malevolence as tendrils of fog curled and wrapped around its eaves. Its empty gaze seemed to follow them as they made their way up the overgrown path and slipped through the front door.
Once inside, Morgan switched on the flashlight, the white beam slicing through the otherwise pitch black darkness. She played the light around a bit to orient herself in the gloom and Jamie could see that what she’d said about the house was true; the place looked as if it hadn’t been touched in the forty years it had stood empty. Finding the staircase with the light, Morgan slowly moved up to the second floor, Jamie following closely on her heels, carefully avoiding the rotten steps.
The top of the stairwell opened to a long hallway, the door at the far end cracked slightly open. Morgan fixed her light on the opening. “That’s the one,” she whispered in Jamie’s ear, “come on.” He shivered, but didn’t know if it was from fear or from her closeness, the tingle of her breath on his skin. Silently they crept down the hall, and soon found themselves in the room.
Morgan passed the beam along the walls and Jamie’s mouth dropped open. The symbols were something to be seen in the journal, certainly, but they were a completely different matter in real life. The number of them was astounding, and it was obvious that they’d been painted on the walls with meaning and purpose, far from the jumble of scribbles he’d thought when he first saw them in the book. It seemed as if they glowed with a faint luminescence, and not for the first time Jamie wondered if conducting the repairs would be as easy as Morgan had made it out to be. Finally Morgan rested the light on the far wall and Jamie could see exactly what she had meant; several of the symbols were noticeably smudged, though it was impossible to tell what might have caused the damage. Jamie dropped his pack to the floor and hurriedly removed the two brushes and a small can of paint he had stuffed inside.
“Here, hold this so I can see.” Morgan handed him the flashlight as she opened the journal to the page she had marked. Picking up the paint and a brush she moved over to the damaged section. “Okay, shine it over here.” He complied and with a look of intense concentration, Morgan began to carefully paint.
She’d been at the work for several minutes and was making good headway when the fog began noticeably seeping through the broken window. A feeling that he was being watched began to grow stronger and Jamie felt a rash up goosebumps break out down his arms. He glanced from side to side attempting to find the cause of the feeling. “Morgan…”
“I know,” she snapped, her voice trembling slightly, “I feel it too. She’s coming. Just keep the beam steady. Finishing this is our only chance.” She continued to work, and Jamie saw her brush shake slightly, small droplets of paint falling to the floor. A sudden cloud of fog boiled in through the window and as he turned he found himself facing the opposite corner of the room. From its depths peered a pair of shockingly intense eyes. They fixed on him. The gaze immediately locked his own and in a moment Jamie felt his will drain away. The flashlight fell heavily to the floor at his feet.
Jamie was floating in grayness, his mind as blank as the faceless fog surrounding him. He couldn’t remember where he was or what he had been doing, but some part of him thought it might have been important.
At the edge of his consciousness he could barely make out a voice calling his name. What could they possibly want? His mind, content to remain in limbo, rejected the summons.
This time, his name was accompanied by a sharp pain, jolting him out of the hazy dreams he’d been wallowing in. In an instant he was back to himself. Lester stood in front of him, tears streaming from his eyes, a line of snot running down his nose as he sobbed, his hand held back for another slap. Jamie caught the boy’s hand as it flew forward. “Whoa! Easy, bud. I’m here, I’m…” his gaze fell on Morgan. The flashlight had fallen so that the beam bled over where she was lying on the ground, twitching violently, her eyes rolled back in her head so only the whites were visible. He grabbed the light and rushed to her side trying to hold her head steady.
“Morgan! Morgan, come on wake up!”
“Jamiiieee….” Lester was tugging at his shoulder.
“Dammit, Lester what…?” His eyes moved up and his voice failed him.
The fog continued to fill the room, but even through the thick screen of white he could see the ring of children around them. They stood shoulder to shoulder, their expressions blank, their eyes black. Twisting with Lester clutching his arm, he shone the beam about the room to see they were completely surrounded. When the light reached the front of the room, it fell upon a figure lost in the fog save for the same intense pair of eyes that had almost completely bewitched him before. As the boys watched, the lines of the figure seemed to coalesce and solidify until finally a woman appeared before them, as if by magic.
Dressed all in white, she was beautiful, her hair a black even darker than Morgan’s, her skin as pale as new fallen snow. Her lips were blood red and drawn up in a cruel, knowing smile. Her eyes were the same as before, twin stars that had seemed to draw Jamie into them with a supernatural attraction, their message one of unspeakable pleasure and pain. Jamie shuddered. At his side Lester was crying, the words falling out of him.
“Jamie, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. But I had to come, I just had to. And then you wouldn’t wake up, and the kids were standing around us and…”
“Lester, shut up,” Jamie snapped. “Remember what I said earlier? If you tag along you have to keep your mouth shut.” The boy quieted as Jamie slowly eased his left arm holding the flashlight under Morgan’s back. The girl had stopped convulsing but her eyes were closed and her breath was quick and shallow. “Now,” Jamie reached for his pack and slipped his other hand inside, “when I tell you to run, I want you to run downstairs, out the door and back home as fast as you can, got it?” He gripped the small bottle concealed inside the pack. “Ready…. RUN!”
In one motion, Jamie flipped the cap of the bottle and whipped his hand out of the pack in a semicircle, spraying liquid all around him. He had taken the bottle of holy water from his mother’s night stand but, since his comic books said it sometimes worked for ghosts, had added a couple tablespoons of salt to the mix. Whether it was the saline or the blessed water, something made the woman and her hideous charges draw back, hissing, arms raised protectively. Jerking to his feet, Jamie awkwardly picked Morgan up in his arms and stumbled through the door, running down the hallway as fast as he could, Lester dogging his heels. He had just reached the bottom of the stairs, the entryway beckoning open wide before them, when he heard a crash and a scream.
Turning back he shone the flashlight on his brother. In his hurry, Lester had stepped on one of the rotten stairs, his foot punching straight through the worm-eaten wood. Worse, Jamie could see where a jagged broken piece of stair had punctured his thigh, the blood leaking out bright red in the beam of the light. With a cry Jamie lay Morgan at the bottom of the steps and rushed to help his brother. The leg was wedged tight, and anything he did to try to manipulate it caused Lester to moan in agony. Crying Jamie started striking at the edges of the stair trying to work Lester’s leg free while the boy whimpered and sobbed. An unnatural silence caused Jamie to stop his struggle and raise his eyes to the top of the staircase. The woman stood there surrounded by her children, the fog twisting around her feet giving her the impression of floating. The message in her eyes was a promise of pain, retribution for the injury caused by the water. From where he was trapped, Lester could see everything.
“Go!” he cried, struggling to talk through the pain. “Get her out of here!”
“Lester, I can’t leave you!”
The little boy smiled weakly. “I came to help make sure you got out, Jamie. You have to get out.”
“Dammit!” Tears were running down Jamie’s face. “I’m coming back, you hear me? I’m getting her out then I’m coming back!” He stumbled back down to Morgan. “We’re all getting out!” Gripping her under her arms Jamie started dragging her backwards out the front door. As he passed through the entryway he glanced up and saw the woman had begun to descend the stairs towards his brother, flanked by her hideous children. Jamie redoubled his efforts, practically falling down the steps through the billowing fog.
In only a few moments he was through the gate, intending to leave her there, when Morgan’s eyes snapped open and she pulled herself from his grasp with a shout.
“Jesus! Jamie, we have to get out of here. I was wrong, so wrong. God, she was in my mind! She wants to use me!” she clutched Jamie’s sleeve. “We need to get as far from here as we can.”
Jamie shook his head. “I can’t leave. Lester’s in there. He’s the only reason we got this far. I have to go back for him.”
Tears began to roll down Morgan’s cheeks. “Jamie, you don’t understand, I can’t go back in there. If she uses me the way she wants, it’ll mean terrible, terrible things. For all of us. For the world!”
Jamie smiled sadly. “I know. And I’m not asking you to. But he’s my brother.” He stooped down and kissed her lightly on the forehead. “I love you, Morgan. I just wanted to make sure you knew that.”
“No, no, no, Jamie, please don’t go. Please!” He stood and Morgan tried to clutch his arm but he gently pulled away.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Goodbye.”
With that he turned and walked away, his shape gradually dimming in the white cloud until he was gone. Morgan collapsed on the sidewalk, her sobs the only sound breaking the silence. The Wicker House watched, content in her misery, until it too was swallowed by the fog.
Frank Lawrence was drunk, as he often was, more so now than he had ever been before. Since he’d been fired from the factory he only had time, and as far as he was concerned there was no better way to spend time than to drink. Especially lately. He took a swig from the forty wrapped in a brown paper bag held in his hand.
Mary was gone. She’d left shortly after Jamie and Lester had… disappeared, he supposed. Been taken. She’d accused him of all sorts of things, even suggesting he had a hand in their disappearance. Frank took it all, privately resenting the injustice, but knowing on some level that he deserved all that and more. Maybe he wasn’t guilty of everything she tried to stick on him, but God knew he had plenty of sins. He’d never said any differently.
Still, he knew he hadn’t had anything to do with the boys missing. Christ, didn’t she know he loved them? It was the drink that made him lash out, and the stress he was under to provide for a family that made him drink. Hadn’t he cut back after that time he’d hurt Jamie? It was too much to ask to give it up completely. No pleasing her. And hadn’t he treated her well? Kept a roof over their heads, food on the table? Sure, he may have taken a swing at her every now and then, but lots of husbands did. Nobody’s perfect. And he never hit the boys, not after that time.
He wandered down Blackwood Drive and found himself standing in front of the broken down house near where they had found the Fontaine girl. She’d been out of her mind, shaking and screaming and crying. When they finally got her to calm down, she’d been talking crazy. Women in white, ghost children, absolute lunacy. And somehow his boys were mixed up in the middle of it.
They had searched the house looking for them and found Jamie’s backpack in one of the rooms upstairs. Morgan insisted there had been some old journal she’d had with her, but there was no sign of that. Probably just another figment of her imagination. The symbols in the room were sure odd, but for the life of him Frank couldn’t figure out what would make the girl try to cover them up; it was obvious there was a decent sized portion of the wall that had been recently painted over, the paint and brushes still wet where they lay. The place gave him the creeps.
He took another slug of booze. F*****g place. Should probably be burnt to the ground. His boys missing, the girl’s sister missing. And now, he’d heard the Fontaines had packed the girl off to some loony bin somewhere. Couldn’t get her to tell a straight story. Out of her goddam mind. Hell, for all Frank knew, she’d had something to do with Jamie and Lester disappearing. Yeah, no probably about it. Someone should definitely burn the place.
Before he’d even had time to really think about the thought Frank was halfway up the path to the front door. He had a lighter in his pocket. A house this old, with that much dry wood, that was plenty to make it go up like a matchbook. He stopped at the foot of the stairs fumbling for his lighter, not noticing the viscous fog that had begun creeping about him.
By the time he looked up, lighter in hand, the world was completely white. If he hadn’t known it, he wouldn’t have been able to tell the house stood in front of him. He took a step forward and banged his shin, falling on the steps. He struggled to get up, but his balance was off, a victim of the booze. Finally he regained his feet when he heard the voice.
Frank drunkenly swayed where he stood. Was he imagining things? But no, there was Jamie in front of him. Paler than usual, and his eyes strangely black, but there was no mistaking his boy.
“Jamie? Is it really you?” he felt tears brimming in his eyes. “I’ve missed you, boy. You and your brother.”
His pale son smiled slightly. “I’m sure you have. But don’t worry, we’re here now, and our Mother is with us.”
Jamie moved forward and to Frank’s surprise he saw Lester step beside him. And was that the other Fontaine girl next to them? It had to be. Frank dropped to his knees. “Missed you, boys… missed you so much.” He opened his arms and they moved into his embrace, their arms tightly encircling his neck. “Missed you…” the words trailed off as Frank saw a beautiful woman appear in the fog, her otherworldly eyes alight with joy and hunger.
The cloud continued to thicken until all that was visible were a few shadows that seemed to struggle briefly before falling still. There was no sound, as sighs and screams alike were drowned, lost in the fog. Covered in a blanket of white, Arthur’s Wake continued to die.