If I’m being honest everything started when I got pregnant. At the time, David and I hadn’t been together long. We weren’t even really serious, just a couple of twenty-somethings not quite ready to settle down and looking for a little fun before we did.
When I realized I was late I didn’t think anything of it. We’d been careful, both of us far enough out of our teens to not feel any particular need to go thrill seeking by riding b******k. There’s enough danger out there without making more for yourself. Still, I figured it’d be better safe than sorry and bought an over the counter test. Imagine my surprise when the window of the little stick displayed a bright blue plus sign, clear as could be.
I must have sat on that toilet in shock for an hour, just staring at the far wall, unable to believe what was happening. I avoided David for a while after that. It’s not that I blamed him or anything, more that I wanted to figure out what I wanted to do before I let him know what was going on. I was raised Catholic, so I knew what my parents would have said and that they would have been more than happy to pitch in and help with raising the kid. Loving but stern, they were good parents, and would have been even better grandparents. Unfortunately, icy roads and oak trees don’t care about the quality of people they affect; that was as true ten years ago as it is today.
After about a week of calling and me putting him off, I finally agreed to go out with David again. I still didn’t have a for sure notion of how I wanted to handle the pregnancy, but I liked him, maybe even loved him. He was a sweetheart and treated me as well as anybody else I’d been with, so the last thing I wanted to do was run him off. Besides, I’d had enough time to get an emotional handle on everything so I figured I’d be able to hold it together for a quick date. Things didn’t exactly go as planned.
We’d gone to this country bar we’d been to a few times, just for some line dancing and a few rounds of pool. If David wondered why I wasn’t working on my share of the three dollar pitcher he didn’t say anything. Everything was fine until the drive home when I dozed off in the passenger seat. It was then that I had probably the strangest dream of my life.
In the dream I couldn’t move, not even a muscle. There were these incredibly bright lights shining into my face, so bright they hurt to look at, but I couldn’t close my eyes. I tried to cry and scream, but nothing would come out. I started to panic and could feel my heart beating faster and faster in my chest; everything seemed so real I had absolutely no clue I was dreaming. That’s until my daddy stepped in front of me.
When that happened, I relaxed almost instantly. See, the man had been dead for almost four years at that point, so there was absolutely no way this could be anything but a dream, no matter what it felt like. He talked to me, his voice sounding exactly the same as it had when he was alive, but the things he said were so odd. He didn’t talk long, and I don’t remember all the specifics, only a few generalities. He said my child was going to be special, that David and I were some kind of lights in the dark. And something about necessary genetic modifications. He kissed me on the forehead and apologized for the pain; I hadn’t even noticed the strange machine sitting beside him until it whirred to life.
God, the things it did. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more agony than I did in that dream. Not even the pain of giving birth to Samantha held a candle to it. It was like every nerve in my body was set on fire at the same time. It went on for an eternity, so long I thought I was going to go out of my mind from the pain. At some point, my mother walked in from the side of my vision, like she’d entered from the room next door, holding a syringe with a needle the size of a drill bit. To give you an idea of what I was feeling, I barely noticed when she jammed the point into my belly and pushed the plunger.
If the pain before had been fire, whatever my mother stuck me with was ice, the ball of liquid so cold in my womb that it burned every bit as much as my earlier agony, though of a slightly different flavor, distinct from the previous pain. All the while the lights I had first noticed when I woke in the dream continued to shine, impossibly brighter than ever before. They got closer and closer, until I was sure I would be blind if I ever escaped from the pain. That’s when I woke up for real.
Blinking, it took me a second to realize why the lights from my dream were still there. David must have dozed off at the wheel because we were in the wrong lane on a collision course with a mac truck the size of Kentucky, its headlights shining full in my face as the driver lay on his horn. I screamed and David snapped out of it at the last second, swerving and missing the truck by inches.
He pulled over to the side of the road and we both sat there for a couple minutes, just shaking. At that point it was too much for me to handle: the near death experience, everything I’d been struggling with for the past week, and last but certainly not least the crazy dream and torture I had just gone through. I spilled.
I’m not sure what I thought was going to happen, but really, what actually did was better than anything I could have hoped for. David just took me in his arms and held me as I sobbed into his shoulder, held me and told me that everything would be all right, that we were in this together. I remember as we sat there it started to rain, a late summer storm slowly rolling around and over us. At some point I started to think that this might just be ok.
Things went pretty quickly after that. Being a modern gal, I proposed to David a few weeks later. There wasn’t any particular need to get married; I know there are plenty of unmarried parents out there, many even living together under the same roof. But like I said, I was raised Catholic, and that strange dream had brought my parents to the front of my mind, and I knew it’s what they would have wanted. Besides, I liked David and he was sticking by me, even in light of our unplanned child. Seemed to me that was a pretty rare quality, and I might as well snag onto a man like that before he got snapped up by somebody else. Although he looked pretty shocked when I asked, dropping down to one knee and everything, he recovered pretty quickly and, laughing, said yes.
The wedding was small. Both of our parents were dead and the only attendees besides us and the judge were a couple people from David’s work he vaguely knew. I had told him I didn’t mind if it was just us, but he insisted there should be someone else there, if only to stand around in pictures. And just like that, we were married.
The next few years went by like a dream. Any fears I might have had that we were rushing into marriage were almost immediately pushed away. David was smart and gentle. He made me laugh. And he was an amazing father to Samantha. Every day I woke up and thought about how lucky I was to have found such a great guy, even if I did it untraditionally. I won’t say everything was perfect; we had our tough times, sure. For better or worse and all that. But for six years we generally lived life as a happy, normal family. Then about ten months ago everything started falling apart.
David lost his job. He’d been a packer at Marx Pharmaceuticals for eight years when a fire destroyed most of their production facility. You may have heard about it; the company’s founder and CEO went missing during the accident and the company itself was brought under investigation for illegal drug testing based on things uncovered during the cleanup. David told me quietly one night that the crimes may not have even stopped there; a rumor he heard going around was that the company had been abducting children and using them to conduct the tests. I never found out whether or not there was any truth to that. At any rate, they must have found something suspicious because the feds swept in, the plant shut down, and David was out of work.
Over the first couple weeks he must have applied to a hundred jobs out of the classifieds and online. David hadn’t gone to college but had plenty of skills he’d picked up along the way, everything from mechanic work and plumbing to house painting and gardening. But nobody wanted anything to do with former Marx employees because of the scandal, and he’d been working there so long it was impossible to brush over it during the couple interviews he got. After six months, I was totally panicked. Samantha started kindergarten in the fall, freeing me to pick up some more shifts at the diner I worked at part time, but the pay wasn’t great and there were no benefits to speak of. Neither of us had any family or friends we were close enough with to ask for help, and unemployment only went so far. If David didn’t find work pretty quickly, we were going to be in a bad way.
A week ago I’d been sitting at our tiny kitchen table, bills spread out in front of me and trying to decide which ones we weren’t going to pay when the phone rang. The man gave his name as Creed and identified himself as a human resources rep from Marx Pharma. He was looking for David, who I grabbed from the other room. We held the phone between us as Mr. Creed apologized for any hardships our family was going through and explained that, as a gesture of goodwill, the company board had decided to use the HR department to try and find jobs for as many low level employees that had been laid off due to last January’s events as possible. He said they had a caretaker position lined up and, although it was out of town, they thought it might be a good fit for David. They wanted him to start as soon as possible. Would he take it?
Looking at it now, it seems odd; I’ve never heard of any corporation doing anything like that, but at the time it made a certain sense. I thought they might be using it as a PR stunt to try to take some of the pressure off the things they’d been accused of, at least in the court of public opinion. Even so, when you’re drowning and someone throws you a rope, you don’t think too hard about what the other end is attached to. David said yes practically before the words were out of the man’s mouth.
Even though it was only a couple hundred miles from where I’d spent my whole life, I’d never heard of the town called Arthur’s Wake. It would be wrong to think of it as a one horse town, because it was home to maybe twelve thousand people all told. But no matter how many people lived there, the place was dead. Two days ago, the sun was starting to set as we drove along the empty main street, the husks of long abandoned factories leering at us from either side of the road, when I was struck with an unshakable sense of something off kilter about the place. Of something wrong.
David turned the car onto Blackwood Drive and soon we arrived at our destination, parking in front of the high iron gate at the foot of the property. The three of us got out of the car and, for several silent moments, took in the sight of the house that was to become our home. It was two stories tall, a paved path from the gate where we stood running up to a short flight of stairs leading to the front door. The yard was thickly overgrown and showed signs of long neglect, as did the rest of the house’s exterior. Something about the placement of the windows gave the impression that the house was observing us at the same time we were looking at it. I shivered involuntarily, a rash of goosebumps raising on my arms; its expression was not inviting. Why anyone would feel the need to hire a caretaker for a place so obviously abandoned was beyond me, but Mr. Creed had said it had some kind of historical significance in Arthur’s Wake. The locals called it The Wicker House.
David was the first to break the silence.
“Well, looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me,” he said with a grin, “I’ll start pulling our bags out of the car, why don’t you two go through and see if there’s anywhere inside clear enough to put our stuff.”
I turned my attention to the little girl standing next to me.
“Come on, munchkin, whattaya say?”
She continued to face forward, her dark eyes wide and unblinking as if competing in a ferocious staring contest with the house.
Finally, she turned to me, her brow furrowed into an expression more at home on an angsty teen than a six-year-old.
“I don’t like it here, mommy.”
I smiled gently. “I know, baby. It’s tough to leave your friends. Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll make some new ones once you start school after Thanksgiving next week.”
She frowned. “No, it’s not that. It’s just… the house. It feels bad. In my tummy. Like bad things happened here.”
I felt the bemused look I had come to associate with talking to my daughter slide into place on my face. Samantha was an old soul, practically an ancient one. From pretty much the time she began to talk I’d gotten used to her saying things that were completely out of step for a kid her age. Times like these I’d think back to my dream with the lights, and the voice of my father telling me that my child would be special.
“Sorry, munch. Daddy needed a job and this was the one he got. But I’ll admit the place is a little spooky. Just wait until daddy and I have a chance to clean it up some. Then it won’t be so bad, you’ll see. It’s just an old empty house.”
Samantha leaned in close to me, “But, mommy,” she said, her voice dropping to a whisper, “who’s that lady standing in the window?”
I felt my stomach drop as I turned back towards the house fast enough to give me whiplash. But all the windows were empty. There was no one there.
“Where, honey, I don’t see anyone.”
“The lady in white. She was standing there,” Samantha pointed to one of the second story windows. “She was smiling,” her voice dropped low again, “but I don’t think she’s nice.”
The rest of the evening was uneventful. The inside of the house was surprisingly well-kept compared to the outside. Other than a few stairs leading up to the second floor that were rotted through and a thick layer of dust over everything, it was in good shape. The gas furnace in the basement worked and soon David had the pilot lit. Even better, at some point the place had been set up with electricity and most of the lights turned on, though David cautioned he wanted to take a closer look at the wires before we tried to run anything too big. Best of all, there didn’t seem to be any mysterious women hiding in the house.
The room at the far end of the upstairs hallway wasn’t the biggest, but it was the only one not filled with old, musty pieces of furniture covered in white sheets making them look like oddly shaped ghosts, so that’s where we decided to spend the night. In fact, other than the hideous yellow wallpaper covering the walls, I thought David and I could eventually take the room as our own, using the master bedroom to double as a playroom for Samantha. The wallpaper would have to go though.
That night David spoke up as we lay on the air mattress under a pile of blankets, Samantha curled up between us fast asleep. His voice was slightly slurred and I could tell he wasn’t fully awake, just barely on the conscious side of sleep.
“So, babe, you want to hear something really strange?”
“Ssshh. Keep your voice down, you’ll wake her. Sure, what?”
“Remember that night you told me we were pregnant? The one we almost ended up pasted against the grill of a semi?”
“Yeah, of course. How could I forget it?”
“You know how we figured I must’ve dozed off at the wheel? I’m pretty sure I did because, I never told you this, but I had the absolute craziest dream. I don’t remember much other than some really bright lights shining in my face, but one thing I do remember is a phrase: The Wake. So now here we are living in a place called Arthur’s Wake. And when I was talking to Creed about the job he mentioned the locals call it The Wake. Weird huh?”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. How could David and I have both had similar dreams right before our almost accident? Was that much of a coincidence even possible?
“That’s… yeah. That’s pretty crazy. Do you remember anything else?”
David’s voice was growing softer.
“Not… -yawn-… not really. Just, sumthin about a woman. Woman in white.”
He dropped off, his breathing soft and rhythmic. I lay there for some time wondering what it all could mean, the empty silence occasionally broken by the creaking groans of the old house settling around me.
When I finally managed to nod off I woke in a dream. I stood in the room we were sleeping in and from where I was I could see the three of us huddled together on the air mattress. Turning around, I noticed the only major difference in the dream-world was the walls; in place of the ugly yellow wallpaper they were covered in strange runes and symbols, letters and words of a language I couldn’t recognize that glowed with an eerie supernatural light. A strange fog began to seep in from nowhere, and before long the entire room was covered in a thin blanket of white.
Looking back to where we slept, I could see through the haze that Samantha was sitting up between David and me. The light of the walls reflected from her dark, open eyes and as I watched she raised her hand, pointing towards the door behind me.
Slowly I turned. The door stood open to the darkness of the hallway beyond, though I was sure I had closed it before going to bed. From the black depths of the entryway, two eyes glowed red, terrible and hungry. I tried to scream, but whether because I was in a dream or was paralyzed by fear, no sound escaped my lips. I stood, unable to move but only capable of watching as a shape gradually formed around the eyes.
The thing that stood in the doorway looked like a woman, but some part of me knew that this face was only a mask, her true form hidden. Dressed all in white, her blood-red lips broke into a cruel smile that didn’t contain the slightest hint of amusement. She seemed to float rather than step forward, gliding silently across the floor. Closer and closer she came, eyes shining gleefully, until abruptly she stopped, her joyful expression replaced with one of confusion. In that moment, I found my dream-self could move again and, turning my head, saw that Samantha had moved to stand beside me. Hand raised, palm forward, she stared directly at the woman in white, her face serious, her gesture seeming to halt the thing where she stood.
The thing’s face turned enraged. Though she had not yet made a sound, an unearthly howl sprang from her as she strained forward, fighting against the invisible barrier holding her back. A grim smile flitted across my daughter’s lips as she raised her other hand and seemingly pushed against the empty air, something about the motion flinging the woman bodily back through the doorway and into the hall, the door slamming shut behind her.
I woke with a start, heart pounding, a thin sheen of sweat causing the bedclothes to cling to me. Wildly I looked around the room. From the thin winter moonlight drifting through the window I could see the door was still closed, the ugly wallpaper still adorned the walls. Samantha and David lay beside me, fast asleep. Of strange symbols, mysterious fog and demonic women there were no signs. I lay there for a long time before falling asleep again, only managing when I felt Samantha’s tiny hand reach up and take my own.
The next day we started trying to get the house in some kind of order. David took his tools down to the basement, giving the furnace a closer look and confirming the fuse box wasn’t going to start a fire. He wanted to check on the state of the roof but, because he didn’t have access to a ladder, settled for going up to the attic to see what he could from there. I had gone through the house removing covers from the furniture and trying to get a handle on some of the dust. Realizing it wasn’t going to be a one-time effort, and feeling the need for some fresh air after breathing in dust all morning, I moved to the yard to try and remove a few of the more brazen weeds threatening to overtake the footpath to the front door.
Even though there was no snow on the ground, the day was cold so I bundled Samantha up before taking her outside with me. From where I knelt pulling at the weeds I could see her sitting on the front porch, playing with her doll. Occasionally glancing up to check on her, I noticed something odd; every so often she would turn her head to the side as if listening to something and then, though I couldn’t hear from where I was, her mouth would move in reply.
My work momentarily forgotten I watched this imaginary conversation for a minute or two before Samantha abruptly put her doll down and turned her dark, serious expression on me. I opened my mouth to call to her and ask who she was talking to when a voice spoke up behind me.
“That’s a beautiful girl you have there.”
Involuntarily I jumped, not having heard anyone approach. I was immediately embarrassed when I turned and saw an older woman, maybe in her early sixties, standing on the other side of the gate. She was dressed against the cold, but her head was uncovered, her dark hair unbound and streaked throughout with varying shades of grey. She smiled slightly.
“Sorry to startle you, dear. I just wanted to come by and introduce myself. I’m a neighbor of sorts, live just down on the other side of the street there. I didn’t notice your car until this morning, must have gotten in last night, hmm?”
“Yes, we did. My husband David is the new caretaker. I’m Sarah Wilder. And you are…?”
“Morgana, dear. Morgana Fontaine.”
I stepped toward her and opened the gate. “Would you like to come in, Mrs. Fontaine?”
“It’s actually Ms., but please, call me Morgan. And no, dear, I’m afraid I wouldn’t voluntarily set foot in that house for all the gold in Fort Knox.”
I stopped, flustered. “I’m… sorry?”
“Nothing to be sorry about, dear, there’s no way you could know. But this house is evil; the house and everything that dwells in it.” She took a step forward but even in my shock I noticed she didn’t cross over the threshold of the gate. Her voice lowered, quiet and intimate.
“Now before you say anything and run me off just listen for a moment, if you value that darling child of yours in the slightest. You need to leave this cursed town with everything you hold dear. Today. Immediately if possible. Every moment you delay only places you and your loved ones at further risk. But I don’t expect you to believe me. Why would you? I’m just a crazy old woman who lives down the street,” she smiled thinly.
“So. Because I know you won’t listen to me, I hope we can reach a compromise. First, when trouble comes, I want you to think my name as hard as you can. Some unfortunate past experiences with this house have left me a little psychic. I’m not as young as I used to be, but I’ll do what I can to help. I don’t expect you to believe me about that either, but what harm could it do? If I’m just crazy and nothing bad ever happens, you’ll never need to think of me again.” She reached out her hand holding a piece of paper.
“Second, thanks to my gift I know that if and when you make it out of the Wake in one piece, you have nowhere to go. This is a picture with the name of a man and an address written on the back. Go to the address, find the man. He won’t know you, or me, but show him the picture. He’ll help you.”
Dumbfounded, I took the piece of paper from her outstretched hand and slipped it into my jacket pocket. Morgan’s gaze shifted to my right where Samantha had moved to my side, unnoticed.
“Well hello, my little beauty.” Morgan crouched down so her face was level with Samantha’s. After a moment, my daughter’s eyes went wide with surprise. Morgan smiled and turned to go. “Be seeing you, Sarah. Don’t forget, think of me when there’s trouble. And for God’s sake, keep that paper somewhere safe!”
I took Samantha’s hand and together we watched the old woman make her way down the street and enter a house near the end of the block.
I turned back towards the house. “Come on, sweetie, let’s go see how daddy’s doing inside.” I really had no idea how to take the whole exchange. Best case was Morgan was an eccentric but harmless old woman, but having a crazy person living that close and with an unhealthy obsession with my house was more than a little unsettling. Worst case…
“Don’t worry, mommy,” Samantha quietly spoke up, “Ms. Fontaine’s nice.” She frowned. “Mr. Frank doesn’t like her.”
Confused, I looked down. “Who’s Mr. Frank, munchkin?”
A slightly panicked look crossed her face before she answered. “No one, mommy.”
“Was that who you were talking to earlier?”
She rolled her eyes. “No, mommy, that was Jamie. He’s my friend.”
“I see. And what does Jamie think of Ms. Fontaine?”
“He wants to be friends with her. But his mommy won’t let him.”
We reached the porch and Samantha grabbed her doll from where it lay, darting inside before I could ask her any more. I stared after her in bewilderment. I knew plenty of kids had imaginary friends, but I’d never heard of those friends having an imaginary family too.
Samantha dropped her coat at the foot of the stairs and ran up them, nimbly avoiding several that had rotted through.
“Whoa! Careful, sweetheart!” David said as she passed him at the top of the stairs. She stopped and looked at him for several long moments before turning and running down the hallway, the bedroom door slamming a few seconds later. “What’s up with her?”
I shrugged. “Imaginary friend issues, I think. That and we met a strange older woman who lives down the block. Seems harmless enough though. Hey, do you think you can get around to fixing the steps soon? I don’t want Samantha tripping and hurting herself on them.”
“Yeah, babe, I was planning on looking at them tomorrow. Should be able to rig something temporary at least to make them a little less dangerous. Check this out though.” He held out a small leather bound book.
“What is it?”
“A journal. I found it in the attic. Roof looks pretty good, surprisingly. I’ll want to get up on the outside eventually but I didn’t notice any water damage for now. There’s a whole bunch of stuff up there: this weird mirror, all these dolls and… anyways. This was just lying on the floor.”
I took the book and looked at the words etched on its cover in small gold letters. “The Journal of Tomas Wicker. Didn’t Creed say the locals call this place the Wicker House?”
David nodded. “Yeah. I think this must have belonged to the guy that built the house. I paged through it a little bit; looks like he was into some pretty out-there stuff. Most of the entries deal with the occult, things like that.”
I looked at the book in my hands, thinking back to my dream from the night before and to everything Morgan had said to me before I decided to speak. “David, the woman I met. She said this house was evil, that we needed to leave. That we’re in danger.” I raised my head. “And, I’ve been having weird feelings too, pretty much since we first drove into town, before she said anything to me. This place just doesn’t feel normal. Am I crazy?”
David smiled and took me in his arms. “Awe, honey, it’s just different. You’ve lived your whole life in one place, of course you’re a little freaked out when you move out of town the first time. Believe me, I got plenty of that going from post to post growing up as a military brat. And yeah, this house is creepy as hell. But it’s just creepy because it’s old and dusty and filled with a bunch of outdated furniture. Give me a couple weeks and I’ll have it fixed up so you’ll hardly recognize it. Besides, where else are we gonna go?”
I returned his hug. “OK. Just… yeah, OK.” He was right. We had nowhere to go, unless you counted a name and address on a piece of paper that a self-proclaimed psychic had given me. And at that point I wasn’t nearly desperate enough to take that option, and felt foolish enough about it that I didn’t even think about mentioning it to him. I leaned back feeling a smile play across my lips. “Now about those steps…”
David laughed. “Yes, ma’am, they just moved to the top of my priority list. C’mere.”
The kiss was sweet, and long. I wish I’d thought to enjoy it more. I wish I knew for sure it was David that kissed me.
The sleep I fell into that night was of the deep and dreamless variety. Once Samantha was asleep David had rolled over, his intent obvious, but I gently brushed him off. I was tired from the day, and mentally exhausted from the previous night’s dream. Besides, I told him, Samantha wouldn’t sleep that heavily… more incentive for us to finish getting things set up and her into her own room. He grumbled a little, but let up easily enough. It must have been several hours later when I was woken by the sounds of something scraping against the walls.
Disoriented, I was confused why I couldn’t move my right arm before I realized that Samantha was hugging onto it, both arms wrapped around mine in a death grip. I could hear her breathing, fast and shallow. A moment later I saw that David’s space next to her was empty.
It took my eyes a moment to adjust to the relative darkness. Pale moonbeams were again seeping through the window, but then I noticed another, brighter light from the far side of the room. It was there that David stood facing the wall, his arm moving up and down, each repetition of the motion accompanied by a long scratching sound. Blinking, I realized he was removing the wallpaper. About a five foot section had already been torn away and I felt a surge of fear when I realized the additional light was coming from the bared portion of the wall; it was covered with the same glowing symbols from my dream. I must have made a sound, because something caused David to stiffen before slowly turning to face me.
“Awe, damn,” his voice was filled with regret, his face covered in shadow and unreadable. “I didn’t want to wake you, honey. Why don’t you go on back to sleep?”
“David,” I whispered through clenched teeth, “exactly what the hell are you doing?”
“Just taking off the wallpaper you said you hated so much,” he said, his voice starting out hurt before turning cold, a tone I had never heard from him before, “I thought maybe if I knocked enough jobs off the ‘honey-do’ list I might be entitled to a thank you f**k.”
“Mommy,” Samantha spoke softly from my side, her grip tighter than ever, “that’s not daddy.”
David laughed, his shape taking a step closer to where we lay frozen on the mattress. “What? Of course I’m your daddy! Who else would I be you silly, imaginative little girl?”
Her voice was hardly audible, barely more than a whisper. “Mr. Frank.”
“Huh.” He stopped where he stood. “Well, aren’t you just the brightest little bulb in the box? I mean, she said you were gonna be tough to fool, but I never thought… heh. Guess that means I can stop playing nice.”
He leaned forward, the moonlight revealing his face. His mouth was drawn up in a hideous grin and his eyes… I can’t describe what I saw there. If the eyes are a window to the soul, then whatever the thing was in David’s body had been damned to hell. Whoever it was looking at me, I knew for certain, it wasn’t my husband.
“So how about it, babe. You got a kiss for hubby?”
A flash of anger temporarily drove back my fear. I stumbled to my feet, holding Samantha close, and moved backwards towards the wall. “Where’s David? What have you done with him, you son of a b***h?”
The thing called Mr. Frank laughed through my husband’s mouth. “Don’t worry about Davey boy. My ma… well, Lil’s showing him a grand ol’ time, even as we speak. Making him feel things you never coulda dreamed of showing him. Pretty soon, he’ll be a new man. Believe me, I know. What I’d give to go back to that first time, again. Mmm. Words just don’t describe it.”
“Don’t worry, mommy,” Samantha whispered, her face buried against my side, “Jamie will help us. I know he will.”
Mr. Frank laughed again, “That little snot? He tries to be a hero and always ends up worse for it. Never quite learns; something wrong with that boy. You’re not wrong though, little lady. He’s in here trying to hold me back even now… only thing that stopped me from cutting your pretty mommy’s throat while she slept. Well, honestly, that and I haven’t gotten to have my fun. Yet. But I’m just about… whup!” Mr. Frank grinned. “There he goes.”
With a yell he lunged forward, the utility knife he’d been using to peel away the wallpaper flashing in his hand. I threw myself backward, shoving Samantha to the side, away from his charge. It only bought me a second before he hit me, his shoulder driving me backward into the wall.
“Samantha,” I managed to gasp out, “Run, baby! Go get… hcck.” My words were cut off as his hand reached up, grasping my throat.
“Yeah, little girl, run and hide. I’ll give you a head start,” he laughed. “Me and mommy have some things to catch up on first.”
I feebly clawed and pounded at the hand choking me, but nothing I did lessened the pressure. Spots started forming in my vision as I saw Samantha hesitate, then turn and run through the door. I continued to struggle, but my blows grew weaker and weaker.
“Ah, alone at last.” Mr. Frank leaned in close, his lips next to my ear. “Don’t worry, darlin’. I’m going to make this last a good long time. We’ll have to take a quick break so I can go grab your brat, but that’ll just give ya a chance to dwell on all the sensations a little. Savor ‘em. You’ll be begging for the end before I’m done.” He laughed, trailing the blade of the knife down my cheek, not yet breaking the skin. Even though I could hardly see more than black, I still felt its sharpness. “Man, it’s been forever since I had a woman!”
“Hate to break it to you, Frank,” a voice from the doorway spoke up, “But your dry spell isn’t ending tonight.”
Mr. Frank stiffened and turned. “Well, I’ll be damned.” The hand holding me let go and abruptly I could breathe again, falling to the floor as I choked and gasped for air.
“I. Will. Be. Damned. Morgana Fontaine. I tell ya, wonders do never cease,” his voice changed to a sneer, “You got old, b***h.”
Still trying to catch my breath, I struggled to raise myself on one arm and could see past Frank to where Morgan stood in the door. Her posture was casual, relaxed even, her hands buried in the pockets of the long coat she wore. Samantha stood behind her, grasping her leg and peeking around her side. The corners of Morgan’s lips raised slightly.
“It’s what happens, Frank, at least to anything that’s not a flatulent pit dweller like yourself. You ok, Sarah?”
“Peachy,” I managed to choke out, my throat feeling like raw hamburger.
“Don’t worry, honey bun,” Mr. Frank directed to me, “that’s a purely temporary predicament. We’ve just hit a slight delay in the night’s festivities, your man’s got a little unfinished business to attend to first. You’ll still get yours.” He turned his attention back to Morgan. “Never woulda thought you had the brass ones to step in here, Seer. You’re lucky mom is occupied at the moment or she woulda hollowed you out like a jack-o-lantern already. Better for me. I’ve been dreaming about this for a loooong time. The f**k did you think you were gonna do huh? No fancy weapons, no team. Daylight still delicious hours away. You done f****d up.”
She smiled. “Guess I just wanted to see you again, Frank. Figured I owed you one for leaving you with those blue balls last time.” Her eyes seemed to sparkle, “How’re your teeth?”
I don’t know what she was talking about, but something she said sent Mr. Frank into a rage; he leapt at Morgan with a roar. With a grace and speed that belied her age, Morgan pulled a small plastic sports bottle from her pocket, squeezing its contents directly into Frank’s face as he lunged. I could hear something sizzle and smoke, like bacon frying in a pan, and he screamed, his hands clawing at his eyes. Morgan dropped the bottle and, continuing to move, gripped Mr. Frank by the neck and shoulder. His scream abruptly choked off in a whimper as she kneed him once, twice in the groin dropping him to his knees. She wasn’t done, not by half. Wrapping the fingers of both hands in his hair, she pulled his face into her knee again and again, the sharp cracks accompanying the first several blows eventually giving way to simple meaty thuds. Throwing him to the floor she raised one foot, wrapped in a heavy steel toed boot, and brought it down on his skull.
Not pausing to admire her work, she stepped over the broken body and moved to my side, Samantha trailing behind her taking a wide berth around the twitching pile of flesh.
“Jesus! How the f**k did you do that? What is that thing? What happened to David?”
“There’s no time,” she said, hauling me to my feet, “we have to go.”
“Dammit no! He’s my husband I can’t just…”
The slap came out of nowhere and sent a series of bells ringing through my head.
“Sarah, listen to me. Your husband is gone, there’s nothing you can do for him. That thing lying there is just a meat sack currently occupied by the spirit of a very twisted individual. No matter how impressive you think what I just did was, it won’t slow him down for long. Probably only a minute or two. Even that time will be worthless if Lilith, mother of f*****g demons, realizes what’s going on and takes time out from filleting the remains of your husband’s soul to come deal with us. Now,” she started pulling me towards the door as Samantha took my hand, “you need to get out of here. Car keys and the picture I gave you. Where are they?”
“I-in my coat pocket. Downstairs in the kitchen.”
“Right. Take the child, get them, get to the car, and get gone. And for f**k’s sake watch those rotten stairs. I’ll try to buy you as much time as I can; I still have a few tricks up my sleeve. Go.” She moved back over to David’s body and pulled what looked like a salt container from her pocket, dumping its contents in a circle around him.
I picked Samantha up and ran through the hallway and down the stairs, taking care to avoid the broken ones. I had barely reached the foot of the staircase when I heard the sound of voices from above.
“Gaaaah, you b***h! You f*****g b***h!”
“What’s the matter, Frank? I remember you liked it rough.”
“You think this can hold me? When I get outta here I’m gonna rip you apart and play with your guts while you watch!”
Not taking the time to listen more, I sprinted to the kitchen and grabbed my coat from where it rested on the back of the chair, thumps and crashes echoing from upstairs. I ran back to the entryway, briefly checking to make sure the car keys and picture were still in my pocket where I had left them. I had just thrown open the front door when Samantha screamed, “Mommy, watch out!”
I awkwardly pulled us to the side as Morgan came tumbling down the stairs to a crashing halt at my feet. She lay on the ground, moaning softly, her eyes closed with pain. Looking up I saw David’s shadowy form standing at the top of the stairs.
“Heh. Heh heh. Sorry for the interruption, sweets. Man, for an old broad, she sure had some gumption. Almost took me there,” he chuckled and started to descend the stairs before stopping, thoughtfully tapping the utility knife against his palm. “You know, she used to f**k around with my oldest boy? In a way, she’s responsible for everything that happened to that little f****t. Which, coincidentally, makes her responsible for everything that’s about to happen to you and your little freak spawn there. Just something to think about between screams when I’m carving you up.”
From where I held her to my shoulder, Samantha spoke up quietly, “You never understood Jamie, Mr. Frank. And you never will. You said he never beat you, but the truth is, you never beat him.”
He laughed, “Oh yeah, little girl? What the f**k do you think you know about it?”
She smiled. “I know he’s about to ruin your night.”
In that moment something changed in the expression on David’s face. Now that I knew to look, I could still tell that the intelligence that occupied it wasn’t my husband’s, but where Mr. Frank almost exuded a stench of pure evil, this one was different. Jamie smiled. “Thanks for the entrance, kid,” he nodded to Samantha. Temporarily his face shifted again to Mr. Frank’s enraged snarl.
“…f**k do you think you’re doing you little s**t I’ll… gah,” Jamie frowned as he took back control. “Pipe down, old man. I got you fair and square.” He eyed the next step down, one of the broken ones. “Christ, this is ironic. Hey, lady,” he looked at me, “do me a favor and make sure Morgan gets out of here would you? I’ll owe you one.” He took a breath then jumped, punching both feet through the hole in the stair and fell until he was trapped to his waist. He moaned in pain and I could see sharp jagged pieces of wood had punctured his legs and torso in several places, a small rivulet of red flowing down the stairs. Mr. Frank briefly took control again.
“You f*****g f**k! I’ll slit you from balls to throat you little…”
Blood sprayed from Jamie’s mouth as he coughed and he grinned, his teeth stained crimson. “Wow, pops, that’s quite the imagination you’ve got. Thanks for the idea.” Jamie turned the utility knife in his hands and plunged the blade into his belly.
I watched in shock for several long moments before Samantha spoke quietly in my ear, a touch of fear twinging her voice, “Mommy, we have to go…she’s coming.”
Sure enough, the same fog from my dream had begun seeping into the room, seemingly coming from nowhere. Setting Samantha down, I slipped Morgan’s arm over my shoulder and helped her regain her feet. Her breathing was hitched and she was obviously in pain, but conscious, and together we managed to stumble out the door and down the path to the gate, Samantha holding onto my coat and trailing behind. Once we were through we collapsed to the sidewalk. We sat there for maybe a minute, the only sound of our panting gasps as our breath turned to clouds of steam in the cold November night, when Morgan stirred.
“Come on, dear, this is no place to rest,” she hissed in pain through her teeth as she struggled, trying to regain her feet. I continued to sit there, staring blankly ahead; now that I had a brief moment to stop and think, the trauma of the night’s events were catching up to me.
“We… we have to call the police. An ambulance!” I turn to Morgan and grasp her arm, “Maybe there’s something they can do for David! Save him… or… God, I can’t just do nothing!”
Morgan ceased trying to stand for a moment, sitting back with a sigh. “And what exactly do you think that would accomplish, my dear, hmm? Best case scenario Frank and the others conceal themselves, believe me when I say they have their ways, and the authorities find nothing but an old empty house. We are then either thrown in a madhouse, or dismissed completely. Either way, staying here long enough to discover the results of such an investigation leaves us completely exposed. Worst case, they don’t hide and Lilith manages to claim that many more victims for her army. And either way, the essence that belongs to David no longer resides in that tortured puppet we left pinned to the stairs… all the medical care in the world won’t change that.” Amazingly, she heaved herself to her feet.
“Now, as long as those runes are whole you’re safe enough from Satan’s white w***e back there, but they don’t apply to her lapdog. Jamie’s a good sort, but he only managed to take Frank temporarily because the prick was overconfident to the point of being stupid. He’ll regain control eventually, and if he takes a minute to think about it before he blindly rushes after you, he’ll be able to use your husband’s body before he burns it out to take down enough of those wards that the b***h queen will be able to come after you herself if you aren’t at least out of town. You need to get in your car and start driving.”
“But…” I felt my eyes well, “I just… I can’t…”
“It’s ok, mommy,” Samantha took my hand lightly in hers, “Daddy wants us to go. He doesn’t want her to get us.”
With effort I fought the tears back and sighed, defeated. She was right. No matter what was happening to him, David wouldn’t want us to suffer the same fate. “OK. OK, baby. You’re right. We have to go.”
“What about you, Ms. Fontaine,” Samantha asked quietly from where she sat huddled against me.
Morgan smiled, “Oh, sweet child, don’t you worry about me. Lilith might be queen bee when she has all the cards stacked in her favor, but I’ve got enough resources to take care of myself when I’m not strolling into the heart of her power. You just worry about keeping your mommy safe. And good work calling to me tonight,” she glared at me, “I’m glad someone remembered.”
“Morgan,” I started with a sudden thought, “what Frank said about David? Is it true?”
She smiled sadly. “Probably, my dear. Probably. Lilith… she changes people. Hollows them out, turns their bodies into vessels for her minions and their souls into the minions themselves. But,” she paused raising her hand, “it’s not absolute. You saw that with Jamie tonight. He got caught up with her because a long time ago he chose to sacrifice himself, not for gain or lust, but out of love for another. There’s something pure about true love that makes it harder for her to keep control of him; at least, some of the time. I don’t know the circumstances behind David’s being taken, and I’d prepare myself for the worst, but maintain that sliver of hope. He might not be totally gone.”
“The person Jamie sacrificed himself for,” I asked, “was it you?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Now, that’s an awfully personal question. Come on, we’re wasting time.”
I rose to my feet and unlocked the car, strapping Samantha into her booster seat before moving to the driver’s door. As I got in Morgan grasped my arm.
“I know you are aware of this,” she whispered low so that Samantha couldn’t hear, “but your daughter is incredibly important. And more than just in the way all little girls are important to their mothers. Keep her safe,” her face turned grim, “no matter the cost.” She released my arm and began to turn away from the door before stopping.
“For what it’s worth,” she said, a tinge of sadness in her voice, “it wasn’t me. His younger brother. And it’s something I’ve never truly forgiven him for. Be safe, my dear.”
The fog continued to build as I pulled away from the Wicker House and I watched in the rearview mirror until it and Morgan both were swallowed whole. Reaching into my pocket I pulled out the paper Morgan had given to me…God had it only been yesterday? The page was actually a computer printout of a photograph, the odd stone in the picture meant nothing to me. Turning the paper over I saw the name and address as promised: Michael Landry, 112 North 64th Street Apt #3, Overbrook, PA.
“Where are we going, mommy?” Samantha asked from the back seat, her voice drowsy from lack of sleep.
“To someone who can help us, baby,” I told her, and then added to myself: