The sun bursts in and wakes me before Bear. It stings my eyes with the orange glow cast through my eyelids. I roll over only to be suffocated in fluff. I gasp quickly turn back, trying to spit the strands of fur that cling to my tongue.
“Bear, that’s so gross.” I whine.
Bear whines right back, dragging his tongue across my face until my face starts to sting. I roll away from him only to find gravity dragging me down. Pain explodes through my back, stealing away my breath and all other senses. I gasp for a moment as Bear`s barks pierce my ears and ring through my head. Slowly, I lift myself into a sitting position.
“You jerk.” I mutter, only to receive another lick to my face. “You know what, I think you should go outside.”
Bear hops down, pushing the air out of my lungs and introducing me to the floor once more before disappearing. His claws click loudly as he drags them down the door then stomps on the floor.
“I`m coming, brat!” I roll onto my stomach and push myself up.
I skip down the stairs and slide across the floor, stopping inches from the front door. The front yard is rather small and I want to spend the day searching the house so I can`t take Bear on a walk. I glance at the back door in the kitchen. I make my way over to it. The handle is more worn than the one on the front door and does not glint in the light.
I grab it and try to turn it. I manage to turn it half way before I meet resistance. How did Maria get this door open? I strain my wrist, using as much force as I possibly can until the doorknob quickly turns and clicks. I try to swing open the door, but it is stuck in the frame. I press my shoulder against the door and brace myself against the ground before pushing against it as much as possible. The door slips free sending me tumbling. And there we go with the falling again, yay falling.
I pick myself up and brush off the damp grass blades. The scent of fresh dew dances in the air, mixing with the fragrant wildflowers dotting the green spans with vibrant colors just a bit farther back. I step back up onto the tile floor of the kitchen.
The Alaskan malamute thuds over, soft whines scratching out of his throat. His ears pin back and his tail tucks between his legs so far that it presses against his fluffy belly. He backs up a bit until a butterfly with its bright blue wings settles upon a flowers. In a matter of seconds Bear snaps his massive jaws at the fragile insect. He launches his body farther in the air than I thought possible when the butterfly gets away the first time.
I slowly slide the door shut. It slips snuggly into its frame a lot easier than how it was to pull it free. I glance around the small kitchen that sparkles in every way possible so that everything looks like it has almost never been used. This is only because the Taylor`s scrubbed the kitchen daily so that even now the burning chemical scent of cleaning supplies still stains the air rather than the enticing aroma of complex homemade meals.
A yawn escapes as I stretch out to release the tension in my muscles. Time to start my search of the house. I glance around the bright little kitchen and I feel a stab to my gut. It feels so wrong to search through their personal belongings they left behind, but they did leave me the house and Maria did suggest a yard sale so they must expect me to dig around. I shuffle into the living room and begin my search.
I only spend half an hour between three cream walls and one maroon wall pushing around furniture and searching through really old photos. My arms and legs burn with no reward of new information in sight. The grainy photos are all of Maria and Mr. Taylor at ages as young as 17 and 27, none include the kids and most are from places around the town. I tuck a photo of them in front of the house, into the back pocket of my jeans.
I glance around the spacious room. It slams into me, just how alone I am. The air is still and empty, cooled by the slight hum of the air conditioning. Mostly silences buzzes in my ear against my own breathing and the faint but painfully distinct tick of the clock. Light gleams through the window and dances across the hardwood floor, but it is not me who the light dances with.
The living room holds nothing and I should move on. The house is absolutely massive. I make my way up the stairs, not liking the loneliness that wraps me in a hug or the prying eyes of neighbors that occasionally glance through the living room windows. My nerves fire electricity through me. I jump out of my skin at every small sound and get so caught up on my surroundings that my legs take the chance to twist. I fall up the last two stairs, so that the better portion of my body lies on the carpeted hallway floor.
“Stupid klutz.” I scold myself as I roll over.
The top step digs into my back, pinching my nerves and sending sharp pain up my spine. I slide back and lift my back off of the floor. I rub the pain out of my lower back, staring at the ceiling. The faintest of glints of light slips down and glares across the carpeted hall floor. The light draws my attention and my gaze snaps up to the ceiling. In the dim light streaming through the one window in the hallway I can make out the slightest oddity in the white paint of the ceiling. Taking in the surrounding areas I notice slight lines in the paint that dip in quite a bit.
“It`s a door to an attic.” My voice breaks the silence that has been holding on for too long around me.
My gaze stays locked on the oddities as I pick myself up and brush off nonexistent dirt and debris. The ceiling is far above my reach, but they always keep a step stool tucked by the washer at the end of the hallway. I carry the light metal steps to the location and set up right underneath the oddities in the ceiling. I slowly climb up, the rubber grip pads on the wide steps digging painfully into the bottom of my feet.
I trace my hand over the smooth wall, feeling my skin press into the slight dip. I then run my fingers over the reflective surface, the pain flaking off onto my fingers. I press my fingers past the thin layer of paint and tug upon the dingy handle. A low creak crackles through the air and free paint flakes scattered down on my head and into my eyes. I flinch away and nearly topple off the stool.
I shake away the flakes so they drift to the carpet like snow. I keep a tight grip on the handle as I step down the stool steps. The springs groan loudly, a pulled out protest to being pried free. I pull the stool out-of-the-way once soft carpet comforts my feet. I stumble back as a bullet of brown launches down towards me. The ladder set free plummets and slams onto the ground. The force of the hit rattles the walls and nearly knocks free picture frames. At least the ladder has locked itself in place.
I start to ascend the ladder. Burning hot air smacks my face and steals my breath before the scent of mildew can infiltrate my nose. The moisture sticks to my skin and bathes me with the breaths of the summer air. The ladder bites my hands and feet, imbedding splinters in the soft flesh. A cough claws up my throat and I have to squint my eyes as they start to water, but I continue up.
The air is thick in the attic and so hot that the heat can be seen. Thick shadows cloak the plethora of corners. The only stream of light is thin; it catches upon the specks of dust floating through the air thick enough to nearly obscure anything past it. Nails jut down from the slanted ceiling that is so low that I can barely stand in the very center. The wood floors are grey with dust, dust that blankets the few belongings locked away in the tight space.
I slip around corners and crawl into dips to pull out all I can find, but nothing is hiding. Only two things, as far from the ladder as possible, are up here. An old armoire stained a deep cherry red sits near the center, too tall to fit elsewhere. It is much cleaner than the rest of the little attic world, only a thin layer of dust maybe from two or three days judging by the amount of dust filling the air and choking me.
I trace my hand over at the smooth glossy surface to pull away the thin layer of dust. It is incredibly simple, no carvings or intricate handles. It just sits on the floor, has two doors, and the top has a small, smooth curve. I pull the doors open without any resistance. I finally realize I was holding my breath when I finally let it out. My heart pounding in my chest begins to crescendo as I dare to take in the contents.
All that is tucked in the armoire is small-clothes riddled with moth holes. The press together on dull hangers. They all smell like perfume, a pungent floral aroma killing my poor nose promising to claim that sense for days. I gently push aside the paper-thin fabric. Every article of clothing feels like it will unravel under the slightest of touches when I attempt to search through them. Through pockets and underneath clothes I only managed to find a single necklace.
The thin chain slips between my fingers, bouncing slightly as it catches upon my index finger. The silver chain twirls and glints in the dim light, the small charm upon it spinning with such ferocity that at first I cannot make it out. As the dizzying circle settles down and slightly twists in my grip, I rest my other palm under it to calm it completely. The smooth, cool metal bites my palm.
Resting against my hand sits a small silver lamb, half curled around a smooth little gem the color of the grass and sky swirling together beautifully. Small intricate details of the sheep are beyond what I thought possible on something so small. I flip it over to find the words, “Forever pure”, engraved in lacy script on the back of the lamb. The chain slides into my pocket as I start making my way over to the chest.
I kneel upon the floor, dust coating my knees yet not stopping the rough splintering wood from digging in. I run my hand over the flat, blue top of the chest. The golden latch that no longer sparkles clicks open, the sound echoing in the silence. The hinges screech when I lift the light lid.
Papers clutter the top of the small chest, stained yellow and wrinkled along every edge and corner. The ink is smudged and water stains destroy the images. I set them aside until I come upon a small book with a broken spine, bursting with pictures. The ink is not smudged and the pictures seem fine. The pages are not so yellow, but they crinkle lightly when I turn them.
Smiling grainy faces stare at me from worlds of grey. Sticky faces and pudgy fingers, chunky legs and wide innocent eyes, soft features and bright smiles rest in ever photo. A son and two daughters with their mother and father and a dog, maybe a dog. Then suddenly the kids do not show up any more.
I flip through looking closer, looking for a sign of change or a note on one of the photos to give me something. All of the photos are in the same place, the big back yard. The grass had been better cared for back then so that wildflowers did not dot the space and the grass did not reach up so high. The instant the kids are no longer in the photos the photos are no longer taken out back. The smiles remain the same though, despite the losses. The poses are the same and the dog is in every photo besides the last one with the kids.
I tuck the book back in the bottom and pull out a folded up piece of cloth I notice by it. The cloth is stiff, but just as fragile as the articles of clothing in the armoire. The bit I can see is a dull, faded pink with a grey hue. I slowly unfold it, the creases remaining in the small gown. The more I unfold it the sicker I feel. Dull pink fades out to white or in to deep red dimmed from time and maybe being washed a million times. The fabric frays around the large gashes and tears so that the dress is barely that anymore.
Something clatters upon the floor, the sound echoing so loudly in the empty space that my breath is caught in my throat once more and my heart stops to try to drive the room back into complete silence. The echoes fade quickly to dim remnants of the loud sound before further slipping away into recent memory. My eyes dart to the distraction as it bounces across the floor, but the movement does not connect to the sound in my mind.
The ivory arch rests across dingy brown, gleaming in the thin light with a wicked twist that threatens to pierce my skin and peel muscle from bone like the peel from the banana. The top is smooth and almost reflective the surface is so white. It pinches thin and sharp like a carving knife. The bottom twists into a dull claw still sharp enough to pierce wood with enough force. It dips in to form a little pocket similar to a dog`s claw that has been allowed to grow out, perfect for digging.
I twist the new object in my palm, nearly slicing my fingers upon the pinched top. It clatters to the ground once more as my skeleton tries to launch from my skin and my muscles tense to hold it in place. A loud thud bounces through the house with such clarity that I look back to make sure the ladder did not shut on me. While it is still open, allowing cooler air to seep in, the fact that I am utterly alone starts to sink in.
I feel fingers across my back. I hear soft whispers of a loud ringing in my ear. I feel warm breaths against my neck. I whip around to look back, sending my hair flying to cling to my damp face, but absolutely nothing is there. My body feels like it is trying to pull in on itself so I decide it is time to leave the attic. I stumble to the ladder and basically slide down it despite the sharp pain it causes in my rear end, but not until after I snag the claw back up and tuck it away with the necklace.
Gravity drags me forward as the ladder lifts from under my feet, pulling itself up and slamming back into place. I snap my head around to watch it until I hear another loud thump echoing from the downstairs. Barks and whines of a glass shattering high pitch pierce the air.
Bear. That stupid, little, whiny baby, mutt.
My jaw clenches almost painfully and my teeth slide together with an unhealthy amount of force. Oh, that dog is going to get it. I stomp down the stairs and into the kitchen with enough force to rattle the pictures on the walls. I throw the door. It swings free and slams against the wall knocking something down with a loud shattering sound and denting the wall. The door bounces back shut, barely giving Bear time to scramble back in.
“What the hell you stupid mutt? You nea-…” My boiling rage bubbles down into cold shock within seconds as I take in the sight of the large dog and I can barely push out enough breath to form any words. “What happened to you?”
Bear`s high pitched whines still pierce the air, but the sharpness of the sound is not nearly as equivalent to the sharp metallic scent seeping off Bear to pollute the air. The scent of mud and decaying leaves mix with the metallic scent making me gag. Red and brown ooze down tan and white fur, staining it and matting it. His fur is thick enough that is absorbs most of the liquids yet it is not enough to obscure the deep gashes and bites where chunks of skin and fur had been torn away.
I kneel down to examine the injuries only to jump up at another loud thud. I quickly slam my weight back against the door and twist the lock until that clicks rings out over the sound of my rapidly beating heart. Bear darts under the table, his claws clicking on the floor and trailing blood as several claws had been torn away. He hides with his fluffy tail pressed against his stomach and his ears pressed against his dark brownish red-head.
I lift myself up, back sliding against the cool door, to peer out the small window. A loud, wild scratching overpowers the soft sounds of Bear licking his wounds. The grass rustles as the animal darts back away from the door when I pull the small curtain off the window.
The fur is patchy and course, ruffled and thick with blood from the fight. Bones press against grey and pink skin where there is no fur and some even push out in places as a splash of yellowish white. The back half slumps into the grass, the thin and twisted legs being dragged behind the creature to disappear in the grass last. Its tail is long and heavy, but appears as if it was once longer as bones spike out of it. Its shoulders are thick and pulled in close, but that is all I can make out through the grass as the animal does not stand that tall.
The creature wobbles away, breaking into a sprint halfway across the large backyard despite its destroyed back legs. At one point it stops and looks back and I swear it looks me in the eye with those warm brown eyes that seem all too much like those from the beloved pet in the pictures. I am breathing so heavily that it starts to make my head spin. I step back and sink down into a chair until the world stops coming through in blurs.
When my mind clears I get supplies and care for a whiny and snippy Bear. I do all I can for the deep gashes when the front door suddenly opens. I sprint out in fear that it is the creature, a stupid laps in thought as I grabbed nothing to defend myself. Instead of finding a snarling beast I find a smirking idiot.
“You don`t just walk into people`s houses!” The relief still carries in my voice and I hate myself for it.
Allen shrugs. “Just wanted to see how you handled Freckles. Oh, your car is fixed by the way, the place is just past the church so you can cut through there rather than going the long way.”
“I should get going,” He pauses in shutting the door. “and you should too.”
I grit my teeth as the door slams. I storm across the room and yank the door open to find no one there. Even the street is completely barren. A loud slam echoes through the open air to catch my attention, but by the time I look towards the house there is no sign of why the door was slammed so forcefully. I chew over Allen`s words before looking back at Bear.
“Well, I have to get you to a vet anyways and there is none in town.” I mumble as I close the door.
Bear pulls himself into the living room and rests against the door. His chest heaves as he wheezes with such force that the sound actually echoes. He can`t walk all the way there and I can`t carry him. My stomach sinks at the thought but I decide to leave Bear behind with my stuff. I ruffle the fur on the very top of his head leaving a thick brown and red, mud and blood, mixture clinging to my hand as I could not avoid all of it. It`s sticky and warm, and I can`t help but curl my fingers into a fist then relax them only to curl them once more.
I, after a few lingering seconds of staring at my hand, wipe off my hand onto my shorts. I swing the door back open and slowly shut it behind me before skipping down the stairs and sidewalk. Soft thumps echo from under the porch and fill the air. I whip around to find a set of human eyes watching me.
“Shh, I`m playing hide-and-seek.” That is the only explanation the meek little voice gives me before shifting back under the steps more.
I take a step towards the porch. Is this really worth my time? As rude and wrong it is, I don`t think Bear can wait for me to scold an odd child. I turn back around and walk down the sidewalk to step out on the empty street. No one is out which is quickly becoming oddly normal.
The air is still and stale. The heat presses against my chest with a force that has been missing over the past few days making my chest struggle to expand for each breath I take. The warm air swirls in my lungs, pulling them in and making them feel even tighter. Sweat is already budding on my face and slipping down the curve of my nose. From the corner of my eyes I notice a flash of color.
A glance in that direction reveals another pair of eyes hiding in a bush. A small finger presses against chapped lips, but the child does not wear a smile as a playing child should. She or he, I didn`t get a clear enough look, squirms back further into the bush. The rustling fades back into the same heavy silence. The air waves with the heat to cast a blur across the distance.
The old church is close. I jog up to the old church where the sidewalk turns to jagged slates of grey jutting out into the air. Thick cracks form crevices crawling with weeds that add bursts of green amongst a palette made up otherwise of tones of grey and brown. The grass is at least knee-high on me, perhaps even a bit higher. I refuse to step into the grass to find out. The slim blades are oddly lacking in color as they flicker and slash at the air.
The old sign is grey, the wood is grey, the windows are a brownish grey, the door is grey, and the steps are grey. The underwhelming lack of variation in color or lack-there-of actually makes me feel a bit sick. The steps groan their protest under my weight and the wood bows towards the ground; it`s so rotten that I am surprise that they don`t collapse under the weight of a leaf. The wooden door has swollen from the heat and now presses against its frame leaving me with the undesirable choices of hiking through the tall grass or testing the strength of the wood bellow my feet as I brace myself to push the door open.
The creature from earlier flashes in my thoughts causing my heart rate to escalate. I brace my feet against the ground and dig my shoulder into the softened wood door. The door groans and hinges creak, but it quickly falls in taking me swiftly with it. The dust in here is thicker than it had been in the attic and surprisingly enough it is also emptier in here.
The space is small, it may fit around eighty people if they squish together but even that is really pushing it. The floor is almost completely dirt, the dry kind so faded brown that it almost appears yellowish. I attempt to scrape through with my foot but I only succeed in stirring a cloud of dust. The walls are darker inside, but other than that they are the same grey wood, plain and boring. I start to question if this really is, or at least had been at one time, a church.
There is no indication of any religious affiliation remaining in the building. There are no pews, paintings, statues, or anything else to symbolize any form of religion. In fact, the only inhabitant, living or not, seems to be dirt. There aren`t even spider webs cast about or mouse droppings to suggest any life in here.
A breeze presses against my back, the cool fingers dragging goosebumps across my flesh. The wood creaks sharply through the air as I step up onto the platform on the other side of the very small room. The back is rounded and arches off on two sides to two doorways hidden from the front. The one on my left is broken, the door laying on the platform so that the room behind it is wide open. The space is small, and poorly lit as the small room itself lacks windows and the light coming in from the dust coated windows in the big room is barely enough to penetrate the shadows.
The small room has stuff in it at least. It mostly has papers so time-worn and bleached by the miniscule light filtering in that most of the work is too faded to read or stained over. There is a small statue on the corner of the desk, boring grey just like everything else. The statue has a really long snout full of rounded teeth, a set of long ears that droop and a sets of sharper ears that stand up as well as a third set rested against its head, large eyes that seem only half-open, a long giraffe like neck, a sleek canine like body, large reptilian feet and claws, and three tails one of which is impossibly long looping around the base at least three times before trailing off the desk. The pedestal the statue sits on reads, “The Hidden”.
Rest on the shelves is mostly old novels, though some are not so old and do not really belong. One book teeters on the edge, far cleaner than the rest. The leather spine is slightly torn and heavily detailed. I wriggle the book free and slam it down onto the desk. Never have I felt a book so thin yet so heavy that it instantly made my arms ache. The book is sealed with a leather strap. The lock is a bright, shining silver full of small clear gems, and is in the shape of something small and kind of flat.
I pull the claw out of my pocket and line it up with the lock. If I can press down just enough it may work. The claw clatters against the metal as I shake slightly. A large warm hand wraps around mine to steady it before pushing down. My spine goes rigid and my breath catches in my throat. The only sound in the silence is the click of the lock that echoes for eternity in the tiny room.
“There you go.” The voice is soft in my ear, but loud in my head.
My neck cranes slowly to glance at the person towering over me, no longer baring the normal, mocking smirk on chapped lips. Deep brown eyes are locked on the book, while a wide, warm chest is nearly pressed against my back with each breath he takes. His gaze suddenly flicks to me when he notices me staring, the small smirk returning with only a faint spark.
“I told you, you should get going. I-“ A loud crash cuts Allen off.
He looks over his shoulder, his stance shifting ever so slightly either to block me from the source of the noise or the source of the noise from me. His posture is tense and rigid while his shoulders pull back slightly.
“You`ve overstayed your welcome as you are, Your car is only a few feet out back on the road, Bear is already in there with your stuff..” Allen`s voice is quiet, on the other hand the clicks on the wooden floor, even through all that dirt, are deafening.
I want to glare at Allen, hit him, scold him, but the clicks are getting closer. I spot a pair of blue eyes hiding in the corner, a small child staring at me. He presses a finger to his lips and mouths, ‘Shh, I`m hiding.’ I then notice the hazel eyes above him as a young woman holds him close, mouthing the same words. I stumble forward and lose sight of them when a large palm presses between my shoulders to propel me towards the door out.
When I turn to look back I am shoved again, this time with more force. I nearly stumble over my feet. I get the point when the clicking stops and the soft rumbling growls shake through the floor and walls. I take off running, tugging upon the thick and heavy door until it finally gives in and slowly swings free. I slip out, compressed between the panels of wood as the door desperately tries to return to its frame.
Another set of eyes, eyes just Maria`s staring at me from the branches of a tree. They follow me so closely, not pulling into their hiding space more like the others had. I expect to be told the same thing for the fourth time today. Instead the small child drops from the tree. I gasp and stumble back before the image changes before my eyes. Thick black chains, or the faint image of thick black chains, hold the child in place against the rough bark.
“Tell mommy and daddy we love them.” The voice carries in the wind as if the voice is the wind.
I yank the door to my truck open and hull myself in. Bear is spread out across the back seat, snapping his head up as the truck rumbles to life. The gravel churns beneath, crackling and rumbling softly as I drive over them. I glance back to see the child free with a bony finger pressed to her lips.
I shake my head and drive through the empty and still town. The park is empty and houses are shut up, even the broken shutters. Not a single driveway has a car and the sidewalks are crumbling. No bird sing or fly across the cloudless sky, so that the sun may burn down with blistering heat. Not even the smallest breath of wind stirs the air or rustles the leaves as if even the sky is still and empty and hiding.
On occasion I notice a glimmer, the slightest flicker of light from sunlight catching upon metal on clothes or, more frequently, upon fences and mailboxes. Then there are times where I cash the drops of colors belonging to a pair of wide eyes, frightened to the point that they dare not even blink. The sign sits still where it had been. From this side, written sloppily in red upon the white pain, it reads, “PLEASE STAY.”
My hair stands on end. My back and thighs stick to the seat as the overwhelming heat pulls sweat from my pores in an attempt to cool me down. My breathing is heavy, cracking my ribs from the sheer force my lungs press against them with. My heart fights like an animal for freedom to flee, incapable of finding a steady beat. My mind races more than anything else. The thoughts whip around like a tornado with such speed that they are ungraspable blurs.
My muscles tighten and loosen. I`d rather be sprinting then sitting in this small tight space as the town shifts into a barren road which then leaks into thick foliage cover on either side of the black path. The thick shadows crawl and curl, but none jump out and none hinder me. The road smooths out into the highway and my heart calms to a nearly normal and steady pace.
Pain jolts through my body rather than electricity. A small laugh bubbles up my throat. Soon laughter is bouncing against the windows and rattling the little sense left in my brain. I don`t think I need it right now. Laughter breaks into hiccups which transform into cries, but I cannot tell I am crying until I taste the salty tears slipping off of my cheeks and brushing into my mouth.
The overwhelming pressure forces me to pull aside in the parking lot of some local fast-food restaurant I could not care less about. I feel a remaining weight in my pocket that burns my side. I yank the warm item out and go to chuck it out the window when the glittering in the sun catches my eye. The little lamb charm stares at me as the stone it is protecting now swirls with a range of colors so diverse that it s***s up all of my attention.
I slip the chain around my neck and dry away the tears and snot leaking down my face. I lean forward in my seat to take seven deep breaths before leaning back and taking several more. I brush the strands of hair sticking to my face to behind my ear so they are less of a bother. My family is waiting and probably growing irritated. I climb out and head into the cool restaurant. I ask where I am, but before they even answer I feel that I know.
I return to my truck and start back up the east coast as cool air blasts throughout the truck. Bear presses his damp nose against the back of the center console. I run a hand through his fluffy fur for a sort of comfort.
“I hope they allow dogs where we are staying.” I mutter.
Bear lets out a soft bark in responses and runs his tongue over my hand. I wipe my hand off as a small smile finds its way to my face. A sharp, unbearable burning sensation sparks on my shoulder and tears down my arm and back. I gasp and choke at the pain while Bear`s howls shatter my ears. Warm breath brushes against my ear with a voice I have grown familiar with.
“Thank you for the way out.” Allen lifts his hand from my shoulder to reveal the bubbling and blistering skin bellow.