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Maria could hear Paul calling to her from the darkness, his voice distant and detached like a ship’s horn in the fog. She wanted to cry out to him, to scream his name until her lungs burned from the effort, but when she opened her mouth, only a feint gasp escaped.
“Maria…Maria?” A low rumbling overtook his words, smothering them beneath a tide of foamy noise that receded as suddenly as it had arrived.
The disembodied baritone of her own name continued to fill the air, drawing nearer with every beat. If she only knew where he was, she would run to him. Scream, she commanded herself. Yell, shout, clap—anything!
But, like her voice, Maria’s limbs rebelled her authority. Paralyzed, she was no longer even sure of which direction was forward or back, up or down. “Maria…hey…” The sound was incredibly close now, piercing the abyss that had enveloped her.
“Baby, hey—there you are. Lord, you scared me.”
Illuminated by the solitary flame of the oil lamp, the parlor slowly came into focus. Paul was nervously smiling down at her and the look of relief on his face flickered in the wavy orange light. Just beyond the boarded-over windows, the storm outside continued to rage unabated, furiously beating against the old house like an army of invaders.
Maria tried to sit upright and Paul quickly put his hands on her shoulders. “No, no, no,” he said, “just lay back. You had quite a nasty little fall.”
“What… I did?” she asked. Though still groggy, Maria could vaguely recall her and Paul driving home in the storm along the desolate State Road, and then crashing into the trees somewhere amidst the vast swamp. The images of their grueling trek to the abandoned house flashed in her mind’s eye just as the lightning had been flashing in the night sky above them.
Paul smiled warmly, “It’s been a long night, it just caught up with you is all. But you’re okay now.”
Gradually, the details began to materialize, teased from her memory like a shy dormouse from his hole: the dirty beige sofa she reclined upon, the wet, mildew-scented blanket covering her…
As she lay there slowly remembering bits and pieces of the evening, the wall of old photographs suddenly popped into her head. Then, just as abruptly, the crystalline image of the matronly woman with the cameo appeared, hanging by her neck from the stout rope as the dark Victorian dress twirled listlessly above the floor.
“Paul!” cried Maria, as she shot upright with a jolt.
The outburst caught him by surprise, and Paul said, “Whoa, what is it? What’s going on?”
Maria’s face was milky pale, and her wet hair was strewn about her head in messy black clumps. “I saw her, Paul. Oh my god, I saw her. I remember she—I remember…” She covered her mouth with her hands as fat tears welled up in her eyes.
“Who? You saw who? Where, Maria—what do you mean?” Paul grabbed her shoulders and lowered down to meet her terrified gaze.
“The lady from the pictures,” she said, pointing over to the far wall with a trembling hand.
“Huh?” Looking alternately between the wall of black and white photographs and Maria, Paul’s face was a mask of confusion. He stood up from the sofa and walked over to the tidy rows nailed along the floral wallpaper. Using his flashlight, he briefly studied one of the earlier photographs. In the picture, the matron’s face was still youthful and taught, with none of the deep furrows that would eventually carve their way into the porcelain-smooth skin around her eyes.
“Her? You mean you saw this lady? I don’t understand. What are you talking about?”
Over on the sofa, Maria was still upright, hugging her knees for warmth as she stared at the undulating flame of the oil lamp. She didn’t want to say it out loud, as though her silence would prevent it from becoming real. She squeezed her eyes shut as tight as she could, but when she opened them again, the little orange flame still danced merrily atop the lamp.
The parlor was silent for a moment. Then, her voice wavering on the brink of collapse, Maria said, “She was hanging from the balcony. At first I thought it was you, but she… she jumped over the side.” Stopping to absentmindedly wipe her nose with the moldy blanket, she continued, “She said, ‘they weren’t supposed to tell,’ and then she screamed at me to get out of here. Her face, Paul… her eyes…” Having managed to say it, Maria finally broke down and began to sob.
Paul rushed over and wrapped his arms around her. “Hey, it’s okay. Shh-shh, there’s nothing there now, see?” He gestured towards the balcony across the parlor but Maria refused to look, keeping her face buried in his chest instead.
After a few minutes, her crying lessened enough to speak. Looking up at him, she said, “I’m not crazy. I know what I saw. She was there.” Her voice faltered, but the thought of being too easily dismissed hardened her resolve, and she stifled the cry before it could leave her throat.
Paul’s face was sympathetic, and he said, “I never said you were crazy. Listen to me; it’s late, we’re in the middle of nowhere, our car is wrecked somewhere out in the swamp, this house, the storm—this whole night’s crazy, but not you.”
Though he sounded sincere, Maria could see the pity in his expression and she felt patronized. “I saw her, Paul!” she insisted.
“Okay, fine. I believe you,” he said firmly, “but she’s not there now, she’s gone. So please, just lay back down. It’ll be morning before you know it and then I’ll figure us a way out of here.”
She wasn’t sure if he actually believed her or not, but there was no sense in continuing. Besides, maybe she really was mistaken. It does sound crazy when you say it out loud, she thought. Perhaps it was like Paul had said, and the extraordinary events of the evening had just conspired to play tricks on her mind, casting illusions borne of her own subconscious. No, she thought to herself as she laid back again, pulling the quilted blanket up to her chin, I know what I saw.
Suddenly feeling very tired, (emotionally and physically), she looked up to Paul and said with a weak smile, “Maybe you’re right. It’s been such a dreadful evening. I suppose I’m just not cut out for this type of adventure. Only, won’t you stay here with me now? Please?” Her arms felt as heavy as bags of flour as she struggled to keep her eyes open. Maybe I’m dreaming after all, she thought to herself unconvincingly.
Paul took her hand in his own and said, “Of course I will. I’ll be right here; you just need to get some rest now.”
The parlor grew dimmer as the noise of the storm began to evaporate like a hazy mirage. “I mean it Paul, don’t leave me alone.” Her words trailed off though, fading beneath a chorus of distant thunder.
“I won’t sweety, I promise.”
Paul sat on the sofa with Maria while she slept and the storm continued to assault the house. He was playing a game of his own making where-in he would aim his flashlight at an object somewhere around the room, then, turning the light on, see how close he was to hitting his target. After landing a direct hit on a tarnished candle sconce along the adjacent wall for the third time however, he grew bored and had had enough.
Feeling around his wet jacket, he located the pack of cigarettes in the inside pocket. The carton was damp from the rain but thankfully not soaked all the way through. It was always risky to smoke around Maria, something he avoided at all costs, but she was still sound asleep—and these were unique circumstances. He looked over at her peaceful blanketed form beneath the quilt, rising and falling with soft, rhythmic breaths.
I wonder what she actually saw, he thought to himself as he studied her tear-streaked face. Whatever it had been, Paul had never seen her so terrified before.
Somewhere on the far side of the house, the wind was violently battering a loose shutter against the wood siding, the repetitive thumps echoing throughout the dark and vacant rooms. Paul was sifting through his matches, trying to find one dry enough to light, when suddenly a loud bang shook the house.
Startled, he looked up just in time to see thin tendrils of plaster dust falling through the air in the hallway beneath the balcony. Well, that sure wasn’t the storm, he thought to himself. Unlit cigarette still dangling from his bottom lip, Paul stood up without taking his eyes off the ceiling and slowly walked over to the balcony. Aiming his flashlight up to the second floor, the beam passed over bland oil paintings and water-stained floral wallpaper, but nothing out of place.
Then, shinning the light towards the opposite end of the upstairs hall, Paul froze. He’d come from that direction earlier, so it would have been impossible for him to miss the wooden ladder protruding from the ceiling down to the floor.
On the second floor landing, Paul leaned against the balcony railing taking long drags off his cigarette as he stared at the hinged ladder a few feet away. Only a pair of crushed butts at his feet from the previous smokes marked the passage of time, they too having been nervously consumed while contemplating the mysterious new arrival.
He was certain that it hadn’t been there when he was upstairs earlier. Pointing his flashlight up into the attic, all he could see were boxes stacked one atop of another. Maybe the trap door was just hung up before the storm knocked it loose, he reasoned. He glanced down into the parlor where Maria was still asleep on the sofa and then back to the ladder. Stubbing his cigarette out on the handrail, he tucked the fire poker under his arm and grabbed ahold of a dusty rung before starting to climb.
Inside the attic, the storm’s fury was jarringly loud. Each time the thunder rolled through, bits of dust fell from the exposed rafters overhead into Paul’s hair. Looking around with his flashlight, he felt as though he’d ascended into a maze of boxes. Stacked nearly as tall as he was, the brown cardboard rows formed meandering aisles that wandered off in every shadow-laden direction.
Stopping at the nearest wobbly tower, Paul took down the top box and set it on the floor before opening the flaps. Blowing away a small dust cloud, he shined his light inside to reveal a pile of white button-up shirts. He reached down into the pile thinking there may be something else buried deep below, but all he found were more shirts. Tossing them back into the box, he walked further into the attic.
Pausing at another stack of boxes, he again took one down and opened the lid. Rather than more white shirts however, the box contained what appeared to be a collection of children’s belongings: toys, tattered comic books, a worn-out baseball mitt, and other personal affects. Now even more curious, he opened the lid to an adjacent box only to discover the same thing: more kid’s possessions.
As he was studying a hand-carved toy train, turning it over in his hands to see where it was made, something towards the rear of the attic toppled over with a loud clatter. Startled, Paul dropped the train back into the box and quickly swung his light in that direction. It was impossible to see over the ocean of boxes though, and only a wafting cloud of dust alluded to the source of the noise.
“Hello?” he called out, “is somebody there?” Only the storm replied however, whipping heavy sheets of rain into the roof above his head. He scanned the sprawling attic with his light, hesitantly probing the shadows.
As he slowly made his way down the aisle of boxes towards the settling cloud of dust, he kept the fire poker poised overhead, ready to deliver a lethal blow to any territorial raccoons or squirrels. Nothing leapt from the shadows to attack him however, and before long he was standing over a toppled stack of boxes, its contents a kaleidoscope of toys strewn around the dirty floor.
The boxes had originally been stacked against the far wall, just another integer comprising the labyrinthine aisles. When Paul stepped to the side however—shinning his light behind what remained of the still-standing row—he noticed something that struck him as odd: a narrow walkway had been made between the boxes and exterior wall of the house. Towards the end of the little path, a small, dirty brown stuffed bear sat propped against a stud in the wall. Studying it in the glow of the flashlight, it didn’t look as though it had gotten where it was by accident.
Shimmying between the boxes and the wall, Paul eventually made his way back to the toy bear. He hadn’t been able to tell before, but the walkway ended at a crude cave made out of the boxes, indistinguishable from the aisle on the other side. Even more strange, it appeared at one time someone had been hiding in the cavity—several thick blankets arranged in a comfy pile still bore the dust-filled impression of a child’s sleeping body.
Turning his attention to the stuffed bear beside the makeshift bed, Paul noticed that it had seen better days. Not only filthy and stained, the left button-eye was missing and the embroidered line comprising its mouth had started to unravel, leaving behind only a half-smiling “J”. To Paul, it looked as though it’s previous owner had carried it around with them religiously.
As he went to put the bear back where he had found it, another loud crash erupted from the maze of boxes in the direction he’d just come. Startled, Paul dropped his flashlight to floor where it landed with a loud clang. Quickly reaching for it, his eyes followed the beam of light to the wall. There, carved into the brittle wood of the wall stud was the solitary word: “SIGBEE”
Paul snatched the light from the floor and shot up, fire poker at the ready. As he scanned the darkened attic however, nothing seemed amiss. Leaving the stuffed bear and nest of blankets, he carefully made his way out from behind the boxes. “Hello?” he called again, trying to hide the tension in his voice. But still there was no reply.
Cautiously, Paul crept back down the row of boxes towards the ladder. As he came around the last tall stack, his heart stopped—the ladder was folded back up, sealing off his retreat to the second floor below. Somewhere in the darkness behind him, another box-tower suddenly toppled over with a crash. He quickly spun around, but the cardboard columns only mocked him with their silence.
Now more determined than ever to get out of the attic, Paul decided to try and force the trap door and ladder back down into the hallway below. Turning away from the endless sea of boxes for the door, he suddenly screamed. Close enough to embrace, the matron in the Victorian dress sneered at him malevolently, her corpse-like face illuminated in the white glow of his flashlight.
If she had been attractive in life, death had clearly been unkind. Intense, bloodshot eyes bulged from their dark sockets, and her parchment-like skin exposed the squiggly blue veins traversing her pale face. Her neck was unnaturally long as well—jutting out sideways at a queer angle where the abrasive hemp rope had left a scarlet burn around it. Opening her mouth, the chipped, yellow teeth parted in a snarl as she croaked, “They weren’t supposed to tell…”
Stammering, and desperate for more space between him and the ghastly apparition, Paul quickly backpedaled. He had only taken a couple of erratic steps backwards when his heel caught some unseen object that refused to give way. With no time to catch himself, he fell to the attic floor on his back. As the force of the landing knocked the breath from his lungs, the weak boards gave way, sending him crashing to the second story floor below.
Part: V (link disabled until May 22nd at 8 p.m.)
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