When new parents Sunny and Andrew Quinn escape from Brooklyn to a suburb, proud owners of a creaky 100-plus year old cottage abutting the grounds of a church, they think they’re looking at happily ever after; but Sunny, a clairvoyant depressive, intuits with mounting dread that the place is murmurous and rotten with the ghosts of its terrible history, and that the house, sentient, watchful, seems to have ensnared the family.
But it’s the incoming residents of the vacant convent next door who bring the terror. Mr. and Mrs. Smith are rarely seen, but their presence is felt. And Shepherd, the recently hired church caretaker and former Green Beret, quotes poetry, lies readily, and gets Sunny drunk in the afternoons. He also introduces her to the mysterious old utility tunnels under the church grounds that may or may not be real.
Tonight, Andrew is taken to a party.
Andrew stood at the window of his office. Impossibly far below, crowds and traffic clashed soundlessly. The heavens retained some light over the western skyline, brushed with wisps of smoke-like clouds turned violet and fuschia by the sunken sun. Almost everybody on the floor had cleared out early. A jaunty rat-a-tat on the open door. Gina, his blond lunch buddy from A/V, stood in the doorway, posing rather, hand on an out-thrust hip.
“Hey! What’s up? You gonna call it a day, or what?” She flipped her bangs to the side with an aggressively manicured hand, a girly affectation that had the effect of either stirring or boring him, depending on his mood. “Drinkie?” Tugging her cropped cardigan down tightly over her torso. “What do you say? It’s five-o’clock somewhere in the world!” Glanced at her watch. “Actually, it’s quarter to. And it’s the holiday!”
Andrew turned back to the void before him, indifferent. “I need to finish up some stuff here, Gina. Sorry.”
Fifteen minutes later he stepped out of the elevator into the lobby, and was surprised not at all to find Mrs. Smith standing there, smiling as if she had expected him, as indeed she had. She kissed him on the mouth without so much as a hello, slipped an arm through his in a companionable way.
“What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you?” she asked him. “The very worst. Quick, without thinking. Don’t hold back.”
Andrew laughed. “I’ve had the perfect life,” he said. “So far. Can’t you tell?”
She looked at him, her smile gone now, deliberately lifted her hand to sweep her lush hair off her face, and the gesture from her made him weak in the knees for a moment. In spite of the fact that her fingernails were like talons. No. Because of the fact.
“I was on my way to a party uptown,” she said. “I thought I’d collect you to come along with me.”
“I’m ready when you are.” No hesitation.
She nodded. “I knew you would be.” She put her glossy head upon his shoulder just long enough for him to inhale the smell of her, and then she stepped away to hail a cab. Andrew pulled out his cell phone and she turned back to him, her lavish mouth curling into a sardonic smile. “Getting permission from Mommy?”
Andrew laughed again, though nervously, it must be admitted. Tucked the phone back into his pocket. “Let’s go crazy,” he told her, and she nodded slowly.
It was a brownstone in Harlem, opulently renovated. Lady Gaga throatily chanting to a chunky beat while the packed room gyrated as one, hands up, swaying. A strobe flashed crazily as Mrs. Smith whipped her hair across Andrew’s face, its scent so potent, so dark and alien and heady as to cause him to reel dizzily, and she pulled him close, her hands on his hips, their pelvises locked as they moved. Her lips to his ear. Telling him what she wanted. He closed his eyes and the flashing strobe remained imprinted on his eyelids. Someone screamed, a banshee’s cry. The room so superheated it was difficult to breathe. A man grunting, perhaps himself. Her talons on his back, hurting him. He liked it. He knew she didn’t want to be his friend, and he liked her stabbing claws all the more for that.
Someone bumped into him violently, spilling red wine down the back of his sweat-soaked Oxford shirt. Thrust even closer to her face, her open mouth, her avid eyes, and he bent to kiss her but she pulled her face away. There came a roaring in his ears. If this is hell, I’ll take it. She ran her tongue over her lips and Andrew fancied for a moment that it forked like a snake’s. Her great eyes gleamed red in the strobe. Smiling at him, at once savage and tender. Her teeth bared. The roaring now a mighty wind against his face.
Andrew was at the wheel of a sturdy black Hilux, handling it with an expert’s precision as it careened along an unpaved mountain road, bucking violently at every rut, and there were many. She was beside him. He knew her as an aid worker. Good with kids, she was. As for Andrew, his was the business of privatized soldiery, an enterprise for which he was well suited and better paid. The headscarf covering her hair and neck fluttered manically, caught in the high screaming gust of their increasing velocity. He could feel her eyes on him. He was flooring the vehicle, though this would probably not be recommended in the safety manual (if such a manual had been available here). As they negotiated the increasingly steep switchbacks and hairpin turns, the mountain fell away vertiginously to a sheer cliff face. Barren valleys receded in the distance, rimmed by boulder-mottled slopes. Far peaks set afire by the suspended bloodred orb of the setting sun.
The road ended at an abbreviated slab of tableland, dotted with scrub brush. Andrew jerked the Hilux to a stop in a cloud of dust. A labyrinth of caves lay an almost vertical two-hour hike above them, but caves were not on the agenda today. He pushed his Oakleys up and stepped out onto the truncated road as she followed. The slam of the truck doors echoing in the sudden stillness of the mountains.
Andrew carried only a sidearm; the big blasters he left behind in the pickup. He wouldn’t need them here. He wouldn’t need the sidearm either, of course, but its heft against him was comfortable and familiar. The Hilux’ engine ticked. A long way below, the village they had come from looked deceptively bucolic, framed by the rushing river and emerald trees of early summer. The few ramshackle buildings in miniature shrouded in long shadows. There was no detectable movement.
“Do you trust me?” she asked him, and he nodded mutely. “‘He shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you. In their hands they shall bear you up.’ That’s a verse from the New Testament covering certain events – do you know it?”
He stood at the rim of the rock and stared into the monolithic distance, one hand on his hip. Lest you dash your foot upon a stone. He knew what he had to do. He glanced back at her and her arms came up slowly as she approached, smiling, and he leapt before she could push him, his choice alone (Does she think I’m a pussy?), and he fell through the thin air as the mountain cartwheeled and the faraway valley rushed him and his boot struck a jagged ledge and then his skull another, and there were no angels here, not a one, and Andrew woke with a shivering jolt, his head resting on the begrimed window of the moving train. His own reflection staring back looking pale and startled. It was 5:43 PM. He was almost home.
The loudspeaker crackled. “STATION MOUNT VERNON, MOUNT VERNON EAST, NEXT STOP.”
He had no idea that he was crying.
DISCLAIMER: Stephanie Silber owns the copyright to the foregoing and gives permission only for the sample herein to be distributed free of charge, and without alteration.