For the ten generations since the evil first came to Woodcutter’s Grim, the Guardians have sworn an oath to protect the town from the childhood horrors that lurk in the black woods. Without them, the town would be defenseless…and the terrors would escape to the world at large.
Very loosely based on “Metamorphoses: The Story of Pygmalion and the Statue” by Ovid. Cheyenne Welsh can’t forget her past and the disappearance of her younger sister. When she returns to Woodcutter’s Grim to sell the family property she grew up on, she’s confronted with all the nightmare-realities of her childhood, still alive and well, still right where she left them–down in the darkness the Deep dwells inside. Her home…
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GENRE: Paranormal Mild Horror Romance Word Count: 51, 396
Pygmalion offers his sacrifice to the gods and prays for the statue wrought with his own hands to come to life…
“And snowy-chested heifers, whose bent horns
With gold were gay, receiv’d the deadly blow;
And incense burnt in clouds. Pygmalion stood
Before the altar, with his offer’d gifts:
Timid he spoke,–O ye all-potent gods!
Give me a spouse just like my ivory nymph,–
Give me my ivory nymph–he blush’d to say.
Bright Venus then, as present at her feast,
Perceiv’d the inmost wishes of his soul;
And gave the omen of a friendly power.
Thrice blaz’d the fire, and thrice the flame leap’d high…”
~Metamorphoses: The Story of Pygmalion and the Statue by Ovid
Fifteen-year-old Cheyenne Welsh climbed guiltily down from the Becks’ haymow with her Romeo just behind her asking in frustration, “Why do you always need to go? You’re not responsible for your sister. Your mother is.”
Chey flushed. James already knew. She knew he didn’t need to be told that her mother was ill again. That, from the time her sister Dulcie had been born five years ago, Cheyenne had been, for all intents and purposes, solely responsible for her. How could he understand that, even if her parents were willing and able, Dulcie was hers…more than a sister, she was the child Chey took care of, protected, was a mother, father, playmate and friend to?
My child, regardless of the biology.
The burden of her ill-advised rendezvous abruptly heavy on her shoulders, Chey shook her head. Panic flooded her chest. “I shouldn’t have come. I have to take care of her. I have to.”
He’d come over after lunch. Always, he was the one she said no to–because Dulcie needed her–and yet he continually came back. She’d been friends and neighbors with James Beck all her life. They were the same age, went to the same school, did almost everything together, Dulcie with them, of course. But, lately, things been had different between her and James. Since that first, stolen kiss…
Now he was everything, her whole life. She thought of him constantly. Whenever he begged her to go with him to his parents’ barn, where they could be alone together, she said no. But today…today she’d given in to the tiny glimmer of resentment she felt for her parents. If only they were better parents, better people, she could be a normal teenager. She could go with James…
The building was filled with chickens and horses and goats, wild cats, newborn puppies, and probably a million mice. Chey hadn’t cared about any of that anymore. She only wanted to be with James. When he’d come over that morning, she’d been coaxed away too easily because all she could think about of late was that they could run away from this town, away from the responsibilities, the fears. They could take Dulcie with them.
But James would never, ever leave Woodcutter’s Grim. Deep down, in a place she didn’t want to acknowledge, she understood that. This place was his home. His family was here. So was hers. Nevertheless, it wasn’t the same for her. It could never be.
James reached over and pulled a long straw from her messy mane of blond hair. His soft, sexy grin instantly undid her. She wanted nothing more than to return to the haymow and lose herself in the dream of a world with only her and James.
At the same time, trepidation blanketed her like a dark, heavy fog when she glanced at her watch. She’d been too long. Much too long. It’d been hours! What had she been thinking? “Where did the time go?” she wailed, turning and rushing toward the open barn doors. Before she reached them, the booming thunder cracked so violently overhead, terror streaked through her. Lighting raced across the dark sky in tandem with the thunder.
Dulcie… Dulcie had been playing outside with her beloved, hideous “ragdoll” Ajuoga, which their father had gotten for her while at a dig site in Africa. Chey had overheard him telling her mother he’d gotten it from a witchdoctor. He’d only called it a ragdoll instead of what it really was so Dulcie wouldn’t be frightened of the ugly thing.
Did he trade for the doll, or steal it? Chey wondered suddenly. There’s nothing my father wouldn’t do to get an authentic artifact.
James called to her as she ran out into the ice-cold rain falling as heavy as wet sheets from the sky. When she didn’t stop, he followed her. She knew he would. James always followed her.
If only he’d follow me when Dulcie and I leave this terror of a town.
Chey ran around the back of the house, but there was no sign of Dulcie or her doll. Whirling on the spot, Chey looked all around her, trying to see through the downpour. Without a clear line of sight, she saw no evidence of her little sister.
“She must be in the house,” James shouted, just behind her, over the storm.
Dulcie loved to play in the rain, even the dangerous kind. Unless their mother had gotten herself out of bed today–unlikely–Dulcie would have stayed outside even after she realized it was raining. Her father was no doubt at the university, where he spent most of his time.
Chey and James ran around the house to the front door. Not wanting her mother to know her precious miracle might be missing, Chey made her way through the kitchen and down the hall. Carefully she opened her mother’s bedroom door. Sometimes Dulcie played quietly on the floor beneath the bed while their mother slept the sleep of drugged depression. Though Chey made no noise, her mother lifted her head and blinked at her out of pained, puzzled eyes. “You’re wet, Chey.”
She was drenched and dripping all over the carpet. If she hadn’t known better, she would have tracked mud through the house, too, but she and James had taken their shoes off on the rug inside the front door. Dulcie’s shoes hadn’t been there.
“Where’s your sister?” her mother asked sleepily, though her wariness was evident.
Chey’s parents had been on the verge of a divorce when her mother unexpectedly got pregnant. Their relationship had seemed on the mend with that miracle.
But not for long. Never for long.
Her mother’s mental illness and her father’s obsession with his work–inherited from his father–were an impossible impasse in their ill-advised marriage.
Panting, Chey knew letting her mother know she hadn’t been watching her little sister the way she was expected to would set her off. “She’s in her room…playing. I thought…she left her doll in here.”
Her mother lowered her head back to the pillow, obviously relieved to not have to face anything unpleasant. Quickly, Chey closed the door behind her, and James’s warm, dark eyes met hers. She could see the guilt in his expression, too. Though he questioned her all the time about what her parents expected of her, he understood that she cared about Dulcie too much to act like this wasn’t her fault.
Splitting up, they searched the elegant, sprawling ranch style house, coming back together under the kitchen archway a few minutes later. They both shook their heads. Chey turned and glanced back at her father’s study at the end of the hall. She didn’t dare go in there. True, it was locked and she couldn’t get in anyway, but her father didn’t allow anyone near his study, nor downstairs in his basement workshop where he kept his extensive collections. She knew that and wouldn’t dare to circumvent the household law.
“Maybe she’s still outside. We have to find her!” Chey said frantically.
James agreed, and together they plunged back out into the storm. Working together, they searched every square inch of both of their properties, including the barn since Dulcie accompanied them inside there often.
Crawling dread made Chey feel like she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, couldn’t function. Dulcie had disappeared.
Oh God, oh God…please no. She’s so small, so innocent and sweet…
Inside the Beck’s cozy, inviting house, his mother insisted she hadn’t seen Dulcie all day. Foolishly, Chey tried to act like it was no big deal, but Mrs. Beck knew her too well. One shared, stricken look, and Chey burst into tears. She told her everything through her tumultuous sobs. Her expression kind and comforting, his mother hugged her, rubbing her shivering arms. “You can’t blame yourself, Cheyenne. You’re only fifteen. You’re much too young for the burdens placed on you. Is your father home, sweetie?”
Mrs. Delaney Beck was the most open-minded, logical, forgiving person Chey had ever known. Yet whenever she talked about Professor Patrick Welsh, a sour, disapproving look entered Delaney’s usually kind eyes. James’s mother had been best friends with Chey’s mother, Sondra, all her life. Delaney would probably never forgive the professor for what he’d done to destroy his wife. His selfish insensitivity had crushed the beautiful, winsome creature Sondra had been growing up.
“I…I don’t know,” Chey told her. “He almost never is.”
“Did you see his car while you were searching?”
Chey frowned in surprise. “Yes. I did actually, now that I think back. It was in the garage. Strange. He’s almost never at home on the weekends.”
“Well, go back home and knock on his study door. That’s where he’ll be if he’s home, right? You have my permission to tell your father that I insisted you interrupt him, all right?”
Even with the permission, encroaching on her father’s territory frightened her. Yet she knew this was an exception to his carved-in-stone rules. There was simply no other choice. The weather was getting worse, and Dulcie was gone. Someone, an adult, had to help find her.
I’m too young for this. The times I’ve sneaked away before, I always kept Dulcie close enough that I could hear and see her at all times. She stayed where I told her to. This time… Oh, why did I go when James asked me? How could I be so stupid to leave Dulcie out in the backyard, believing she would obey when I told her to stay there until we returned?
Please be all right, Dulcie. Please…
Back inside her own house, her clothes plastered to her body, her hair soaked and dripping, Chey tentatively knocked on her father’s study door. James stood beside her, willingly giving his support though he didn’t deserve any blame. It was all her fault for being so irresponsible.
As they waited for the roar of her father’s fury, the door of the basement opened abruptly on the other side of the hall. The sound of the massive steel door scraping open always made Chey’s skin crawl.
When her father returned from his expedition spent with the Bakongo and Songye peoples in the Congo Basin in Central Africa last summer, he’d replaced the wooden door with the steel one and put massive bolt locks on it to keep everyone out. Chey had assumed he’d brought back some of his precious minkisi. Banganga healers, diviners, or mediators entrusted with the duty of defending the living against witchcraft and providing them with remedies against diseases resulting from witchcraft or demanding spirits were said to harness the power of bakisi, emissaries from the land of the dead, inside a nkisi. This was primarily a container–ceramic vessel, gourd, animal horn, shell or bundle–basically any object capable of containing spiritually “charged” substances. Even graves themselves could be considered such, and minkisi were described as “portable graves”. Often they contained earth and relics from the grave of a powerful individual. The powers of the dead infused the objects so the diviner could control the spirits. A subclass of the minkisi, nkondi was an aggressive spirit.
More so than any obscure nkisi or nkondi, Chey had realized her father had brought back something else from his expedition, something he and his father had spent their lives searching for and talking about, often in Chey’s attentive hearing.
He brought back something he didn’t want any of us to see. Not even me. And I know what, too. Die Diep.
Chey shivered uncontrollably. She knew, and it was the reason she’d been keeping her little sister so close.
Daddy and Granddad used to talk about how the ritual of evoking the nkondi statue was done. The diviner would build the nkondi, about three feet tall, outside the village, using bird claws, fruits, mushrooms, minerals, or symbolic white clay. The nkondi usually had a reflective surface, such as a mirror, on the stomach or eyes which were the means of vision in the “Other World”. When the diviner returned to the village, he would come covered in paint, delivering songs and vivid enactments to illustrate the return of the nkondi to the land of the living. But more was needed to “activate” the creature. An elaborate ritual would ensue, involving painting white circles around the eyes to allow the diviner to see beyond the physical world into hidden sources of evil and illness. He would dress as his nkondi did. Participants painted white stripes on themselves, wore ornate jewelry and strange costumes with knots incorporated in them to signify the closing up and sealing of spiritual forces. During the performance, the diviner would recite specific invocations to awaken the nkondi. To activate it for its purpose in searching out wrongdoing, enforcing oaths, and causing or curing sicknesses, often times nails would be driven into the nkondi. Daddy called the statues “nail fetishes”, something that still makes me cringe like I did when he showed me and James photographs from the expedition.
Standing in the open doorway leading down to the basement, Chey’s father stared at the two of them. He had white paint around his eyes, behind his round, scholarly glasses and he was dressed oddly. He didn’t seem to notice their soaked, frantic appearances. He appeared too distracted and disheveled to notice much of anything. Chey had never seen her father look like this before. Normally, he was too calm–excited only by a rare academic find or the talk of one–too staid, too organized and contained for emotional displays.
“Daddy?” Chey said, moving to stand in front of him. “We can’t find Dulcie. We’ve looked everywhere, inside and out…” A strange, overpowering, earthy smell came to her, and she couldn’t help looking around her father toward the basement the stench was coming from. There on the top step leading down into the pitch-black maw of the cellar, she saw Ajuoga. A cry rose in her throat.
Chey backed up in a hurry when her father stepped forward, then slammed and locked the steel door behind him.
“Daddy,” Chey shouted in dismay, “that was Dulcie’s ragdoll on the steps…”
“We have to find her,” her father said, his tone strong and resolved.
Though Chey rarely talked back to her father, she protested, and he shook his head at her in warning, effectively quieting her. “Where did you check?”
“Even my parents’ property,” James added.
“Well, search again. Split up. We’ll meet back here in fifteen minutes.”
The endeavor was a waste of time. In fifteen minutes, Chey was shivering violently from the cold October rain, and her mind wouldn’t let her rest from her worry. Her father knew Dulcie wouldn’t be parted from her ragdoll, yet he’d ignored the toy lying there on the basement step. Why? Did he know…?
Dear God, does he know where Dulcie is?
She and James returned to the house first, and James shook his head, saying, “We have to call the police.”
Though they lived several miles out of town, they could hear the sirens by the time her father came back inside. The paint around his eyes had become smeared and streaked down his cheeks. His spectacles were a mess with it. “You called the police,” he said quietly.
“She’s nowhere, Daddy. We had to. She’s only five years old. She shouldn’t be outside in this storm, and we know she’s not in the house–” Chey gasped at her thoughts.
Is Dulcie in the basement? The only places we haven’t checked are Daddy’s study and the basement. When I knocked on the door of the study before, Dulcie would have called to me if she’d been inside with our father. But she didn’t. She wouldn’t have dared go inside that room anyway, curious as she is. She knows better. We all do. And Daddy wouldn’t have let her in, not the way he sometimes lets me…
Wrapped in a thick towel, yet still shivering violently, Chey said through frozen lips, “We haven’t checked the basement”, when Sheriff Gabe Reece and one of his men came in the house and asked if they’d searched everywhere.
Both men glanced at her father. “Certainly we can look, officers,” the professor said calmly, “but my family, especially the girls, know not to enter my office or the basement, where I study and clean precious and rare artifacts until they’re ready for display. Those in my collection are fragile. The basement isn’t a place for trampling, clumsy children.”
Her father led the way down the steps into the poorly lit basement. The windows had long ago been painted black to shut out the light that could damage some of the delicate items in his many collections. The place felt cold and damp…felt differently than it had when she’d come down here freely as a child to get potatoes for supper or a jar of jam her mother had canned.
Although she’d never liked being in the basement and had never used it as a play area, she saw differences now. The cement floor had been broken up, leaving just dark soil. She remembered the noise her father had made down here when he’d returned from his expedition the previous summer. James had said he was using a jack hammer to break up the cement foundation. Why? they’d all wondered. None of them could guess. But something about the soft, dirt floor felt unnatural beneath the socks on Chey’s feet.
“Is there some reason the windows are painted black?” Officer Kurt Jones asked.
“My pieces can’t be exposed to direct sunlight. I find this muted orange light is best for them,” her father said in a tone that labeled the man an idiot for even having to ask.
The basement search was brief and there was no sign at all of Dulcie or her ragdoll. Chey wondered if she’d imagined seeing the toy on the top step.
A team of officers with a dog came and, in the freezing cold rain, they checked the area for miles. Dulcie wasn’t found. Even as they expanded out further and continued after dark with more search and rescue dogs, Chey knew the truth. She knew her father was guilty.
He insisted she go to bed, and even James said there was nothing more that could be done that the law wasn’t already doing. Dulcie would probably be back in her own bed before the night was through, he assured her.
Unable to sleep, Chey lay weeping in the dark, hating herself for her carelessness.
We were so close to my goal. Next summer, we could have left here. Me, James and Dulcie. We could have left and never looked back. One way or another, we would have done that. It’s all I’ve been living for.
What did you do, Daddy? What did you do? What’s in the basement that needs a steel door and dirt floor?
In her grief, Chey started in the darkness. The feeling that her sister was standing next to her bed the way she often did when she’d had a nightmare and didn’t want to be alone was so strong, Chey stopped breathing. Her entire focus went into the rigid sensation of awareness.
Dulcie, are you dead? Or worse?
Can there be something worse than death?
Chey swallowed with difficulty. Yes.
Shivering, she snuggled deeper into her quilt.
I shouldn’t have left you alone, Dulcie. I wish more than anything else in the world I’d never left you alone today. I knew…I knew I had to be more careful than ever since Daddy came back from that expedition and installed the steel door on the basement. What have I done?
Finally, Chey began to drift off in uneasy, light sleep. In the distance, she heard crying that became progressively louder until she jerked awake. “Dulcie?” she gasped, sitting up.
In the pitch blackness, she felt like she was drowning in cold and wetness. Blinking, she turned to look over her shoulder and saw something small, pale and white, like a zombie, long hair dark and damp, standing next to her bed.
Chey shifted her body on the bed. Her sister reached for her and touched her with a hand that was icy and damp. “Chey, I don’t like her,” she whispered, her voice hollow and ghostly. “Help me. I want to come back…”
Chey screamed. Instantly, she heard running. Her father burst into the room, flipping on the overhead switch as he did. In the blinding light, Chey tried to find her sister. When finally her eyes adjusted and focused, she saw only her father. He came over to the side of her bed where Dulcie had stood only moments ago. When he sat beside her, Chey couldn’t help drawing back from him. “What did you do with her?” she murmured. “She’s only five, only a baby. My baby…”
Her father shook his graying head. “Your mother is finally asleep. I had no choice but to sedate her.”
Chey shook her head. “No. Dulcie! What did you do to her? She’s down there. I know she’s is. She’s drowning. And she’s not alone. She doesn’t like her…”
His narrow, bearded face was stricken. Unexpected tears filled his eyes. “You don’t know what you’re saying, honey.”
“What did you do?!” Chey screamed.
But she understood the truth as her father’s head dropped into his hands. He and Grandfather were obsessed. Her father wasn’t crying for a lost daughter. He couldn’t be. Because, although he knew where Dulcie was, he wouldn’t go get her. He wouldn’t save her. Chey couldn’t escape that truth.
“It was the only way,” he said in a hushed voice, glancing pleadingly at her.
Somehow Chey understood this, too.
I’m his firstborn, his favorite. That’s why he didn’t take me.
“You have to understand, Cheyenne. Now…now my ivory nymph will be satisfied.”
Chey gasped in horror.
Die Diep. The Deep. She was alive, no longer just a statue. She’d been awakened…
Fifteen years later
James had sensed the question coming on all evening. Even anticipating its arrival, he was stunned when his mother asked, “Did they find Cheyenne?”
Chey hadn’t attended her father’s funeral the previous Thursday, so everyone assumed the private investigator hired by the law firm that handled Professor Welsh’s business dealings had failed to locate her. She’d left Woodcutter’s Grim when she was eighteen years old–the very day they graduated high school–with an early inheritance. Her father had insisted she accept the money because she would need it for her education. That financial legacy was all she’d taken with her. Only weeks before their graduation, her mother had died in the Woodcutter’s Grim Sanitarium she’d been placed in after her youngest daughter had disappeared without a trace. Sondra had found a way to kill herself, leaving Professor Welsh with a single family member. His prodigal daughter.
After fifteen years, Chey’s own father had had no idea where she was. When he’d died recently, alone, his entire fortune had been willed to her. Unless the private investigator could find her soon, the university and Professor Welsh’s professional affiliations would swoop in and try to claim his life’s work. Would Cheyenne even care if that happened?
In all this time, James still couldn’t get himself to accept that Chey had left. Though she’d begged him to go along with her almost constantly near the end, she’d realized beyond a shadow of a doubt he couldn’t leave Woodcutter’s Grim. He’d told her so. That wasn’t something he could explain or even fully understand himself. He simply couldn’t imagine leaving the only place he could ever belong. He’d long ago accepted that he couldn’t exist anywhere else. He knew he wasn’t the only person in this town who felt that way. That mind-set was part of the reason why such a small population, just under four hundred, was so insular and capable of handling their own needs just as a large city could. By all rights, Woodcutter’s Grim wasn’t big enough to warrant its own fully-staffed university, where James had gotten his medical degree, or hospital, where he was now employed. Both were small, yet the town had everything anyone needed, negating the necessity of leaving for education or employment.
James had followed the course he’d planned for himself as a teenager. He’d become a doctor and took over his father’s practice at the hospital when the old man retired. James was active there, even after hours, visiting terminally ill patients, donating his time and money to giving them a better life. He was also involved in his church and community. He’d focused his entire life between the hospital, the town, the church, and his family. When he wasn’t doing something with or for one of them, he had no idea what to do with himself. But he’d learned through harsh reality that being involved in something constructive was the only way he could survive and keep himself out of his self-made loss.
His parents had moved into town while James stayed on the family property located deep in the heavily-wooded countryside of the town. His mother no longer had the interest to continue maintaining the farm, and so the barn stood empty. The three of them had supper at the family house each Friday night, while he spent every Sunday with them in their small home in town. This routine had gone on without variation for the most part since Chey left. Routine, stability…they were what James preferred in his life. He liked knowing exactly what to expect at all times.
The only surprise I’m up for is seeing Chey’s face again.
After she’d left, he’d been furious. Eventually, he’d gone through all the classic signs of grief. In the end, he couldn’t be mad at her for abandoning him. She’d hated this town. Like most of its citizens, James believed Woodcutter’s Grim was evil…or, at the very least, harbored evil in one form or another. Maybe it was part of why he couldn’t leave–not when he could help keep the evil at bay. Her father had played a critical role in expanding that evil.
Chey hated the town because of her family–what had happened to them. She’d left here never wanting to see her father again. She blamed him for destroying her mother, leading Sondra to suicide as surely as if he’d slit her wrists himself. Nor had Chey ever stopped believing her father had something to do with Dulcie’s disappearance. Even as she would forever feel guilt for what she considered her part in what happened to her baby sister, her assumed death, Chey was convinced her father had done something to Dulcie. Though she’d never truly believed it was possible herself, her speculations involved some weird ritual her father had performed to make a statue come to life. James had believed her. James alone.
He shared the guilt for Dulcie’s disappearance. If he and Chey hadn’t been so crazy in love, so selfish…if her parents hadn’t asked too much of her when it came to her five-year-old sibling…maybe Dulcie wouldn’t have gone missing in the first place.
His mother stepped up to the sink next to him with the cooking pot, the last of the dirty dishes from cleaning up their supper. He still hadn’t answered her question about Chey. “I know you don’t like to talk about her,” she said softly. “And you don’t have to. I guess the answer’s pretty obvious. If they’d found Cheyenne, you would have told us. Do you want me to wash this?”
James shook his head, taking the pan. “You go in the living room with Dad. I’ll bring coffee and dessert when I’m done here.”
She nodded, standing on tiptoes to kiss his cheek. As she walked into the wide open living room on the opposite side of the house from the kitchen, James looked after her, somehow grateful that, even retired, she still looked almost exactly like she had as a teenager. Both of his parents appeared unnaturally young, and he supposed it was because they took good care of themselves, walking two miles almost every day there was nice weather.
And they’re in love.
He couldn’t discount that as essential in how young and healthy they continued to be as the years passed.
That’s the one aspect of my life plan I haven’t followed. When Chey said she was leaving and never coming back, all my dreams were destroyed. Dreams of marrying her right out of high school, having a big family, and loving her forever with enough passion to lay a mare flat.
Somehow he couldn’t laugh at that–what he and Chey used to say to each other. Convinced they’d be together soon, for life, had helped ease the burden of waiting to make love until they were married.
Was I wrong to be so noble? I’m a Christian, and I was just as strongly then. I couldn’t go against what felt like God’s will. But now I think if I had, maybe she would’ve have gotten pregnant, would’ve had no choice but to marry me and stay. But would she have been just like her mother? Unable to cope with any aspect of life? A shell of herself? Never living, simply subsisting?
Before Chey had left town, she’d had the same symptoms of depression her mother suffered from all her life. Yet somehow she’d pulled herself out of it enough to go once her high school diploma was in hand.
James hadn’t married, hadn’t had more than a handful of dates in fifteen years. He told himself he’d truly made an attempt to get over Chey, but he knew every woman of dating age who lived in the area. He had no interest in any of them, and infrequent visitors to Woodcutter’s Grim held no appeal for him. He loved Cheyenne Welsh. She was the only woman he could ever love. He suspected his would be a life-long condition.
A brilliant flare of burnt orange suddenly lit up the darkness outside. The light was gone almost before he could register it, and he was left with the impression that it’d come from Professor Welsh’s house across the way, on the next property over. James’s sprawling property was at the end of a dirt road that had little rhyme or reason. The Welsh home was cattywhompus from the property, a few minutes’ walk from his front door. They were the only two properties in a two mile radius.
From the living room, James’s five-year-old Border Collie, Taffy, started barking with sudden violence. James’s heart pounded wildly from the sight of that orange flare while his surprised parents tried to calm his dog.
Is someone next door? Chey?
Holding himself rigid in front of the kitchen window, James kept staring through the almost complete darkness beyond the outdoor lights on his property to see the flash again. It never came. In his mind, he pictured the way the flare had seemed to come from the inside of the house, almost as if an implosion grew outwardly until the entire house was engulfed in the flare.
Like a reflection of orange light bursting forth similar to an electromagnetic wave. And, just as suddenly as it appeared…gone.
Had he imagined it? Then Taffy must have also imagined it. While she’d stopped barking now, James moved to the archway between the kitchen and the living room to see her standing at rigid attention before the living room window facing the Welsh property. The pose was one James caught her in frequently. As her mother had been before her, Taffy was obsessed and terrified when it came to the house next door. At the moment, the place was just as dark and lifeless as it’d been since the professor’s shocking death three weeks ago.
His parents forgot about Taffy’s wild barking in an instant, but James couldn’t. He didn’t want them to know how high he’d gotten his hopes up that Chey might come home, might be inside her dad’s house right now.
As soon as his parents left for the night, he put on boots, his warm winter coat, hat and gloves, and went out with Taffy leading the way. He crossed his yard and the road. They’d almost reached the Welsh house when Taffy predictably halted and stood her ground. She never went next door, standing each time just behind a line she’d drawn for herself, where she would growl and hop around strangely, as if something had wounded or terrified her. Her fear warred with her protectiveness of him, though, when he continued past her invisible line and she whined anxiously for him to come back.
When he reached the sidewalk in front of the house, the outside light came on automatically, and he stopped instantly because he saw footprints in the snow. He tracked them with his gaze. They went from the garage to the front door of the house. A heavy snow had fallen a few days ago and no one had shoveled the walk.
But someone had been here since the snowfall, and, as far as James could tell, they hadn’t left. The footprints led only one way. Had the private investigator located Cheyenne? Was she here now? All the lights were off inside the house. In fact, he hadn’t seen them on even once in the last few days, certainly not this evening–other than that strange orange flare. If someone had come, they’d been inside the house without lights since James got home from work at six.
Knowing he shouldn’t, he went up to the front door and pressed the doorbell. Taffy was going mad in her spot, making it hard for him to hear if there was any sound of movement inside the house. After waiting for more than two, endless minutes with no response, he forced himself to back down. He couldn’t do anything until morning. He would go to the Shaussegeny Law Offices before he went to work, see if he could find something out about Chey’s whereabouts.
He and Taffy went back inside his house and James started a fire in the rustic, wood burning fireplace he’d helped his father build when he was younger. Instead of his usual routines, he stared into the crackling orange flames, remembering that flare of burnt orange light.
Is it possible I’ve been anticipating Chey coming home so intensely for the past three weeks I imagined that? And then did I also imagine those footprints?
For a long moment, he questioned even those tangible marks proving the presence of someone next door. But then his gaze met Taffy’s intense stare where she lay at his feet. She’d reacted to the light. She’d been insane while he rang Professor Welsh’s doorbell, more so than usual.
“Are we both crazy?” James asked softly.
Taffy whined as if she understood the torment in his mind. When he reached his hand down to her, she jumped up on the sofa and laid her head in his lap so he could pet her.
For many years, she’d been his only consolation, as her mother had been before her. She was the sweetest dog in the world and he knew, if she had no other choice, she would protect him with her life. He stroked her thick, silky black and white fur.
He thought about calling the Shaussegeny home, but the thought that they might try to hide something from him stopped him. They knew his feelings for Chey. The truth might hurt him, and he suspected they’d try to spare him if they could. He wanted to see them, see their expressions, so he could evaluate if they were holding something back in an attempt to protect him. Tomorrow, he would go to the Shaussegeny Law Firm. Jack, Gav or Lance usually popped in for a few hours on Saturday morning. Any of them would know if someone had visited the Welsh home recently.
* * * *
Cheyenne woke with a start, straining to hear the doorbell pealing as if it’d sounded in a dream.
Maybe it was a dream. It has to be. Only in a nightmare would I be back in my old bedroom in my father’s house.
Since it’d happened, since she’d escaped the institution, she’d stopped taking care of herself. She’d drowned in a fog of misery, not eating, sleeping away whole days because of the depression and…headaches–for lack of a more apt description to describe the constant screaming inside her mind.
She turned her head and saw the envelope with the letter inside from the family lawyer. A private investigator had sent it to the post office box she’d had while at the Green Bay university. She’d never be entirely sure why she’d checked it when she had…beyond that she was on the run and it’d been her last link to the past. The note had told her her father had passed away and left everything to her. She’d put the letter next to her on the nightstand, knowing when she woke up in this house, she’d be confused about how she got here.
Why I’m here.
Every morning since she’d arrived, she’d gone through the same fear of wondering what happened to bring her back to this hell house.
Swallowing, she couldn’t shake the heaviness of the pills she’d taken last night to make her sleep dreamless and uninterrupted. She couldn’t have stayed in this house as long as she had without them. Even still, every morning when she saw that letter and remembered, she asked herself why she’d come in response to it.
I had no choice. If there’s a good reason for my actions, it’s that.
Chey had spent a lifetime desperately not wanting to be like her mother–so beautiful, so weak. Like the Bible said of the first, cursed woman: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” –Genesis 3:16. As much as her mother had come to hate her husband, she’d also loved him madly. His love for her had only been temporary when they met and he’d fallen victim to her sultry, unearthly beauty. Once he’d gotten his fill, and quickly learned of her obsession with hopeless love that led to clinical depression, he’d wanted nothing more than to escape. But Sondra had been pregnant with Cheyenne by then and marriage was the only recourse, the professor decided. After that point, he’d escaped into what he knew and loved best long before Chey was born. He’d retreated into his all-consuming work, teaching and searching out demon lore and tribal rituals around the world, just like his father before him.
Chey had come to believe that her mother died of her relentless love for her husband that continued even after the loss of her most beloved child. No one had spoken the words out loud, but Chey and anyone else who knew her mother believed she’d killed herself to end the torment of a life she no longer cared to live.
For all my desire not to be like her, I ended up her clone. I married Samson, an older man who was a professor in the same field my father and grandfather were in, and the father figure I unconsciously needed. He was my teacher and then my husband, and I made him my whole life. He was practical, full of rationale and wisdom. He saw the world in black and white. At that time, I needed just that. But our marriage was never passionate. The honeymoon was over before it started. When he realized the focus of my interest in demon lore, my father’s obsession with Die Diep that became mine, he realized how damaged I am. Mentally, emotionally. Half of my life was spent in the past, a past I couldn’t and can’t forget. When Samson found out the truth, he only wanted me gone. He put me in that institute–only then filing for divorce–while telling me and himself it was for the best. I turned to the wrong person while I was there, and I paid the price for that. But that situation let me escape the madhouse Samson was determined to keep me locked up in. I had no choice but to flee…flee here, to the one place I never wanted to return to. Unbelievably, home was my only escape. Without money, resources, skills beyond a useless degree, I’m nothing but a monster with a pretty face–or I used to have at least that. Now…
With her final inheritance from her father’s recent death, she could make sure she had a future. She’d refused to go to his funeral, refused to pay homage to him in that way. As soon as she could get her head on straight, she could sell everything her father left behind. Then she’d go somewhere and start a new life for herself. She didn’t know where or how. She only knew she’d made a vow to herself she would somehow carry out.
I’ll never let myself fall for another man who’ll only turn on me when he realizes who…what…I am.
Pushing her thick, ash blond hair back from her forehead, she sat up on the bed that seemed so much smaller than she remembered. Coming here was crazy. What was she thinking, staying here now? This was a place of horror. Yet she hadn’t had one nightmare since arriving. Had her father exorcised whatever demons he’d brought into their home? Or hadn’t that been his intention? Maybe his point had been only to study those demons, reveal them, bring them to life. Hadn’t he realized he’d destroyed himself and his family with his obsession?
She swallowed the nasty taste in her mouth. Today she had to get up, resisting the lure of blocking out the emptiness of her life with drugs. She’d go into town, talk to the lawyers. Get rid of this house as soon as possible, along with everything in it. Why hadn’t she just called the Shaussegenys instead of coming to the house?
In part, she’d been running from her past.
But only in part. The truth…
She didn’t want to face the real reason she’d come here. The memory of the basso profundo voice that had haunted her for fifteen years filled her with a longing that almost made her weep out loud. When she’d run from here, she’d been determined to leave everything her life had been behind her. Yet James’s voice had followed her, become an intrinsic part of her. She could still hear him inside her head and heart. Since she’d arrived, that voice seemed to echo like a never-ending litany.
She blinked against the moisture burning her eyes. How often had she thought these years away that James would believe her even when she didn’t believe herself–James would protect her? Her fingers worried the ring on a chain looped around her neck. Why had James been so dead-set against leaving this portal to hell? That was such an apt description of Woodcutter’s Grim. Even as Chey couldn’t get herself to accept a reality where good and evil, demon and angel, heaven and hell were genuine and even tangible, she recognized something odd resided in this place. The natives believed evil made its home in Woodcutter’s Grim. There was something profoundly bad living in this place, ruling their lives, taking away their greatest joys. Yet James refused to leave, just like generations of natives had. Why?
All these years away, she’d concluded that Woodcutter’s Grim was like Tornado Alley, those hurricane centers near the Atlantic Ocean, or earthquake-prone areas. Why did people continue living in such scary places?
Because they belong there. Nowhere else can ever feel like home to them. Nowhere else can feel like home to James. Even if it meant letting me go, he stayed here.
If only he hadn’t felt that way. With tears in his eyes that last day before their graduation, he’d begged her to stay with him. How could she have said no to him? But she had. She had no doubt he’d now become the family man he’d been cut out to be all his life. Surely he’d married a lovely Christian woman who’d given him a whole passel of kids, and his family probably continued the tradition of raising horses, goats, and chickens. James Beck was made for that kind of solid, salt-of-the-earth, grounded life. He was good and kind and protective, loved children and animals, loved his woman until the possibility of her ever getting over him disappeared without a trace…
Chey forced herself to stand and go to the window in the room providing a clear view of the Beck home, close but not too close. She pushed back the curtains. The heavy drapes contributing to the feeling she’d had since arriving that the house was shrouded in utter darkness. The light of day made her eyes hurt, but she didn’t close the curtains. While the barn next door looked abandoned, the rest of the property appeared lived in, just as it always had. She saw tire tracks in the snow-covered dirt road between their two parcels. Certainly someone still lived there. His parents? James?
Chey’s throat hurt. Did she want to see James again? Leaving him the first time had been the hardest thing she’d ever done. She had to leave here again. She couldn’t stay. There was no question of that. So not seeing him at all would be the best thing for her. As soon as she talked to her father’s lawyers and set the sale of his property and possessions in motion, she could leave. That end was why she’d come, and she had to see it through now.
Determination filled her. Today she would shower and take the time to get ready. She would finish this.
And make sure there are no renewed acquaintances in the process. Somehow.
But how can I stay away from James? What if he’s in town when I go there to see my father’s lawyers? What if he’s next door right now? Within reach? What if I’m within the sound of his voice?
Her intention carried her out of the room and straight into the bathroom. In mere minutes she was feeling sick and exhausted again, the way she had for months on end. Getting involved with Trey, a nurse at the sanitarium, had been a mistake. She’d heard the whisperings about him and ignored them because he’d listened to her. He’d believed her.
Her mind got too close to the thing she didn’t want to remember and she cringed from it.
Don’t think about Trey anymore, don’t think about what he did.
When she pulled off her pajamas, she saw for herself the toll the last several months had had on her body. She might have lost twenty pounds or more. Maybe that should have been good because she’d put on a lot of weight after escaping the sanitarium. Eating had become a source of solace for a short time. Abruptly, the medication she’d been taken caused the opposite effect. She’d lost weight rapidly. Unfortunately, the weight loss didn’t look good on her. Even her face seemed shrunken and skull-like. She couldn’t get herself to look in the mirror for longer than a moment.
The hot water kept her from noticing the temperature in the house until she got out and gasped in shock at the bitter chill that greeted her. Her breath came out in thick, white smoke. Grabbing her towel, she wrapped the terrycloth around her dripping body and rushed out to the living room to turn up the heat. She punched the button on the electronic thermostat up until it said ninety. Then she stood, waiting for something to happen. Wasn’t the furnace supposed to kick in?
Chey frowned when the overwhelmingly pungent smell of mushrooms assaulted her nostrils. She gagged. Why hadn’t she noticed the stink at any other time since she arrived? Her father’s house must have stood empty for almost a month, since his death. Surely the emptiness couldn’t cause mushrooms to grow up in the basement, causing a stench this bad? She put her hand over her mouth, trying to block it out. Her father wouldn’t have let the house fall in disrepair or into a messy state while he was alive. He would have hired a maid to come in every day, repairmen to fix anything that broke. He was too organized and fastidious to allow any other situation. So what was causing this?
But he wouldn’t let anyone near the basement…
Feeling disjointed from the cold and smell of fungus, she returned to the bathroom to dry herself, wrap her hair in another towel, and put on the long, fleece robe hanging on the back of the door. She sprayed herself with perfume.
She intended to get ready to go to town, but she knew she had to eat something first. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had anything. Her time here had been sporadic and just as foggy as the months before. She’d come here with bread and peanut butter, intending to go shopping the next day. If she waited to eat now until she got to town, she’d feel even sicker. Besides, there was only one restaurant in Woodcutter’s Grim, and she wouldn’t go there.
As soon as she tried to eat something as harmless as a slice of day-old bread smeared with peanut butter, her stomach started rolling around like a barrel down a hill. She only just made it to the bathroom, where she gagged over the toilet. No more than bitter, scorching bile came up.
When she could stand on less than firm legs, she brushed her teeth, vaguely aware of the low-level buzz in her head and the complete dissipation of the mushroom smell. How could a smell so bad just disappear from one minute to the next? Had she imagined it?
Returning the toothbrush to its travel case, she looked at the bottle of pills–the last of the medicine she’d stolen from a hospital before she’d run–right next to it. Even before she’d consciously made a decision, she was swallowing.
Deep, dreamless sleep. That’s all I can handle. That’s what’s keeping me sane.
Still wearing the robe, the towel on her head, she dropped back into her bed. In moments, she was drifting back into the fog, back to where James Beck’s rumbling voice was the center of her world, where the pain receded into blissful nothingness.