This previously unpublished story, an anonymous “novelization” of a movie written and directed by Bud “Budget” Preston, was scheduled to appear in issue 101 of Monster Project magazine. My forthcoming novel Life in a Haunted House, that fictionalizes elements of Preston’s life and filmography– this novel is currently in previews at Kindle Scout: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/2GQZCQNY6426Z
A Note on the Text: Where possible I have transcribed the magazine article exactly as it was planned for publication. As editor, I have limited myself to correcting any obvious typographical errors, or inconsistency in spelling of names or places. I have not tampered with the wording, however, and have left intact some of the strange grammatical quirks of the original author (in particular, the fondness for and overuse of ellipses).
“Come back to the couch.” Reece patted the cushion beside him. “Sit with me.”
“Maybe later.” Julia Dougherty stood at the windows, her fingers absently touching the tassel that held back one of the green curtains on one side.
“I bet you like what you see.” The two adjoining windows overlooked the back yard, but in nighttime darkness the glass became more of a mirror. Reece winked at her. “I sure do.”
“Stop.” She half-smiled, but managed to resist his predictable charm. Would she even be here if she didn’t feel like she needed him?
Her reflected stare provided no answer, her skin translucent in the sheen of glass…her eyes bright and blank…hair wisping like a torchfire atop her head. She wore a dark blue shirt that absorbed the interior room’s light, making her neck appear severed at the collar. Her head floated in the dark of Reece Farraday’s back yard.
“I think about that line of trees at the edge of your property,” she said. “Those woods…You never know what’s behind them.”
“Yes, of course. And the path to the abandoned house further back…the mansion you told me about. We know what’s supposed to be there. But when we can’t actually see it…”
“I guess the dark is always kind of scary.” Reece stood and moved beside her. In the reflection, his arm disappeared behind her missing torso…he hugged empty air beneath a severed head.
“I’m not just talking about the dark,” Julia said. “During the day, too…that line of trunks…limbs and leaves intertwining. It’s like a wall. The world behind that wall could change, and we’d never know.”
“What you don’t know, won’t hurt you.”
Julia shrugged away from him. “How could you say that? Especially now…”
“I’m sorry.” His arm was no longer around her waist, and it was as if he didn’t know what to do with it. Reece started to reach out to her…embarrassed, he changed his mind and lifted his hand to run fingers through his slicked-back hair. “I’m sorry.”
“Tell me why I’m safer here,” Julia said.
He summoned up easy, rehearsed arguments. She’d heard them before, but he guessed it would comfort her to hear them repeated. “I’ve got solid locks on the front and back doors. I’ll keep you in eyeshot or earshot at all times…while you’re sleeping, I’ll be right down the hall. Just shout and I’ll come running.” Then the clincher: “They were alone. The girls who disappeared were all alone when they were taken.”
“God, yes, I’ll set it to music for you.” She slipped into a mocking sing-song voice, a quick twirling dance move as accompaniment. “ ‘A Woman Alone at Night Was Abducted.’ ” Julia lowered her arms from the ballerina pose. “That’d be a great tune for the radio, wouldn’t it? They’d play it every hour.”
“It’s a warning. They’re just repeating the truth.”
“And repeating, and repeating, and repeating, and repeating. Oh, I’m not mad at you. But sometimes we girls want to be alone…or at least, when we’re with a guy we want it to be our choice. Not because we’re scared.”
“Oh, I get it,” he pouted. “You’d rather not be here with me.”
“That’s not what I said.” Julia crossed back to the windows, closer to him. She might have guessed he was playing at being wounded…but she could play along. “It’s a kind gesture. And I took you up on it, so I must be okay with it on some level.”
“On some level.”
“I’m just being honest. Look, Reece…We haven’t been dating that long. Certainly not long enough for me to be spending the night at your place. Maybe we’d get there eventually…I don’t know. But this…this awful situation in our town…it’s kind of moved things too fast between us.” She took his hands between hers: a gesture of friendship or gratitude, rather than a lover’s clasp. “Some maniac kidnaps women, and hey, I’m a woman, so suddenly I’m not safe in my own home anymore. I’ve gotta be locked up with you.”
He broke away from her platonic gesture. “You make it sound like a prison.”
“Maybe it is.”
“Some prison’s aren’t so bad. Think of those ‘country club’ prisons, where they send crooked politicians or corrupt businessmen. You get fine meals, a soft bed, all the comforts of home.” He tried another wink, the mock lechery actually working on her a bit this time. “And you’ve got an ‘in’ with the warden. Special privileges, you know.”
“Yeah, that prison talk doesn’t quite get me in the mood.” But she smiled. In the window her flame top head floated closer. His arm again disappeared behind her dark-clothed torso.
Their faces pressed closer. He tilted his neck in position to kiss her…
But she turned away… Again, staring out the window, squinting at darkness and her own reflection.
“What? You can’t see anything.” Reece reached for the closest tassel and unhooked it, letting the curtain drop into place on this side. He went to the adjoining window and repeated the process. “There. Now you won’t be tempted.”
“I wasn’t,” she said dryly.
“Very funny.” They were joking at the moment, like they were on the same wavelength. Maybe she would let him kiss her now. In her words: let it be her choice, rather than because she was scared.
He tried again, an arm around her waist, a tilt of his neck, closing his eyes…
She didn’t struggle out of his grasp. They kissed.
He felt her lips slide away from his…closed tight…turning toward the curtained windows.
Reece opened his eyes. She slipped away from him.
He’d never seen anyone who was hypnotized, but that’s how Julia looked to him now. Her expression was glazed over, facial muscles loose as if she was asleep…but her eyes stayed wide open, drawn to the obscured windows.
Never wake a sleepwalker…But she wasn’t asleep, not really. He considered grabbing her as she walked past. Shaking her.
Instead he said her name, the gentle way you’d rouse someone in the morning: Your alarm has gone off. You’ll be late for work.
She continued to the window, reaching for the closed curtain.
“Julia? There’s nothing to see out there.”
She pulled the dark green fabric aside…slowly…slowly.
The black back yard appeared, and the reflected room superimposed.
Julia moved closer to the glass…close enough to fog the image.
“It’s your face,” he told her. “Your pretty face.”
She ignored him, staring into her own eyes.
Then a slam like a gunshot, a sudden shake of the glass that distorted her face with the warp of a funhouse mirror. Her own frightened reaction intensified the effect, and she jumped back, almost knocking into Reece.
“I got you,” he said.
He steadied her, and she let him. She touched her face, as if to ensure her features hadn’t been rearranged. “What happened?”
“You were in a kind of daze,” he said.
“No, the window. Something hit the window from outside.”
“Stay here. I’ll check.”
“I’m not supposed to be alone,” she reminded him with a hint of sarcasm.
So the two of them went outside.
Neither of them carried a flashlight, but they could see well enough in the glow from the house. They looked inside now…a framed view of the room, and where they’d just been standing.
“Whoever was out here,” Julia said. “This is how easily they could watch us.”
“Now, don’t jump to conclusions.” Reece looked at the window and shivered…from the chill night air, or not wanting to admit the possible truth of Julia’s statement. “It was probably a bird. They’re stupid about glass. They see the light, and think they can fly right into the house, then, bang!” He shifted his angle to get a slant view of the window, and a smear of blood seemed to appear at the level of Julia’s face…right where her face had been, that is, when she peered out into the yard. “It’s your fault for opening the curtain again.”
“Where is it, then?” Julia waved her arm at the tufts of grass around their feet, at the shrub bushes that pressed against the side of the house. “Where is this bird I supposedly lured to its death?”
Reece pointed at the blood on the window, then drew a line with his finger to the bush beneath. A glisten of red painted a section of leafage. He moved a branch, peering down.
Julia stood next to him, following his gaze. A round gray-white shape appeared deep in the clutter of branches and leaves.
“Feathers,” she said, confirming his guess about a bird. A dead bird, curled up like a ball.
Reece pulled the branch wider, and something like a banded tail appeared behind the curled shape. “Or fur,” she said, because she realized her eyes might have played tricks on her, with wet, matted fur simulating the grain of feathers.
Some awful rodent. But that didn’t make sense. Without wings, how could the creature have flown at the window?
Reece pulled again at branches from both sides, spreading them wider. More of the shape revealed itself. The tail was larger than she realized, with a calico pattern rather than the stiff banded coils she’d attribute to a rodent.
A kitten or a small cat. A child’s missing pet, no doubt, white with gray stripes, and a red collar about its neck. It had hit the window with such terrible force. Someone must have thrown it at the house…
Reece opened the gap even wider, revealing more to the shape than she expected. The calico tail had been some trick of the dim light, shadows cast by the branches and leaves…not a tail at all, but a small pale leg overcast with bands of shadow.
No fur, no feathers.
“C’mere, little guy,” Reece said, reaching in with both hands to lift the fallen infant.
Careful to avoid scratching the skin with the branches…careful also not to snag the cloth diaper (the original rounded shape she’d seen).
Reece held the infant. He cradled it in one arm, a cupped hand beneath the neck to support its head. The idea crossed her mind, then, that he might make a good father, if they ever reached that point.
But why did he cradle the head so gently? It was clear the infant’s neck was broken. Its head was smashed in on one side, the tender still-forming skull flattened and the brain bashed beneath.
And there was the strange red collar circling the infant’s neck. A line of varying thickness…a sticky, liquid ribbon.
Two violent circles at the widest point in the ribbon. Bite marks…Punctures.
“C’mon now. You’re okay.” Reece shifted his grip on the infant, his fingers working the arms from beneath, a puppet master bringing life. The arms flapped like wings.
He was moving the arms. The baby couldn’t possibly still be alive…with that much blood loss, with that much damage to its head.
She remembered the awful, echoing thump as the baby was thrown against the window glass.
Suddenly, a screech in the night, from the forest behind her, from the strange abomination cradled in Reece’s arms. The child’s mouth opened, but the mouth looked like a ridged beak, then it opened wider to reveal the tiny animal teeth of a rat…a kitten…a bat.
Another shriek, a human infant in pain, starving to death. Tiny arms continued to flap…with the leathern flutter of bat wings.
“Go on,” Reece said. “Go on.” He bounced the cradled shape up and down, offering it to the night sky.
He tossed the child into the air.
It flew away.
“Drink this.” Reece handed her a mug. “It’ll make you feel better.”
“I’m afraid it will keep me up. I already know I’ll have trouble sleeping.” Julia accepted the mug with both hands and brought it slowly to her lips. “Too hot.” She set the mug on the end table, and adjusted a blanket over her legs. She hadn’t bothered to change into the pajamas she’d brought in a small overnight bag, but had simply loosened the collar of her canary-yellow blouse to make the day’s outfit easier to sleep in.
“My bed would be more comfortable,” he said. “I don’t mind the couch.”
“I’ll be fine here. Warm blankets. Lots of pillows. Did you save some for yourself?”
“I’m good.” His expression showed such concern for her. A side of Reece she hadn’t really seen before…a genuine tenderness, without that ulterior motive guys usually followed… “You gave me quite a scare out there,” he said.
“Oh, you got the scare.”
“Well, I was scared for you, okay?”
“Was it…” she said. “Was it really a bird, the whole time?”
He nodded. “A dirty white pigeon. A divebomber, I guess. Musta had a pretty hard noggin, since it was able to fly away.”
She tried again with the too-hot coffee, taking a small sip. Reece had made it strong…probably hoping to clear her head. “I saw more than that. I could have sworn.”
“Well, it was dark.” Reece sat next to her on the couch…at a respectful, rather than amorous distance. Too far away to try that old chestnut, where he’d fake a broad yawn and then “accidently” put his arm around his date’s shoulders. “I think I’m starting to understand what you were saying earlier,” he said. “You know, how the radio and TV get you gals so excited about danger.”
“It’s like a hypnotic suggestion or something. Preconditioning. No wonder you expect to see something awful in the dark. They’re making you jump at every sound and shadow, you know?”
“But you’re immune.”
He shrugged. “It explains what I saw: just a dirty ol’ divebombing pigeon. Which one of us do you think is right?”
Julia took another sobering sip of coffee. Inside a bright house, wrapped in a blanket, surrounded by pillows, it was easy to dismiss what she’d seen…thought she’d seen. “You’re right,” she said. “I know you’re right.” She passed him the mug. “That’s enough for now. This gal needs to get some rest.”
Reece smiled as he stood from the couch. “I can take a hint. If you need anything, call me. I’ll come running.”
“Thank you,” she said, and meant it. Thank you for being a gentleman…for taking care of me…for not saying you think I’m crazy.
“Leave the light on,” Julia said as he paused near the wall switch. She hated to feel so vulnerable around him.
Reece’s next remarks seemed to sense her insecurity…covering it for her: “It’s an unfamiliar room. You don’t want to stumble around if you get up in the middle of the night.”
“Exactly,” she said.
And he left her alone.
A phrase she’d earlier set to music began to run through her head: “A Woman Alone at Night Was Abducted.”
Julia tried to sleep. She tossed and turned, punching pillows and rearranging blankets. She undid another button on her blouse to loosen its fit. Her rump sank into a gap between sofa cushions, and she switched to lying on her side…then her hips fell even farther into the gap.
The overhead light was too bright.
Why not turn it off? No need to act like an immature child. She was inside, locked up tight. The things that frightened her might as well be miles away…years away…it all seemed so long ago, like a dream.
Nothing really happened, anyway. There wasn’t any screeching, bloody baby with leather wings.
The curtains remained closed over the windows beside the sofa. Maybe she could look into the back yard one last time, to reassure herself.
If she turned off the light, she could see outside better.
And nobody else would be able to see in.
Julia pushed the blankets below her waist then kicked them to the end of the couch. She swung her legs around and sat up.
She walked to the light switch at the other side of the room…clicked it off.
She stood, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness.
She crossed to the adjoining windows. A small line formed where the curtains didn’t quite overlap.
The curtains were thick fabric…she remembered how heavy they felt in her hand. Even so, the panel on the right fluttered slightly, as if stirred by a faint breeze.
She reached for the dark gap between curtain panels. Another phantom gust of wind anticipated her fingers, and the gap widened…then closed.
It moved like the gills on a gasping fish.
The fabric rustled. The cloth curtain was a stiff polyester, with a rough burlap backing to help block the light.
Why, then, did it rustle like leather wings?
Julia drew back her hand. A faint squeak sounded from outside…the mewl of a kitten or screech of a bat…a sweaty fingertip rubbing against glass.
At a strange height, a bulge began to form beneath the closed curtain. Julia watched it from where she stood, the same distance she’d stand when inspecting herself in a full length mirror.
She put a hand over her belly.
At the corresponding height, a pregnant bulge swelled beneath the curtain, nearly the size of a basketball.
Julia’ reached beneath the bottom of her loosened blouse. Her fingers tensed, gathering the flesh of her stomach. She squeezed.
The swelling in the curtain flattened on one side…air deflated from the basketball.
She heard the cry again…too much like the wail of an infant, now. Julia squeezed tighter at her stomach, felt an awful crackle inside, heard the snap of tiny bones.
The curtain fell flat.
Julia released the gathered flesh of her belly. The snap of tiny bones continued to echo in the dark room.
Tapping. Tapping on the other side of the window.
A bird’s beak against glass…rodent teeth…feline claws…the tiny fingernails of a human infant.
Leather wings flapping in a steady, wounded beat.
A summons of some kind.
Which animal was it? She pulled back the curtain…peered into the dark of the back yard.
Julia saw nothing. She leaned closer to the glass, and her own eyes stared back. Her eyes were bloodshot from the evening’s earlier fright…from lack of sleep.
She blinked, and the bloodshot eyes in the window blinked, too, in exact time.
Maybe a split-second behind.
Julia saw nothing, but the tap and rustle and crack of bones continued. She put her palm flat against the window, and felt rhythmic vibrations through the glass.
She followed the sound outside.
“Did you call me?”
Reece knew she hadn’t called, but he still thought he should check on her periodically during the night. He bumped against a chair as he walked into his living room. “Hey, I thought we decided to keep a light on.”
The sight of blankets gathered at the end of an empty couch gave him immediate cause for concern.
The open curtain worried him even more. He ran across the room, cupped his hand on either side of his face and pressed against the window.
He stared into the yard, squinting for the line of trees behind his house.
In the distance, he just managed to spot a flash of yellow…a clothed figure as it disappeared into the trees.
It had to be Julia.
She found herself in the middle of the dark woods that stretched behind Reece’s home.
Julia was staying with him, so she wouldn’t be alone. Reece was protecting her, and she resented that protection, a little…she was strong enough to take care of herself…and then she’d had some kind of scare. A loud noise, an investigation, then a strange animal that changed its horrible, wounded shape as she watched.
No…that had been a trick of the dark…a distortion brought on by fright.
She’d pulled herself together…back to reality. Safe, indoors, sleeping on Reece’s couch so he’d be close if she needed him.
So why was she here, now, alone in the woods?
She wore her same clothes from earlier today…yellow blouse and tan slacks…but she didn’t have shoes. Her stocking feet felt damp against cold, packed earth.
Had she been sleepwalking?
There were no clear signposts. Darkness frustrated her ability to read her surroundings…walls of trees pressed close, confining her to a thin path worn in the dirt. The path curved ahead and behind, making it impossible for her to get her bearings.
One or the other direction might lead her back to Reece’s house…but which one?
Julia glanced up at the sky, hoping for a hint…some constellation shaped like an arrow, pointing toward safety. There were no obvious patterns in the dim stars…not that she could read them, anyway. She wasn’t a sailor or astronomer.
A scythe moon offered minimal light. A cloud partially covered the crescent shape.
The cloud moved in midnight wind. It seemed heavy…sharper than expected.
The shadowy cloud broke away from the moon with a leathern rustle. The sky rippled like a black tarp snapped in the gusts of an approaching storm.
There was a shape in the sky after all…not a constellation, but a hovering breathing thing that passed over stars, winking them out as it moved closer.
Wind through trees, the violent rustle of air, the rhythmic flap of wings bearing closer.
She heard the shriek of an animal, then a thud on the ground…so near that she could feel the earth shake beneath her stocking feet.
Julia tried to pinpoint the location of the sound…on the path, slightly past a curve that disappeared into the trees. Before, she hadn’t known which direction she should face to return to Reece’s home…now, that goal no longer mattered…
That sound needed to stay behind her. She needed to run the other way.
Because there were footsteps echoing beyond that curve in the path. They sounded a steady scuff of leather-soled shoes in the dirt…but she could hear a muffled brush as well, like the rough pads of an animal’s feet…and a staccato click, the curl of claws flexing with each step.
Julia ran, almost blind, following the path that led away from the pursuing threat. Her shoeless feet hit the ground hard, sharp rock edges occasionally scraping her arch or heel, but she ran…all the time fearing she’d run into a dead end.
The footsteps grew closer. Julia reached a straight stretch of the path, followed it long enough to know, if she turned her head, she’d see what kind of menace drew closer…closer.
She was too afraid to look. But she imagined it…a creature with muscled legs and arms, its leonine body covered with dark fur…a wide span of wings stretching behind, their tips clipping against tree limbs on either side of the path…animal eyes that shone with a bright red fire…a cold, black snout…a long jaw, open wide with a drool of anticipation, sharp teeth glinting in the dark…
Sometimes, they say, a monster you imagine is much worse than one you can actually see.
A gust of warm wind shook the surrounding trees. It misted the back of her neck, like the hot breath of her hungry pursuer.
She was still too afraid to turn her head…but she felt it…felt a dark shape growing closer…heard the rapid click and fleshy pad of animal feet…felt another hot, wet gust against the back of her neck.
Until something caught her.
Reece probably lost some time retrieving a flashlight from the back of a kitchen drawer, but he’d need it to search for Julia. He’d hurry, before she had a chance to get too far…the light would help him discover clues along the trail.
And he could signal with it, too. He’d wave the light, and she’d be drawn to him.
He entered the woods at the location where he thought he’d last seen her. The trees were like anonymous faces in a crowd, impossible to distinguish from each other…but he hoped some tracking instinct would kick in to guide him.
There were paths once you got deeper. He remembered them from when he owned a dog, and used to take short walks…
He also remembered how easy it was to get turned around unawares…how easy it was to get lost.
One path, which he’d told Julia about, led to a large abandoned mansion. He’d asked around town, but could never find out how long ago it had been occupied…or who might have lived there.
For some reason, Boxer had never wanted to follow that path.
Reece moved his flashlight across the ground in front, hoping to locate fresh disturbances in the earth. Failing that, he searched for odd rocks or overgrowth or shapes in tree trunks, hoping to trigger some half-buried sense of direction.
Because he felt certain Julia would be headed toward that abandoned house. She’d made that strange comment about the woods, earlier…some weird fascination…
A shriek echoed in the night air. Julia, he thought, but sounding so scared that her voice lost some of its human quality…
The direction of the echo was hard to locate, but he felt like he’d stumbled into the mansion path. Something about the way it curved behind a gathering of leaning trees…clicking an uneasy memory into place.
He ran toward the sound…
And tripped. He hit the ground with a heavy thud that knocked the wind out of him. His flashlight tumbled ahead of him, its back compartment snapping off and the batteries rolling away… Reece stood, quickly dusted himself off, then rushed forward…leaving the useless flashlight behind.
A clue, perhaps, if people later tried to locate him…
He hurried, as fast as he could safely travel in dark and unfamiliar territory, hoping he was on the right path.
Reece grew more optimistic as he distinguished footsteps in the hidden distance ahead.
Still winded from the fall, he pushed himself forward. He panted from exertion as his footsteps scuffed along the winding dirt path. He opened his mouth to call out to Julia, to beg her to slow down, but he couldn’t quite catch his breath.
A few times, he saw the subtle glow of a yellow shirt, glimpsed at a gap between trees, or at some tantalizing bend in the path.
Once, a large shadowy shape passed over the shirt, then retreated.
He reached a long straight stretch in the path, and he could see Julia at the far end of it. The yellow shirt, moving with a trance-like sway.
As Reece hurried closer, he expected her figure to get larger… Instead, the closer he got, the smaller she seemed.
An optical illusion…a trick of perspective. She seemed farther away, because he’d judged the shirt would be the size of her full torso. Instead, the patch of yellow was a smaller piece of cloth…part of a sleeve that had torn off, tangled in the fingered overhanging branch of a nearby tree.
Reece stopped, breathing heavy. He picked up the yellow patch of cloth, tilted it in the faint moonlight.
Were those drops of blood on the fabric?
Julia broke through a clearing at the edge of the woods.
She hadn’t doubled back to Reece’s house. Instead, she faced the ominous front of a large mansion.
An abandoned mansion, Reece had told her. But this one looked lived in.
Her feet were damp and sore and scraped from the unforgiving ground. Her arm hurt, too…four parallel scratches along her forearm. She’d gotten tangled in a tree limb, back when she thought some creature had chased her. The branch had seemed to grab at her…hold her back…and she’d fought it, pulling away, her shirt sleeve ripping as she escaped and continued to run.
Run from what? Nothing followed her…and she realized she’d been having another fright-induced hallucination…there was no real danger in these woods.
All the same, she had wanted out. She wanted to escape from the maze of forest paths…the smothering mass of tall trees all around, closing in, blocking the night sky. She wanted a cool grass lawn under her feet, or the predictable smooth surface of a sidewalk or asphalt road. She wanted the comfort of a suburban neighborhood filled with familiar, interchangeable houses.
Instead, she got a strange mansion. It might provide some shelter, though…if she could manage to get inside.
The large structure sat at the edge of the clearing, another bank of trees stretching behind it. She crossed an unkempt yard, dry grass cracking against her sore feet as she headed toward the mansion’s ornamented entryway. The structure was three stories high, with several sets of tall windows on either side of a columned porch. A bas-relief frieze spanned atop massive double doors, a brass lion’s-head knocker at the center of each.
She climbed the stairs onto the porch. She reached toward the ring beneath one of the lion heads, then thought better of it.
“Is anyone here?” she whispered…then paused as if she’d spoken loud enough to prompt an answer.
Why was she certain the mansion was inhabited? The house was quiet…shades closed…lights out.
“I feel like someone’s been watching me,” she said. A whisper, again…a dare. “Show yourself.”
She reached again for the door knocker. “It’s the middle of the night. If there are people here, they should be asleep.”
Julia grasped the ring, tapped it gently. She stepped back and waited.
Louder now, explaining her situation to a paneled slab of wood. “I’m sorry to bother you. I got lost in the woods. My feet and arm are injured. May I use your phone? May I stay here and wait for help?”
Julia recalled her musings from earlier in the evening, about the mysteries beyond the woods’ edge. You can’t see past the line of trees. Even if you know what paths stretch behind them, you can’t be certain.
Doors are the same way. You knock on them, expecting someone to answer. It’s often a familiar home, and your parent or best friend would answer and invite you inside. But a stranger could always open the door. Disturbing variations passed through her mind:
– A beautiful young woman bars the entrance, saying… “Your boyfriend doesn’t want to see you anymore. He’s with me, now.”
– A doctor… “Your mother’s inside, but too sick to have visitors. She’s dying.”
– A police officer…”Miss, can you tell us why you’re here? What is your relationship to the victim?”
Julia shook her head, concentrating again on the door in front of her…stubbornly opaque…unmoving.
She again reached for the brass ring. Lifted it, then let it drop.
A sudden chill came over her. She hugged her arms close to her chest. She stamped her feet, which had begun to feel numb.
“Please answer.” She barely spoke aloud. She was too strong to ask for help, so instead she asked: “What do you want? I’ll do—”
A loud snap, like the breaking of a bone. The slide of a latch…the door creaking inward.
Candlelight flickered from a three-pronged candelabra. The man who held it looked like he was dressed for a formal dinner…a black tuxedo with a frilled white shirt at the open collar. A red broach hung about his neck…a cluster of jewels like small berries, full of juice.
“Ah, come in,” he said. “I am Count Verlock.” As the man smiled his greeting, his teeth shone bright and large. He was about the same age as Reece, but with a maturity her boyfriend lacked. Perhaps it was an illusion brought forth by the formal clothing, making him seem part of a long gone, more serious era.
“A count…?” Julia felt self-conscious now, in casual dress, hair disheveled from sleep, shoeless, a sleeve torn from her blouse and the arm bleeding. She wondered if there was some etiquette she should follow…eyes lowered, bowing before majesty…or if she should stand straight, a soldier at attention, awaiting some command.
“Come in,” he told her, stepping back and waving an arm toward the interior of his home.
She stepped forward cautiously, but paused at the line of the doorway.
Wasn’t there something about counts and invitations, about crossing thresholds? A vague memory about books or movies struggled to the surface…a supernatural threat, requesting entrance…the victim foolishly unlocking the door…a gracious hostess to her own doom.
Yes, that’s right. She’d gotten it backwards. The danger was inviting a monster into your own home. This situation was perfectly safe.
She lifted her gaze…stared directly into Count Verlock’s eyes. His expression was so welcoming. She didn’t want to offend him.
Julia stepped into the antechamber. The marble floor was cold against her wounded feet. She glanced down…saw a smear of blood she’d dragged across the elegant tile. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I’ve ruined…”
“You’re hurt.” Count Verlock waved the candelabra closer to inspect her. She felt the heat of flickering candles as it passed over her face, over her chest, along the scratched, exposed arm.
And a heat of shame, too. “I don’t quite remember how I got here,” she said. “I should be better dressed.”
The candles were almost close enough to singe the fine soft hairs of her forearm. With his free hand, the Count touched her elbow. He positioned his fingertips at the top of the four long scratches…then he traced the length of the bloody grooves all the way to the underside of her wrist.
“I’ll need to clean this…and bandage it.” As he removed his hand, the pads of his fingertips wore small circles of Julia’s blood.
“Your feet,” he said. The Count dropped to his knees setting the candelabra on the ground next to him. His position reminded her of a man proposing marriage…coupled with his elegant clothing, perhaps he was more like the fairy-tale prince, ready to test the fit of Cinderella’s glass slippers.
At the same time, he reminded her of an awful predator lying in wait…a crouching animal, ready to pounce.
He supported her calf as he lifted one foot for inspection, then the other. His fingertips prodded gently at the soles of her feet, and the sensation was at once pleasant and worrisome.
Julia’s stockings had been torn as she raced over the rough forest path. The Count’s probing fingers moved bits of torn cloth aside…and she wondered if some of those shreds were actually strips of torn flesh.
She tried not to think about it…turned her head away, as she often might during a doctor’s examination.
“Clean and bandage,” he said. The candle flames flickered, and shadows danced across his face, distorting his handsome features. She looked down, and the Count’s fingertips were no longer bloody. Instead, they seemed…wet.
Still kneeling at her feet, he smiled up at her. If he intended the gesture to be comforting, he failed miserably. Flickering shadows cast an illusion of gristle over his wide mouth of white teeth…flames illuminated the brooch of ruby jewels about his neck, aiming a reflection of bright red flecks onto his moistened lips.
“I will take care of you.” He stood, then passed behind her to close the latch on the front door. It snapped into place with an echoing clang. “You will be safe here.”
The Count stood next to her, pointing the candelabra forward to direct her into the next room. He touched her elbow, lightly prodding her forward.
Julia threw one last glance behind, at the solid oak door she’d previously stood on the other side of. As before, she couldn’t see through it. The outside world might have disappeared, for all she could tell.
Or, Reece might be coming to find her. She imagined him running to the door, banging on it, slamming down the ring of each brass knocker, calling out her name, crying Let me in, I want to help you…and getting no answer.
She had made her choice, she realized. Her choice.
Julia allowed Count Verlock to lead her deeper into his mansion.
Reece stumbled out of the woods and raced across the dry lawn.
He recalled visiting this place a few years earlier, his dog struggling on its leash, alternating between angry barks and fearful whimpering.
“Calm down, boy,” he’d said, placing a firm hand on Boxer’s collar to hold him in place. “Nobody’s home. Nothing here to worry about.”
And the dog barked and whimpered at an abandoned house.
Now, Reece bounded up the steps to the front porch. One of the boards creaked beneath him, and his foot fell part-way through the rotted wood.
“Careful,” he told himself. He tested the firmness of each new step as he crossed to the double doors.
One of the age- and weather-worn doors listed crooked in its frame. A rusted brass knocker hung in the center of the other.
He rattled the knob of each door…pushed his shoulder against them in turn, throwing his weight into it. When they didn’t budge, Reece put his fingers in the gap caused by the ill-fitting door, trying to separate them further.
No success. He searched the junk and debris that had gathered on the porch over the years, and found a tree limb. He fit one end between the doors, and pushed and pulled.
The doors wouldn’t budge. The limb snapped when he renewed his attempts.
Enraged, he banged at one of the doors.
He wasn’t sure why he felt so desperate. If he couldn’t get inside, then Julia wouldn’t have been able to, either.
Why was he so certain she’d come here?
He reached in his back pocket and removed the scrap of clothing he’d found in the woods.
The blood-stained scrap of clothing.
And then one of the doors creaked open.
Count Verlock had been gone a long time.
He had been leading Julia down a long staircase…so deep that she couldn’t see the bottom from her current position. The Count had used his candelabra to light wall torches along the way, but the ones beneath remained dark.
A sound had caught the Count’s attention, and he’d cautioned her to remain still. “Don’t attempt to go forward on your own. There’s no railing.”
How long did he expect her to wait?
Julia moved next to the wall, taking comfort from the heat and light offered by the nearest torch.
She wondered again why he was taking her towards a basement. The house was three stories tall…surely there were more comfortable rooms above. And in her condition, with injured feet, these hard stone stairs seemed to make matters worse.
But she’d trusted him. The Count’s deep voice had soothed her…”Clean, then bandage. A few more steps.” He was a gentleman, and she felt safe with him. The idea that he might be connected with the town’s recent disappearances had never crossed her mind.
Now, Julia ran her hand along the wall. The stone felt cold, even the area around the torch. She lifted her hand and held it near the flame.
On the wall, the shadow of her hand repeated her movements. She flexed her fingers, curled and uncurled.
She brought her hand closer to the flame, and the shadow on the wall grew larger. Julia wriggled the digits again, then counted them.
“Too many,” she said, then dropped her arm.
The shadow remained on the stone. Its eight digits wriggled.
A large spider scurried down the wall.
Julia jumped back. She stumbled, accidently kicking a rock over the edge of the railless staircase.
After a brief pause, she heard the rock hit bottom.
Where was the spider? She shivered at the thought of stepping on its plump, bristled body…its venomed mandibles clicking at her bare feet, drooling thick poison into open wounds.
Julia wondered what sound the spider’s legs would make against hard stone…the fingers of a silk glove sweeping crumbs off a marble tabletop.
She moved back toward the torch again, grabbed it…rocked it back and forth…snapped it from its place in the wall.
As she waved the torch, all the shadows seemed to move like silken fingers…the plump legs of spiders.
Julia spun in a circle with the flaming weapon. She lowered it to the ground to warn away any venomous threat.
“I can’t stay here,” she said, giving voice to her anxiety. The way back…the way the Count had headed when he abandoned her…was already lit by other torches. But now that she held her own torch, Julia was free to illuminate her descent. “Which way?”
She listened, hoping to hear whatever had drawn the Count’s attention. Far above her, she thought she could distinguish two male voices, arguing. One of them was Count Verlock. The other one sounded like Reece.
Then a woman’s voice. “Verlock.” A weakened voice…a whisper that seemed to echo all around. “You animal.”
From nowhere…from everywhere: the sounds of a struggle…an angry splintering of wood…a frustrated clatter of metal.
“Release me.” The same voice…so weak, like a hundred-year-old woman on her deathbed.
All around her, the woman’s whisper…the quarreling men…the rattle of chains.
Julia hesitated. She thought of the women in her town who had disappeared. She considered her own plight, the weakness in her scratched arm, her tattered feet. A rush of empathy for the faint, whispering woman flooded over her. That could be her own voice, crying out for help.
Despite the confusion of echoes, Julia knew the whisper had to be coming from the bottom of the stairs.
An old man stood on the other side of the door.
Reece immediately assumed the man was a vagrant. A decrepit bum squatting on the abandoned property. He was dressed in an ill-fitting tuxedo that looked like it had been fished out of a dumpster.
A white shirt beneath had faded to filthy tatters, and a dark gravy or ketchup stain marred the patch above his chest. An awful smell rose up from the man, and Reece had to wave his hand in front of his face.
“Step aside, Pops,” Reece said, attempting to muscle his way in.
The vagrant didn’t budge. “I am Count Verlock,” he said. “You are trespassing.”
“Listen, Bub, nobody’s owned this place for a hundred years.” Reece pulled a strip of yellow cloth from his pocket…waved it like a flag. “My girlfriend ran this way.”
A haughty expression crossed the vagrant’s face. He reminded Reece of an ignorant low-life who tried to adopt the snooty posture and voice of an aristocrat. “Your girlfriend is not here.” The man dismissed the torn cloth with a wave of his hand…a spoiled patriarch sending an ill-cooked meal back to the kitchen. “Perhaps she was running away from you. You seem rude.” The self-appointed “Count” looked him up and down. “Unimpressive.”
If Reece had time for games, he might have slapped the old man’s face and challenged him to a duel. Instead, he decided to return to his original plan…pushing the man aside and searching the dilapidated building.
Reece looked at the frail man, judging how hard to shove him. He’d easily fold at a punch to the stomach. Or he could kick his legs, knock his feet out from beneath him.
Discarded dress shoes, rescued from a dumpster. Laceless…the sole flapping on one…on the other, a large toe with a filthy unclipped nail, protruding from the tip.
But around these feet…
Rotting wood on the floor, and glistening streaks of red.
Julia stepped onto the landing at the bottom of the stone staircase. A wooden door reinforced with metal bars waited at the end of a short hallway. A small slot was carved into the door at eye level…and an inset door at the bottom, similar to ones she’d seen in houses that allowed separate exit or entry for small pets.
The woman on the other side whispered again…a harsh sound that emerged through the door slot and echoed through the steep chamber. “You abomination. Release me.”
Julia raised her torch to the eye-level slot, but the interior of the room was too dark. She cleared her throat, as preparation to offering soothing words to the prisoner. Before she could speak, the other woman began to panic. The rattling of shackles…a sickly thump of flesh against unyielding stone.
“Verlock,” the prisoner shrieked. “You’re killing me!”
More rattling…the woman on the other side apparently thrashing about like a beached fish.
“Verlock…I know you’re there!”
Julia looked over her shoulder.
She thinks I’m someone else, Julia thought. It was an awful feeling she never thought she’d experience. The woman’s terrified. She’s terrified of me.
And the prisoner shrieked now…a song of pained, incoherent syllables.
Again Julia attempted soothing words…a scratch still in her throat caused by her own discomfort throughout this night of horrors. She planned to say, “I’m here to help.”
Instead, the words tumbled together in a gurgling hiss.
Behind the door, a horrible gasp…a frightened silence…a pleading moment of calm. “Oh god, not the beast,” she whimpered. “Anything but that…I beg you…”
Julia finally gained control of her voice. “No. You don’t understand—”
Suddenly…the inset door flipped open…a skeletal hand reached through…it grabbed Julia by the ankle.
“Let go,” Julia shouted and, nearly dropping the torch, she kicked with her other foot…knowing it was wrong…that she’d bring the tortured prisoner more pain…this woman’s brittle fingers scraped and streaked with blood, a dark bruise encircling her wrist…and Julia’s foot coming down, a horrible snap as she pulled her ankle free from the surprisingly resilient grip.
Julia tried reason again. “I want to…”
“I know what you want,” the prisoner whispered. Instead of drawing back her arm, the woman slowly began to rotate it…palm upward…the underside of the wrist exposed.
Seeing the dark bruise around the woman’s wrist, Julia had earlier attributed the injury to metal handcuffs or shackles…they cut off her circulation, and she’d fought against them, breaking free to reach under the door to her prison cell.
She held the torch closer. The underside of the woman’s wrist was different. The skin here was cleaner than the surrounding area…white and pale.
Except for two crusted scabs at the center. Their raised shape, like the domes of two identical moles…the way they were positioned…
They looked like bite marks.
“Go ahead, Verlock.” A hopeless resignation was evident in the woman’s weak voice. “Feed.”
She badly wanted to rescue this unfortunate woman.
At the same time, she wanted to be elsewhere.
In her mind’s eye, she ran away.
She imagined escaping the dungeon of Count Verlock. She ran up the long staircase, the steps seeming to stretch endlessly above her.
Finally she reached the main floor of the building. She remembered a high-ceilinged dining room, the walls decorated with elegant tapestries.
She imagined herself reaching the front of the house…pausing outside the vestibule, looking in..
Reece stands there, holding Count Verlock by the collar…that beautiful frill shirt bunched in Reece’s angry fists. “What have you done to her?” Reece yells. “You better start talking.”
Julia is so proud of him, the way he’s come to her rescue…so rough and strong…
“I mean it.” Reece shakes the Count again…almost seems ready to throw him against the wall. “Where is she?”
The Count is undeniably handsome, but how could she ever have been fooled by this well-dressed weakling? He’s a milquetoast…especially in comparison to Reece. “I’m right here,” Julia tells him.
And Reece is a statue frozen in place…the Count on tiptoes, nearly lifted off the ground from Reece’s rough treatment.
Julia blinks her eyes.
The room…looks different.
The elegant chandelier so glamorous overhead…now many of its crystal hangings missing, cobwebs stretching from one broken candle to the next.
The gold trimmed tapestry on the wall…gone now, and the wall beneath chipped, stained, water-damaged.
The beautiful hand-woven carpet…rolled away years ago, to reveal a rotted, wooden floor.
“Reece,” she says. “I’m right here.”
Finally the statue moves. He turns his head.
His head lolls. His eyes are empty.
A large gash appears in Reece’s neck…a chunk of flesh ripped out…bitten out.
The two men have changed position. Reece is the one nearly held in the air…
The Count’s arm lifts…Reece’s body rises.
Count Verlock holds Reece over his head with both hands. The fiend closes one hand about her boyfriend’s throat…tightens his fist as if squeezing the last drops of water out of a sponge.
Verlock’s vile fanged mouth catches these drops.
He tosses her boyfriend’s emptied body aside.
Before her eyes, Count Verlock’s elegant clothing begins to shred into wrinkled rags. His skin wrinkles, too, as if he’s suddenly aged into the oldest person she had ever seen.
“Let’s tend to your wounds,” Verlock says.
Julia felt gentle pressure along the scratches in her arm. Later, an antiseptic ointment washed over the abrasions in the soles of her feet.
She’d been sleeping. She kept her eyes closed.
“Let’s tend to your wounds,” someone said. She heard the clatter of sterile instruments on a metal tray.
Next, she felt bandages rolled and tightened over her cleansed wounds.
The bandages clicked into place…over her wrists, over her ankles.
She opened her eyes to find herself in a dungeon, shackled to the wall.
Count Verlock stood close, inspecting her. He wasn’t the handsome gentleman who’d first greeted her. This was an old man…a hundred years old…hundreds or thousands.
The old man who killed Reece…who’d been kidnapping women in their neighborhood.
Julia looked to one side, and saw another woman shackled to the wall. Although her face had grown worn and thin, her eyes sunken into shadow, Julia recognized the woman from a missing-persons report on the news.
She turned her head in the other direction…saw another of the missing women, bound as Count Verlock’s prisoner…
The Count scratched at Julia’s arm, making the wounds bleed anew. He picked bits of flesh off the bottoms of her feet.
Two police officers paused at a forked path in the woods.
Outside a dog barked, straining at the end of its leash.
“Hey Sheriff, give him a chance to refresh the scent,” said the younger officer…the one holding the leash.
The older man removed a yellow scrap from a sealed bag…held the cloth under the dog’s nose. “Here you go, Boxer.”
The dog barked again, more certain this time, leading the officers down the right-most path.
Eventually, they emerged into a clearing. The abandoned mansion awaited them.
“What’s the matter, boy?” The junior officer kneeled next to the animal. It whimpered now, its back legs shaking. “You brought us here. Why so skittish now?”
“I’m checking the ruins,” the Sheriff said. “Bring Boxer along, will you Fremont?”
They crunched across dry grass to the front of the decayed house. Fremont practically had to drag the reluctant dog along with them.
When they reached the porch, the dog began barking again. The officers climbed up the unsteady wooden stairs, then paused at the landing.
A section of the porch in front of the double doors had collapsed.
“Hold back a second.” The Sheriff knew his own weight was risky enough…the splinters suggested that the porch boards had snapped recently.
He leaned over, carefully peering into the freshly made pit. “Poor guy.” A short distance below, a crumpled body was impaled on gory bits of rotted wood. “It’s the boyfriend.”
The dog started barking uncontrollably, the smell of Reece’s blood driving the animal towards frenzy.
“Not him,” the Sheriff said. “Found him. Now we need to focus on the girl.” He pulled out the strip of cloth…rubbed it under the dog’s nose.
Boxer strained at the leash again, as if ready to jump over the pit and attack the double doors.
The Sheriff reached across the gap and tested one of the doors. It opened easily. “Let’s go, Fremont.”
“Do you think we’ll find her?”
“I don’t know what we’ll find.” He turned on a flashlight, then stepped over the gap and inside the abandoned property.
Julia heard steps approaching.
“Verlock,” she said, hating to hear the name aloud. Hating the weak rasp of her fearful voice. “You abomination.” She shook at the manacles on her wrists…kicked her feet and the chains rattled.
The footsteps grew closer. “Release me,” she hissed in a pained whisper. “You’re killing me.” The footsteps paused outside her dungeon, and she stared at the reinforced door. A shadow moved over the eye-level slot, and she thought she caught a gleam of white…a horrible fanged mouth, smiling in anticipation of the next meal.
Why was he taking so long to enter. Was this terrifying delay part of her torment? “I know you’re there,” she whispered.
Julia waited, her own teeth chattering from fear…from some unholy chill. She listened.
From the other side of the door, she heard…panting.
Then a weight fell against the door…the pad of an animal’s feet…the frantic scratching of claws.
“Oh god,” Julia screamed, finding her full voice. “Not the beast!”
She could never bear the Count’s ghastly feedings. Each sucked drop of blood stole more than her life’s energy…it stole her sense of self…her belief in humanity…in rightness. It buried any dim hope that she could ever escape.
And whenever he appeared to her in animal form, that experience was always the most horrible.
The door finally opened. Julia screamed as the beast came bounding into her cell.
A dog stopped short at the end of its leash. Two police officers entered.
The younger of them ran toward her…covered her with a blanket.
The shoulder belt of the police car pressed secure across her chest. Julia looked out the window as the scenery rushed by. The cemetery passed on the left, then a church.
A siren wailed…a strobe light flashed as the car raced forward.
“We’ll get you to the hospital as quick as we can.”
The driver was the older of the two men. She recognized him from newspaper photos as Sheriff Hazelbury.
Julia had a foggy memory of this man helping her…using some combination of pliers or bolt cutter or wire-picks to snap or unlock her shackles. And the younger man, so strong…carrying her up that long flight of steps and out of the mansion. Through the woods, past the back yard of Reece’s house to a waiting squad car parked out front.
The world moved past her as she was carried…just as it moved past her now from the car. She’d worried that the officer would get tired from carrying her, but he never complained.
Maybe she wasn’t that heavy of a burden. She’d lost so much blood, after all.
Julia looked toward the backseat of the car, but it was empty. “Where’s your partner? Is he helping the others?”
The Sheriff half-turned to respond, keeping one eye on the road ahead. “Others?”
“Those other kidnapped women. In the dungeon with me.”
He didn’t respond. The scenery scrolled past…the cemetery on the left, then the church.
Julia almost wanted to unbuckle her seatbelt and jump from the moving car. “We have to go back for them,” she said. “And Count Verlock. Did you find him? Did you arrest him? Kill him?”
“Calm down, now, miss.” The Sheriff…still one eye on the road, but looking more worried.
Julia strained against her seatbelt and shoulder strap. They felt heavy, reminding her of the persistent weight of metal chains, the confining cuff of shackles over her wrists and ankles.
The cemetery passed on the left, then the church. She knew she’d seen them before. The scenery was looping past like images projected onto a screen.
The screen of memory.
Julia started to wail. She pulled at the latch of her seatbelt…grabbed at the handle of the passenger-side door. Neither would budge.
The Sheriff pulled the car over, bringing it to a stop. Julia was shaking, thrashing in her seat like she was in the middle of an epileptic seizure. Sheriff Hazelbury put his arms on her to comfort her…to steady her…to keep her from hurting herself. He leaned his body over hers, to restrict her movements.
More weight. The Sheriff smothered her like the chains, like the shackles…like the press of Count Verlock’s body looming over her, taking an unoffered gift of her life’s blood.
“I’m still there!” Julia screamed. “The Dungeon of Count Verlock! Oh God, someone save me. I’m still trapped there!”
(A Budget Studios Production)