The Curse of the House on Cypress Lane
DBS Publishing LLC
Copyright 2017 by DBS Publishing LLC
Moonlight penetrated the branches of the old cypress trees that sprouted from the swamp. The black water was still and reflected the night sky. Cicadas buzzed and frogs croaked. A hot breeze blew the dangling strands of Spanish moss that hung from branches. They wiggled like fingers and moved shadows in the dark, breathing life into monsters that didn’t exist, and concealing the ones that did.
Sharon’s bare feet smacked against the thick Louisiana mud on her serpentine sprint through the swamp. She swatted at the Spanish moss dangling from the branches, catching on her hair and arms, tickling her body with scratchy fibers. Her wet, soiled tank top clung to her body like a second skin, and her jeans with the holes in the knees were heavy with water.
The skin around her eyes twitched as she stole a glance behind her on the run, the shadowed figures still in pursuit, and she tripped over an unearthed root. She thrust out her hands to help break the fall, but the deep mud swallowed them whole, slapping her face and chest against the muck.
Sharon struggled to lift herself out of the earth sucking her deeper into the ground. Her hands and knees slid awkwardly in the mud that kept her on all fours, desperately clawing, driving forward. She blinked and wiped away the mask of crud from her eyes, tasting the gritty flecks of Cajun sludge on her lips.
“I think I see something over there!”
The voice was distant but growing closer. Desperation, and the instinct of survival, propelled Sharon to her feet. Slabs of mud fell from her stomach, legs, and arms and then plunked to the ground.
The quicksand-like mud eventually gave way to water that rose to her ankles, and with each noisy splash, she gave away her position to the crazies chasing her.
A cramp bit at her left hamstring and Sharon slowed to a hobbled limp. Her lungs burned and her chest tightened as she waded into warm, waist-high water, the mud dissolving into the black water. She ducked behind a tree, praying that the ripples from her wake calmed before the men saw.
Sharon shivered and hugged her stomach. An adrenaline-laced fear gnawed at her innards. She pictured the bodies back at the house, her family torn apart by that… that… thing. She couldn’t rid herself of that rattling noise, those bones, the screams. She saw the teeth, claws, and black eyes. How could it even see with eyes so black? Part of her believed that it wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. But the proof was in the fresh blood oozing from the bite marks on her arms.
Feet splashed quickly in shallow water, then slowed and transformed into a heavy swoosh as the legs submerged deeper into the swamp. The movements sent ripples around the tree where Sharon squatted. She covered her mouth and passed silent breaths through her nose, which filled her nostrils with the hot stink of the swamp. The swooshing ended and the water grew still.
“It’s no use, sweetheart. It’s either death by bullet or claws. I would think a bullet is kinder.” The voice was thick with a Louisiana drawl. What had been charming Southern flattery when she first arrived to the town was now evil and ominous. “You don’t have nowhere else to go, darlin’.”
More water rippled to her left, and Sharon shivered in the dark, covered in blood and mud, and stinking of a young woman fearful of death’s open, waiting arms. Tears squeezed through the corners of her eyes and trickled down her cheeks. She slowly submerged herself deeper until the water reached her upper lip.
A knee appeared to her left along with the end of a rifle, and Sharon shut her eyes tighter, her head and neck vibrating from the effort it took to remain still. The man took another step forward and ripples from the movement sent water up her nose.
“Fine,” he said, exasperated. “Have it your way, bitch.”
Water swooshed again, the noise drifting away from her, then grew into softer, fading splashes. Sharon kept herself curled in a tight ball, waiting for the monsters to return, but their voices and splashes were replaced by the steady buzz of cicadas.
Slowly, and keeping low in the water, she crept toward the left of the tree trunk, her fingernails clawing rough bark. She craned her neck around the side and saw nothing but still black water, trees, and moonlight. She stood, water droplets falling from the hem of her tank top and elbows.
She took a step forward, and then another, that primal function of survival motoring her forward. Her thoughts wandered to her father’s truck. It was still parked in the drive, but the keys were inside the house. With the bodies.
A sudden wave of sobs curved her body forward, and she buried her face in her dirty palms. All of their eyes would still be open, their bodies lifeless on the living room floor. She thought of wading through the swamp and finding another house or road, but she didn’t know the area, and she remembered her father’s boss talking about gators and snakes. The truck was safer and faster.
Her legs chafed from the wet jeans, and the mud and blood began to harden over her chest and face. It tightened her skin, and the dark shades highlighted the whites of her eyes. She weaved through the path from which she came until she saw the open field that led back to the house.
Sharon paused at the clearing’s edge. She gazed across the waist-high grass and reeds that stood straight and still like the house on the other side. She saw no movement, just the darkened windows of the house and the truck parked out front.
Looking at the structure now, she couldn’t see anything else but death. But inside, amongst the dead, were the keys to her freedom.
Sharon crouched low, using the tall grass and reeds for cover. After the first few steps on her toes she broke into a sprint, and the rush of air stung the bite marks on her arms. She aimed for the front door, and she leapt up the porch steps, then skidded to a stop.
The door was open, the path ahead dark. Heat and a foul stench radiated from that dark plane. She whimpered and twisted the ends of her fingertips like a nervous child.
Bushes rustled to her left, and it provided the needed grit to cross the threshold of darkness, the shadows swallowing her whole as she passed through with her eyes shut.
After two full steps into the house, Sharon kept her head down and slowly opened her eyes. She stared at the floor until the tips of her mud-covered toes appeared in the darkness. She remained frozen in the foyer like a teenager caught coming home late from a curfew. She knew her parents were there on the floor. She didn’t want to look at them but knew stepping on them would be worse. Finally, she gathered the courage to lift her head.
Her father lay on his back, his left leg straight, his right bent at a ninety-degree angle. His arms were stretched out from his body, and for a moment he reminded her of Jesus on the cross, his sacrifice meant to keep her alive. His face was turned toward her, his mouth slightly agape, his eyes open. Blood from the gunshot wound to his chest had pooled in a dark patch on the floor next to him.
Her mother lay on her stomach, her arms bunched under her breasts, one leg tucked under her chest while the other stuck straight out from the bottom of her dress. Her face was turned away, and Sharon stared at the tight black curls of hair on the back of her mother’s head.
Quickly, Sharon skirted around the bodies and raced down the hall to her parents’ bedroom. On the way, she passed the dining room where moonlight shone through the pair of skylights in the ceiling. But she didn’t look up to the second-floor balcony where her and her brother’s rooms had been. For all she knew, that thing was still up there.
She searched for the truck keys in the dark, not daring to turn on the lights and attract those men again. Her hands opened drawers, flung clothes, scoured the night stands, but the keys remained elusive.
She clenched her fists in frustration, and desperation made them shake. She retreated to the wall, unsure where her father could have put them. She knew they weren’t in the truck. They couldn’t be because her father had just gotten back from work when—
Sharon covered her mouth to muffle the frightened gasp. The keys weren’t in her parents’ room because her father never made it out of the living room. The keys were still in her father’s pockets. Her dead father’s pockets.
Sharon walked to the living room like an inmate on death row, her steps slow and hesitant. Her mother watched her enter, and Sharon caught a brief glimpse of the bloody hole where her mother’s jaw used to be. The entire bottom half of her face had been blown away, leaving behind stringy bits of muscles that hung from her cheeks and the roof of her mouth.
Her eyes remained transfixed on her mother’s face while she maintained a slow walk forward until she stepped in something warm. She quickly recoiled her foot from the pool of blood next to her father’s body. She turned away and scrunched her face, fixated on the warm liquid smeared beneath her toes.
Sharon slowly wiped her feet on the floor, refusing to look down at the red streaks staining the hardwood, and then turned back to her father’s corpse. Her knees popped as she bent down, her arm outstretched and rigid.
She paused at the opening to his pants pocket, knowing that she’d have to feel her father’s body. It felt wrong, but she forced herself to do it. She didn’t want to die. Not here, and not now. She shut her eyes as she reached through the hole. She winced at the soft give of muscle and fat, but found nothing but lint. She quickly removed her hand, then reached across her father’s waist to the other pocket, the heat of the body warming the skin of her arm.
As she moved closer to the second pocket, a curious force pulled her eyes toward her father’s head where she saw a few specks of blood amongst the black stubble of his tan face. She remembered how rough it felt as a child when he kissed her goodnight, but also how comforting it was. An impulse to experience that comfort again diverted the direction of her hand. Her lower lip quivered as her fingers grazed the stubble. After the first prick against her fingertip she retracted her hand, clutching it tightly with the other, and she cried.
Snot dribbled from her nose and she quickly wiped it away. The sudden and overwhelming sense of escape flooded through her and Sharon quickly shoved her hand into the second pocket and in one quick pull, she removed the keys and jumped back from her father’s body. She retreated towards the door, the keys clutched in both hands against her chest. “I’m sorry.”
Sharon sprinted out the front door and hurried down the four steps of the porch, missing the last one. She landed awkwardly on her left foot and twisted her ankle. She skidded on her hands and knees in the gravel drive, fresh cuts in her palms, and then reached back for her ankle, baring her teeth with a hiss.
“There she is!”
Sharon jerked her head toward the pair of men aiming their rifles at her from the brush, and she scrambled to get her legs under her. The tiny rocks in the gravel cut into the tender flesh under her bare feet as the men hastened their pursuit. She moaned between sobs, hyperventilating as she fumbled through the ring of keys.
Her ankle throbbed painfully by the time she reached the truck and she tugged at the handle, heaving open the heavy steel door. A gunshot thundered and connected with the side of the truck. Sharon jumped from the violent blast, then climbed inside cab.
Sharon shoved the key into the ignition and jammed her foot down on the clutch as she turned the key. The engine sputtered and another gunshot sounded, this one shattering the driver side window next to her head. She screamed and ducked, lying low on the truck bench as she continued to crank the engine and hold the clutch.
The engine choked then sputtered to life, and Sharon sprung up and shifted into first gear, but as she did, the door flung open and meaty hands grabbed her arm and groped her waist.
“No!” Sharon flailed against the man that pulled her from the truck cabin and flung her helplessly to the ground. Her elbow smacked onto the gravel and a sharp crack of pain sent a thousand tiny needles up her forearm, numbing her fingers.
“Trust us, sweetheart,” the man said, catching his breath. “It’s better this way.” He smiled, and the moonlight reflected off a silver capped tooth.
“Sure you don’t want to have any fun with her first, Billy?” A thick beard covered the second man’s face, a pair of hungry eyes running down the curve of her body.
“No time,” Billy answered, then aimed the rifle at Sharon’s head. “This place isn’t safe.”
Sharon held up her hands in defense, crying. “Please, don’t. Just let me go.” But the cries for mercy didn’t budge the rifle barrel from her head, and some childish instinct curled herself into a ball as she lay on the ground. Thick, heaving sobs shook her body, and she tasted salt and blood on her lips. She shut her eyes and pictured her parents on the floor in the living room. And then she saw her brother in the arms of that creature. They shouldn’t have come here. They should have never moved.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” Billy said. “It’s all over now.”
And with the pull of the trigger and a bullet to the brain, it was. At least for her family.
The metro rocked back and forth, the wheels clicking in the familiar rhythmic tha-dump, tha-dump, tha-dump every few seconds. A few conversations flitted through the stale air and over the noise of the screeching metal cars, but mostly everyone kept to themselves. Anyone who didn’t have a phone in their hand had their eyes closed, waiting for the train to slow and the automated voice to stir them awake through the crackling speakers.
Owen Cooley didn’t have a phone in his hand. He couldn’t afford one. Nor could he sleep despite the dark circles under his eyes. He rubbed his knobby hands together, the tie around his neck loose with the top button of his shirt undone, the elbow patches of his jacket resting on his thighs. He stared at the black grooves on the metro floor and the piece of gum the man standing in front of him had almost stepped in for the past twenty minutes. Twice the heel of his Nike nearly landed in the pink glob, but he stayed clear, and at the next stop the man walked off, never knowing how close he came to catastrophe.
The train doors closed, the speakers beeped, and the train jolted forward, waking the large black woman who had dozed off across from him. But while the man in the white Nikes escaped doom, nothing had changed for Owen after a day of endless interviews and zero job offers. And if he had to choose between not having a job or gum on his shoe, he’d gladly take the latter.
By the time the train pulled up to his stop, the sun was setting. A nurse stood to exit, and Owen held out his arm to stop her from smashing her toe into the ABC Double-Bubble. She flashed him a pretty smile and softly touched his arm as she stepped ahead of him. It was the first good thing that had happened all day.
Unlike his interaction with the nurse, there were no smiles at the end of his interviews. He either had too much experience, not the right kind, or not enough in general. He’d worked as a welder and machinist for seventeen years. And at only a few years shy of forty, he found himself jobless with a mortgage and family to feed at home.
Owen kept his hands in his pockets, a warm breeze flicking his tie lazily to the left on his walk down the sidewalk. He kept his head down, his eyes scanning for any more gum mines lurking on the concrete. He rotated his shoulders uncomfortably and took his jacket off. His undershirt was soaked with sweat. Partly because of the summer heat, but mostly from nerves.
Sit up straight, make eye contact, nice dry and firm grip, but don’t hold too long, and don’t break off too early. It’s all about the shake. At least that’s what the employee down at the job center had told him. What the desk jockey hadn’t told him was that the jobs he was being interviewed for all required degrees, or computer knowledge, of which he had neither.
Not to mention he was always the oldest applicant in the room. And in most cases, he was older than the hiring manager. Compared to the spry youths that surrounded him in those hip offices, sitting in chairs that looked nothing like chairs, he was an old man. But he didn’t feel old. He still felt useful. There just wasn’t anyone that wanted the skills he had.
So, for the past six months since he’d been laid off at the shipyard, Owen Cooley had gone down to the job center every Monday to speak with the ‘career planner’ to look for jobs that paid more than minimum wage, which was what he was currently making at the McDonalds that only gave him twenty-five hours a week. The burgers and fries were a nice perk though. Not that he was supposed to take them home, but he knew they’d just throw them out at the end of the day anyway. A rich man might call that stealing. A man in his position would call it feeding his family.
A few cars rattled down the street, one of them giving him a honk, and Owen raised his hand in a friendly wave as he watched John Clarence’s old Ford roll toward home. He’d been in the same boat as Owen when the shipyard closed, but he had managerial experience and ended up getting a job for some construction company as an office pusher. It paid just as well as the shipyard did, but at their son’s baseball game last Saturday, he said he didn’t like the environment. Too stuffy. Say the wrong thing and you’re outta there.
But Owen only nodded, his mind wandering to the third notice he received in the mail that morning for being late on the water bill. It shut off the next day, and it was another three before he and Claire managed to scrape up enough cash to get it turned back on. Three fucking days.
Owen stopped and looked up from his shoes. His home was just two houses down, but he didn’t know how much longer it was going to stay that way. Their savings was gone, and what had gnawed at him the most on the train ride back home wasn’t the fact that the interviews hadn’t gone well, or that last week his kids couldn’t shower for three days. What bothered him the most was that it was his fault. A man was supposed to provide, and he’d failed. And now he’d have to walk into that house, look his wife in the eye, and tell her that at the end of the month, they’d have to move out. And go where? He had no idea.
Owen passed the mailbox out front and almost didn’t open it, but knew it was better for him to check the mail, that was if Claire hadn’t gotten to it first. She’d been doing that more lately. It was because he started to hide the bills and late notices from her. He did it so she wouldn’t worry, but that didn’t lessen the hellfire unleashed upon him when she found out.
And it was foolish for him to think he could keep that stuff from her anyway. She knew how much money they had down to the penny. But no matter how low that account got, Claire never wavered, didn’t even flinch. She was tougher than him in that way, and he loved her for it.
The mailbox didn’t give him anything to help lift his spirits. He shuffled through the envelopes stamped with labels in red lettering that spelled out “final notice,” “past due,” and “foreclosure.” He paused on the last one. Those eleven capitalized red letters had been haunting him since the shipyard closed. And now the monster had finally sunk its teeth into him for good.
Owen stuffed the mail in the pocket inside his jacket and walked up the front porch steps. The laughter drifting through the open windows helped lift the weight of the day off his back and brought the only real smile he had all day as he walked inside.
“Daddy!” Chloe lifted her arms in the air triumphantly, dropped the crayon in her hand, and sprinted toward him.
Owen crouched and scooped her off the floor. He planted a kiss on her cheek and walked her back over to the table. “Hey, bug. What are you working on?”
Chloe sighed, the tone behind it decades beyond the five year old that spoke. “I just can’t get the princess’ hair right. It turns out too much like spaghetti.”
Owen laughed, and Chloe giggled as he tickled her sides playfully, then set her back down and kissed the top of her head. “I’m sure you’ll get it. Where’s your mom?”
“In the kitchen!” Claire answered, and then stepped through the cutout in the narrow hallway that was split down the middle of the house that separated the kitchen, bathroom, and bedrooms from the dining and living rooms. She clasped her hands together and arched her eyebrows with a hopeful expression. He walked to her, kissed her lips, and shook his head.
It was hard watching the hope disappear from her face. But she didn’t let it keep her down for long. “Well, dinner is almost ready. Matt’s out back with Grandpa. Why don’t you go and get him?”
Owen arched his left eyebrow. “You left them alone?”
Claire squeezed his hand, keeping her voice low. “He was having a good day today. And it made Matt happy to throw the ball around with his granddad.” She kissed his cheek and then called Chloe into the kitchen to help set the table as Owen walked down the hallway toward the back door. Before he even stepped outside, he heard the hard smack of ball in glove.
“Easy there, Ripkin!” Roger shook his hand exaggeratedly, and Matt laughed. “You’re gonna bruise an old man.”
“I didn’t throw it that hard, Grandpa.” Matt turned to the door and his face lit up. “Hey, Dad!”
“Hey, buddy. Dinner’s almost ready, so why don’t you come in and wash up.”
“All right.” Matt peeled his glove off and tucked it under his arm. He walked with his shoulders slouched.
Owen ruffled his son’s hair on his way inside. “And help your sister set the table.”
Roger tossed the ball into his glove, then closed the mitt and held it with both hands, lingering in the yard. Owen watched him closely. The doctors said the early stages were some of the hardest, and there wasn’t any way to know how fast it would progress.
“You all right, Roger?”
He nodded. “Fine.” He looked up but didn’t smile. “How was work?”
“No work today,” Owen answered.
Roger shook his head, frowning. “Right. I knew that.” He hurried back inside the house, brushing Owen with his shoulder on his way past.
After the dinner table was set, Claire brought out the spaghetti and green beans, dumping conservative-sized portions on everyone’s plate. The food needed to last.
Talk at the dinner table centered around the excitement for the end of school and the start of summer, and Chloe’s urgent plea for more crayons in order to expand her exploration of the color spectrum. Her own words.
“We’ll see what we can do, Picasso,” Claire said, then looked down to Matt, who’d kept himself reserved through most of dinner, picking at his noodles with his fork. “You okay, Matt?”
Owen looked up from the last green bean on his plate and watched his son nod with a half-smile. Owen didn’t buy it. “You sure?”
“Yeah,” Matt answered, more confident. “I’m fine.”
Both Chloe and Roger asked for seconds, and Owen declined another plate, though he knew he could have eaten one. Once the dishes were done and homework was finished (after being double-checked by Mom), it was showers and off to bed.
Roger descended into the basement without a goodnight to anyone, one of the smaller behavioral changes that Owen had noticed in the old man. When things worsened, Owen wasn’t sure what they were going to do, especially if he was still unemployed. But all those worries disappeared the moment he stepped into Chloe’s room. It was more gallery than bedroom, the walls adorned with the artwork that she deemed acceptable for people to view. “Night, bug.”
Owen kissed her forehead and then shut off the light on his way out and closed the door. He walked next door to Matt’s room and saw his son in bed, sitting up and picking at the fringes of his glove. Owen entered and pulled the desk chair next to the bed and sat. “You want to tell me what’s bothering you? And don’t tell me it’s nothing. I know you better than that.”
Matt looked up, his eyes red and misty. “I know about the house.”
His son’s words hit like a one-two combo to the gut. “That’s not something you have to worry about.” Owen moved from the chair to the bed and lifted his son’s chin, a few tears breaking from the cluster of water in his eyes. “We’re going to be fine.” He tapped the glove in Matt’s hands. “Plus, you’ve got summer ball soon. That curve of yours is really coming along.”
Matt wiped his eyes and sniffled. “I don’t think I should do it.”
“Why not? You love it.”
“It’s expensive. And I don’t want to be the reason we’re homeless.”
“We’re not going to be homeless. I promise. Okay?”
Matt nodded and then wrapped his arms around his dad’s neck. The boy was always worrying about things beyond his ten years. It was a trait he shared with his sister, though her worries were more artistic in nature.
“All right,” Owen said, kissing the top of Matt’s head. “Lights out.” Owen helped Matt under the sheets as the boy tucked his glove into his chest. “I love you.”
“Love you too, Dad.”
As Owen shut the door to his son’s room, he lingered in the hallway a moment. Not once in his own childhood did he worry about whether he would be homeless. He’d be damned if he was going to let his own son do it.
After he had time to mentally prepare himself for the last conversation of the night, Owen entered his bedroom. Claire was sitting cross-legged on the bedsheets, his jacket at the foot of the bed, the bills spread out in front of her.
“We can’t get an extension from the bank?” Claire asked, reading through the foreclosure notice. “We’ve been with them for almost fifteen years, and up until the shipyard closed, we never missed a payment.”
Owen leaned back and lay down, resting his head on the pillow, staring at the ceiling, which was void of any chewing gum. “They won’t budge. If we can’t pay by the thirtieth, they’ll kick us out.”
Claire collected the rest of the bills and then tossed them on her nightstand. “Well, I think it’s bullshit.” She rolled over to him and rested her head on his chest. It bounced gently up and down in time with his heartbeat. “How was it out there today?”
Owen groaned. “Bad. You should see some of the looks I get when I walk into those interviews. You’d think I was marked with the plague.” Owen ran his fingers through Claire’s thick, wavy black hair. It was familiar. It was home. “Matt knows about the house.”
“Of course he does,” Claire said. “He is half me, you know.”
“Thank god for that,” Owen said, kissing her head.
Claire propped herself up on her elbows and looked at him. “Hey. You need to quit that. You never give yourself enough credit. Just because you’re not a twenty-two year old with a degree in computer science doesn’t mean you’re not smart.” She grabbed hold of his hands and kissed them. “You are very good at what you do, Owen. It was why the shipyard stayed in business for as long as it did in the first place. It’s not your fault there isn’t anyone hiring right now.”
“You’d think I’d be able to find some welding work, or construction, or—”
“Something will come up,” Claire said. “And until then, we’ll get by. I managed to get a few more hours tutoring next week, so that’ll help.” She kissed him. “We’ll get through this.”
Owen nodded and forced a smile. “I know.” But as he switched off the light and they lay in bed, he wasn’t able to convince himself it was true. If he didn’t get a job by next week, they were going to be evicted. He couldn’t let that happen.
Gary sat behind his desk, computer monitor off to the side, and typed mechanically onto his keyboard. His tie was crooked, and his nose was large enough to give his eyes an obstacle in any direction he looked. “Okay, Mr. Cooley, let’s see what we have today.”
Owen sat in the same suit, shirt, and tie as the day before. His manager at McDonalds had cancelled his shift for the day, and with the eminent doom of foreclosure, he couldn’t just sit at home and twiddle his thumbs. “I need something full time. Anything full time. And anything immediate.”
Gary flicked his eyes toward Owen, then back at the screen, then back at Owen. He took his hands off the keyboard and set them down on his desk with a thump. “Mr. Cooley, you have been coming here at least once a week for the past six months. And I can tell you every job in the system available from memory, but that won’t change the fact that no one is hiring for your skillset. It might be time to start looking outside of Baltimore.”
“My family grew up here,” Owen said. “My kids go to school here. My son’s little league team—”
“I’m just saying,” Gary said, lifting his hands passively, “if you’re desperate, and you really want to find something full time, and in your field, maybe it’s time to broaden your horizons. It couldn’t hurt to look, right?”
“No,” Owen answered. “I guess not.”
Uprooting his family had crossed Owen’s mind before, he just didn’t entertain it for very long. Plus, the doctors had told him and Claire to keep things familiar for Roger, and the old man had lived in Baltimore his entire life.
“All right, so let’s see what we have out there.” Gary returned his fingers to the keyboard, a sudden pep in his typing. “Nothing here in the Northeast that was close to your previous salary, so let’s head down south.” He poked a few more keys and then scrolled again. “Oh, here’s something.”
Owen leaned forward in his chair. “Is it full time?”
“It is,” Gary answered. “It’s a supervisor position at an auto parts factory, but it says that they’re willing to look at applicants with no supervisory experience.”
“Where is it?”
Owen frowned. When he considered moving his family, transferring them to the south felt too extreme. And Louisiana was the deep south.
“Health benefits, 401k, and the salary is fifteen thousand more a year than what you were making at the shipyard,” Gary said.
“Fifteen?” Owen’s jaw went slack.
“The position is looking to be filled immediately, and it says here that the company will provide housing and pay for any relocation efforts.” Gary smiled. “What do you say? A position like this isn’t going to stay open for very long.”
“Y-yeah,” Owen said eagerly. “Let’s do it.”
Claire stood in front of the small fan in the kitchen, letting the whirling blades cool the sweat collecting on her face. The whole house was hot. And it was only going to get worse the deeper they went into summer. But maybe by then Owen would have found something and they could afford to turn the A/C back on. With the fan just basically blowing hot air in her face, she thought about taking a trip down to the store to browse the aisles and cool off.
She stepped from the fan, and the beads of sweat returned. Traffic noise and the occasional backfire of an exhaust pipe drifted through the open windows. At least that’s where she hoped those loud pops were coming from.
The neighborhood had changed over the fifteen years they’d taken residence. The ups and downs of the economy had shifted people around. When the kids played outside, she made sure it was in the backyard, which was fenced. It wasn’t as much space as the front yard, and Matt groaned over the new rule, but she wouldn’t budge.
“Hey, Dad?” Claire asked, calling down to the basement. No answer. “Roger?”
“Are you getting hungry for lunch?”
Claire lingered in the basement doorway, leaning against the frame and drumming her fingers against the wood. Her father was down there somewhere, wandering in the dark, doing his best to find the light switch. He could still find it more times than not, but that wasn’t going to last forever.
The house phone rang, and she walked back to the kitchen and plucked it off the hook. “Hello?” Claire smiled. “Hi, Mrs. Channing. Yes, I’m good, how about yourself?” She paced around the hot linoleum floor in her bare feet. “I got your message this morning, and I called you back earlier just to see—” She paused and her shoulders slumped. “Are you sure? I felt like Freddy still needed some help with those equations. If my rate is too high, I’d be willing to—” She nodded and then rubbed her forehead. “No, I understand. Well, I appreciate the time, and if anything changes, or if you know of any other parents who need a good math tutor, I hope you’ll recommend me. Okay, thank you, Mrs. Channing.”
The call clicked dead in Claire’s ear and the arm holding up the cordless phone fell limp to her side. For six months, she’d held onto the hope that tomorrow would be better. For six months, she did everything she could to stretch their savings. And amid the constant leftovers, power and water outages, bills and late notices, she never would have expected the crushing blow to come from the mother of a fourteen-year-old boy who was struggling in his Algebra I class.
A car horn blared out front, and Claire spun around, phone still clutched in her hand. The horn blasts came in quick, short bursts, with shouting echoing intermittently between the honking. Claire stepped out of the kitchen and into the hallway where she saw the front door open. She jogged to the porch, and it was there she saw her father standing in the middle of the road, looking around, the driver of a rusted, faded yellow Oldsmobile hanging out the window and screaming.
“Stop!” Claire sprinted down the porch steps, her bare feet smacking against the pavement of the walkway that cut through their unkempt front yard. She waved her hands, phone still clutched in her right, as the driver stepped out. His face reddened as he continued to berate her father. “No, please, he has Alzheimer’s!”
“What the fuck is your problem, old timer?” The Oldsmobile driver was short and wore matching grey shirt and sweatpants, neither able to contain the gut that split the space between them. His hair was thinning at the top and he panted heavy breaths. “Are you fucking stupid?”
But even with the driver screaming in his face, Roger kept glancing around the neighborhood, unsure of his surroundings.
“Did you hear me?” The driver shoved Roger hard, and the old man stumbled back a few steps.
“Hey!” Claire slid between the two and raised the phone in her hand to strike. “You don’t touch him, asshole.”
The short, fat driver scoffed, then looked Claire up and down. “And what are you going to do about it, bitch—”
The man’s eyes widened in terror as Owen appeared out of nowhere and grabbed the driver by the throat and slammed him backward onto the hood. Claire jolted backward from the sudden motion as Owen thrust a finger in the fat man’s face, keeping him pinned down.
“Get in your car, and get the hell out of my neighborhood,” Owen said.
The driver squirmed and wiggled on the hot hood, impotently shoving his short, chubby arms into Owen’s chest, his face wiggling in fear. “I-I got it, just lemme go, c’mon, man. He was standing in the middle of the road!”
Owen lifted the driver off the hood, then forcefully walked him to the open car door, flung him inside, and then slammed the door shut. “I see you driving down this road again and you won’t drive out.”
Claire took hold of her father’s hand, which he thankfully didn’t resist, and pulled him from the road. “Are you all right, Dad?”
The Oldsmobile sped forward, swerving down the road as the driver shouted frustrated obscenities out his window. Owen walked over and grabbed hold of Claire’s arm. “What happened?”
“I was on the phone, and I didn’t see him go outside,” Claire answered.
Roger’s cheeks reddened and he let go of Claire’s hand as he stepped away. “I-I just wanted some fresh air. That’s all.” He became lucid once more and cast his gaze to his feet in embarrassment. “I’m fine.” He turned and walked briskly back into the house.
Owen ran his hand through his short crop of brown hair and exhaled, the adrenaline burning off in the light tremor of his thumb and forefinger, and when he burst into a manic chuckle Claire thought her husband had lost his mind.
“What is it?” Claire asked.
Owen flapped his arms at his sides, that wild grin still plastered on his face. “I got a job.”
Claire tilted her head to the side. She pinched her eyebrows together questioningly. “Is this a joke? Are you joking right now, because if you are, this is a very bad tim—” He pressed his lips into hers and squeezed her tight, lifting her off the pavement and into the air. When he set her back down, the news finally sank in. “Oh my god.” She covered her mouth with both hands, tears filling her eyes. “That’s incredible. I just—” She laughed, jumped up and down, and then flung her arms around Owen’s neck and squeezed tight. “I’m so proud of you.” She kissed his cheek and then lowered herself down, unsure of what to ask next. “So what are you doing now? Who hired you?”
And that’s when the excitement from Owen’s face faded. “It’s a factory job, a supervisor position actually. It’s a great opportunity, but it comes with some changes.”
Claire placed one hand on each of Owen’s cheeks and looked her husband in the eye. “You did what you needed to do for our family. We’ll change with you. Whatever it takes.”
Owen smiled and then kissed her once more. They walked back inside, hand in hand, and for the first time since Owen came home with his pink slip, Claire felt good. Really good. Whatever happened, wherever they ended up going together, they would make it work.
Eleven hundred miles and two days of driving finally ended as Owen turned the U-Haul truck off the highway and passed the welcome sign that read: “Ocoee, Louisiana. Stop in, have some grub, and stay awhile!” and underneath the sign was the population which sat at fifteen thousand ninety-two, soon to be fifteen thousand ninety-seven.
The cabin of the U-Haul was only large enough for two to ride, and while most of the trip he rode alone, Matt had joined him for the last leg of the journey. Apparently Chloe and Grandpa were talkers, and his son needed some ‘quiet’ time. Owen understood that.
“Do they play baseball in Louisiana?” Matt asked, his glove in his lap, an Orioles cap on his head.
“Sure they do,” Owen answered.
“But they don’t have any professional teams here,” Matt said. “Does that mean we can’t go see any more games?”
“Houston’s not far,” Owen said. “I’m sure we could make a few trips over there this summer.” And with his new salary, they might even be able to squeeze in an actual vacation, though he wasn’t sure how far he wanted to push his new employer. Taking time off after only working at the place for a few months felt arrogant.
“I don’t like the Astros,” Matt said, glancing down at his glove.
“Hey.” Owen gave his son a shove. “I know the move is hard. But this place will be good for us. And who knows? Maybe the Orioles will play in Houston for an away game. That’d be cool, right?”
Matt nodded and then lifted his head, showing the start of a smile. “Yeah.”
The highway aimed straight for the heart of Ocoee’s downtown, and a small cluster of buildings rose on the horizon. Swamp land stretched out on either side of the road, and Owen checked his side mirror where he saw a sliver of the van that Claire was driving with Grandpa and Chloe. They’d leased it last week after the company offered to make the first few months’ payment until Owen and his family was settled.
Trees sprouted up alongside the shops, long strands of Spanish moss dangling from the branches. Large pillow-top clouds drifted lazily past the sun in patches, darkening the town and the first few shops on the left.
With only fifteen thousand residents, Owen knew it would be a bit of a culture shock for the family, seeing as how Baltimore was bursting at the seams with over half a million. But small-town life had its benefits. Less pollution, lower crime rate, a better sense of community.
In his head, their future in Ocoee was filled with the stereotypical Southern hospitality that he’d seen in television shows and movies, his northeastern accent slowly morphing to a Southern twang after a few years in the country. It would take time, but they’d learn to love it here.
“Dad, look!” Matt pointed out his window excitedly. “What is that?”
Owen followed his son’s finger to the sight of a woman standing out front of a shop called “Queen’s.” The woman had long, thick dreads that flowed over her shoulders and down her back. She wore earth-colored tones, and the one-piece jumpsuit sagged in unshapely areas around her body. White paint framed her face in thin lines, which made it hard to guess her age, but she looked older. She leaned against a tall staff, slightly warped near the top, that reached past her head. The storefront behind her had tinted black windows, blocking the views from outside. But a few tables covered with some merchandise were set on the sidewalk, though Owen couldn’t tell what they were.
Owen locked eyes with the woman as they passed, and he shivered from a sudden draft of cold air. “I thought we left all the crazies in Baltimore.”.
“I thought she looked cool!” Matt smiled brightly.
“Well, maybe we can go and check out her store this weekend?” Owen asked. “How does that sound?”
“Awesome.” Matt slipped his glove on and pounded his fist into the mitt excitedly.
The row of shops on Main Street ended and Owen took the next left. He followed the GPS on his new cell phone until he lost reception, then tossed it in the cup holder. He reached for the paper where he’d written the directions down as suggested by his new boss. Reception was spotty on the town’s outskirts.
The trees thickened on both sides of the back roads and Owen understood where their new street name received its origin. He slowed as he approached Cypress Lane, then turned onto the gravel road that led to their home. Tree branches stretched up and over the road, intertwining with one another, forming a shady roof that blocked the sun. The house came into view up ahead, and Matt leaned forward, placing his hands on the dash, his mouth ajar, and let out a low “woooah.”
Sunlight broke through the clouds and hit the house in thick streams that gleamed off the windows of the two-story home with a wrap-around front porch and second-floor balcony. Inside was six bedrooms and four baths, a massive living room, dining room, den, and kitchen. It was nearly three times the square footage of their house in Baltimore, and that was just the inside. They hadn’t seen any pictures of the surrounding property, which was sprawling.
“Is all of that ours?” Matt said, the house growing larger.
“It sure is, buddy,” Owen answered, his own tone awe stricken.
Most of the property looked to be swamp, and Owen wondered about the potential flooding hazards. But with the company paying for the house, the move, the van, and so much more, he wasn’t about to complain. You didn’t bite the hand that fed you, clothed you, and helped pull you from the brink of homelessness.
A truck was already parked in front of the house, and a man stepped out the front door, smiling and giving a friendly wave. Owen parked the U-Haul off to the side of the large patch of dirt that acted as a driveway, and Claire pulled up next to him in the van. He stepped out and gave Chuck a wave in return. “I hope you weren’t waiting long.”
“Got here just a few minutes before you did.” Chuck Toussaint offered a handsome smile and a firm handshake as Owen walked up to greet him. “How was the trip?”
“Long,” Owen answered.
Claire snuck up behind him with Chloe on her hip. “You must be Mr. Toussaint.”
“Please, call me Chuck.” Chuck’s southern drawl was followed by a southern charm as he took Claire’s hand and kissed it. “It looks like our town just got a little more attractive.”
Claire snorted and waved her hand as Chuck released it. Owen arched an eyebrow as she blushed. She slapped his arm. “Oh, stop it. He’s just being nice.”
Chuck turned his sights on Chloe. “And who is this southern princess?”
Chloe’s reaction fell short of Claire’s blushing, and Owen couldn’t help but feel proud when his daughter looked Chuck straight in the eye and said, “I’m from Baltimore.”
“Chloe, be nice,” Claire said.
Chuck laughed. “Oh, it’s all right. The South needs more strong ladies like you, Miss Chloe.” He stepped toward the house. “C’mon, I’ll show you inside.”
Owen looked back to Roger as Claire set Chloe down and she raced Matt to the front door. He wasn’t sure if his father-in-law was having one of his moments, or if the old man just didn’t like the move. It could be both. “You coming, Roger?”
The old man shook his head. “You go on. I’ll be there in a minute.”
Claire tugged at Owen’s hand and whispered. “He’s taken the move pretty hard, and he’s nervous about the new environment. He’ll be fine by himself out here for a little bit.”
Owen nodded and placed his arm around Claire’s waist and the pair walked up to their new house.
“Welcome home,” Chuck said, his arms open and another wide grin plastered on his face. And what a home it was.
The entrance opened in to a small foyer that led into a massive, open living room. A chandelier dangled from the thirty-foot vaulted ceiling, and a wall opposite the front door cut the house in half. The living room had three doorways: one directly to the left after entering which led to the kitchen, and one on either side of the brick wall that led to the back of the house. Some older furniture was covered in white sheets, and the kids sprinted around excitedly.
“I know it looks a little dusty, but I have a cleaning service coming next week to give the whole place a good scrubbing,” Chuck said. “And don’t feel the need to keep any of this furniture. If you don’t want it, just let me know and I’ll have someone come and pick it up. Just do me a favor and don’t throw it away. I could sell it for good money.”
“This is incredible,” Claire said.
And it was. But Owen underestimated the age of the house. He’d been so excited to accept the job offer earlier in the week that he would have taken a shack if it meant he got a paycheck again. “When was this place built?”
“Early eighteen hundreds,” Chuck answered. “But the house’s innards are good. All the wiring and plumbing was redone a few years back, but if you find anything that doesn’t work, I will replace it free of charge.”
Owen glanced at some of the cracks high on the walls near the ceiling. The wooden floors underneath his feet groaned as he shifted his weight. A musty scent familiar with older homes graced his nostrils, and he’d started to sweat. He’d read that Louisiana summers were a different kind of hot than the ones he was used to in Baltimore. It was a humid heat. The sweat ring forming around his shirt was a taste of what was to come.
“We appreciate that, Mr. Toussaint,” Claire said, giving Owen a shove with her elbow. “Don’t we.”
“Yes,” Owen said, quickly. “We really do.”
“Do you guys need any help moving in?” Chuck asked.
“No,” Owen answered. “You’ve done enough. We can take it from here.”
“All right then,” Chuck said. “I’ll let y’all get to it. Owen, why don’t you walk me out. I just want a quick word.”
The pair stepped outside where the temperature felt like it had risen ten degrees. Owen pulled at his shirt collar, trying to fan himself.
Chuck laughed. “I’d like to say you’ll get used to the heat, but I know how you northerners have thick blood.”
“It’s something we pride ourselves on,” Owen said, smiling politely.
Chuck scanned the property and pointed toward the right side of the house where a cluster of trees began after a clearing of tall grass ended. “Now, the property itself is quite large. Over seven acres, and the house is bullseye center of it. I do have to warn you that there is a small cemetery on the property, so if the kiddies go exploring, I do ask that they be respectful.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that,” Owen said, sounding surprised. “In fact, there wasn’t a whole lot mentioned about the house. You’re sure everything inside is in working order?”
Chuck laughed. “I usually choose to omit certain details when selling something, but like I said, if anything doesn’t look up to code, you just let me know and I’ll take care of it.” He stuck out his hand, smiling. “I’m excited to have you on board, Owen. You’re just the man I’ve been looking for.”
“I appreciate the opportunity,” Owen said, and then watched Chuck get in his truck and drive off. As he did, Roger poked his head from the back of the U-Haul, hands in his pockets, and walked toward Owen. “Hey, how are you feeling?”
Roger stopped when he reached Owen, and he looked at the house, squinting from the sunlight. His hair was almost all gone and liver spots dotted his scalp. His skin was wrinkled and his jowls hung loose on his face.
“Seventy-three years I lived in Baltimore,” Roger said, his eyes still locked on the new house. “It was where I grew up, married, raised a family, and then watched my only daughter do the same. It was my home.” He gently messaged his hands, some of the fingers curved from arthritis. “I know the Alzheimer’s will take all those memories from me. The worst part right now is still having the sound mind to realize that. But I want you to promise me something.” He looked at Owen, his eyes red and misty, his voice quivering. “You don’t let the last memories that my grandchildren have of me be an old man that didn’t know them. Understand?”
Owen nodded. “I do.”
Roger kneaded Owen’s shoulder with his fingers. “I don’t say it enough, but you’ve been a good husband and father.” His lip quivered again, and his voice cracked. “And a good son.”
Quickly, Roger clapped Owen on the back and then walked toward the house, his head down as he wiped his eyes with his shirt sleeves. Owen couldn’t imagine the pain and struggle for Roger that was just around the corner. But he promised himself that he would honor the old man’s request. No matter what.
After bedrooms were ceremoniously picked by Matt and Chloe, everyone pitched in and carried their belongings off the U-Haul. Claire and Owen handled the larger items – couches, beds, chairs, tables – while the kids brought in what boxes they could, with Roger supervising.
Once everything was unpacked and everyone was sweaty and exhausted, Owen ordered a pizza from the closest Domino’s, which was thirty minutes away. After some haggling with the kid who took his order, he managed to convince them to deliver to their house for a premium fee.
And so with paper plates, napkins, two extra-large supreme pizzas with extra bacon, and a two-liter bottle of root beer to wash it all down, his family sat at the large dining room table underneath enormous skylights and ate. And for the first time in six months, Owen sighed with relief. His family was laughing, smiling, and not worried about what tomorrow would bring. The new job wasn’t just a paycheck, it was safety.
If you ever wanted to know what fear and desperation looked like, Owen would tell you to go down to the local unemployment center and look in the eyes of the men and women waiting in line to speak with a clerk. Beyond the bouncing legs, fidgeting fingers, and long exhales riddled with anxiety, you’ll find the worst combination of fear, anger, and hate swirling around their souls. Anger for failing, fear for failing again, and a hate for everything that put them in their situation.
It had been less than a week since Owen’s interview and simultaneous hire over the phone at Gary’s desk, but he’d never forget those faces or that feeling of helplessness. He was thankful to be done with it.
Chloe belched, the deep burp rattling at an octave lower than any five-year-old girl should be able to do. She covered her mouth, shocked by her own body, and Matt and Roger burst out laughing.
“Chloe Grace Cooley,” Claire said, a smile in her tone. “Excuse you, young lady.”
“I think it was the root beer,” Chloe said, giggling.
Owen reached across the table and grabbed her cup. “I’m cutting you off.”
“Daaaaad,” Chloe said, whining.
“No, Dad’s right,” Claire said. “Time to get ready for bed. Wash that pizza off your face, and your father and I will be up in a little bit to tuck you in.”
Chloe and Matt slid from their chairs and sprinted from the dining room and toward the staircase which led to the second-floor balcony and their rooms, their feet thumping against the old steps as their pizza- and soda-fueled legs carried them up the stairs.
Claire went to reach for their plates, but Roger got up quickly. “I’ll take care of that.”
“Dad, you don’t have to,” Claire said.
Roger waved her off with an ‘eh.’ “And I’ll get the kids to bed. Why don’t you two turn in?”
“You sure?” Claire asked.
“Positive,” Roger answered, kissing the top of her head as he passed.
They retired to the bedroom and Claire flopped on the bed, the sheets piled messily on top of the bare mattress. “If there is a harder test of patience than driving eleven hundred miles with two kids and a geriatric over the course of two days, I don’t want to take it.”
Owen lay down next to her and kissed her cheek. “Thank you.”
“For what?” Claire asked.
“Your dad and the kids aren’t the only ones who left their home.”
“I’ll miss it, but everything I need is still right here.” She rolled closer to him, her lips less than an inch from his. “So what do you want to do now that we don’t have any bedtime responsibilities?”
Owen smiled, kissed her, and turned off the lights.
It’d been almost two months since they’d made love, the longest drought in their marriage. They hadn’t even gone that long after Matt and Chloe were born. But with the financial pressures and the stress and exhaustion that came with it, neither of them found themselves in the mood.
The ceiling fan twirled, shaking lightly in a rhythmic cadence. Owen lay naked and exposed, tiny beads of sweat over his body, while Claire had pulled one sheet up and over herself. She lay curled up in a ball. They’d spooned for a little bit after, but it became too hot to be sustainable. Owen wasn’t sure he’d be able to fall asleep in the heat, but with six months of sleepless nights behind him, fatigue won out over sweating.
And as the Cooley family slept, light creaks echoed in the house. Any rational person would have said it was just the old bones sagging from the weight of standing up for the past two hundred years.
But there was something else in the house. Something ancient. It was dark. It was evil. And it was hungry.
Owen jolted upright in bed, his tired eyes flitting around the room while his heart hammered against his chest. Claire woke in the same fright and Owen stumbled from bed, reaching for his shorts as he sprinted from the room. The screams came from upstairs. It was Matt.
Owen’s feet slipped on the steps up to the second floor, and he tripped over his own feet twice, giving Claire time to catch up. He ducked into Chloe’s room first on the way and saw his daughter sitting upright in bed with the covers pulled up to her chin, her sleepy eyes wide in the dark. “Are you all right?” He didn’t wait for an answer as his feet thumped heavily against the floorboards toward Matt’s room.
Without breaking stride, Owen shouldered open Matt’s door and saw his son flailing on the bed, arms and legs bouncing off the mattress, his throat raw from screaming.
“Matt!” Owen rushed to his son’s bedside and took hold of his shoulders, trying to keep him still. The boy’s eyes were shut, and when Owen wrapped his hand around Matt’s arms, he felt something slick against his fingers. He examined his palm, but it was too dark to see.
The bedroom light flicked on and Owen spun around to see Claire standing in the doorway in her robe, Chloe in her arms and their daughter’s face buried in her shoulder. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know.” Owen turned back to Matt, who’d calmed down and opened his eyes, the flailing done as he sucked in deep breaths. Owen pressed his hand onto Matt’s forehead, and his son’s skin was ice cold. He brushed the sweaty bangs off and as he did, he smeared blood onto his son’s skin. Owen looked down to Matt’s arm and saw the bite marks. “What the hell?”
Matt continued his hyperventilating breaths as Owen gently took hold of his son’s arm. Three sets of bite marks, two on his forearm and one on his bicep.
“What is that?” Claire asked, now hovering closer. “Is he bleeding?”
Owen turned around. “Put Chloe back to bed.” He didn’t want his daughter to see this. He turned back to his son. “Matt, what happened?”
“Someone—” Matt drew in a breath. “Was in here—” He exhaled. “I felt it.”
Owen’s stomach twisted into knots. He stood, looking around the room. He ripped open the closet to find it empty. He looked under the bed, nothing. He tugged at the window, locked. He turned back to his son, who was now examining his own wounds, his eyes as round as the full moon outside. Owen lifted his son’s chin and felt that his skin had thawed a little. “You’re sure someone was in here?”
Matt nodded, then started to cry, and Owen kissed the top of his head and gently squeezed his neck. “It’s all right. It’s okay, son.” He glanced back down at the bite marks, and as the adrenaline of the moment subsided, his mind slowly shifted gears. The commotion had woken everyone in the house. But not everyone was accounted for.
Owen left the bedroom, heading back down the balcony toward the stairs. “Roger!” His wife looked at him from Chloe’s bedroom on his way past, but he didn’t stop. “Roger!” Once he reached the bottom of the staircase, he walked back toward the den that they’d set up as Roger’s room in the right back corner of the house. When he opened the door, he found it empty.
Claire stepped out of Chloe’s room on the second floor and walked to the banister as Owen passed through the dining room to the front of the house. “Where are you going?”
“Stay with the kids.” The answer came out steelier than intended, but there was a rage boiling in him. The doctors had told them that the disease could cause Roger to become violent, to have what they referred to as “episodes,” but they didn’t mention anything like this.
Owen flung open the front door and was blasted with the thick, humid night air. He swatted away the tiny gnats buzzing around his head, tickling his cheek and neck. The U-Haul truck and van were still parked outside, and he scanned the driveway, looking for any shadowed figures in the night. “Roger!”
His voice echoed over the property, and Owen stepped out onto the gravel drive, tiny rocks poking his bare feet as he made his way to the side of the house, his head on a swivel.
He looked past the tall reeds of the clearing and saw those thick cypress trees and the hanging strands of Spanish moss on the field’s edge. It was there that he saw his father-in-law. “Roger!”
Owen jogged toward the old man, then broke into a sprint, his shins brushing against the long, thin strands of grass and reeds. His bare feet squished in the mud and the farther he ran from the house, the wetter the ground became. Water splashed up onto his shorts and bare stomach, and it slowed his pace. When he reached the old man he yanked Roger’s arm backward, harder than he intended.
“What the hell are you doing?” Owen asked.
Roger looked at Owen then down to his arm and tried to pull himself free. “Let me go.” He used his free arm to try and pry Owen’s grip off him, and he tugged more violently. “Stop! Let me go!”
“Roger, calm down.” Owen eventually muscled the old man still and looked into the pair of eyes that no longer recognized him. “What are you doing out here?”
Owen felt Roger’s muscles relax, and the panic subsided as he blinked. “I-I saw something.” He frowned, looking away. “I think.” He shut his eyes, and Owen released him. The old man held his head between his hands. “I can’t—” He grunted in frustration. “I can’t remember.”
“Were you in Matt’s room?” Owen asked, but his father-in-law kept his hands pressed against the sides of his head, mumbling to himself. “Roger!”
The old man looked up at Owen, squinting. “Who?”
Owen took hold of Roger’s hand, gentler than the forceful stop from earlier, and pulled him back toward the house. “C’mon. Let’s get you inside.”
Roger hesitated a moment, unsure if he should follow, and then turned back to look in the direction he had been walking. “I saw… something.”
Owen gave a more forceful tug, and Roger mumbled to himself on the way back. A memory surfaced in the sea of muddled confusion that was his mind. It was about his late wife, Rebecca, and how they were supposed to go and pick someone up from the airport. He didn’t want to be late, and he kept telling Rebecca that she looked fine.
Owen escorted Roger back to his room and into bed. The old man lay down, but he didn’t sleep, just kept talking to himself. Just before Owen left, Roger called out. “Matt. Is he okay?” His voice was weak and frightened.
Unsure of which Roger he was speaking to, the old man’s words from earlier that day whispered in Owen’s ear. Don’t let them see me when it starts to get bad.
“Good night, Roger.” Owen returned to the dining room, then trudged back up the stairs to the second floor.
Claire was in Chloe’s doorway, frowning. “Is he okay?”
Owen kept silent until his hands were around her waist, the feel of her soft robe underneath his fingertips calming. He wanted to tell her, but didn’t. “How’s Chloe?”
Claire pulled away from him and crossed her arms. It wasn’t the answer she was looking for. “She’s fine. Already fast asleep again.”
“Good.” Owen walked back toward Matt’s room and Claire followed closely behind.
“Owen, what did my dad say?”
“We need to get Matt’s arms looked at,” Owen said, entering his son’s room, who was still wide awake and picking at the wounds on his skin. “Don’t touch that.” Owen shooed his son’s fingers from the bite marks and looked at his wife. “Did you unpack the emergency kit?”
Claire lingered, waiting for the question about her father to be answered, but when Owen didn’t budge, she dropped her arms at her sides. “Yeah, I’ll bring it up.” She left and Owen took a closer look at the bite marks.
They weren’t deep, just enough pressure to break the skin. The bleeding had stopped, but when Owen pressed close to the wounds, Matt winced. “It hurts?”
“Yeah,” Matt answered, his eyes locked on the marks. “It feels achy.”
Owen wanted to ask his son more about what he saw, but wasn’t sure if he would get the truth. Matt knew his grandpa was sick, so he might try and protect him.
“You don’t know who was in your room?” Owen asked.
“Matt.” He waited for his son to look him in the eyes and then took hold of his boy’s hand. “It’s important you tell me everything that happened.” Matt gulped, and Owen paused a moment before he spoke again. “Do you know who was in your room?”
“I was sleeping, and then my arm started hurting, then I felt cold. Really cold. Like that time I fell through the lake when I was skating.”
Owen remembered. He was just as scared then as he was right now. “Anything else?”
“No.” Matt’s face scrunched in preparation for tears. “I’m sorry, Dad.”
Owen wrapped his son in a hug, holding on tight. “There’s nothing to be sorry about.” Matt cried into his chest, and Claire returned with the medical box. They cleaned Matt’s wounds, wrapped them, and then tucked him back into bed.
Both stayed in his room until he fell back asleep, and on his way out, Owen took one last look at his boy before closing the door.
In the hallway, Claire crossed her arms in defiance and kept her voice at a whisper. “Well? What did my dad say?”
“He didn’t remember,” Owen answered.
Claire paused, biting her lower lip and rubbing the sleeves of her robe as she hugged herself. “Do you think he did it?”
Owen drew in a breath, trying to find a way to tell her, but his omission of an answer told her more than she wanted to know.
Claire’s eyes watered, and she shook her head. “I just didn’t think he’d ever do something like that. I know the doctors said he might become aggressive, but this?” She arched her eyebrows in an expression of pained disbelief.
“Look, until we can figure something out, I don’t want him alone with the kids. I’ll start looking at places to take care of him tomorrow. Chuck might know of something.”
Claire hugged herself tighter, now unable to control the sobbing. “I just thought we’d have more time.”
Owen wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. “I know.” But if the past months had taught him anything, it was that time cared nothing of feelings or circumstances. Time didn’t discriminate or have prejudice, it simply marched forward, ignoring the pleas of anyone asking for it to slow down or speed up. It was a constant, steady force that never wavered. And for Roger Templeton, time was slowly devouring his mind.
Machinery buzzed around the factory floor as conveyer belts carried the auto parts down the assembly line. Employees operated the large mechanical arms that stamped the brake pads, and then packaged and stacked them into crates to be shipped.
Watching the process, Owen half-listened to the HR rep. It was all just standard paperwork, going over worker’s rights and all that. He’d been through it before. It was interesting to find that the factory wasn’t unionized. He’d never seen that before. But with the pay, benefits, and working conditions so good, he guessed that there wasn’t need for one here.
“Mr. Cooley?” Jonathan leaned forward, his hands clasped tightly together over the stack of papers that required Owen’s signature. “Did you hear me?”
“No,” Owen answered. “Sorry. Long night.” He’d chosen to wait to tell his new employer about his father-in-law’s condition until after he’d signed on the dotted line.
“By signing this, you acknowledge that the company isn’t liable for any injuries that you or your family sustain while staying on company property.” Jonathan pushed the form forward, the pen resting on top.
“Right,” Owen said, picking up the pen and placing his signature on the form. He dated it, then handed it back to the HR rep, who then checked his watch and shuffled the papers together.
“Well, it’s almost lunchtime,” he said. “Let’s head downstairs and I’ll show you where your locker will be.”
Owen followed the rep through the factory floor, catching a slew of different greetings. Most of them were smiles and friendly, twangy hellos, but there were a few glares, some more menacing than others.
Once Owen had his locker squared away, the lunch whistle sounded, and Owen realized just how much he missed that sound. The room quickly flooded with workers, clustering together in small groups, heading either for their lockers or the breakroom.
“Did you bring anything to eat today, or do you need to step out for lunch?” Jonathan asked.
“I didn’t bring anything,” Owen answered.
“We’ll take care of ’em.”
Owen turned to the sight of three sweaty figures dressed in matching blue uniforms. The man who spoke stuck out his hand and flashed a corn-yellow smile.
“Marty Wiggins,” he said, squeezing Owen’s hand unusually hard. “You must be the new line supervisor. I was wondering who they picked to leap over me.”
“No need for prickly words, Marty,” Jonathan said. “Be nice.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Marty waved it off and once Jonathan was gone, Marty leaned close to Owen, whispering. “I’d be careful with that one. Likes taking it up the exit only hole, if you catch my drift.”
“Ah,” Owen said, nodding, uncomfortable from both Marty’s comments and his smell. “Gotcha.”
Marty turned back to the two men still standing behind him. “Let me introduce you to the crew! This here is Jake Martin and Grandpa.”
“That’s not my goddamn name,” Grandpa said, the wrinkles on his face further accentuated by his grimace.
Marty slapped the old timer on the shoulder. “If you didn’t want the title, you shouldn’t have let me marry your daughter.”
Grandpa shrugged Marty’s hand off him. “I never said you could. You just did it.” He crossed his thin arms over his girthy stomach and turned his pair of glassy eyes away. Owen wondered if the old man was going blind, and then wondered if that was better or worse than losing your mind.
Jake Martin stuck his hand out, breaking the awkward silence and giving a friendly smile. His handshake was firm and lacked Marty’s over-compensating strength. “Good to meet you.” Out of the three of them, Jake was the most put together. Clean shaven, combed hair, and while his uniform was dirty, it wasn’t tattered and ragged like Grandpa’s and Marty’s.
“We’re heading down to Crawl Daddy’s bar for food and a pitcher if you want to come,” Marty said. “Or are we not allowed to drink on the job anymore, boss?”
“I don’t think you were allowed to do it before I got here,” Owen answered, Marty slowly fraying his nerves. Still, he didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot. Managing people who wanted to slice you open was a lot harder than those who didn’t. “But I’ll tell you what, after work, the first round is on me.”
Marty gave a compromising shrug. “Take what you get, I s’pose.”
Everyone rode in Jake’s truck, Owen taking a back seat with Grandpa, who kept his arms crossed and his cocked toward the window on the ride to Main Street. The trip took less than five minutes, but with Marty yapping away in the front seat, it felt much longer.
“So where ya from, Owen?”
“We got a goddamn Yankee working us now,” Marty said, slapping his hat on his knee. “Now I know how General Lee felt after Grant won the war.”
“What’d ya do in Baltimore, Owen?” Jake asked.
“I worked at a shipyard,” Owen answered. “Welding mostly. But I’m a machinist by trade. I started out in assembly at a GM factory when I was younger.”
“A Jack of all trades, huh?” Marty asked. “Maybe I should have learned more so I coulda got yer job.”
“Knock it off, Marty, will ya?” Jake asked.
“Ah, hell, I’m just poking fun.” Marty turned around in his seat, sweat mixed in with the jet-black stubble along his face. “You can take some poking, can’t you?”
“Sure,” Owen answered. “Just not in the exit only hole.”
Marty bust out laughing and slapped his hat down on his knee a few times, and Jake smiled. Even Grandpa chuckled, though he didn’t break from his staring contest with the view outside.
Marty was more amiable at lunch, now that he was certain Owen didn’t ‘take it in the exit only hole,’ though he still did most of the talking. Jake got in a word when he could, and Grandpa kept his focus on his basket of fried catfish and sweet tea.
And to Owen’s relief, the food was actually good. He wasn’t sure how he’d adjust to Creole cuisine. Thankfully he didn’t mind seafood. He foresaw a lot of that in his diet moving forward.
With full bellies and slightly more tired eyes, they paid the tab, but only after a good ribbing from Marty about how the new ‘boss’ should pick up the check. When they stepped back outside from the frigid A/C, the Louisiana heat clocked Owen in the face and he let out a low woof noise from the dense, humid air.
“You’ll get used to it,” Jake said, noticing the flushed look on Owen’s face. “I had a cousin grew up in Ohio, and he moved down here about ten years ago. Now, it gets below seventy degrees and he starts complaining it’s too cold.”
“Hopefully it won’t take me ten years to get to that point,” Owen said.
“Hey, we got some time before we get back,” Jake said. “Wanna show Owen a little bit of Main Street?”
“Ain’t nothing to see,” Grandpa said. “Just some shitty bricks and cracked concrete.”
“Now, Grandpa,” Marty said. “Don’t go belittling our beloved downtown like that.” Marty leaned over to Owen. “It’s the finest shitty bricks and concrete this side of the Mississippi.”
To be fair, Grandpa’s description wasn’t that far off. A handful of businesses lined the road: barber, grocery shop, gas station, insurance company, realtor, hardware store, a doctor’s office. It was standard small-town America as far as Owen was concerned. Not much different from some of the neighborhoods in Baltimore. It was like its own self-sustaining entity.
“Not a lot of activity today,” Owen said, noting the lack of pedestrians on the sidewalk.
“Most of the town works at the factory,” Jake said.
“The big boss’s family has kept most everyone employed since the thirties,” Marty said.
“And the bastard won’t ever let you forget it,” Grandpa said, spitting on the ground, his arms crossed and that permanent scowl etched on his face.
“Ah, Grandpa’s just sore cuz he’s worked there longer than anybody and still has the same damn job,” Marty said. “Not the big boss’s fault that you never tried to climb that ladder.”
“Ain’t no fucking ladder,” Grandpa said, his mouth downturned in a petulant frown. “Just a bunch of pussies playing dress up in those suits. I ain’t no fucking doll.”
Owen watched the old man carefully. There was a sharp edge to his words. He aimed to cut, but what for, Owen didn’t know.
With his eyes on the old man, Owen missed the table to his left and his leg knocked the corner hard, spilling some of the table’s contents to the pavement. He reached out his arms in a knee-jerk reaction to catch whatever it was that was falling but failed.
“Oh, shit, someone’s gonna have some bad juju now!” Marty exclaimed, hysterical laughter shrieking from his mouth as he jumped up and down like a child.
Owen bent down to pick up the merchandise, unsure of what his hands were touching. They looked like jewelry but were made out of rope, bones, feathers, and rocks. He picked up tiny packets with different-colored dust in them, and small glass tubes with a variety of different-colored liquids inside corked at the top. Two of the glass tubes broke and stained dark patches of grey over the concrete that quickly evaporated in the heat.
Owen stood and put what he could salvage back on the table as a woman stepped out of the shop. He recognized her long dreads and baggy clothes from the day before. She stared at him now the same way she did when he drove past. Her face didn’t have the white paint like before, but the familiar shiver crawled up his back.
“Careful, Owen,” Marty said, taking an over-exaggerated step back. “Miss Voodoo will cast a spell on you!” His accent thickened in satire and he waved his arms and squatted down, making some primitive noises with his mouth, then laughed while Owen gaped at the old woman, getting a better sense of her age now that he was up close. She was older, her face weathered and wrinkled, but what captured his attention most were her eyes. They were a light hazel, and tiny specks of yellow flickered like gold in the sunlight. Owen wasn’t sure if he’d seen a pair of eyes that beautiful before in his entire life.
“It has seen you.” The voodoo woman’s words crawled from her mouth in a deep, slow drawl, hitting Owen like an unexpected wave at the beach. She clutched her staff, which Owen now saw had a large rock tied to the top of it with thin leather straps.
Owen gestured to the broken items. “I can pay for what broke, I—”
“Cana-linga-too-mara-hee-so.” She stepped forward and pounded her staff into the pavement. “Cana-linga-too-mara-hee-so. Cana-linga-too-mara-hee-so.” She repeated the words and motions in a rhythmic cadence as her eyes widened and locked on Owen.
Owen heard Marty’s laugher and felt a tug on his sleeve, but there was something hypnotizing about the way she spoke. He couldn’t peel his eyes away from her.
“C’mon, Owen,” Jake said, pulling Owen’s arm down the sidewalk. “Let’s go!”
Owen stumbled after them, his head turned back to the woman slowly following to the edge of her store and tables of trinkets, repeating the same words over and over until her voice disappeared from the distance.
“You all right?” Jake asked once they were at a safe distance.
“I’m fine,” Owen answered, shaking his head like he had a dizzy spell. “Who was that?”
“Our local crazy woman,” Marty answered. “You didn’t have one in Baltimore?”
Jake’s eyes widened and he shook his head. “Her name is Madame Crepaux. That’s her shop. It’s got all kinds of weird voodoo stuff in it. I wouldn’t go near that place, man. I’m not a religious man, but I don’t need to push my spiritual luck.”
“Yeah,” Owen said. “I can understand that.” He tossed one last glance to the woman’s shop and saw that she’d disappeared. They circled back to the truck at Crawl Daddy’s and drove back to the factory to finish out the day.
But the ride back felt different for a couple reasons. One, Owen was cold, like he just stepped out of a freezer even though he’d been sweating like a pig just minutes before. His skin was almost icy, like how Matt’s felt last night.
And the second was the old man. While Grandpa ignored Owen on the way to lunch, the old man didn’t take his eyes off Owen the whole ride back to the factory. And just before they all clocked back into work, Owen watched the old man snarl at Marty over something he’d said, this time wide enough to reveal a silver-capped tooth. The same silver-capped tooth that a young girl saw under the Louisiana moonlight twenty-five years ago.
Claire unpacked the rest of the dishes, loaded them in the washer, and turned it on. It’d been a while since she’d had that luxury. And it felt good. But despite the house, the financial stability, the knowledge that she’d be able to buy groceries next week and not have to stretch one meal into four, Claire couldn’t stop biting her nails.
It was a habit she picked up as a little girl. Her mother scolded her every time she caught her doing it, but the habit wouldn’t break. What Owen had said last night rang in her ears all morning. She’d barely slept a wink because of it, and she’d avoided her father all morning. She glanced out the front kitchen window and saw Matt playing catch with Chloe. When he moved his arms, the sunlight brightened the white of his bandages against his lightly tanned skin.
She just couldn’t believe that her father would do something like that, failing mind or not. But she had to remind herself what the doctors had said. Alzheimer’s could unveil some frightening tendencies, and if that should happen, they should start considering their options. The only problem was that all the options were shit.
“Gah.” Claire winced and looked down at her ring finger. She’d gnawed off a hangnail and was bleeding. She reached for the sink knob, and the pipes groaned. The faucet rattled, and instead of water a black sludge spewed from the pipe, which smelled of sewage.
Claire covered her nose and quickly shut off the sink, letting the black water funnel down the drain. She backed out of the kitchen, still sucking on her finger, making a mental note to tell Owen about the pipes. She hoped that water didn’t funnel through the dishwasher.
In the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room, Claire heard the faint murmur of her dad’s television in the den. She’d set it up just like the basement in Baltimore in hopes of giving him some familiarity. But she wasn’t sure if that mattered now.
She paced the dining room, working up the nerve to go and speak to him, and in one swift turn marched down the right rear hallway, the television growing louder.
Roger sat in his favorite chair, unaware of his daughter’s presence. Perhaps even unaware he had a daughter. She knocked on the door frame as she entered. “Dad, I need to talk to you.” When he didn’t respond, her heart cracked, and she took another step inside. “Roger?”
He looked up at her, squinting the way he did when he wasn’t himself. “Yes?”
She hesitated. If he wasn’t lucid, then maybe now wasn’t the best time. She raised her nails to her mouth but stopped herself and knelt at the side of her dad’s chair. She looked up at him like she did when she was a little girl. “Do you know who I am?” Her voice was small and quiet, fearful almost.
Roger smiled. “Of course, Claire-Bear.” He cupped her cheek, his large hand calloused but warm.
Claire leaned into it and then took hold of his hand in both of hers. “Do you remember last night?”
The smile faded. “A little.”
“Something happened to Matt, and—”
“Oh my god.” Roger leaned forward, his voice suddenly frightened. “Did I—”
“He’s fine, Dad.” She gave his hand a reassuring pat. “But there were some marks on his arm. Bite marks.” She felt him shudder. “Do you remember anything like that?”
Roger’s eyes searched the floor as if the answers were written there in front of him. He squeezed her hands. Even at seventy-three, and with Alzheimer’s, he was still strong. Still resilient. “No.” He looked at her. “Did I do it?”
“We’re not sure,” Claire answered.
Roger wiped his mouth, the wheels of his mind slowly turning, some of them completely broken now, and then he dropped his hand and moved close. “Was there blood in my teeth?”
Claire recoiled. “What? No. I-I mean, I don’t think so.” She thought about it last night. She didn’t really see her dad after it happened. But Owen never mentioned seeing anything like that, and she let herself feel hopeful.
“Well,” Roger said. “I would have had blood on me if I did, right?”
Claire reassuringly squeezed his hand back. “Yeah. I guess you would have.” She stood and kissed his forehead. When she pulled back, his face looked confused again.
“Do I know you?”
She smiled sadly, knowing that they’d have so many more interactions like this over the next few months. Just before she spoke to answer, Chloe screamed.
Claire spun on her heel and sprinted out of her father’s room, Chloe’s high-pitched wail guiding Claire toward the front door and then out into the gravel drive. “Chloe! Matt!” The afternoon sun was bright, and she stumbled blindly. “Chloe!”
Black spots from the sudden brightness clouded her vision, but she pivoted right toward the sound of her daughter’s voice. Shin-high grass brushed her knees as she weaved around trees and rocks. She blinked quickly, ridding herself of the blinding spots, and found Chloe next to a tree.
Bright red blotches sat high on Chloe’s cheeks that were wet from crying. As she rounded the tree, she saw Matt on the ground, unconscious, a snake slithering away from his body.
“Get back, Chloe!” Claire’s voice was angered, and frightened, and the tone only triggered another wail of sobs from her daughter. She knelt by her son’s body, his eyes closed. “Matt, can you hear me? Matt!” She gently shook him, then checked for a pulse. He was sweating profusely, but his skin was cold to the touch. She noticed the pair of punctured holes in his forearm next to one of the bandages. She checked his breathing and felt the light puff of air from his nose. She picked her son off the ground, struggling with his weight. “Chloe, get to the U-Haul, now!”
Her daughter did as she was told, and she stumbled toward the moving truck, running ahead of Claire, who kept Matt close to her chest, her legs sinking into the soft Louisiana mud, slowing her sprint toward the U-Haul.
With the muscles in her arms burning from Matt’s weight and mud speckled over her legs, she heaved Matt into the U-Haul’s passenger seat, and then helped Chloe inside after. “Put your seatbelt on and then put one on your brother.”
Claire skirted around the truck’s hood to the driver side door and climbed inside. The keys were still stuck in the ignition, Owen’s way of testing true Southern hospitality. She cranked the U-Haul to life, then floored the accelerator and swerved down the gravel road.
Matt shivered in his seat, and Claire removed one white-knuckled hand from the wheel and placed it on her son’s arm. His skin was ice-cold but he was moving, and that meant he was alive. Crying, Chloe laid her head down on Matt’s shoulder.
A few low hanging branches smacked the top of the U-Haul and a truck driving in the opposite direction honked at her speed, but she ignored them. The National Guard couldn’t slow her down.
Traffic thickened the closer they moved to town and the tires screeched as Claire maneuvered between the cars, their blaring horns growing angrier. Main Street appeared, and she leaned forward until her chest pressed against the steering wheel, her eyes scanning the row of buildings for Dr. Talbert’s office. She was scheduled to visit today at three for the bite marks on Matt’s arm.
Signs for the hardware store, grocery, and gas station flew by, but she jerked the wheel sharply to the left of the road when she spied the letters MD in her peripheral.
With the engine still running, but the U-Haul in park, Claire grabbed hold of Matt and pulled him across the seats. His limbs dragged behind him as he lay limp, and Claire cradled him in her arms. “Chloe, come on!” Her daughter followed, her short legs struggling to keep up with her mother, who shouldered open the doctor’s office door. “I need help!”
Heads snapped in her direction, looking away from their phones, magazines, computers, and waiting room television playing a rerun of Friends. An elderly woman behind the reception desk rose from her chair as Claire adjusted Matt’s weight in her arms.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Snake bite,” Claire answered, her voice cutting in and out. “I don’t know what kind it was.”
A man stepped out from behind the wall separating the waiting room and the examination rooms, and Claire noticed Dr. Talbert inscribed on his coat. “Let’s get him in the back.”
Claire followed the doctor to the closest available room and laid Matthew on the table.
Dr. Talbert opened Matt’s eyes and flashed a light in them, pressing his fingers against the side of Matt’s neck. “Rachel, bring in the cardiac monitor.” Dr. Talbert removed his stethoscope and checked the boy’s breathing as Rachel wheeled in a machine and lifted Matt’s shirt. She placed small suction cups over his chest and stomach. “Let’s get an IV hooked up as well.”
“What about anti-venom?” Claire asked. “Don’t you have something like that?”
“Without knowing what kind of snake bit him, we don’t know what anti-venom to use,” Dr. Talbert answered. “But the fluids will help keep his organs functional until it passes.”
“How long with that take?”
“I’m not sure.”
Matt convulsed on the table, and foam bubbled from the corners of his mouth. The nurse and doctor stabilized his head and placed a wooden bit in his mouth to keep him from biting his tongue off.
“Oh my god,” Claire said, covering her mouth.
Claire spun around and saw Chloe in the doorway, her eyes locked on Matt. She went to reach for her, but one of the nurses in the hallway pulled her away from the traumatic scene.
“Keep his arms steady!” Dr. Talbert said, but even with the nurse, they could barely keep all of Matt’s one hundred pounds on the table, the convulsions worsening.
Claire jumped in to help and watched the foam bubbling at the corners of Matt’s mouth turn red. His eyes popped open and he screamed, spewing blood in speckled bits like a volcano. He arched his back, his legs and arms pinned by the three of them, and he squirmed.
The green lines of the cardiac monitor spiked up and down in jagged peaks, beeping wildly. Matt’s body offered one final spasm and then he collapsed on his back, his body limp. The green line plummeted and the fast-paced beeps were replaced with a single monotone beep as Matt flat lined.
“No!” Claire howled like a wounded animal, helplessly clawing at her son’s legs as the doctor pumped Matt’s chest, his small body convulsing with each heavy-handed compression. The nurse pulled at Claire’s arms, but she resisted, taking hold of Matt’s left foot that tilted lifelessly to the side. Her knees buckled as the steady beep of the EKG filled the examination room.
A tightness took hold of Claire’s chest, and she clutched it as the nurse holding her by the arms tried to pull her up. Another wave of sobs scrunched her face and creased her lips into a painful, solid line that lay as flat as the cardiac monitor for her son’s heart.
Dr. Talbert stepped back from the table, his shoulders sagging with his arms limp at his sides. He turned to Claire and said something. But those words weren’t right. They couldn’t be. Matt was ten. He was healthy. He loved baseball and being a big brother. He was a good kid. He was her son. Her first born.
“God, no!” Claire’s face reddened and she grew more hysterical.
“Ma’am, please,” the nurse said, trying to pull Claire back. “It’s best if you don’t stay. Please.”
Claire smacked the hands that reached for her or Matt. “Don’t you touch him!” She hovered over his body protectively, holding his face, his skin still ice cold. She pulled him to her chest and slowly rocked him.
Tears dripped from Claire’s face, raining over her child like an afternoon shower. She shook her head, feral moans escaping her lips. She stroked his hair, pushing the bangs from his forehead, and then gently leaned down and kissed his cheek. When she removed her lips, she laid her head on his chest.
A faint beep echoed through the room. Claire lifted her head and looked back to the monitor, the green line still flat. She looked at the nurse and doctor, both of whom were staring at the screen as well. “Did you hear that?”
Claire turned back to Matt, fanning the flames of hope. “C’mon, Matty. Come back. Please, come back.” She shut her eyes, praying. She wasn’t sure who was listening, or what was listening, but as she whispered promises to a being she wasn’t even sure existed, another beep sounded. And then Matt opened his eyes.
When Chuck delivered the news to Owen about his son, he sprinted to his van and sped toward Main Street. The ambulance’s flashing lights revealed the doctor’s office, where he also spotted their U-Haul parked at a slanted angle, half on the street and half off, blocking three other cars from leaving. Owen parked in front of it, blocking another two cars himself.
Claire and a team of paramedics were in the examination room, hovering over Matt, when Owen entered. They checked Matt’s blood pressure and lungs, placing their stethoscope over a skin that looked a sickly pale grey.
Owen saw the red stains at the corners of his son’s mouth and didn’t even notice Claire groping his arm until she started speaking.
“Owen, he came back.” Tears lingered in her eyes as she sniffled. “He was gone, but he came back.”
Owen shook his head, trying to make sense of his wife’s hysteria. “Came back from what?”
“Your son flat lined, Mr. Cooley.” An elderly man in a white coat spoke up, and Owen saw the name Dr. Talbert inscribed on the upper right breast of the coat. “He was dead for almost a full minute.”
Owen slowly reached for his son’s hand. It was ice cold. “I-I don’t understand.” He turned back to Claire. “What happened?”
“It was a miracle,” Claire answered, hugging Owen with the same wondered surprise in her voice. “Our boy came back.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Cooley?” The paramedic on Matt’s right side removed the Velcro blood pressure strap from Matt’s arm. “We’d like to take your son over to Southern General and run a few tests to make sure he’s all right. It’s just a precaution.”
“Okay. Sure,” Owen said.
“We’ll give you guys a minute, and then we’ll load your son into the ambulance.”
“Thank you,” Claire said.
With the medics, nurses, and doctor gone, Owen gently placed his calloused palm against Matt’s cheek. “How are you feeling, bud?”
Matt’s eyes were half-closed, and his lips barely moved when he spoke. “I’m okay.” The words were cracked and dry like a desert earth. “Is Chloe all right? I saw the snake coming, but I didn’t know if she got away in time.”
Another wave of tears flooded Claire’s eyes, and Owen smiled proudly. “She’s okay. But you need to rest. Try to sleep, all right?”
Matt nodded, and Claire kept hold of his hand while Owen beckoned the medics to return. They loaded him onto the stretcher, Claire hovering over their boy protectively.
“I’m going to ride with him,” Claire said, then looked to the paramedics. “That’s okay, right?”
“Yeah, but we only have room for one more, so we can only take you.”
“It’s fine,” Owen said, touching Claire’s arm. “I’ll follow with Chloe in the van.”
Claire gasped. “Oh my god. I forgot about Dad. He’s still at home. I didn’t even tell him we left. I just got in the van and—”
“Claire,” Owen said. “It’s fine. I’ll go home and check on him. Do you have your phone?”
“Call me if anything changes,” Owen said, giving Claire a reassuring kiss. “I’ll see you guys in a little bit.” Owen retrieved Chloe from the nurses in front while Claire accompanied the paramedics into the ambulance that loaded Matt inside, then quickly sped away.
Chloe didn’t say much, just wrapped her arms around Owen’s neck and buried her face into his shoulder. Her little body was hot, and she quickly formed a Chloe-sized sweat stain on his shirt in the sixty seconds it took to walk her out to the van. He strapped her in the seat and gave her a kiss. “You all right, bug?”
She shook her head.
“I know it was scary, but everyone is safe now.” Owen gently stroked her fine light-brown hair. “The doctors are going to make your brother better, and then we’re all going home together.”
“But what about Grandpa?” Chloe asked, her voice small with her head tilted down.
Owen raised his left eyebrow but kept his tone kind. “What do you mean?”
“Matt said that he might have to go away,” Chloe said, her chin buried in her chest as she picked at the hem of her shirt with a large rainbow over the front. It was one of her favorites. “He said that Grandpa was sick.” She looked up at him, those curious eyes searching her father’s face for reassurance. “Can the doctors make him better?”
“They’re going to try.” Owen kissed her cheek and then climbed behind the wheel. He started the van and headed back to the house, hoping Roger hadn’t gotten himself into too much trouble while he’d been alone.
Roger’s shirt had soaked through with sweat. He turned in a half circle, his feet sinking in the mud as he stepped in the swampy reeds. As he turned, he saw a house. It wasn’t the house he’d lived in in Baltimore, and the thick trees with long strands of moss weren’t the branches he’d climbed in the city park as a boy. He shut his eyes and tried to remember.
Why did he come outside? Where was he? Why didn’t any of this look familiar? He opened his eyes and looked down at the pair of hands now foreign to him. The gold band he’d worn since his vows was nothing more than a constricting piece of jewelry that he could no longer remove because of his swollen arthritis. When had his hands gotten so old? He clenched those unrecognizable hands into fists and grunted in frustration, his head growing fuzzy.
He stumbled through the hallways of his mind, groping at the darkness, his fingers searching for a light switch that would show him the way, but found nothing. And that’s when he heard it.
A rattle. It echoed down those dark corridors and gave the illusion of an omnipresence. It clanged in a rhythmic dance. The noise was familiar, but he couldn’t remember where he’d heard it before.
Roger turned back to the house. He lived there. Yes, he remembered now. Louisiana. That’s where he was. He glanced down at his legs, which were covered in mud all the way up to his knees, a few hardened specks on his shorts. The rattle sounded again.
Had he followed that noise out here? No. It was coming from the house. He needed to go back inside. Claire would be home soon. At least he thought she would. Where had she gone? The store?
Slowly, Roger lifted one foot in front of the other, the commands from his brain slower than they should have been. His body felt broken, like his muscles were thick with hardening concrete. It hurt to move.
Roger smacked his feet against the steps up the front porch and knocked the mud off, then halfway through the motion, he stopped and stared down at his shoes in confusion. He grunted and then tracked mud into the house.
Inside, he shied away from looking at anything for too long. It worried him that he didn’t recognize where he was. It felt wrong. All of this felt wrong.
A whisper tickled the back of his mind. Roger stopped. He scratched the back of his head. The voice wasn’t his own. He leaned against the wall for support as he started to feel dizzy again. He was sick. Now he remembered. But what was he sick with? He didn’t feel like he had a cold.
Another rattle. It was louder than the one he heard outside, closer. It preceded another whisper, and then the rattling fell into a rhythm with the whispers. Someone was speaking, but he couldn’t understand what was being said. Was it because he was sick? Claire would speak to him sometimes, and he didn’t recognize her words. He didn’t recognize because… of the disease.
He was sick with something bad, but what was it? Cancer? Liver disease? Some vital organ failure? A clouded memory of his doctor visit floated by, and he tried to read the doctor’s lips, but nothing looked familiar. He chased after it for a while, trying to remember, trying to figure out why he couldn’t remember, and then—
Roger stopped in the hall, the sudden recall of his illness slamming into his chest like a pillowcase filled with bricks. A hopeless dread took hold, and he started to hyperventilate. He’d requested the tests and had gone by himself. It was like his mind and body took one step further away from each other every day. It wouldn’t be long until they couldn’t hold onto one another anymore. But such was life. The older you grew, the more you had to say goodbye to.
At first it was the strength of his youth. Then his tenacity. Then his career. Then his sweet Rachel. And now the last pillar of resolve that he clung to, his mind, was crumbling away.
Another rattle, more whispers.
Roger remembered that the doctor told him he would still have moments of lucidity. And when those moments presented themselves, the doctor recommended to focus on a single memory, a very important one. A focal point to rally behind. He closed his eyes and swiped at the cobwebs of his mind, frantically opening doors to find it, and just when he was about to give up, he saw it. Claire’s birth.
His first and only child. He pulled the memory over him like a warm blanket. Never in his life had he felt more purposeful than that moment. For the first time, he understood what the word ‘unconditionally’ meant.
Another rattle, and more whispers penetrated his thoughts. But these noises weren’t from his illness. He’d heard these noises before. Last night, he saw something. He chased something.
The old bones of the house creaked and groaned as Roger followed the noise down the left hallway from the living room, then past the dining room.
The rhythm of the rattle quickened and the whispers grew louder in Roger’s head. The chanting, the rattling, all of it seemed to work in coordination with his heart that pounded faster and faster. He wasn’t sure which was leading which, but when he arrived at the last door on the rear left of the house, the noises stopped.
Roger wiped the sweat trickling toward his eyes. He reached for the old brass door knob, and despite the heat, the metal was cold. He opened it, and the hinges creaked loudly until the door came to a rest. Roger lingered in the doorway, glancing around the room and saw—
Nothing. No furniture, no decorations on the walls, no closet. Only a dirty window that clouded the afternoon sunlight.
Roger tracked more mud into the room as he stepped inside, his footprints following him to the center of the room. He squinted into the corners and glanced up at the ceiling. Those noises were coming from inside here. He was sure of it. At least he thought he was.
Roger looked down at his feet, and his mind grew heavy and clouded. He struggled to keep hold of the clarity that brought him here, but it was like fighting a riptide pulling him out to sea. The current was too strong. He turned around to leave but the door slammed shut.
Water flooded through the crack at the door’s bottom, and Roger splashed his feet in the stream, tugging at the brass knob, the door sealed shut. The water darkened to black and quickly rose to his ankles, then his shins. He twisted and yanked at the knob, but no matter how hard he pulled, the door wouldn’t budge.
Roger turned toward the window, the water up to his waist now and emitting a stagnant stench, like sewer water. He waded toward the window, his movements slow, hoping he could open it to escape. But just before he reached it, the door burst open and a wave of black water crashed against his back, dunking him into the black. He clawed toward the surface and gulped air as he broke through, his hands scraping the ceiling.
Roger turned back toward the door, which disappeared as the water level rose. He paddled toward it, every breath through his mouth, his head tilted upward avoiding the taste of death that surrounded him.
Something brushed against Roger’s leg under the water and he jerked his foot away in a panicked escape. When he got close to the door, he took one last breath and plunged into the black abyss. Even with his eyes open, he couldn’t see underwater. He patted the wall with his hands, feeling for the door, and discovered that it had shut again. His fingers grazed the brass knob and he gave it a tug, but it remained locked.
The water neutralized any power as he kicked and punched the door, unsure of how it even closed. His lungs ached for breath and he swam back to the surface and gasped for air. He coughed up some of the black water, his head dipping below the waterline twice as he struggled to stay afloat.
A cramp bit his left leg, and his arthritic fingers clawed at the walls to keep himself from drowning. And then, with his head tilted up toward the ceiling, thinking he was taking his last breaths, the water leveled off.
Less than three inches of space separated the water’s surface from the room’s ceiling. And as Roger bobbed up and down, clinging to life, he noticed that the water’s surface never rippled, not even from his own movements. His breaths echoed like he was in a cave and then suddenly stopped.
All sound was sucked from the room. Roger’s left arm numbed, and a fleeting fear of a heart attack struck his mind. But the numbness spread to the rest of his limbs, the water growing cold. He took breaths, feeling the motion of air filling his lungs, but still couldn’t hear them. However, the smell remained, and it grew more pungent.
Water bubbled on the other side of the room, but the surface didn’t ripple. The small, rounded mounds of black burst then blended back seamlessly with the water’s surface. And then, just as inexplicably as the water appeared, it began to recede.
Roger bobbed up and down more freely, and his muscles shook with relief when his toes felt the floor. He collapsed against the wall for support, catching his breath, and the water leveled off to the height of his chest. He looked over to the door, which was still closed, and then reached for the knob. Still locked.
“Help!” Roger weakly pounded on the door. “Please! Someone! Help!” No answer, and when Roger turned toward the window, something penetrated the surface on the other side of the room. It was a skull.
Black water rolled from the empty eye sockets, giving the illusion that the skull was crying as it rose from the dark water. Roger tilted his head to the side and saw the skull was attached to a staff.
The skull was thrust forward in a quick jerk, then pulled back, and it triggered the rattling noise. The sound he heard was bones, smacking together in a violent orchestra. He remained glued to the wall behind him, and he shivered uncontrollably, still unable to hear his own panicked breaths, the only noise in the room that rattling skull.
More water bubbled to Roger’s left and he squinted into the black water, seeing something white rising from the depths. It grew larger as it neared the surface and when it broke the black water’s plane, Roger jerked away.
Human bones floated like buoys, bobbing up and down until they came to a motionless rest like the water itself. More water bubbled, and as Roger retreated to the corner of the room in horror, more bones floated to the surface. Ribs, femurs, shoulders, skulls, they all thickened the water like vegetables in a stew.
Roger smacked the bones away whenever they floated close, and then the water bubbled again near the staff and something else emerged from the darkness. Black, matted hair appeared first, blending into the water from which it came. The flesh attached to the hair was scaly, like a snake’s skin, and shimmered the color of grey ash. A formidable brow hovered over eyes as big as lemons, but black as a starless night sky. The creature stopped once its eyes rose above the water’s surface, and it stared at Roger, unblinking.
The creature gave the staff a shake, and Roger felt his own bones rattle. He clawed back toward the door, pulling the brass knob harder and harder, bending the very wood of the door, but nothing budged. Bones rattled again, and Roger looked behind him. The creature glided through the water, slowly, continuing its rhythmic dance of the staff and skull. Thunka-dunka-dunka. Thunka-dunka-dunka.
Roger felt the vibrations in his throat as he screamed but heard only the rattle from the creature’s staff. He spun around, his back glued to the wall as the creature drew closer.
The rattling quickened. Thunkadunkadunka, thunkadunkadunka, thunkadunkadunka. The creature never blinked, didn’t twitch, just shook its staff and when it was less than an arm’s reach away, it pushed its head farther out of the water, exposing a mouth full of dagger like teeth, jutting out in awkward and painful directions. And that’s when Roger finally heard his own scream.
By the time Owen shifted into park and turned off the engine outside the house, Chloe was fast asleep. Her head was tilted to the side, her mouth was open, and a little pile of drool had formed on her shoulder. “Like mother, like daughter.”
Owen lifted her out of the seat and placed her tiny furnace of a body over his shoulder as she remained asleep. He shut the van door and turned to the house. He stopped at the sight of the muddy tracks that led up to the front porch steps and open front door.
Owen shifted Chloe in his arms and scanned the property as he walked toward the door. He didn’t see Roger in the trees or the field.
“Roger?” Owen’s voice echoed in the massive living room, but only the old floors groaned in response to his footsteps. He followed the mud tracks through the living room and into the dining room, and that’s when he started to hear it.
A low mumble, like chanting. There was a rhythm to it, and it echoed through the walls down the hallway. Owen followed it past his own bedroom on the first floor and back toward the closed door of the spare bedroom where the tracks ended.
Owen glanced at Chloe still asleep on his shoulder and knocked, unsure what Roger was doing on the other side. “Roger? You all right?”
More mumbles answered, and Owen jiggled the door knob. Locked. He returned to the dining room and pulled out one of the chairs. “I’m gonna set you down, okay sweetheart?” Owen gently placed her in the chair, and she grumbled something as she folded her hands on the table and laid her head down.
Owen returned to the room and pressed his ear against the door and heard more mumbling. He pounded on the old wood with his palm. “Roger, you need to open up right now!” Nothing.
Owen rammed his shoulder into the door, and the old wood buckled but didn’t break. He backed up, giving himself a running start, then rushed the door again. Wood splintered off from the frame and the door flung open. Owen stumbled three steps before stopping and saw Roger on his back, his eyes staring at the ceiling, soaking wet.
Owen knelt by the old man’s side and gently took his hand. “Roger, can you hear me?” He cupped his father-in-law’s cheek, but the old timer didn’t react, only repeating his rhythmic nonsense. And his skin was ice to the touch.
Owen leaned closer to Roger’s mouth, trying to understand what was being said, but it might as well have been a foreign language.
Chulung-Oola-Awaola-May. Chulung-Oola-Awaola-May. Chulung-Oola-Awaola-May.
“Daddy?” Chloe poked her head around the door frame, rubbing her eyes sleepily.
Owen left Roger to his nonsense and scooped Chloe off the floor and jogged down the hallway with her in his arms, then dropped her on the couch in the living room. “Sweetheart, I need you to stay right here and don’t move, okay?”
Chloe’s eyes widened, and she nodded as Owen ran out to the van and grabbed his phone. He dialed 911 and returned to the room where Roger was still on his back, mumbling the same words over and over.
The operator picked up. “911, what’s your emergency?”
“Hi, I need an ambulance for my father-in-law. He’s an Alzheimer’s patient, and I think he might have hurt himself.”
Owen nodded along and answered the operator’s questions as the woman assured Owen that help would get there soon. He pressed two fingers into the side of the old man’s neck and checked his pulse. It was racing. Owen pinched Roger’s wet sleeve and then touched the floors of the room and noticed that they were wet too. The whole damn room was wet.
Matt faded in and out of consciousness on the ride over to the hospital, but Claire never let go of his hand. The paramedics didn’t say much, only answering her repeated concerns of whether her son was okay, to which they always replied ‘yes.’
The ambulance slowed to a stop outside the ER entrance of Southern General, which had been a thirty-minute drive. It was twice as long as a trip would have taken from their house in Baltimore to the nearest hospital. She didn’t know why that popped into her head, but it did.
Claire thanked the medics for their help, repeatedly, and she and Matt were transferred into the care of a team of nurses and a doctor who looked one step from retiring and two from the grave.
“We’ll draw some blood and keep him here for a few hours for observation,” Doctor Medley said, his upper back permanently curved forward from a hump formed by either old age or fatigue. “Then we’ll release him to go home. Food here isn’t great, so if you need to step out and grab yourself or your son something to eat, you won’t find anyone objecting. Security will give you an eyeful, along with Nurse Hatcher, but I assure you both are harmless as long as you’re not trying to steal anything.” He scribbled something down on his clipboard. “I’ll be on call, so if you have any questions, just ask one of my nurses and they’ll page me.”
“I did have one question,” Claire said. “Since the bite, he’s been very cold, almost clammy to the touch. Is that normal?”
Doctor Medley didn’t look up from his clipboard as he waved his hand, dismissing the notion. “He’s still in shock. I imagine you don’t run into many venomous snakes in Baltimore.” He looked up, smiling, but Claire didn’t return the gesture. “He’ll be fine, Mrs. Cooley. He just needs rest. Keeping him here is just a precautionary measure. Nothing more.” He patted her arm with his old, liver-spotted hand the way the elderly did to those younger than them when they felt it necessary to evoke their superiority, and then left to check on his other patients.
Claire pulled up a chair and resumed her position at Matt’s bedside, holding his hand and gently running her fingers through his hair. She engulfed his small hand in his, trying to warm him, but despite her touch, his fingers remained icy.
Claire smiled. “Hey, baby. How are you feeling?”
Matt offered a fatigued groan, his lips barely moving. “I’m thirsty.”
“Okay,” Claire answered, kissing his forehead. “I’ll get you some water. Do you need anything else? More blankets?” His forehead was colder than his hand.
“No,” Matt answered. “Just water.”
“I’ll be right back.” Claire stopped at the doorway and turned back to her son. She lingered, watching him sleep. She’d never been so happy to see him sleep.
A nurse passed and Claire reached for the woman’s elbow, who looked up from her phone at Claire’s touch.
“Is there a water fountain here somewhere?” Claire asked.
“Down the hall and to the left around the corner. There’ll be cups in a dispenser right next to it.”
“Thanks.” Claire looked back to Matt, his eyes still closed, then weaved down the hall around the traffic of nurses and doctors. She pulled a cup from the dispenser and tilted it to the side, tapping her foot as it filled. When it reached the top, she quickly turned back down to the hallway, careful not to spill the water on her hurried return.
“Here you go, baby,” Claire said, lifting the cup to his lips and helping him sit up to drink. He sipped at first, then gulped the water vigorously. He drank until it was gone, and then coughed a little as Claire gently laid his head back down onto the pillow. “Do you want some more?”
“No,” Matt said weakly. “Thanks, Mom.”
“You’re welcome.” Claire crumpled the paper cup and tossed it in the waste bucket, then returned to her sentry chair, watching over her son, her hand over his while he slept.
In the quiet of their room, Claire retraced everything that had happened since they arrived in town. She did her best not to obsess, but after what she’d just seen, it was hard not to. The rational side of her brain reassured her that this was simply a combination of unfortunate events. But the other side, the maternal side, whispered different thoughts.
Claire had never been a religious woman. Neither was her family. The only time she’d set foot in a church was when Owen and her were married, and that was only because that’s what both of them thought that’s what the occasion called for.
But everything that happened so far felt like… signs. Bad omens warning her to leave. And the more she thought about it, the more she worried.
Claire rubbed her forehead in exasperated fatigue. She took a breath and convinced herself that she was simply overwhelmed and lacked sleep, which was true. The move, the new house, new environment, all of it was catching up with her.
She kissed Matt’s hand again and then placed it under the blankets in hopes of warming it up. But after two more sets of blankets and twenty minutes later, his skin was still ice cold. She flagged down one of the nurses to check his temperature.
“Ninety-eight point five degrees,” the nurse said, shrugging her shoulders. “He’s fine, Mrs. Cooley.”
Claire stared at the bright green numbers of the digital display. She shook her head. “How is that even possible?” She turned to the nurse. “Why does he feel so cold?”
“It’s probably a side effect of the snake venom,” the nurse answered reassuringly, then gestured to the monitors keeping track of his vitals. “Heart rate, blood pressure, all of that is fine. He just needs rest.”
The nurse left, but the repeated squawking of ‘he just needs rest’ didn’t offer much comfort. Claire sat in her chair, staring at her son under all of those blankets, trying to convince herself that Matt really was fine, that she just needed to trust the doctors and what they were telling her. But that second voice wouldn’t shut up.
Claire stood and then walked back into the hallway to grab a drink of water for herself. When she reached for the paper cup dispenser, a commotion at the ER entrance stole her attention.
Another team of medics wheeled a man in on a stretcher, their bodies blocking the patient from view. She turned back toward the water fountain and filled her cup.
She jumped at the sound of her name, then turned and saw Owen carrying Chloe down the hallway. She dropped the cup in her hand and it splashed to the floor, forming a puddle around her feet. A million thoughts raced through her mind. Chloe was hurt, her dad was hurt, her dad was missing, her—
“Where’s Matt?” Owen asked, handing Chloe off to Claire, who wrapped her tightly in a hug.
“Down the hall,” Claire asked, then examined Chloe. “Are you all right, baby?”
“Grandpa’s sick.” Chloe buried her face into Claire’s shoulder after the comment and Claire looked to Owen.
“He locked himself in one of the rooms on the first floor. He was whispering to himself, talking nonsense. The paramedics checked his vitals and said they were fine, but he’s not responsive. I think he’s having an episode.”
Claire shut her eyes and then stepped backward into the puddle of water she’d made after dropping the cup, then handed Chloe back to Owen. “I want to see him.”
“The doctors are looking at him now, but Claire.” Owen took their daughter and then blocked her path. “We need to talk about what we’re going to do with him.”
“What do you mean what do we do with him?” An unintended wickedness laced her tone, and she immediately regretted it when she saw the pain on Owen’s face. “I’m sorry. I just—” She drew in a breath and regained her composure.
“It’s okay, but listen, I spoke to Chuck, and he told me there are some good places in New Orleans,” Owen said. “He’s willing to help us pay for it until we’re all set up.”
“You don’t think that’s strange?” Claire asked.
“How accommodating he’s been? It’s like he’ll do anything to get us to stay.”
Owen laughed in exasperation. “And you think that’s a bad thing? Jesus, Claire, we were about to lose our house.”
“Shh!” Claire glanced down to Chloe and shook her head. “Let’s not talk about it now.” She bent down to pick up the paper cup she’d dropped, then tossed it in the trash. “I need to see him.”
Owen gestured down the hall. “They said they were taking him to examination room three. Where’s Matt?”
“Room one seventeen. He’s sleeping, so don’t wake him up.” Claire started to walk away, but stopped, turned around, and kissed Owen on the lips. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah,” Owen said, letting out a sigh. “Me too.”
They separated, their hands breaking apart at the last second, and Claire hurried toward her father’s room, which she found with the door open and the paramedics already gone. She clasped her hands together and held them tight to her chest as she watched a nurse remove one of the blood pressure wraps from his arm.
She saw his lips moving, but couldn’t hear his words. She had never seen her father look so old as he did right there. The nurse began to undress him, then noticed Claire in the doorway.
“Can I help you, ma’am?”
Claire wiped her eyes. “He’s my father. Can you give us a minute?”
The nurse offered a sympathetic nod. “Don’t be too long. Those clothes are damp, and I want to get him out of them before he catches something.” She left, and Claire slowly approached her father’s bedside.
Roger’s words remained softer than a whisper and he lay as still as water, staring up at the ceiling with his arms and legs strapped down to the bed.
“Dad?” Claire asked, slowly reaching for the bar that ran along the side of the cot. “Are you there?”
Roger didn’t break his concentrated gaze on the ceiling tiles, nor did his lips stop moving. Claire gently took hold of his hand, but then recoiled her arm when his skin was icy cold. She stepped backward, her instincts screaming at her now, ordering her to get out of that house.
But she stopped and forced herself back to her father’s side and picked up his hand, her mouth downturned in grief. She sniffled. “I thought we’d have more time, Daddy.” She kissed his fingers and then set them down.
Why was it whenever things started to come together, they immediately fell apart? The job and the move were supposed to be a blessing, but now they felt more like a curse. Her son almost died, and her father’s disease had progressed faster than the doctors predicted. She felt the walls crumbling down, and she wasn’t sure how much more she could take before the whole damn house came with it.
The van headlights illuminated the front of the house, and Owen slowed as they approached, then parked, killing the engine and the lights. He paused a moment, his eyes transfixed on the house in the moonlight, and Claire reached over and touched his arm.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
Owen nodded quickly. “Fine.” He turned toward the back seat where both Chloe and Matt were asleep.
The doctors found nothing wrong with Matt after their slew of tests, and they said they’d have the blood work back in a few days. But while Matt could come home, Roger was still mumbling in that catatonic stare of his, lying stiff as a board on his cot.
Claire carried Chloe inside while Owen handled Matt. “We should probably just let them rest. We’ll get them upstairs and if they wake up, we’ll fix them something to eat.”
They put both kids to bed, tucked them in, and then lingered in the hallway, watching both doors and leaving them open. Owen followed Claire downstairs and they collapsed on the couch in the living room. Claire rested her head on Owen’s chest and sighed.
“You know I’m thankful for you getting this job,” Claire said, her words hesitant but deliberate. “But I’m wondering if we made the wrong move.”
“I know it’s been hard,” Owen said, taking her hand in his own. He rubbed her skin, which felt unusually soft against his own. He shifted on the couch so he could look her in the eye. “We just have to stay the course. If we’re smart, we’ll be out of debt in three years. And after that, the job market could be different and we could look into moving somewhere else, maybe back to Baltimore. Things will get better.”
Claire nodded and then rested her head back onto his chest. He wasn’t sure if his words were more for her or himself, but either way, they seemed to help.
“Oh,” Claire said, tapping him on the chest and lifting her head. “I forgot to tell you that there was something wrong with the plumbing this morning. It happened before Matt’s accident.”
“The plumbing?” Owen asked, recalling the sopping wet floor he found Roger lying on.
“Yeah, in the kitchen,” Claire answered. “Black water was spitting from the faucet. You might want to tell Chuck about it so he can have someone come take a look.”
Owen stroked Claire’s hair, nodding to himself, trying not to sound alarmed. “Yeah. I’ll tell him.” His stomach growled.
“Getting there,” Owen answered.
Claire pushed herself off of him and crossed her legs Indian-style on the couch. “I didn’t even get to eat lunch today. There isn’t much in the fridge, and the last thing I want to do is cook.”
“Pizza?” Owen asked.
“Sounds good to me,” Claire answered.
“All right, you order it and I’ll pick it up.”
Claire kissed him on the cheek and rolled off the couch to grab her phone from her purse. Claire’s voice drifted from the kitchen, and while she ordered, he got up and went back to the room where he’d found Roger lying unconscious, wanting answers to the questions circling his mind.
The door was still ajar from his violent entrance, and he stepped over some of the wooden shards from the broken door frame. He knelt, pressing his hand against the floorboards that were bone dry. He shook his head in disbelief, then squat-walked around the whole room, checking different spots, but everything was dry. Even after all day in this heat, it was impossible for it to dry out that quickly. Wasn’t it?
“Hey,” Claire said, standing in the doorway. “What are you doing?”
Owen spun around, quickly standing and wiping his palm onto his jeans. “Just wanted to double check Roger didn’t bring anything in here with him during his episode.” Claire glanced around the room, hugging herself. He walked toward her. “He’s going to come back from this. Remember that the doctor told us that the beginning stages of the disease could be managed with the right mix of medications and therapy.”
“It’s not just my dad,” Claire said, glancing to the room and inching closer to Owen. “Do you feel like there’s something wrong with the house?”
“It’s old, Claire,” Owen answered. “We’ll get the plumbing fixed and—”
“I’m not just talking about the plumbing,” Claire said. “I mean something else. Something more… I don’t know.” She lowered her head and massaged her temples. “I feel like I sound like a crazy person.”
“You sound like a hungry person.” Owen kissed the top of her head and walked them back into the dining room. “When’s the pizza going to be ready?”
“Twenty minutes,” Claire answered.
“I’ll leave now. It’ll take me thirty minutes to get there anyway.” Owen noticed that Claire wouldn’t stop looking back at the room. He gently pulled her face toward his. “There isn’t anything for you to be worried about, all right? The house is old. We live in the swamp. Bad plumbing and snake bites were inevitable.”
“Right,” Claire said.
Owen grabbed the van keys and walked outside. But before he started the engine, he sat there in the quiet dark for a moment, looking around the property. Night had turned the trees and moss and swamp into something more sinister. And the longer his eyes lingered on the darkness, the more tricks they played on him.
The rustle of leaves and branches was supernatural. The swoosh of water was some demon lurking underneath the surface. The darkness itself became a creature hunting him in the night. Owen shut his eyes and pushed the thoughts from his mind.
His son had been bitten by a snake. The pipes were old and corroded in the house. His father-in-law had Alzheimer’s. Those things weren’t the work of some demon, it was only the reality of life.
After Owen returned with the pizza, Claire ate a few slices, then walked back upstairs to check on the kids. Chloe was sound asleep, her mouth open and drool pouring onto her pillow. Claire shook her head, hoping that whoever she married found it as endearing as Owen found her drool.
Matt was asleep too, and Claire hovered over him in bed. Hesitantly, she placed her palm onto his forehead, afraid that she’d feel the same icy touch as she did in the hospital. But as her palm contacted his skin, relief washed away the worry. He felt normal, and Claire immediately felt silly for letting her imagination run wild. She kissed Matt’s cheek, and then left him to rest.
Owen entered the dining room from the kitchen as she stepped off the last step of the staircase. “Everyone all right up there?”
“Yeah,” Claire answered, smiling for the first time all day. “Sound asleep.” She wrapped her arms around his neck and they kissed.
When she pulled back, Owen smiled, his eyes still closed. “I think they put something in your pizza.”
“Maybe,” Claire said. “Let’s go find out.”
She pulled him to their bedroom, the pair disrobing along the way like they did when they were first married, and relieved some stress. Once finished, sweating and exhausted in bed, they kissed goodnight and passed out on top of the sheets.
It was just past three o’clock in the morning when Claire awoke on her stomach, sweating and thirsty. She wrestled uncomfortably with her pillow then rolled onto her back. She looked at Owen, finding him sound asleep.
Naked, she grabbed the silk robe off the back of the door and wrapped it around herself before she headed toward the kitchen for a glass of water. On the way, she passed through the dining room and then glanced up at the kid’s rooms.
Chloe’s door was still wide open, but Claire slowed when she noticed that Matt’s door was closed. She paused, staring up at it, trying to remember if she’d closed it before going downstairs. She frowned, looking at the floor. No, she was sure she left it open.
The thought made Claire’s heart skip a beat as she ascended the staircase. She peeked into Chloe’s room to check on her and saw that her daughter was still in the same position she left her. She walked softly over the noisy floorboards to Matt’s room, not realizing that her hands were clenched tight into fists. A noise filtered through the cracks of Matt’s door, and she froze in her track so she could hear.
Whispers, nearly soundless, echoed inside. There was a familiar rhythm and cadence to them, and Claire swore she had heard them before. Softly, and quietly, Claire reached for the door knob. “Matt?”
Her silhouette spilled into the darkened room. Her son’s bed was empty. She followed the whispers to the rear left corner of the room. Matt was crouched down, his back turned to her.
“Sweetie, are you all right?” Claire asked, stepping inside.
Matt’s words grew louder, and the closer she moved, the better she heard.
“Tonga-Keira-Awalla-Liseta. Tonga-Keira-Awalla-Liseta. Tonga-Keira-Awalla-Liseta.”
The words pounded in Claire’s ears and heart as she drew closer to her son. “Matthew, get off the floor and back into bed.” Her voice had a panicked anger to it, but her son didn’t move. She stepped toward him hesitantly, afraid. “Matt, you need to—”
Matt spun around and belted out a piercing scream. His eyes were all black, void of the colorful blue that he was given upon his birth. A snake slithered from beneath his legs, its mouth open and fangs exposed.
Claire screamed and fell backward. Her feet and hands smacked against the floorboards on her retreat. The snake slithered toward her and Claire caught a brief glance at her son, staring down at the snake with those pitch-black eyes and repeating the same mantra louder and faster.
The high-pitched hiss of the snake followed her to the door, snapping twice for her feet that narrowly missed. Claire shrieked as she backpedaled out of the room and smacked into the banisters of the second-floor balcony.
Matt’s bedroom door slammed shut on its own, sealing her son and the snake inside. Black water, the same as from the faucet, flooded out of Matt’s room through the bottom door crack. Claire jumped from the floor as the putrid water rushed against her feet.
“Matt!” Claire pounded on the door with both fists, then jiggled the handle, which remained locked. The water rushed through the side cracks of the door frame now, soaking Claire’s robe.
“Mommy?” Chloe stood in her doorway, her eyes wide and her blanket pressed close to her chin.
“Stay in your room!” Claire pointed back toward her daughter’s bed, and then spun around and gripped the banister, her actions so quick and forceful that she almost thrust herself over the side. “Owen!”
Chloe screamed, and Claire spun back around, her mouth gaping in shock and horror. Hundreds of tiny black spiders crawled out from the top of the door, moving in wave-like layers up to the ceiling, an endless army of disgusting creatures.
Water gushed from the cracks faster now as Claire’s fists pounded on the door. Half of the spiders then shifted their path from the ceiling to Claire, and she frantically smashed them, their black bodies plastered flat against the door or falling to the floor in a lifeless heap.
She smacked at the ones crawling over her arms, their tiny legs tickling her skin, a few trying to get underneath her robe. The water on her feet grew ice cold and the door buckled like it was ready to burst. “Matt!”
Hands suddenly yanked her backward, and she watched Owen look at the spiders that had disappeared into the ceiling and the water still seeping through the cracks. “Stay back!”
Claire stepped aside as Owen smacked the door with his heel, the contact eliciting a loud crack as the door and wall rattled from her husband’s forceful hit.
The rush of water slowed to a trickle and the flow of spiders ended as Owen struck the door repeatedly. A crack in the wood crawled up the door frame on one of the kicks, and the next fractured off an entire piece as the door flung open.
Owen rushed in first, feet splashing against the puddles on the floor, Claire close behind. Matt was sprawled out on the hardwood, his eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling and mumbling to himself, the same words that he was whispering when she first walked in.
“Matt!” Claire patted her son’s body, but the boy remained unresponsive, his eyes cast upward as she looked for the snake. She didn’t see it anywhere.
“What happened?” Owen asked.
“I-I don’t know,” Claire answered, her voice hoarse from screaming. “Matt’s door was closed and when I opened it, he was in here with a snake.”
“Check his arms, make sure he wasn’t bitten again.”
“He wasn’t,” Claire said. “He was… controlling it.”
And underneath the dismissive wave Owen gave her, Claire saw a glint of fear in her husband’s face. Fear because he believed her.
The night sky outside Matt’s bedroom window morphed into a muddled grey just before sunrise. It was that moment right before the day began, when everything was still and quiet. And like his son, who had finally stopped his mumbling and fallen asleep a few hours ago, Owen remained still as water in the chair he brought in from the dining room downstairs.
Dark grooves imprinted under Owen’s eyes, and he sat slouched in the chair, one hand on his chin, the other resting lazily on the chair’s armrest. He’d sat there all night, eyes red and dry from staring at his son, trying to make sense of what was happening and why it was happening to them.
Hadn’t they gone through enough? Wasn’t all of the shit they trudged through the past six months enough to grant them some semblance of peace?
Owen rubbed his face and leaned forward, his muscles and bones creaking from the restless few hours he managed to catch before he awoke to his wife screaming bloody murder.
A hand gently grazed Owen’s shoulder, and he reached up and rubbed Claire’s fingers. Everything she said had been bouncing around in his mind since he busted down that door. It was absurd. Unreal. And yet, here he found himself, beginning to believe that there was something wrong with this house. Something wrong with his son.
“You need to take him back to the doctors today,” Owen said, still rubbing Claire’s hand while his eyes remained fixated on Matt. “There must have been something they gave him that he was having a reaction to, or something from the snake bite that—”
“Owen, stop.” Claire emerged from behind him and crouched by his knees, her eyes wide and bright in the darkness. The way she looked reminded Owen of when they first started dating. She was the most beautiful thing he’d ever come across, but it went beyond the flesh and traveled behind those pair of dark brown eyes. There was certainty in them. And that certainty, that decisiveness was what pulled Owen into her. Those same attributes now scared him to death. “You saw what I saw.”
Owen drifted his eyes to Matthew. “I don’t know what I saw.”
“This is more than just snake bites and my dad’s Alzheimer’s,” Claire said. “You saw the water, the spiders, and then they just disappeared?” She shook her head, her hands digging into his legs. “The water spilled over the banister and into the living area, which should have soaked the furniture downstairs, but everything’s dry. We need to get out of this house.”
“And go where?” Owen asked, exasperated. “Back to Baltimore? Back to almost being homeless? I’m not putting our family through that again.”
“You want us to stay?”
Owen took Claire’s hands in a firm grasp. “I want us to not have to worry about where our next meal is going to come from. I want us to have a life that doesn’t revolve around clipping coupons and buying everything on sale.” He let go of her hands and stepped back, afraid of the words that had been boiling over in the back of his mind. Words that if spoken, he couldn’t take back.
Claire’s father was a good man. Owen knew that. But after Claire’s mother passed, the man gave up. He moved in with them and while he was collecting money on Social Security, he became another mouth to feed, another person to rack up the utilities bill, more weight for Owen to carry, which was fine until he lost the job at the factory. And then when Roger was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, those medical bills started piling up and drained their savings faster than he could replenish it.
“Owen, it’s not safe for our son to be here,” Claire said, her voice on the edge of crying again.
“And it’s not safe for him to be homeless,” Owen replied, his answer harsher than he intended. “Or hungry.”
Claire squeezed his forearm tighter. “Just talk to your boss and see if he can get us into another place. Or we can look into something else we can buy. I know that’s not something we wanted to do because we were trying to get out of debt faster, but we have to try something.”
Owen pulled his arm back. “They paid for our move, they paid for the house, they paid for all of Matt’s medical bills, and on top of that, they’re paying me fifteen thousand more a year than I made at the shipyard.” Owen flapped his arms at his sides. “And now you want me to go to my boss and ask him for us to move?”
“I understand everything that they’ve done, and believe me, I’m grateful,” Claire said. “But I’m not going to let my family stay here one more night.”
““There isn’t anywhere else to go!” Owen hissed through his teeth, his volume a harsh whisper. “This is it! This has to work.”
Claire’s eyes watered, and she shook her head. “You’re putting our family at risk.”
Frustration muddled Owen’s senses, and the fatigue of the past few days eroded the will to hold his tongue. “And keeping your dad around wasn’t?”
Claire immediately clammed up, and her body offered a light tremor of rage. The moment he saw her reaction, Owen slumped his shoulders in regret.
“My father did not hurt Matt,” Claire said. She closed the gap between them, her eyes red, that certainty and decisiveness burning right through him. “And I will not keep my children here another night. Do you understand me? We are leaving, Owen. With or without you.”
Owen watched her exit, and he leaned back against the window. The muddled grey of morning was suddenly diffused by sunrise, and the first rays of light broke over the horizon. But despite the new day and the beautiful morning outside, Owen felt anything but hopeful or happy.
The drive to the factory was restless, and Owen regretted not saying goodbye to Claire before he left. It irked him when they weren’t on good terms, but it was going to take some time before she forgave him about the comment regarding her father.
The bulk of the factory was arriving when Owen parked the van and stepped out. He spotted Marty Wiggins and Jake Martin getting out of their truck, Marty talking loud enough for everyone to hear him in Baltimore.
“All I’m saying is that if Drew Brees can win one more Super Bowl, then I think he should be in the conversation for greatest quarterback of all time.” Marty shrugged in an overdramatic fashion, his eyes bulging from his sockets like his own words were on par with Ernest Hemingway and he didn’t understand why everyone wasn’t praising his voice. “He’s done more than everyone else, and with less.”
“You think he’s better than Archie Manning though?” Jake asked. “I mean the guy is—”
“Hey, can you tell me where Chuck’s office is?” Owen asked as both men turned toward him, Marty spilling some of his coffee on his hand from the quick jerk.
“Goddammit, Yankee-Doodle numnuts,” Marty said, shaking off the hot liquid. “Made me burn my damn hand.”
“Hey, Owen,” Jake said, his voice soft. “I heard about your boy. He all right?”
“He’s getting better,” Owen answered. “My wife is taking him back to the hospital today for a check-up.”
“Say,” Marty said, taking a sip from his coffee. “You want to get in on this Saints debate? You could be a neutral party.”
“I really don’t have—” And that’s when Owen spotted Chuck across the lot, heading toward one of the factory entrances. Without another word, he sprinted toward his boss, waving his arms.
“Owen,” Chuck said, lines of concern forming over his face. “How’s your boy doing?”
“The doctors said he should be fine in a couple of days, but I need to talk to you about something.”
Chuck gestured toward his office door. “I’ll put some coffee on.”
The office was simply decorated and designed. A metal desk and matching filing cabinet took center stage, and the walls were covered with different pictures of the factory’s history. One picture in particular hung prominently on the wall behind Chuck’s desk.
“First day we opened,” Chuck said, pointing to the black and white photo as he smiled. He tapped on a man in a plain white shirt and dark slacks that held a cigar. “That’s my great -grandfather. Hell of a businessman, and could outwork anyone he hired.” Chuck took a seat and gestured for Owen to do the same. “He always joked that was the only way to stay the boss.”
“Mr. Toussaint, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate what you’ve done for me and my family. This job was a godsend for us.”
“Well, we’re happy to have you on board,” Chuck said, smiling as the whistle blew and the factory’s machines began to hum.
The commotion caught Owen’s attention, and he looked out the window to the floor as everyone started to fall into work. Everyone but him. “Mr. Toussaint, what I’m about to ask you is more than I should, but I’m doing it for the same reason I took the job here in the first place. It’s for my family.”
“Is everything all right?” Chuck asked.
Owen chose his words carefully. “It’s the house. I don’t think it’s going to work out.”
Chuck sat there for a moment, the concern slowly fading, and he leaned back in his chair, folding his hands over his stomach. “And what’s the problem?”
“I think it’s just too much space for us, honestly,” Owen answered, lying through his teeth. He wasn’t about to tell the man his wife thought the place was possessed or that his son was speaking with snakes. And just sitting there thinking about it, he felt silly even bringing it up. But that’s what happened when you stepped out of the strange and back into reality.
“I see,” Chuck said. “So, I give you a job, then move you down here, and your first complaint to me is that the house you’re living in for free is too big?” Chuck laughed.
“I know,” Owen said, closing his eyes and taking a breath. The sleepless night preventing his mind from piecing together his thoughts. “And, again, I’m very grateful. But the move has been tough on everyone. And with what’s happened with my father-in-law, and my son, I just think that my family is funneling a lot of that frustration into the house.”
And so Owen waited, his heart pounding wildly in his chest. It was the first time he’d felt anything but a welcoming presence from his boss, and this hardened version was someone he’d like to avoid in the future.
“There aren’t any other houses available right now,” Chuck said. “I’ll check with the real estate office this afternoon and see what we can move you into later.” He opened the bottom left drawer of his desk and flopped a few pieces of paper on top. “I’ll have a contractor come by tomorrow to look at the house, make sure there hasn’t been any damage since you’ve moved in.” He scribbled something down on the papers, then looked up. “It’s the best I can do for now.”
“That’d be great, Mr. Toussaint, thank you so much.” Owen retreated toward the door, dying to escape the room. “But just so you know, for the contractor, I think there’s something wrong with the pipes.”
“Pipes?” Chuck asked, frowning.
“Yeah,” Owen answered. “There have been a few plumbing issues since we’ve moved in. Leaking pipes, bad water. That sort of thing.”
“I’ll let the contractor know.” Chuck returned to the papers on his desk, and as Owen reached the door to leave, he stopped him. “And Owen.”
“I suggest you do your job well. The last foreman I had on the line was too chummy with his subordinates. I don’t want you giving off the impression that these people are your friends. Everyone is expendable here. And if you wish to make yourself valuable, I suggest that you get to work. Unless you want to find your family on the streets after you find yourself fired.”
Owen nodded, his tone flat, defeated. “Yes, sir.” A headache appeared in the center of his forehead, and he wanted nothing more than to disappear into his work, and then go home to find that his family was fine, and that the past few days had been nothing more than a fluke. But as his headache worsened, so did his doubts.
The hospital was busy. Staff and patients roamed the halls, and there was a constant echo of doctors being paged over the PA system.
Sounds of sickness, fear, and grief escaped the rooms down the halls. News delivered by doctors and nurses, some of it good, some bad, all of it having consequences. A woman’s shriek caused Claire to shudder.
Chloe squirmed in Claire’s arm as the doctor checked Matt, whose cheeks were still pallid and cold to the touch. She bit her lip anxiously, passing Chloe to her left arm. “Everything all right?”
The doctor removed the stethoscope from his ears and turned around. Thankfully it wasn’t the same old man from yesterday. “Lungs are clear, blood pressure is normal, and he doesn’t have a temperature.”
“But you felt his forehead?” Claire asked, even though she watched the doctor do it. “Why is it so cold?”
“I feel fine, Mom,” Matt said, his voice meek.
“Could be a sensitivity to cool air,” the doctor said, though his tone suggested he might as well have been guessing. “Medically speaking, your son is perfectly healthy. I’m sure he’ll be back to normal in a couple of days.”
But Claire didn’t think that Matt would be okay in a couple of days, or weeks or months. A storm cloud hovered in the distance. It flashed lightening and rumbled thunder. That storm was getting closer and it would only get worse.
Claire took a moment, trying to figure out how to explain to the doctor what she’d seen without sounding like a lunatic. And she wanted to be careful of what she said in front of Matt. He hadn’t remembered anything from last night. The only thing he recalled was waking up this morning with her watching over him, asking why she was crying.
“What is it, Mrs. Cooley?” The doctor placed a gentle hand on her arm, and Chloe finally stopped squirming, resting her head on Claire’s shoulder.
Claire set Chloe down. “Matt, take your sister into the waiting room. I’ll be out there to meet you in a minute, okay?”
“Okay,” Matt said, climbing down from the patient table. “C’mon, Chloe.”
Claire trailed both her children to the doorway, her eyes on them until the reached the waiting room down the hall. She bit her lower lip, twisting the hem of her blouse, and then turned back to the doctor. “There have been other things happening with Matt. Things that I know will sound crazy the moment I say them out loud.”
The doctor nodded and smiled politely while Claire paced the room, her head tilted toward the floor as she turned from the wall and passed the doctor. “He’s talking to himself and it’s like…” The words were there, but she was suddenly frightened to speak them aloud. “It’s like he hasn’t been himself. He’s started keeping strange animals as pets. Snakes, and… spiders.” She tossed the doctor a quick glance to see his reaction and saw that he was still listening politely. “And his eyes have been dilated.” Images of Matt’s dark eyes flashed in her memory. “It’s just been some very strange behavior.”
Claire stopped her pacing and looked back to the doctor, whose mouth had slightly parted, a creaky moan escaping the physician’s lips before he spoke. “The pets could be a way of him coping with what happened. Trying to conquer his own fears, so to speak.”
Claire nodded, looking for any reasonable explanation to grasp hold of. “Yeah, that makes sense. He’s always been a brave kid, never too scared of anything.”
“And the dilated pupils could be a side effect from the venom still working its way through his body,” the doctor said. “As could be his skin’s sensitivity to cold.” He grabbed hold of Claire’s hands comfortingly, and offered a warm smile. “I’m sure the move has been difficult for him. Plus, he’s on the edge of puberty, so those behavioral changes will become more and more prominent.” He patted her hand and laughed. “Best get used to that.”
But despite the reassurances and the doctor’s friendly smile, Claire didn’t believe him. Her mind had groped for a reasonable explanation of her son’s behavior and after everything that happened in that house, the doctor’s answers didn’t satisfy her like she’d hoped.
“It’s more than hormones.” Claire removed her hands from the doctor’s grip, and that warm smile cooled.
“Mrs. Cooley, I understand that you and your family have been through a bit of a shock, but jumping to conclusions without any facts is dangerous. Just go home and have Matthew rest, and make sure you do the same.” He placed his hand on her back and guided her out of the room, pushing rather forcefully. “You look like you could use some sleep yourself.”
Claire stepped forward, separating herself from the doctor’s hand. His arrogance and dismissal only prodded the anger that Owen had stoked in her that morning. She quickly left, grabbing Matt and Chloe by the hand, and walked toward the exit.
Chloe struggled to keep up with her mother’s pace, and Claire eventually bent down to pick her up.
“Mom, is everything okay?” Matt asked, looking up at her.
“It’s fine, sweetheart.” Claire pulled him close. “We just need to make one more stop before we go home.” If a doctor couldn’t give her answers, then she’d speak to someone who could.
A nurse played on her phone at the sign-in station, and after finishing a text she looked up. “Can I help you?”
“I need Roger Templeton’s room number?” Claire asked. “I’m his daughter.”
The nurse pointed to the hallway on the left. “Fourth door down.”
“Thank you.” It wasn’t a coincidence that her father and Matt were sharing the same strange behavior. It was connected somehow, and she might be able to pry it out of her father’s weathered mind.
Claire stopped at the doorway to her father’s room, leaving both Claire and Matt in chairs in the hallway. She didn’t want them to see him if he was still incoherent, and she didn’t want to scare Matt by having him listen in if she did learn something. Despite the brave showing, she knew her son was nervous.
Roger lay asleep in his bed, no longer mumbling and whispering to himself, his chest slowly rising and falling with each breath as he lay strapped to the bed. Even though she’d seen him just yesterday, he looked to have aged a few years.
She was glad her mother wasn’t alive to see him like this. If there was one blessing in her death, it was that. Claire’s mom was a sweet woman, but she lacked the mind and grit that Claire inherited from her father. But she was a wonderful mom, always armed with the right words at just the right time.
Claire wished she could channel her mother’s voice at that moment. She had no idea of what to say. Hey, Dad, sorry for sending you off to a home, but you’re too dangerous to be kept around your grandchildren anymore. Or, so you’re sick now and we don’t want to take care of you anymore so we’re sending you away. We’ll try to visit when we can!
The words churned her stomach sour just thinking them. The man in front of her had driven her to all of those softball games as a kid. The same father who would call in to the school and tell them that she was sick, and then take her to the Orioles game.
“Daddy?” Claire gave him a gentle shake, and Roger turned his head toward her, blinking awake. “How are you feeling?” She waited to find out if this was her father or the stranger that Alzheimer’s had created.
“Claire?” Roger spoke her name like a child, unsure if what he was seeing was real.
Claire gripped his hand and squeezed, smiling. “It’s me.”
A single tear rolled from the corner of his right eye and trailed straight down to his pillow. He produced a sad smile and the pressure of his hand gave what strength he had left. “I can’t remember why I’m here.”
“You had an episode,” Claire said, pulling a chair behind her to sit, and she inched closer to the bed. “Owen came home and found you passed out on the floor. Dad, do you remember what happened?”
Roger squinted hard, then wiggled underneath the straps. He looked at them quickly, then up to her. “Did I hurt someone? Is that why—”
“No,” Claire answered, placing her hand on his chest to calm him. “They just didn’t want you wandering around the hospital when you woke up. But before, when I spoke to you yesterday, you said you thought you heard someone the night Matt was hurt. You said you were chasing something outside. Do you remember what it was?”
Roger sighed. “I don’t know.” He shut his eyes, shaking his head. “There was a noise.”
Claire’s heartbeat quickened. “What kind of noise?”
“Like a rattling,” Roger answered, his eyes still closed. “I heard it again, when I was alone at the house. I followed it to a room, and then…” He trailed off, opening his eyes. “There was water. Pitch black water.”
“Were there animals in there with you?” Claire asked.
Roger shook his head. “Not an animal. Something else. And it was cold. The kind that seeps into your bones. Worse than any winter up north.”
“What was it, Dad?” Claire gripped his arm tighter. “What did you see?”
Roger’s eyes widened. His mouth opened, and he moved his lips soundlessly, like a car trying to start but unable to catch. “Th-th-the eyes.” He spoke in horrified whispers now and gazed ahead of him into the empty space, like he could see the creature right in front of him. “It was death staring at me. Everything was dead.”
Claire shook her head, trying to understand. All she could see was Matt with those same black eyes, and the water, the spiders, and the snake. “Dad, you need to—”
Roger took hold of her arm, his massive hand engulfing it easily, his grip incredibly strong as he pulled her close. “Don’t go back in that house, Claire. Something is there. Something b-b-b-AAAAAHHHHH!” His mouth opened wide as he screamed. He thrashed in the bed, the straps struggling to keep him still.
The machines hooked up to her father beeped in the same wild ferocity of his body, and a team of nurses and orderlies flooded into the room as Claire stepped back with her hand over her mouth. One of the nurses grabbed a needle filled with a clear liquid and gave it a quick spurt, the fluid squirting out of the top. Her father roared in defiance as she stuck the needle into his arm and emptied the solution.
Roger’s thrashing calmed along with the machine’s commotion, and Claire fought the tears wanting to break free. She removed herself from the room, and regrouped in the hall. She drew in deep breaths, her eyes closed. What now?
If she went back to Owen and told him that her delusion father told her they needed to leave that house they’d only argue again. She needed proof of what her father said. And that’s exactly what she was going to get.
The whistle blew and the loud clanking of the factory ended as workers stepped away from their stations and headed toward their lockers, ready to go home for the day. Owen fell in line behind everyone, his shirt collar soaked with a ring of sweat as he removed his hard hat and glasses. It felt good to get back into a routine like that, and for at least a few hours, he felt like his life was back to normal.
But after Owen tossed his uniform into the locker, he caught his boss staring at him from his office window. Chuck’s eyes followed Owen all the way out the door, and even outside, Owen felt them linger on his back. He shivered and got into the van.
With the workday over, the troublesome thoughts of home returned. His last words to Claire had been gnawing at him all day. He didn’t want to go home without some sort of peace offering, so instead of turning right onto Main Street and heading toward the house, he took a left and found a parking spot in front of the small realty office, the sign in the window still flipped to open.
Owen checked his appearance in his rearview mirror, hoping that he didn’t look too derelict for someone to think he couldn’t afford a house, though his creditors might have a few things to say about the matter, and stepped out of the van.
A bell on the front door jingled as Owen entered. He scraped his boots on the welcome mat before stepping onto the old hardwood. “Hello?” The small space was empty with the exception of a desk jimmied up alongside the front door and the dozens of pictures hanging on the walls, all of them showing people in front of houses, smiling as the realtor handed them keys.
“Hi there!” A middle-aged gentleman stepped from a small doorway in the back, wiping his hands with a cloth. He was clean shaven, and his pearl-white teeth contrasted against his unnaturally tan skin. “What can I help you with?” He tossed the cloth on his desk and adjusted the belt around the waist of his plaid tweed suit. It was a thick jacket for such a hot climate.
“I was hoping you could tell me the properties you have in the area?”
“Of course!” He grabbed hold of Owen’s hand and gave it three hearty pumps. “Nate Covers. If you want a house, I’ve got the dream home for you.” He spoke the words like a cheesy local commercial and then gestured to one of the chairs.
“I just need to know what you have for immediate occupancy,” Owen said, taking a seat.
Nate smiled, and thrust his index finger in Owen’s direction. “Right down to business. I like your style.” He clicked the mouse of his computer, then started typing. “So do you already live in the area?”
“Yes,” Owen answered. “Just moved here actually.”
“Long way from home.” Nate laughed loud and quickly. “I see the wedding ring. Have kids?”
“All right, let’s see.” Nate kept his eyes on the computer screen, which was turned away from Owen, and he typed a few more keystrokes and then leaned back in his chair, portions of the faux-leather armrests cracked, exposing the yellow-foam stuffing inside. “I’ve got a few three and four bedrooms on the market right now. What kind of budget are you looking at?”
“I haven’t really gone to the bank to check that stuff out yet,” Owen answered, rubbing his hands nervously. But he probably knew the answer they would give him: small. “I told my wife I’d start looking. She’s not really in love with our current house.”
“Where are you at now?”
“Fourteen Cypress Lane.”
Nate ended the light rock in his chair, and that unnatural tan color drained from his cheeks. “So you work for Chuck Toussaint then.” He drummed his fingers on his stomach.
“Yeah,” Owen said.
Nate forced another wide, cheesy smile. “He’s a great guy. Normally pays for his employees’ housing. Did you not have the same arrangement with him?”
“No, I did, but—” Owen cut himself off, suddenly embarrassed and wanting to leave. “You know what, maybe I should just talk to him about it some more.” Owen stood and Nate mirrored him. “I’m sorry for bothering you.”
“Not a problem, and, hey, if anything changes, just drop by and I’ll see what I can find for you.”
The bell at the top of the door chimed as Owen left, and he fished the van’s keys out of his pockets, feeling uneasy about his interaction with Nate Covers. Had he crossed some sort of line going behind his boss’s back like that?
He turned toward the driver side door and abruptly stopped. Across the street he saw the sign for Queen’s, and standing outside her own shop of bizarre trinkets and bobbles stood the dread-haired woman, staff in hand, those pair of hazel and yellow glinted eyes fixated on him.
Owen fisted the keys in his hand and marched over to her. “What do you want?” he shouted from the middle of the street, but even as he got closer, the woman didn’t move. “Is it you?” He stepped onto the sidewalk, the heat of the day and his anger flushing his cheeks a bright red. “Are you the one who’s been sneaking around my house? Huh?”
Even with Owen only inches from her face, the woman didn’t move. Owen caught a whiff of her musty clothes, sweat and body odor all mixed together. She shifted her weight on her feet, and some of the bone necklaces clinked lightly against one another like a morbid wind chime.
“You stay away from my family,” Owen said. “And you stay the hell away from me.” He snarled and thrust a finger in her face, then spun around to head back to his van.
“Your son doesn’t belong to you anymore.” The woman’s voice was slow, her accent not as muddled as some of Owen’s coworkers.
He turned around. “What the hell did you say to me?” He marched back in three quick strides, then smacked some of the items off the table out front in a violent blow. “You speak of my son again, and I will come back here with the police. So back. Off.” He gritted his teeth, but while he trembled in anger, she remained still.
Owen stomped back to his van, got behind the wheel, and peeled out of the parking spot.
Claire sat cross-legged on the couch, laptop open between her knees, and sifted through everything that she could find about snake bites and which types were native to Louisiana. From what she researched, the most common venomous snake in the area was the Cottonmouth. And judging from its description, a black colored or dark-brown with black blotches on its underside, she thought that might have been the snake she saw slithering away from Matt after he was bit.
Aside from hallucinations, nausea, and vomiting, there wasn’t anything else to explain her son’s behavior. And the more and more she read, she realized that whatever was happening to her son went beyond the snake bite. There was something else.
Claire opened another tab on the browser, and she typed in the name of their town and waited for the search fields to populate when the front door opened and she heard Owen’s voice.
She snapped the laptop shut and set it aside on the couch. “Hey.” The pair lingered in silence for a moment. She was still angry with him, but after a day of being able to digest his words, she understood where they were coming from.
“How’s Matt?” Owen asked.
“The doctor said everything was fine,” Claire answered, waiting for the I-told-you-so that never came, which she was glad to escape. She’d never felt uncomfortable with him, but with what she wanted to say, the feeling was inevitable.
“About this morning—”
“I’m sorry,” Claire said, cutting him off. “I know, you thought you’d be the one apologizing.”
“What I said about your dad, it was wrong.” Owen walked over and joined her on the couch. “It’s just everything that’s happened… I think I’ve let it get to me more than it should.”
“We both have.” Claire leaned her head against his chest. It was still damp with sweat, and he smelled the same way he did coming home from the shipyard in Baltimore. The familiarity was comforting. “But I’m not wrong about what’s happening. Something is off, Owen. I still want to leave. I haven’t changed my mind about that.”
Owen sighed. “I spoke to Chuck. He said he’ll find us a place, but he doesn’t have anything open right now.” Claire started to speak, and Owen lifted her hands. “It’s just one more night, Claire. Just one more. Okay?”
Claire drew in a deep breath. “All right. But we leave tomorrow.”
“Right.” Owen kissed her forehead. “How was your dad?”
“Not good,” Claire answered. “He was himself for a little bit, and then… well, he wasn’t.”
“Putting him in a home is the best way for him to get the help that he needs,” Owen said, doing his best to sound reassuring. “They’ll be better equipped for stuff like that, and I promise that we’ll go and visit him at least once a week. Plus there’s phone calls, and video—”
“I don’t want to put him in a home,” Claire said. “I’ve thought about it a lot, and it’s not what my mom would have wanted.” She straightened her back. “It’s not what I want.”
Owen stood silent for what felt like an eternity before he sat down on the couch’s armrest and nodded slowly. “And you’re comfortable leaving your dad around the kids?” He looked her in the eye. “He’s only going to get worse.”
“I know, and yes, I am.” Claire stood firm, hoping that Owen couldn’t see her trembling. “I still don’t believe that he bit Matt. He wouldn’t have done that. I know him.”
“We’ll talk more about it later.” Owen turned toward their bedroom. “I’m going to take a shower.”
Claire crossed her arms then glanced up to the second floor where Chloe had spread out a series of blank white papers and spilled all of her crayons on the floor. Matt was sound asleep, but Claire made sure to keep his door propped wide open. He’d passed out the moment they got home from the hospital. She’d never seen him so tired, but she figured it was good he was sleeping.
The laptop was still on the couch, the power light glowing and blinking slowly. She sat down next to the computer, looking but not touching, wondering what she would find on her Google search of the town. Just as she was about to open the tabs, Chloe called for her upstairs. Claire left the computer on the couch, making a mental note to check those results later.
After Owen showered he tried rousing Matt from bed, but he wouldn’t budge, settling for a glass of water instead of dinner and fell right back into his semi-coma. Chloe joined them for dinner briefly, and then returned upstairs to continue her drawings.
Owen cleared the dinner table while Claire helped Chloe get ready for bed. When he walked back to their bedroom he saw Claire sitting on the edge of their bed, picking at her nails nervously.
“Hey,” Claire said, her voice so small and fragile it was like her teeth were made of porcelain and if she spoke too loud they would shatter.
“Hey.” Owen sat down next to her, then grabbed her hand. They hadn’t spoken over dinner, and he’d been avoiding bringing up the subject of her father. But he couldn’t stop thinking about the promise he’d made to Roger. “I know you love your dad. I love him too. And what you said about your mom not wanting to put him in a home if she was still alive, I think you’re right. She wouldn’t have.”
Claire’s expression softened.
“But you have to understand that things have changed,” Owen said. “Your dad would never hurt the kids, but he’s also not in his right mind. We can’t think of him like he was anymore. We can’t—”
Claire sniffled, wiping a tear from her eye. “I’m sorry.” She squeezed his hand, a desperation in her touch that he’d never felt before. “With the move, and everything happening with Matt, it just feels like I’m losing my family.” She looked up at him, her eyes red and watering, the tiny red veins of her eyes irritated from the tears. “I don’t have a dad anymore.”
Owen rested his chin on her head as she leaned into him and sobbed. He held her tight. “But you’re not going to lose your family. I won’t let that happen. I promise.”
Claire took deep breaths, exhaling slowly, doing her best to regain control of her emotions. She shook her head and wiped her eyes. “You can’t promise that.”
“I can,” Owen said, looking at her. “And I will.” He never wanted to see his wife break like this again. “We’ll keep your dad here. We’ll do what we have to do. But he will eventually need to be sent somewhere for care. I don’t want the kids to have their last memories of their grandfather being what he’ll become. And he wouldn’t want that either.”
Claire kissed him, and then wiped her eyes. “I’m gonna take a shower before bed.”
“Okay,” Owen said.
When she was finished, Claire stepped out of the shower like a wet zombie and collapsed into bed with the towel still around her body. Owen helped her out of it, then pulled the thin sheet over her, kissed her cheek, and then turned off the light.
Owen lay in bed with his eyes closed, but his mind wouldn’t turn off. He found himself trying to rationalize everything that happened. He kept brushing it off as coincidence, but there was something about last night, the way Claire had looked, the spiders, the water, even that Voodoo woman, it was all connected.
Just the thought of her caused Owen to shiver with anxiety. And it wasn’t just her, it was that whole goddamn store. And while he never believed in religion, there was something satanic about the place. Something evil.
Owen tilted his head on his pillow toward Claire. His family was the only great thing he’d done in his life. Growing up, he had dreams, like all little kids did, but there was always something that kept him from ever trying to peek over the edge. It wasn’t fear of failure, just an understanding of who he was at a very early age. He wanted a wife, to own a house, raise kids, work hard to provide for his family, and come home at the end of the day sweaty and satisfied. But now it all felt like it was slipping away.
A heavy thump sounded upstairs, and Owen jolted upright out of bed.
“What was that?” Claire asked, wakening with a violent jerk.
Owen swung his legs off the side of the bed, his eyes watching the ceiling, listening. He kept still, his muscles tense, and another heavy thump echoed upstairs, this one accompanied by a rattling noise.
“Oh my god.” Claire jumped out of bed, the towel she fell asleep in falling to the floor as she rushed around the end of the mattress before Owen snatched her arm to stop her from leaving. “That’s the same—”
“Just stay here,” Owen said, reaching for the Louisville slugger he kept behind the nightstand. He left Claire to dress and stepped into the hallway, the heavy thumps and rattling growing louder upstairs as he sprinted toward the kids’ rooms.
He dashed through the dining room and looked up to the second balcony. Oddly shaped shadows formed on the walls in the darkness, but Owen felt his heart skip a beat when he saw one move into Matt’s room.
“Hey!” Owen sprinted to the staircase, his body in such a hurry that he cracked the side of the dining table with the bat as it dragged behind him. He leapt up the stairs, but the moment his foot hit the first step of the staircase, the ground trembled.
Owen’s foot slipped against the wood, and gravity body-slammed him awkwardly on the steps. The staircase shuffled him side to side, the whole damn house shaking like they were in an earthquake. “Matt!”
The rumbling worsened as Owen ditched the bat and was forced to crawl up the stairs on his hands and knees. The noise blared like a freight train speeding through the house, and Owen’s bones rattled more violently the closer he reached the second story.
But as Owen climbed, there was another noise among the freight train, an undertone that he’d heard before. It was a whisper, a chanting, and he could have sworn he heard the woman’s voice from that voodoo shop.
The trembling ground thrust Owen into the wall, then the bannister, his legs twisting beneath him on his serpentine sprint to his son’s room. The door was shut, and the vibrations of the house were so intense that Owen’s vision blurred. “Matt!”
The whispering undertones grew louder, and they were accompanied by a rhythmic rattling that grew as violent as the tremors.
Owen stretched his arm and reached for the knob, pulling himself toward the door and shouldering it open in one motion. The moment he stepped inside, the trembling stopped.
Owen stumbled a few steps, his legs wobbling on steady ground, and found Matt’s bed empty, the sheets messily strewn about the mattress. Owen’s heart plummeted toward his stomach and he frantically searched the room. “Matt! MATT!”
“Owen!” Claire screamed from downstairs, her voice cracking.
“He’s gone!” Owen pressed his hands into the side of his head, the panic overwhelming him as he spun in circles in the dark.
Moonlight filtered through the dirty bedroom window, and Owen passed his eyes over it so quickly that he nearly missed the figure in the tall grass. He rushed to the window, his hands plastered against the dirty glass like a mad man trapped in an asylum.
Amidst the tall grass he saw something carrying his son toward the swamp. “Matt!” Owen smacked the glass and then sprinted out of the room and back toward the spiral staircase, passing Claire on her way up.
She grabbed at his arm, but he was too quick for her to stop. “What happened?”
“Someone took him!” Owen jumped the last three steps of the staircase, landing hard on the balls of his feet, breaking into a sprint toward the front of the house. The heavy thump of his feet echoed loudly through the house and ended when he slammed into the wall of humid Louisiana swamp air outside.
Owen cut a hard left that sank his feet into dirt and mud, causing him to trip. “Matt!” The tall grass in the clearing tickled at his legs and waist. He pumped his arms and legs hard, ignoring the tingle in his bare feet and the growing numbness of his body.
The clearing ended and Owen smacked aside the hanging Spanish moss as dirt morphed into mud that splashed up his legs with every step, sucking his feet into the depths of Louisiana swamp.
The overhanging branches of trees blocked the stars and moonlight and while the air had been hot and muggy when he first stepped outside, Owen felt a crisp chill run up his back.
“Come out here!” Owen screamed at the top of his lungs, stumbling through the mud like a drunkard. Rage coursed through his veins, laced with the fear of losing his son and the unknown of the darkness he saw take him. “Matt!”
The rattling noise sounded to his left, and Owen snapped his head in that direction. He lifted his foot, and the mud gave off a low suction noise as he stepped forward. The darkness thickened, and water started to bubble up from the mud the farther he walked. “You can’t hide out here forever!”
Gnats and flies buzzed around his head, and despite the growing chill, sweat oozed from Owen’s skin. The water level rose to his shins as he followed the rattling and then a quick, heavy swoosh sounded to his left. He jumped from the noise and watched the ripples wrinkle the still water. “Matt?”
Dark patches of grass and debris floated lazily over the black water, and the cypress trees grew more frequent the deeper he waded. He couldn’t stop shivering, and when the water reached his knees, that’s when he saw it.
It wasn’t human, though it had legs and arms and stood upright. Thick cords of matted black hair sprouted from the top of its head and traveled down its back. Its head was large, its torso short but muscular. Its entire body was covered in a scaly grey flesh that glistened and shimmered under the moonlight. It held Matt in its arms, six-inch black claws stretched out from three stubby fingers on each hand.
“Let him go,” Owen said, doing his best to keep his voice steady.
The creature didn’t answer. It just stared at Owen, holding Matt, half its body below the waterline. Then, slowly, it opened its mouth, wide. A throaty croak escaped ending in a long, drawn-out hiss. The sharp teeth were pointed toward Owen and the creature hunched forward while it held his son.
Water rippled to Owen’s left and right, and he saw something gliding through the water just below the surface. He turned back to the creature, and it slowly lowered into the water, taking Matt with it.
“NO!” Owen lunged forward, erupting the still, rancid swamp water. Quick, thrashing movements to his right stole Owen’s attention, and those croaking hisses grew louder. It wasn’t until the gator was less than a foot away that Owen realized where the sound was coming from.
He jerked to a stop, backtracking as the pair of gators blocked his path toward his son. He splashed the water, trying to push the gators back, but they wouldn’t budge. “Matt!” The creature was submerged to the chest now, sinking lower. His son’s head was nearly underwater, his eyes closed as he lay unconscious against the creature’s body.
The gator to the left lunged and snapped, and Owen fell backward, his arms and legs flailing wildly on his retreat as the creature finally disappeared beneath the water’s surface.
“NO!” The scream rivaled the gator’s fierce hiss as both animals pressed forward, pushing Owen from the water. The pair followed him all the way up the mud, Owen’s backside sliding in the thick muck as he kicked his legs. The gators slithered on their bellies over the dark mud, water dripping from their jaws as they exposed the hundreds of short, jagged teeth that still had bits of flesh on them from their last meal. Owen got to his feet, backpedaling, and the gators ended their pursuit. Mud and water dripped from Owen’s body as his mouth hung slack.
This wasn’t real. This was a bad dream and he’d wake any minute. “Matt!” His voice echoed off the water and bounced through the swamp until it disappeared into the darkness like that creature.
Headlights caught his attention toward the road. They turned down the long driveway to the house, and Owen immediately sprinted toward the truck, waving his arms in panicked frenzy, his legs cramping. “Hey! Help!”
The truck’s headlights bounced up and down over the encroaching cypress roots that curved over the dirt path to the house. It slowed to a stop, and the lights and engine remained on as Owen drew closer, the adrenaline that fueled him nearly gone. “My son! Something took my son!”
A pair of shadowed figures said nothing as they stepped out of the truck, and Owen slowed. The truck looked familiar, but before Owen made the connection, a gunshot thundered from one of the silhouettes.
Owen ducked, and sprinted to the back of the house. Three more gunshots fired, each making Owen flinch. His heavy legs and arms suddenly grew light in his flight, and he didn’t stop until the house was between him and the shooters.
Gasping for breath Owen hunched over, resting his hands on his knees. The gunmen shouted at one another, their voices carrying in the night, and then Owen heard the front door groaning as they stepped inside. His eyes widened. Claire. Chloe.
Quickly, he snuck through the back door, gently closing it behind him while the men up front stomped loudly through the front living room.
“We know you’re here!” The voice echoed down the hallways but was slightly muffled from the walls. “You’re just going to make it harder on yourselves!”
Owen paused just before the hallway in the back led into the dining room. He knew that voice. It was Jake Martin from work. That was his truck parked out front.
“C’mon out, Owen! Let’s get this over with.”
Owen quietly crept around the edge of the stairwell, his eyes falling to the baseball bat that had fallen from his hand when the house started shaking. Halfway on his approach, the floorboards creaked and gave away his position.
He snatched the bat and sprinted toward the back just as a gunshot fired across the dining room and put a hole in the wall three inches from Owen’s head. He ducked into the den where Roger’s room had been located and crouched low by the door.
Slow, deliberate footsteps moved closer. Owen had a white-knuckled grip around the slugger’s handle and he shivered, each breath rattling from the tiny convulsions from his body. The footsteps ended after a final groan from the floorboards and Owen forced himself still, holding his breath.
A bullet blasted through the wall to Owen’s left, followed by three more shots that nipped at his ankles. Jake rounded the corner of the doorway and when he entered, Owen spun around, leading with the bat in his hands, connecting with the rifle.
The weapon clanged to the floor and as Owen lifted the bat to strike, Jake charged, leveling both men to the ground. The harsh contact into the hardwood knocked the wind out of Owen, and elbows and knees struck the floor in harsh smacks as the pair grappled with one another.
Jake’s meaty fingers curled around Owen’s throat, then tightened like a vice. Spit dribbled from Jake’s foaming mouth, his eyes wild and dark like the creature he saw out in the woods. Owen’s face reddened and he bucked his hips trying to push Jake off, but the man wouldn’t budge. Slowly, Owen lifted his right leg, wedging it between the two of them, and pushed into Jake’s gut.
Jake held on for a few seconds, but Owen managed enough leverage to fling him off, and Jake was lifted backwards onto his ass. Owen gasped for air and he rolled toward the rifle, Jake making a move at the same time.
Both men collided, their shoulders cracking into one another as two sets of hands fought over the weapon, Owen grabbing hold of the stock with Jake on the barrel.
Owen yanked it toward him, and Jake came with it, using the momentum to drive Owen back against the wall. Pictures crashed to the floor as Jake kept Owen pinned. Both men’s faces flushed red, their expressions pained and angry as they locked like a pair of horned rams.
Owen jammed his knee into Jake’s stomach and the man’s grip loosened. He then yanked the weapon hard left, spinning in a half circle as he stole the gun. Jake lunged, but Owen had a half second on him, and that was all he needed as he butt-stroked Jake’s forehead.
Jake collapsed to the floor like a limp noodle, a gash cut across his forehead that leaked blood over his face and the floor. Owen held the gun loosely in his right hand, staggering to the left and right as he caught his breath, gently rubbing the red marks on his neck.
Chloe screamed, and Owen jerked his head toward the sound. He jumped over Jake’s unconscious body, rifle raised as he followed the noise toward the master bedroom, and that was where he saw Marty’s father-in-law, the old man that Owen only knew as “Grandpa,” with a knife to his wife’s throat and Chloe unconscious in the corner.
“Let her go!” Spittle flew from Owen’s mouth as he aimed the rifle at the old man’s face. His eyes looked grey and dull in the moonlight, but the steel shimmered brightly under Claire’s chin. “I will shoot you.”
“No, you won’t,” Grandpa said, his expression stoic as he shifted Claire’s body in front of him as a human shield. “I doubt you’ve ever even pulled a trigger before.”
Owen’s cheek was pressed up against the rifle’s stock as the small tick marks of the rifle’s sight offered a narrow window to the old man’s head. “The cops are on their way.” Owen took a dry swallow. “They’ll be here any minute.”
“Bullshit,” the old man said. “Nobody’s coming. It’s just you, and—”
Claire thrashed backward, thrusting both her and the old man onto the bed. Owen rushed to her side as she elbowed the old man’s ribs and the knife nicked her throat. Claire whimpered, placing her hand over the fresh wound, but scurried away.
Owen aimed the barrel only a few inches from the old man’s chest as he lay helpless on the bed. He had his finger over the trigger, but the old man didn’t flinch.
“You don’t have it in you, boy.” The old man lifted his head off the bed, his grey eyes locked onto Owen. “You don’t have the look.”
The weapon trembled in Owen’s hand. His grip tightened, but the old man was right. He couldn’t pull the trigger. Owen loosened his grip but kept the rifle aimed at the old man as he took the knife away. He backed toward Claire. “Are you all right?”
Claire removed her hand from the wound, blood smeared over her fingers. She hissed in pain. “I think so.” She walked around the bed toward Chloe and picked her up off the ground. “They knocked her out with some rag.”
“Chloroform,” the old man said. “She’ll be fine in a few hours.”
“Who sent you?” Owen asked, aiming the rifle at the old man’s head. “Who took my son?”
The old man shook his head. “Boy, you have no idea the shit you’ve just stepped in.”
“Owen, we need to call the police,” Claire said, clutching Chloe closely.
Owen gestured the end of the rifle barrel up. “Move.” The old man complied and Owen walked him out into the dining room and had him sit down at the table. He handed Claire the knife and then retreated back to where he’d left Jake, keeping the barrel of the rifle on the old man until he was no longer in sight.
Owen stepped into the den and the gun barrel dropped to the floor. Jake was gone. Owen spun toward the back door and stepped outside, scanning the yard, and then looked toward the tree line where the swamp water began. He saw nothing.
He returned to the dining room and the old man was still in the chair, Claire holding the knife and Chloe. When Owen walked back in alone, the old man smiled.
“Why?” Owen asked. “Why are you doing this to us? Where is my son!” Claire flinched from the sudden burst of anger, and Owen rammed the rifle’s barrel into the old man’s left cheek, cocking his head at a harsh angle.
The old man grimaced. “Your boy’s gone, Yankee.”
“Please,” Claire said, pleading. “You have children, don’t you?”
The old man gave Claire a side-eye. “You’re not getting him back, lady. Accept it.”
“No,” Owen said, shoving the end of the weapon into the old man’s head. “You tell me where my son is or I blow your brains out and toss you out in the middle of the swamp.” He gritted his teeth and felt a wild hate take control of him that he’d never felt before.
The old man stared at Owen for a minute, and then the left corner of his mouth twitched upward. “There’s the look.” He smiled, revealing that silver capped tooth of his. “There’s the killer.”
All but one of the factory’s lights had been shut off. Chuck Toussaint’s office was still illuminated, and he sat in his chair, sipping a glass of bourbon as he gazed out onto the still quiet of the factory floor. He hated it when it was like that. He loved the noise and commotion of production. If he could keep the factory open twenty-four hours a day, he would. What he saw now was just wasted money.
He set the glass down and checked his watch. It was a Rolex. His father had given it to him when he took over the business.
“Time is money, Chuckie. And like money, you can never have enough time.”
His father’s words lingered in Chuck’s head for a long time, rattling around in some of the blank spaces of his mind. It should be done by now, but neither Jake nor Billy had called. They were off schedule. And if there was one thing he hated more than losing money, it was being off schedule.
A hurried knock banged at his door, and Chuck snapped his head toward the commotion. It was too late for someone to be calling at this hour unexpected. He opened the bottom desk drawer and removed a .38 revolver and cocked the hammer back. “Who’s there?”
“It’s Nate! I need to talk to you!”
Chuck grunted in annoyance and gently lowered the hammer and then pocketed the weapon. He flung open the door and a very haggard, very panicked real estate agent rushed inside.
“I tried calling you, but it keeps going to voicemail,” Nate said, pacing the office floor in quick circles.
“What?” Chuck hurried back toward his desk and picked up his phone. No service. “Shit. You’d think by now we’d get some goddamn towers in this fucking town.”
“You didn’t tell me you filled the Cypress house,” Nate said blatantly. “Your new tenant paid me a visit today.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Chuck said, taking a seat and reaching for his bourbon. “It should be done by now.”
Nate flattened his palms on Chuck’s desk and hunched over. “You need to tell me when you do that. I almost started talking too much. And you know I have a problem with that.”
“Relax,” Chuck said sternly. “Have a drink. Bourbon’s behind you.”
Nate had always had a heavy hand, something that Chuck used to his advantage. “I don’t need this kind of stress, Chuck, I really don’t.” He poured himself a glance, gulped down a mouthful, then exhaled. “Thank God we only have to do this once.”
“Yeah,” Chuck said, his voice muffled in his glass as he took another sip. “Thank God.”
The late hour had turned Main Street into a ghost town. Crawl Daddy’s Bar shoved out its last few drunks and flipped the closed sign, then shut off the lights. The pair of Louisiana bachelors put their arms around one another, swaying back and forth down the sidewalk.
“I don’t care what they say, Tommy.” The man hiccupped and then burped, leaning into his friend. “You could have played pro-ball if you had gone to college. Go ‘Dawgs!”
Tommy slowed on their way down the sidewalk. “Woah, woah, Kenny, hold up.” He tapped his friend on the chest. “I-I don’t wanna walk in front of that store. Bitch inside might get us.”
Kenny, with all of his eight beers, four shots, and two plates of nachos under his belt, scrunched up his face skeptically. “You mean old crazy Crepaux? You really believe all that horseshit?” Kenny removed his arm and stumbled right up to the door, the closed sign exposed in the window, and pressed his greasy face up against the glass. “Hey! You in there, voodoo woman?” He laughed drunkenly and then turned back to Tommy, who started to chuckle himself. “I bet she ain’t even—”
A bright flash lit up the windows, and both Kenny and Tommy yelped as they shut their eyes and lifted their arms to block out the blinding light. Kenny fell backward and landed on his ass, scraping up his back and shoulders, while Tommy hunched over with his elbows on his knees.
The light disappeared, and it took them both a minute before Main Street slowly filed back into their vision.
“Tommy!” Kenny said, reaching out his hands and groping air. “Tommy, whe—” Kenny screamed and jumped when a hand touched his arm.
“C’mon, man, let’s get the hell out of here!” Tommy pulled Kenny toward his truck down the street, leaving whatever shit that woman was up to behind those closed doors.
Inside the shop, that voodoo woman, Madame Crepaux, stood over a wide, shallow bowl that took up the entirety of the card table she’d set it on. She sat alone, eyes closed with those white paint marks over her face, chanting over and over to herself.
A mixture of corked tubes and emptied baggies lay discarded on the table. The woman chanted the same phrase over and over, her eyes shut tight and her muscles tensed. “Chulung-Oola-Awaola-May. Chulung-Oola-Awaola-May. Chulung-Oola-Awaola-May. Chulung-Oola-Awaola-May.”
The words grew faster and she rocked back and forth. The water in the bowl was black like the night sky void of stars. It was still at first, but as she spoke the words faster, the water rippled from the center and outward toward the edges.
The woman lifted her arms and head toward the ceiling and opened her eyes, her throat bobbing up and down along with the chanting that had grown as loud as screams. The water in the bowl bubbled but as she reached the crescendo of the chant, the water fell flat as glass.
The chanting ended. Her arms and head lingered upward, her eyes open, and there she stayed until she heard the familiar rattle of bones cracking against one another. She looked down and in the water, she saw the creature. It snarled and hissed, those long, jagged teeth and black eyes fixated on her.
Slowly, she lowered her arms and clutched the sides of the bowl as a smile spread across her lips. She’d been waiting for this moment for a long time. The reckoning was near. The righting of all those wrongs so many years ago was at hand. Now all she needed was the father.