Annie had her hand on the door handle even before Marcus brought the car to a complete stop. She had already unclasped her seatbelt and reached around to the backseat for her heavily-stuffed backpack.
"Behave." Marcus said, stressing his one-word command with what he hoped was enough parental authority to penetrate the giddy twelve-year-old's brain. Annie hesitated a moment, then leaned over and gave her father a quick kiss on the cheek.
"See ya later, Dad." She scrambled out of the car to join the small herd of preteen girls having what appeared to be an impromptu gymnastics competition on the lawn in front of the house. Marcus watched his daughter a moment, once again amazed at how quickly she was growing into a tall and lanky teenager. She tossed her backpack to the ground and turned a cartwheel, losing her balance at the last moment and sprawling on her butt. Laughing, she sprang to her feet and turned toward the driveway, noticing her father still there. Still laughing, she brushed her long blond hair out of her face and gave him a small wave as if dismissing him.
Marcus pulled out of the driveway and headed for home. An entire empty Saturday night stretched out before him ripe with possibilities He considered each one in turn and immediately rejected them. Instead of going for a drink at a bar or catching a movie, he knew exactly where he would end up on this particular evening. On the couch in front of the TV, remote in one hand and beer in the other. Their small living room had become a sort of safe place for him, the blaring TV blocking all other thoughts and cocooning him from the rest of the world. Of course, the beer didn't hurt either. After a few beers, all unwelcome thoughts of Diane were softened and blurred around the edges until they didn't cut him anymore.
Marcus turned onto highway 9 and the familiar journey out of town lulled him into deep thought. Without the beer to insulate him, each unbidden thought of Diane opened up new wounds with jagged points. He recalled his last visit to the hospital when Diane had refused to see him.
She wouldn't even come out of her room into the visiting area where Marcus waited for nearly an hour. Finally, he had flagged down a nurse and asked her why. She hesitated a moment, and then offered up a flimsy excuse about Diane simply not feeling up to having visitors. But, Marcus had persisted and perhaps frightened by the look in his eyes, the nurse relented.
Apparently, Diane had had yet another strange dream the night before and awoke in a near-psychotic state, raging about the fact that Marcus did not believe her story. She had to be sedated, such was her rage. She had awakened every patient on the ward with her ranting and screaming. It had been the worst attack she'd had since being admitted. The nurse tried to soothe him by telling him that it was perhaps for the best that she did not see him today. Marcus had left then and had not been back for two weeks. He was thankful that Annie had not accompanied him on that visit.
The drive out of town took fifteen minutes and by the time Marcus pulled into the driveway, the sun was setting, casting its last deep orange rays across the yard. Marcus looked at his house for a long moment, lost in thought once again. The beautiful exterior of the newly renovated two-story farmhouse belied the ugliness it once held inside. Looking at it from the outside, one could never guess the hell that had once lain just beyond its pristine white walls and sparkling windows.
He unlocked the back door and let himself into the kitchen. He took a step and nearly tripped over a small shape that darted in front of him. An angry meow of pain let him know in no uncertain terms that he had hurt the feelings of Annie's cat, Mister, who had been eagerly awaiting his arrival at the door. Marcus bent over and tried to make amends, but Mister, being a typical cat, finding that Marcus had neither cat treat nor Annie with him, stalked off, haughtily twitching his black tail.
As Marcus straightened up, a whiff of an oddly familiar scent filled his nostrils, a sharp chemical smell that instantly made his skin prickle and the hair on the back of his neck rise. Fresh lemon scent Lysol, there was no mistaking it. It vanished as soon as it had come, as if it were teasing him. Marcus took a few deep breaths but did not smell it again. Probably his imagination. Diane had been gone for months and Marcus had thrown out all the Lysol she had stockpiled, cans upon cans, dozens of cans hidden in the bathroom closets, under the bed, under the sink, even in the car. He had aired the house out completely and thought he had eliminated every trace. Surely he had. Even so, Marcus felt the old familiar feeling of apprehension and dread once again, even though he knew that Diane was locked up fifty miles away and had been for nearly six months. As he continued on into the kitchen he passed the basement door which stood slightly ajar. As it had hundreds of times in the last few months, the thought that he needed to fix the doorknob flitted through his mind. . A couple of weeks before her hospitalization, Diane had removed the doorknob from the inside of the basement door, leaving the doorknob on the kitchen side intact. When it was closed, it could not be opened from inside the basement. Marcus ignored the broken doorknob once again and flipped on the kitchen light. He rummaged through the refrigerator and freezer until he came up with a frozen pizza and his usual 6-pack. He set the oven and took a beer into the living room. As he propped his feet up on the coffee table, he noticed that all the newspapers and magazines that had been tossed in an unruly pile atop the table were now neatly stacked, newspapers on one side and magazines on the other. He sat up quickly, a hard knot of apprehension forming in his throat. Maybe Annie had straightened up before they left. It was very possible. But, the edges of the newspaper were perfectly lined up, as were the spines of the magazines. Marcus muted the TV for a moment and sat perfectly still, the pounding of his heart the only sound in his ears. The house was absolutely silent, and outside of the blue glow of the TV, the room was quickly growing dark. Just as he was about to turn the sound back on, there was a thump from the direction of the hallway. Marcus leaped to his feet and went to investigate. He found only Mister playing with a fuzzy mouse-shaped cat toy, batting it against the wall. The cat meowed at him and wound his way around Marcus's feet, past transgressions apparently forgiven.
Marcus felt ridiculous for allowing himself be spooked so easily, but still could not shake the vague feeling of unease that tickled at the back of his mind. He knew of only one way to ease his mind, and if he didn't do it he would be on edge for the rest of the night.
He began his search. It was a familiar search that he had gone through at least a dozen times since Diane was hospitalized. Each time he felt silly but always extremely relieved when he finished his search without finding anything. And each time he did it, he wondered if perhaps somehow a little bit of Diane's illness had in fact rubbed off on him. It was kind of funny in a way, his wife being hospitalized for her obsessions and he finally being free of her, but doomed with his own sort of obsession that she had left with him. Her gift to him, such as it was.
He began his search as he always did, in the downstairs bathroom. He switched on the light and took a quick look around. All appeared normal. He pulled back the shower curtain in one swift motion and was relieved, as he always was, to find it empty. Catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror over the sink, he was startled to see a multitude of tiny new wrinkles had formed around his eyes and his eyes were blood-shot and red-rimmed. He hadn't shaved in a couple of days and uneven stubble lined his cheeks and chin. His dark hair was going gray at the temples, a process that had seemingly been speeded up with the events of the past year. He looked like an old man. An old drunk.
"What the hell am I doing?" He asked himself. His reflection offered no satisfactory answer. He continued onward with his search. Next stop was the kitchen. He checked the pantry and took a quick look into the garage. Empty. The only place he didn't bother to check was, of course, the basement. No reason to even bother checking there.
Finding the downstairs clear, Marcus continued his search upstairs. He checked Annie's bedroom first, flinging open her closet door and bending to take a peek under her bed. Empty. The only other presence in the room was her multitude of posters on the walls. Every available surface was covered with pictures of teen idols. The Backstreet Boys seemed to be sneering at him from at least two dozen different posters. Marcus flipped off the light and closed the door. Annie would 'freak' as she eloquently put it, had she known he had been in her room without permission. Marcus was just grateful she was beginning to act like a normal kid again. The posters were only recent additions of the last few months. Before that, Diane had not allowed them. Too hard to scrub the walls with posters everywhere. In retrospect, Marcus questioned himself for the hundredth time on why he had not acted sooner. Things had gone from bad to worse to hell in such a short time. Hindsight was 20/20, as the saying goes.
His bedroom, the guest bedroom and upstairs bathroom were all clear. A faint beep from the stove downstairs reminded him of his frozen pizza and how hungry he was. His search successfully completed, he started down the hall toward the stairs. A thump and faint scraping sound came from overhead.
The attic. He had forgotten about the attic.
Marcus turned slowly and looked upward. The trap door to the attic was closed and the pull string was swaying slightly as if it had been recently used. He grasped the string and pulled down the folding stairs, telling himself all the while that it was probably a squirrel, maybe a bird, the house settling. But, he knew even before he climbed into the dark space of the attic that she was there. He pulled himself up and out of the trapdoor and reached for the light. He turned in all directions, searching in the dim light of the single bulb. Boxes of Christmas decorations, an old trunk, boxes of clothing, old exercise equipment... he didn't see anything out of place.
A small sound came from the farthest corner of the attic, a space so small that Marcus could not have fit into without crawling on all fours. He swallowed hard, ignoring a faint feeling of nausea rising up in his throat. His hands were sweaty as he reached for a long-abandoned 10-pound barbell and he nearly dropped it. Thank God Annie's not home, thank God she's not home, he repeated over and over in his mind like a mantra.
He forced his voice into a normal tone, or what he hoped was a normal tone. "Diane? Are you here?" He heard nothing for a long moment, and he relaxed a little, immensely relieved and annoyed with himself at the same time. And then he heard it. Her voice was so faint that if he hadn't been listening for it he would not have heard her. "Marcus?" Feeling as if his heart would leap out of his chest, Marcus squinted and peered into the far corner but could not see a thing. The corner was out of range of the single bulb and deep in shadow. "I can't see you. Can you come a little closer?" From the corner came a scraping sound and movement, and a form took shape as Diane crawled into the light. Marcus recoiled instinctively, nearly losing his balance and coming close to falling into the open trapdoor behind him. Diane sat down before him, clutching a butcher knife in both hands. Her oily hair hung in dark lank strands around her face, and she wore jeans and a T-shirt which Marcus did not recognize. Where did she get those? He wondered. Wild thoughts raced through his mind and he did nothing to dispel them. The worst had come to pass, just as he had feared for the last six months. "We have to kill it, Marcus." She said, matter-of-factly.
"Kill what?" Marcus asked, already knowing what. "It. It wants Annie. It's coming for her. It's stronger. Can't you feel it?" IT. The thing in the basement. Of course. Marcus moved carefully away from the opening in the floor, placing the hole between him and her. "How did you get out, Diane?"
Diane ignored his question and began rocking back and forth slightly, cradling the knife carefully in her arms. "Got to kill it. It'll come for her. Tonight."
"How do you know this?"
She looked at him, her gaze strangely unfocused. "It told me. In a dream. It wants her. It wants Annie. It's been waiting. It was teasing me, taunting me because I was locked up and no one believed me. You believe me, don't you?"
Her voice took on a familiar pleading tone. Marcus knew better than to argue, especially with her holding a knife. "Yes, of course I believe you."
She moved so quickly that Marcus had no time to react. She slid around the trapdoor opening and was at his side instantly, knife to his throat. "NO! You don't believe me, you never did."
Marcus did not move, did not want to risk setting her off again. "Yes, I do believe you. We have to kill it."
All of her anger seemed to suddenly leave her and she slumped against him, sobbing. Gently, he tried to pry the knife from her hands. As soon as she realized what he was trying to do, she jerked away from him. "Liar. You don't believe me."
Marcus thought quickly. "Yes, I do, why do you think I made sure the basement door was closed when I came home tonight? It can't get out if it can't open the door."
She seemed relieved and moved even further away from him, still clutching the knife tightly. "Are you sure? Sure it was completely closed? I'm not sure how small a space it can fit through."
Marcus saw an out and took it. "No, I am not completely sure, but I will go and check and come back right away."
This seemed to pacify her for the moment. "Just be careful. It makes no noise when it moves. It can sneak up on you before you know it."
Marcus assured her that he would, indeed, be careful when checking for her imagined horror living in the basement. He tried to talk her into letting him have the knife for protection, but she refused, because, she reasoned, if it killed Marcus it would come after her and she would have nothing to defend herself with. Marcus reassured her once again and climbed out of the attic.
Once on the floor below, Marcus folded up the trap door above and told himself that it would be no easy task for her to unfold the stairs from above. He was not sure how she had managed to fold up the stairs from the attic in the first place, but he knew that unfolding them would cause enough noise to give him warning. He had time to place a phone call to the police. That was first on the list. How to deal with Diane after that while waiting for the police was another story.
The phone in the bedroom was dead. Annie had probably left it off the base after one of her marathon phone sessions and only replaced it this afternoon where it hadn't had time to completely recharge. Marcus headed downstairs to the kitchen. The first thing that he noticed was that the basement door was standing wide open. A pang of fear went through him before he remembered that he did not believe Diane. This was ridiculous. Mister, the cat, had pawed it open and gone downstairs, probably in search of real mice. It hadn't been closed all the way when he returned home, he reminded himself.
Marcus suddenly found his situation so ludicrous that he nearly laughed aloud. His paranoid-delusional wife, an escapee from a mental hospital, was hiding out in the attic with a butcher knife waiting for the monster in the basement to make an appearance so she could kill it to prevent it from eating their daughter, or whatever it was that it was planning to do to her. How had they reached this point? Marcus could remember the first time Diane had ever mentioned the thing in the basement. He had returned from work one evening soon after they had moved in, to find Diane in near-hysterics about a strange noise she had heard in the basement while washing clothes. It was a hideous sliding, slimy noise she had said, coming from behind the furnace. She had begged and pleaded with him until he relented, and descended the basement stairs to investigate. She had insisted on his carrying a baseball bat, funny at the time, but not so funny now. Of course, he had found nothing down there, except for a load of wet clothing lying in a heap on the cement floor in front of the washer where she had dropped them before running upstairs. Just a mouse, he had told her. She swore she was never going down there again, and Marcus had laughed it off. Things had progressed quickly from that point on. In a matter of weeks, his wife had began her odd rituals of cleaning and disinfecting, cleansing the house of the residue the thing left behind whenever it came slithering up the basement stairs and through the house each night while they were asleep. She began stockpiling Lysol insisting that it was the only thing that would remove the nasty slime from everything that the thing touched. She removed the doorknob from the inside of the basement door convinced that it could not escape without a doorknob. That had comforted her for awhile and then she began to dream about it. She had awakened almost every night screaming in terror. Her anti-depressants and other medications seemed to only add fuel to the fire. Things escalated until the night that Marcus found Diane trying to force a confused and terrified Annie into the car at midnight in an attempt to escape the thing in the basement. Marcus knew it was out of his control at that point, and had her committed to the mental institution the next day.
The kitchen phone was dead also. Marcus jiggled the receiver and tried again. Still nothing. He reached down to check the connection, following the phone line in his hands until he reached the little box. The line had been cut. He stood for a long moment, the cord dangling from his hand, as if he were in some cheesy horror movie. Now is when the poor sap turns around and sees he is about to be devoured by the monster, he thought, and whirled around. The kitchen was empty, of course. The open basement door loomed before him, taunting him. A prickle of fear traveled up his spine. Wasn't it true that he had gotten spooked himself, and badly, a couple of times while down in the basement doing the laundry that Diane refused to touch? Hadn't he had the feeling that he was being watched, on occasion?
He shook his head to clear his thoughts. Back to reality, he told himself. He dropped the phone cord and realized his hand was wet. The palm of his hand was covered with some slick clear substance, mucous-like in its consistency. He picked up the severed cord and looked more closely. It had not been cut. It had been gnawed.
Marcus flung the severed cord away as if it had bitten him. He wiped his shaking hands across his jeans, trying to rid his hands of every trace of the unknown substance that covered them. Without thinking, he took a few steps backward, away from the open door of the basement.
Marcus's brain tried to process the information as logically as he could. This is nuts. The small voice of reason in the back of his mind told him. This is crazy. There is no monster lurking in the basement. The cat chewed the cord. Mister had simply chosen the most inopportune moment to do so.
Mister is nearly twelve years old, ancient for a cat. He has never chewed so much as a shoelace in all that time, and he picks today to start chewing through phone cords? The little voice in the back of Marcus's mind no longer sounded quite so reasonable.
As he faced the open doorway of the basement, Marcus suppressed the urge to yank open the nearest drawer and search for a weapon. Diane had already taken the biggest knife in the kitchen, but there were still several smaller ones left in the knife drawer....this is insane! Marcus took a step forward, intending to close the basement door and ease his mind. It was then that he heard the sound. It drifted upward out of the basement, a low guttural growl that sent sharp prickles of fear up Marcus's spine and stopped him in his tracks.
The kitchen lights illuminated only the first three or four steps descending into the basement. Beyond that, the basement was pitch-black. Marcus could see nothing in the gloom. Again, the sound rose up from the basement. The low growl intensified into a sing-song whine and was followed by a long hiss.
Mister. The cat was in the basement. Feeling foolish, Marcus stepped forward with hand outstretched, intending to switch on the basement light. Without warning, his feet slid on a wet patch in front of the door and he was falling towards the open doorway before he had a chance to react. He groped vainly for something to stop his fall and his fingertips grazed the edge of the open door. Using that brief moment, he tried to regain his balance on the threshold, but his shoes could find no purchase on the inexplicably slick linoleum, and he suddenly felt himself pitching forward again, down the basement steps. His descent seemed to happen in slow-motion, and he felt each and every step as he body bashed helplessly against them. He could do nothing to help himself, except to raise his arms to protect his head. Finally, his violent descent came to a stop at the foot of the stairs.
Marcus found himself flat on his back on the basement floor. Shocked, he lay completely still for a moment, taking stock of his injuries. He had a sizable lump forming on his temple, but it did not seem serious. He was not bleeding, which was a good sign. Cautiously, he moved each arm and found them bruised and sore, but thankfully not broken. The same was not true for his legs. His left leg was in excruciating pain and even the slightest movement caused waves of agony to shoot throughout his body, and he knew that it was probably fractured. The right leg had fared better, but was still a mass of aches and bruises. Slowly, Marcus raised himself to a sitting position, mindful of his aching left leg.
He could see nothing in the blackness of the basement. Above him, the faint light from the kitchen shown down but its light did not even come close to reaching him. The darkness in the rest of the basement was so thick that it seemed almost palpable, as if it were a taste on the tip of his tongue. Unnerved, Marcus focused on the light of the kitchen above him, and tried to ignore the oppressive darkness at his back.
Suddenly, a snarling, hissing mass burst forth from the darkness and streaked across Marcus's lap. Marcus yelped in terror and pain as Mister's claws raked his thighs and stomach, and stepped squarely on his broken leg that lay directly in his path to the stairs. The cat scrambled up the stairs and out of the basement, skidding for a moment on the wet patch in the doorway before gaining his footing. Marcus watched the cat's desperate flight through involuntary tears of pain. His leg was throbbing from the cat's attack, and it was then that Marcus realized he was not going make it up those stairs without help.
He shut his eyes against the waves of pain, and tried desperately not to think about what had spooked the cat so. He had to get help. The only person in the world who could help him now was Diane who was in the attic. As far away from him as she could possibly be without leaving the house. His clinically insane knife-wielding ex-wife. The irony of his ludicrous predicament overwhelmed him once again.
At this point, he was willing to take help wherever he could get it. He took a deep breath and yelled as loud as he could.
"DIANE!!" The word seemed to be swallowed up by the darkness around him, and he was certain there was no way she could possibly hear him.
As if in answer to his voice, Marcus heard a muffled thump across the basement, coming from the direction of the washer and dryer. His mouth went dry with terror and a cold sweat broke out along his spine. Against his better judgement, Marcus began to panic. He grasped the edge of the bottom stair and began to pull himself up, ignoring the rational voice in his brain that told him to stay put and wait for help, that movement would only make his injuries worse. His left leg screamed in protest, and he collapsed, gasping, onto the stairs. He was going nowhere fast.
He was not alone in the basement. He could feel something, IT there with him. He could almost hear its whispery raspy breathing...
"Marcus? Oh my God, are you down there?" A shadow filled the doorway above him. "What happened?" Diane stood a few feet away from the doorway, leaning forward to peer into the darkness.
"I fell down the stairs. Turn on the light, and watch out, the floor is slippery right there."
"You fell all the way down? Oh, Marcus." Diane sounded sympathetic, her voice filled with concern, but she made no movement towards the doorway and the light switch.
"What are you waiting for? TURN ON THE LIGHT!" Marcus was well-aware of the hysterical tone that had crept into his voice, but didn't care. He wanted nothing else in the whole world at that moment, not an ambulance, not a doctor, not even painkillers or a beer, just the light on.
There was a long silence, punctuated only by Marcus's heavy and uneven breathing. Diane did not move. The horrible realization dawned on him a split-second before she spoke again, and he felt his heart sink as the words came out of her mouth.
"I can't. Marcus, I can't." Her voice was soft and low and he could barely make out her words. She could not and would not turn on the light for the simple reason that the light switch was on the inside wall. Inside the basement. She would have to reach into the place where her insanity originated. She had been hospitalized for six months because this one place existed, the horror it contained fabricated by her sick mind, but real to her nonetheless.
"For God's sake, Diane, I broke my leg. Please." He pleaded, knowing it was useless. Any more pushing on his part threatened to send her over the edge, and then he would have absolutely no help. He sighed and thought for a moment, his brain muddled with pain and fear.
"Alright. The phones are dead, both of them. Go out to my car and get my cell phone. It's in the glove compartment."
Diane hesitated for a moment, and then said "Okay." Marcus closed his eyes and leaned his head against the wall. He was beginning to feel the effects of his fall more fully now, the bruises becoming more and more painful as the minutes dragged by, and the pain from his leg was becoming unbearable. He opened his eyes to see that Diane had still not moved.
"Marcus, is it down there?" Her voice was quiet, almost a whisper.
A few hours ago, Marcus could have laughed her question off. Of course, "it" was not down there with him. It simply didn't exist. But that was then and this was now. Now, he wasn't so sure.
"It...I....I don't know." He answered truthfully.
Without another word, Diane turned and was gone. A moment later, Marcus heard the faint sound of the garage door closing behind her. She would return with the phone, and maybe, just maybe he could persuade her to turn on the light, and if not, then surely she could throw down a flashlight. What a strange sight would greet the police when they came into the kitchen, Marcus lying at the bottom of the basement stairs with a broken leg and Diane, perfectly healthy and able-bodied, unwilling to even turn on the basement light for him. Of course, they would immediately know she was completely nuts after talking to her for a minute or two. Marcus froze as a horrific thought occurred to him. What if Diana had the same thought and had made a run for it, leaving him to fend for himself. There was no way that she would hang around waiting for the police. Maybe she had taken the car and left, leaving him alone with no way to call for help. No, surely she would at least leave him the phone before running, wouldn't she? He began to feel panicky again, as his thoughts raced out of his control. The minutes crept by slowly, and Marcus was positive that at least ten minutes had passed. Still no sign of Diane. She had had more than enough time to go out and retrieve the phone from his car. Where was she?
Marcus was preparing himself for another attempt at climbing the stairs, when he heard footsteps across the kitchen floor. Diane stood above him, once again. She said nothing for a few moments, and then walked forward and started down the stairs. Marcus was so shocked, he could say nothing until Diane stood on the next-to-last step above him.
"How did you do that?" He asked, incredulously.
Diane did not reply and instead stood motionless above him. Marcus wondered if perhaps she had had some sort of psychotic break or was simply paralyzed with fear.
Without warning, she bent and he felt her hands under his arms. She began to lift him and he screamed in agony as his broken leg was shifted. Diane ignored his protests and continued to tug at him. In horror, Marcus realized that she apparently intended to drag him up the stairs.
"Stop! Stop! Help me up and I'll lean on you...Oh, GOD!" His words were cut off in a groan of pain as his body bumped against the stairs. For several moments he feared he was going to black out as waves of pain swept over him, astonishing in their intensity.
Once she got moving, the ascent was surprisingly swift. Marcus found himself at the top of the stairs, sprawled halfway into the kitchen, gasping for breath. Diane had simply let go of him and stepped away. He couldn't speak for a long while, busy concentrating on simply catching his breath and trying stay conscious.
Finally, he was able to pull himself completely out of the basement doorway and he leaned heavily against the kitchen wall, next to the refrigerator, as close as he could get to a sitting position without moving his leg too much. Diane still said nothing, and had moved further away from him, towards the darkened den, into the shadows.
"The phone, did you find the phone?" He asked, wiping at the thin sheen of sweat that had broken out across his forehead.
Diane moved slightly, and Marcus assumed she was shaking her head. He squinted, but was unable to make out her face in the dimness. The only light in the kitchen came from the tiny light over the stove. Why had she turned off the lights? A vague sense of unease once again prickled at the back of his neck. For the first time, he wondered where the knife was.
As his labored breathing slowed, he became aware of Diane's breathing, loud in the stillness of the room. It sounded odd. No, not odd, downright strange. Her breath whistled in and out irregularly, in wet and bubbly bursts as if she were drowning or choking.
Something was very wrong. He felt panicky and every part of his body tensed instinctively, ready for flight from this unknown danger. Of course, he was going nowhere with a busted leg. Before he had time to even try to figure out just what sort of danger he was in, he found he was instinctively looking around for a weapon with which to defend himself. He knew he was impossibly far away from the knives in the drawer on the other side of the refrigerator. The wall he leaned against was bare above him. Everything he could possibly need lay on the other side the refrigerator, tantalizingly out of reach at this particular moment. To the right of him was only the open doorway to the basement. At the other end of the kitchen was the door to the garage and escape to his car and cell phone. A thousand miles away.
He did not have time to think much more before Diane spoke. Or attempted to speak, as it were. A hideously wet squeal emitted from her mouth and the hair on the back of Marcus's neck stood on end as the sound went on and on for a few seconds. The squealing stopped and Diane made another equally horrid sound, this one deep and rumbling, as if she were clearing her throat. The moments stretched out into eternity as Marcus sat helpless, waiting for Diane to speak, wishing with every fiber of his being that he would never have to hear that awful sound again. Finally, she seemed to gain control of her vocal cords and one word came forth, obviously with great effort.
"Annie." Diane's voice was a hoarse and horribly wet whisper. "Where."
Realization shot through him like an electric shock, and he felt his sense of reality crack and turn completely upside down. He wondered briefly if he were dreaming and then just as quickly, wished that he was. This was no dream. His mind raced. Where had it ambushed her? In the garage? At the car? Was she dead now that it possessed her body or was she merely trapped, a prisoner in her own body? Marcus shuddered at the thought. Why had it not possessed his body when he laid helpless in the basement? But, as soon as the question crossed his brain, he knew the answer. Because his body was broken, damaged. His body would not serve its purpose. What purpose? Marcus had no idea and his brain refused to even speculate on the subject. He only knew that it wanted Annie, badly, and only he stood between it and her. It would not kill him, not yet, he was sure, because he had something it wanted. He knew where Annie was. Only he knew that Annie was safe, fifteen miles away, at her friend's house. And, only he knew that she would be there until tomorrow afternoon, when her friend's parents dropped her off at home.
Wait a minute, slow down. The rational voice in his brain pleaded. This is not possible, Diane is playing a trick. She's the crazy one, not you. Marcus began to doubt his rushed conclusions. His mind was running wild, probably brought on by the pain and shock of his fall.
Diane suddenly lurched and began moving across the kitchen towards him. She swayed and stumbled, her feet dragging with each step. Again, Marcus's hands fumbled around him searching for something, anything to defend against her. To his immense relief, Diane came to a stop a few feet from him, still swaying slightly from side to side. She inhaled deeply with a harsh high-pitched whistle and spoke once again.
Marcus said nothing and shrank against the wall, unconsciously trying to make himself a smaller target. He braced himself for an attack, mentally preparing himself for the immense pain the movement would bring. He made a quick plan to shove Diane away from him with his good leg and then drag himself across the floor to the drawers on the other side of the refrigerator. He might have just enough time to open the drawer and grab a knife before Diane gained her balance. If he was strong enough to knock her off balance in the first place. And if he didn't pass out from the pain, which was a distinct possibility. He knew his plan was desperate and utterly hopeless, but it was all he had. He could not let that thing get to Annie. What else could he do?
And then, suddenly, he knew. His left hand crept toward the refrigerator and fumbled about in the narrow space between the refrigerator and the wall. He prayed it was still there.
His fingers closed on the end of the baseball bat that Diane had begged him to take into the basement months ago. She had left it there, between the refrigerator and wall, should she ever need to defend herself against the thing in the basement, if it ever took a notion to come up the stairs and attack her while she cooked dinner. Marcus had forgotten all about it, until now. He remembered how it had been the subject of a lot of jokes on his part, at first, until her illness had gotten out of control. He offered up a silent prayer of thanks to the gods of irony.
Painfully, he shifted himself slightly until he was a few inches closer to the refrigerator. He needed to be able to lift the bat straight out from its hiding place and strike in one movement. He knew he would only have one chance. From its actions, it had not yet adjusted itself to Diane's body, and one blow would knock it to the floor. He hoped. His hand tensed around the neck of the bat as he waited. He could not strike until he was absolutely sure.
He did not have to wait long. The Diane-thing took another unsteady step towards him and the light from the stove fell across her face. What Marcus saw in those few seconds chilled him to the bone and convinced him that his fears were not unfounded. He felt bile rushing up his throat and had to suppress a sudden urge to vomit in disgust. Diane's face was a mass of movement. Something moved beneath her skin. Her eyes, staring blankly, alternately bulged and then sank into their sockets. A bulge appeared in her forehead, rose to a point, and then sank out of sight beyond her hairline. A ridge raced across one cheek toward her mouth and then disappeared as her cheek collapsed into the side of her mouth. Ripples ran up her neck to her face and her whole head seemed to wobble in response. Diane's mouth hung slackly open and Marcus caught a glimpse of something glistening and moving at the back of her throat. His eyes were drawn downward, away from her face to her arm. In the dim light, he could see the movement beneath the skin of her hand and forearm. Ripples, ridges and points appeared and reappeared, and Marcus became aware of a crackling sound.
Her bones were moving under her skin. It was rearranging her from the inside out.
There was no need to see any more. He had his answer. Diane took another step and loomed over him, her face only inches above his. Her breath was an overpowering stench of earthy rot and dampness. Something dripped onto his cheek and rolled down towards his mouth. Panicking, he resisted the urge to rub his face. He had to concentrate and take the first chance he had.
His chance came as Diane was suddenly racked by a powerful fit of coughing and retching. She bent away from him, her body jerking with spasms. Marcus did not hesitate. He raised the bat swiftly from its hiding place and swung, catching the Diane-thing full on the side of the head with a sickening thud. An unearthly gurgling squealing filled the air as the thing lurched and swayed, clutching at its head with hands that it did not have full control of yet. It took two steps away from Marcus and crashed to the floor, missing Marcus's broken leg by inches.
Marcus dropped the bat and sat for a long moment, unable to do anything more than breathe, powerless beneath the worst wave of pain he had yet experienced. With sheer will-power he forced himself to stay conscious, knowing that he would die if he passed out now. The thing that once had been Diane lay face-down beside him, her body twisted in an impossible heap of legs and arms. She did not move, nor did Marcus hear her breathing. Had he killed it? Or was it just stunned?
Slowly, using the bat as a crutch, Marcus struggled to his feet. He leaned heavily on the bat and hopped in the direction of the garage door. He paused for a moment to switch the overhead light on.
The thing's reaction was instantaneous. There was a horrible tearing sound and a long gray tentacle-like appendage shot out from beneath Diane's still body. Marcus was only a few feet away, and out of its reach. He watched in terrible fascination as the thing swept the floor quickly, leaving a slimy trail in its wake. It seemed to be searching for something. It paused as it reached the basement doorway, and rose up like a snake about to strike. It was transparent and seemed to be made of some sort of mucousy viscous substance. The tentacle waved in the air and then lunged forward with such speed that it became a blur. It stretched impossibly long, the end disappearing in the gloom of the basement.
Diane's limp body began to move. Slowly, in jerky movements at first and then picking up speed, it slid steadily toward the basement doorway. The thing was dragging her with it into the safety of the basement. Her body wedged against the doorjamb and stopped. The thing jerked once or twice more and then her body was still. All at once, there was a tremendous sucking tearing sound and Diane's body gave a huge shudder. Marcus caught a quick glimpse of something skittering away from her down the stairs, and then her body came free and she tumbled down the basement stairs behind the hideous thing.
The kitchen was suddenly silent. Marcus made his way slowly over to the basement door and closed it. He didn't want to look. He didn't need to.
*** *** ***
It waited. It was very patient. The man and the girl were leaving . The man had wasted no time.
It was going with them. It would be undetectable in its new disguise. They would never know. Until it was too late. The girl was so ripe, it was difficult to watch her without attacking. Her body was young and would be easy to assimilate. It had waited for countless years. It could wait a little longer. It would be careful this time. The last attempt had been messy and clumsy. The man had see it.
The woman had known all along and it had been amusing to pass the time tormenting her with its presence. It had attempted to infiltrate her body, but her body had been too old, her bones not pliable enough to serve its purpose. It had failed in that attempt, but had learned its lesson. The man was wary and it would have to be careful in his presence. The man was not entirely sure it really existed, but it would still have to be very careful.
Its new disguise had been so simple to assume. It wondered why it had not thought of that before. This body was so easy to control, its mind not nearly as complex as a human's. It could exist indefinitely in this new body.
It stretched and yawned, appearing perfectly natural. It had not taken long to perfect the mannerisms and habits of this new body.
The girl noticed it was awake and leaned across the car seat and opened the cat carrier. She reached in and stroked its neck and back. It arched its back beneath her hand, purring with pleasure at her touch.
She never even noticed the odd slightly wet quality to its purr.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melanie Aranda is a stay-at-home mom of two small children and writes whenever she has a spare moment. She has always had the overwhelming urge to write throughout her entire life, even as a very young child. She writes mainly short fiction of the horror genre. She is also also currently working on a time-travel novel.
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