A teen discovers her house has a history.
***Moving Day ***
Vic’s breath came in quick pinched gasps and she mumbled indistinctly under her breath. Suddenly, a voice called to her. It sounded a million miles away but familiar and kind. “Victoria. Vic, wake up!”
Vic’s eyes fluttered open and she jolted upright squinting against the bright sunlight streaming in through the windshield of her mom’s old Ford Explorer.
“You were having a bad dream, Baby,” her mother said. “You OK?”
Vic’s eyes darted about the cab as recognition slowly crept in. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.” She cleared her throat and took a sip of the watered down Dr. Pepper she had gotten from the Phillips 66 an hour earlier.
“I was having the most horrible nightmare,” she muttered. “I was running through a forest, and there was this guy after me.” She brushed her fingers through her short brown hair. “He wanted to …you know …do it with me. And I was just trying to get away.”
Her mother shot her a concerned look. “Well, put that outta your mind. It was just a silly dream. “
Vic stared out the window as the SUV pulled off the highway and bumped down a short, brick-lined road. They passed rows of tired, single story homes before pulling into a crumbling asphalt drive. Her mom threw the Explorer into park and climbed out into the dazzling heat of the August afternoon.
The old Ford's air conditioner barely kept the cabin cool and once the door swung open, sweltering heat flooded the interior.
"Come on out, honey," her mother called. She grabbed the steering wheel and poked her head inside. "Our big adventure begins."
Vic sighed and clambered out of the car. She pulled off her thick glasses and wiped the humidity fogged lenses on her shirt before slipping them on and peering at their new home.
The old, three-story Victorian was sorely in need of a paint job. Wood rotted boards peered out from beneath the overhangs and along the bay window. Ancient window air conditioners hung precariously from the first and second story windows and the green copper cupola was rust-streaked beneath its storm-damaged spire.
Vic’s mother slung an arm around her shoulder and dragged her into an enthusiastic hug. "Isn't it great?" she said waving an arm towards the house. "Before you know it, this old place will be the fanciest place in town. And we'll be the happiest family in town."
Vic chewed her bottom lip in consternation and flicked her eyes between the crumbling structure and her mother's sparkling eyes.
"It's a piece a crap mother," she snapped. "And you moved us into the middle of nowhere. I mean, who's ever heard of Thunderbird Falls, Oklahoma anyway?" She tapped at her cell and held it up, glaring in disgust. "One bar mother. One freakin' bar of reception." She jammed the phone into her back pocket and turned her back. Hot tears pooled in the corner of her eyes and she swiped at them with her wrist. "I hate it here. I can't believe you moved us from Alsuma. At least there I had friends."
Vic's mother was a thin woman with a bob of dark brown hair and a round, kindly face. Now her face was twisted into a bitter scowl. She placed her fists on her slim hips and glared at Vic, her dark eyes flashing. "Victoria Eunice Brighton! You will not take that tone with me, young lady. I'm doing everything I can to make a good life for us and I'm sorry things aren't working out just peachy for you. They're not a basket of roses for me either. We're damn lucky I found this call center job and the fact that we could afford to buy this house with the last of your father's insurance money is a blessing."
Mother's voice cracked at the mention of her father. Vic could tell from the silence that followed that her mother was crying. Vic turned and toed a broken chunk of asphalt across the ground. "I'm sorry, Momma." She didn't even fight the tears streaming down her cheeks and mingling with the sweat beaded on her neck. She felt bad, crying. Crying was for children and she wasn't a baby anymore. In two months she would be fifteen.
Her mother closed the gap and swept her into her arms. Vic suddenly felt better. Safer. Ever since daddy died of a sudden heart attack two years ago, mom was the strong one. At thirty-seven no one would have expected her to be an unemployed and widowed single mom, but there it was. Mother stood tall through the funeral. She smiled and thanked everyone afterwards. She told Vic they would get by and things would be 'OK'. But Vic heard her crying through the bedroom door late at night when mother thought she was asleep.
"Mom, I can't breathe," Vic gasped.
Her mother released her from the bear hug and held her at arm's length. Already her mom's flashing smile returned and although her eyes were wet, they sparkled with enthusiasm.
"You just wait," she said. "You're gunna find friends and this will be the best house ever. Who knows, we may even find you a boyfriend."
Vic nodded and glanced up at her. "Best house ever," she repeated. A smile turning up the corners of her lips, more for her mother's sake than her own.
"Now, I think there are some people that want out," her mother said. She danced to the rear of the car and lifted the gate. Inside a black metal dog crate was a chubby chocolate lab and a graying, frizzle-haired terrier.
Her mother swept up the door and out bounded the lab. He dashed about the weed-strewn yard before circling around and leaping on Vic. She couldn't help but smile as she grabbed the young dog's paws and looked into his grinning face.
"Hey, Skip ol' boy," she said. "I'll bet you were ready to get outta that car, huh?"
The other dog, a chunky, old terrier hopped cautiously to the ground and swaggered over to her mother's feet then rolled, belly up, before her. Her mother scrubbed a foot across the hairless, pink paunch and crooned at the old pup. "There ya go Bunny. Here's your new home, here it is." Bunny rolled up and sat considering the property with tongue lolling indifference.
Vic sat scrunched in a patch of shade on the front porch as her mother talked on the cell phone with the realtor. She was trying to find out where the keys were. Just then, a battered white moving van with the marquis "A Couple Guys and A Truck" pulled up in front of the house. Mother flipped the phone closed and rushed to meet the actual 'two guys' who piled out of the truck's cab.
For a moment, they stood sweating beneath the white hot sky gesturing towards the house. Then one of the men disappeared around the back of the building. In a heartbeat, the front door swung open and he stepped onto the porch.
"Back door was wide open," he grinned and jacked a thumb behind him.
Vic settled in the cicada laced heat and watched the movers bustling in and out. Occasionally, her mother would rush out from the dark interior and after a brief consultation the movers would drop whatever box or furnishing they had in their arms and load an identical box or similar furnishing and disappear inside.
Skip and Bunny nosed around the house but after a few minutes of wandering in the sweltering air, they joined Vic in her shrinking shadow. As the sun crept past noon, Skip pushed up lazily and meandered to a sickly looking rosebush growing at the corner of the house. His slack tail perked into a curl as his nose searched the ground beneath the shrub. His face disappeared momentarily beneath the bus, then he gave out a sharp yelp and sprang back.
The hair at his shoulder blades stood like a ridge and he gave a low, rumbling growl before backing away and dashing back to his spot beside Vic.
"What's the matter boy?" she asked, rubbing the dog's thick neck. Skip looked over at her and lapped a wet tongue across her cheek then turned and considered the rosebush again. Skip’s low, rumbling growl vibrated beneath Vic’s fingers.
Out of curiosity, she pulled herself up and strode over to the bramble. Although the bush was thick, it sported barely a handful of dark green leaves. The interior was shrouded in gloom and intertwined with thick, thorny branches. The sickly plant sprouted but a single ghostly white rose. Gingerly, she pulled apart the stems and peered inside. Far at the back, next to the house, there was the faintest sparkle of glass.
Skip followed her to the hedge but stood a pace behind, watching her. "It's OK boy. What's in there huh? A big ol' rat? You smell a rat in there?"
Vic stepped to the side of the house and from this vantage, she could see the glitter was from a basement window hidden deep in the old bush's branches. I sure hope that rat isn't in the house. She turned and examined the faded blue exterior of her new home's walls. Mom loved doing fix up, but there was a lot of work on this old place. She still hadn't been inside and with a heavy sigh, she followed the movers as they trundled across the wooden boards of the front porch and stepped inside with another load.
Even though the windows were thrown open and spread a cheery light across the mounting pile of boxes in the corners, it took a moment for Vic's eyes to adjust. When they did, she saw the inside of the house was in much better shape than the outside.
There was a thick, dry smell inside. It reminded her of the old library in downtown Alsuma. She loved to catch the bus on lazy Saturday mornings and hang out at the library until afternoon. She would stuff a baloney sandwich and some chips into her backpack and make a day of it. She doubted if Thunderbird Falls even had a library.
The walls of the living room were papered in a faded yellow pattern of diamond shaped ferns scrolling from the dark hardwoods to the ten-foot plaster ceilings above. Here and there the paper was torn or stained but the floors gleamed in the mote flecked light that filtered in.
"Oh, good, you finally decided to come in," her mother said jogging after the workmen as they rushed out the door. Vic wondered how her mother kept track of which room the movers were in but decided she just followed the trail of their stench. Their body odor seemed to hang like a fog in the rooms after they breezed past.
Her mother's face was lit with an excited smile and she dabbed at her sweaty forehead with the corner of her shirt. She grabbed Vic by the hand and dragged towards the stairs. "Come on, I'll show you your room."
"Even though it looks big," her mother was saying as the steps thudded beneath their feet "the house is actually smaller than our old place in Alsuma. The kitchen, living room, and a powder bath are downstairs and there are two bedrooms and a bath on the second floor."
She pulled Vic onto the second-floor landing and pushed open a closed door. Cool air flowed out in a palpable wave that swirled past her thighs and sandaled feet. Inside, the walls were papered in rows of vertical gold and green stripes. The room was lit by a bay window covered with what were once white lace curtains but now were nothing more than tattered yellow rags. The covering over the center window had been tied back and an A/C unit hummed noisily in the frame.
"This is my room," her mother said. "And the bathroom is just across the hall. It will be your bathroom too."
On the opposite side of the landing, there was an open door and a steep staircase leading up. Her mother waved a hand invitingly towards the opening. "Lead the way."
Vic mounted the stairs which came up in the center of a vaulted attic. There were windows on three walls. Each window was cut in a low diamond arch that you had to bend over to get to. The fourth wall was dominated by an expansive wall of brick. Vic assumed it was the back of the fireplace.
There was a dry, throat-catching heat in the room and besides the old musty smell, there was something else. A slightly unpleasant almost dark odor.
"This will be your room. If you want it," her mother said. "If not, we can use it for a guest bedroom and storage. You could take the room next to mine."
Vic admitted the room was pretty damn cool. And there was no way she was going to sleep next door to her mom. She dashed to a window and yanked it up in a flurry of paint chips. A thick, cooling breeze blew through the room and she knew this was her spot.
"I know it's a little rough," her mom smiled. "But we can put in some awesome lights and paint it up nice. Get a big area rug. It's gunna be sooo cool."
*** Maximus ***
Vic sat with one leg dangling over the sill and her back leaned against the window frame. She took another drag on her Marlboro then cocked back her head and puffed out a stream of smoke into the chilly, autumn night.
Above, spotty clouds danced across the moon sending mottled dark waves flowing across the patchy grass and tumbling leaves below. Her cell phone pinged and a brief flash of light illuminated her drawn features.
Vic pinched the cigarette into the corner of her mouth and picked up the phone. Skip and Bunny were lying on the floor beside her and Skip's eyes cracked opened and he considered her with a lethargic thump of the tail.
It was a text from her best friend, Celia. It was hard to believe that she had already been in Thunderbird Falls for three months. Vic wasn't one of those girls who made friends easily or quickly for that matter. Yet, somehow, she and Celia had hit it off. Maybe because Celia was an outsider too. She was chunky with a bad complexion and being a real wiz at math didn't help.
Celia: U still up?
Vic: yup, wuz up?
Celia: ny thing weird hap n 2nite?
Vic eyed the message and threw a wary glance at the brick wall at the far end of her room. Ever since moving in, Vic heard bumping and scraping coming from the other side of that brick border. She complained to her mom, but the disturbances came mainly at night. Since mom worked the graveyard shift at the call center, she never heard the strange noises.
Mother called out the exterminator to check for squirrels but the guy said he couldn't find any sign of squirrels, raccoons or anything else. He suggested something might be living beneath the copper cupola but without removing the cupola or cutting in from beneath there was no way to be sure.
Tonight, the noises were noticeably absent. Skip actually seemed relaxed. Whenever she heard the scraping sounds, Skip wouldn’t leave her side. Vic wasn't sure if it was to protect her, or for his own comfort. She thought maybe a little of both.
Vic: nope all quiet. may b 2moro.
Vic took another long drag on the cigarette then flicked it into the night. It glowed briefly in an orange arch then smacked onto the asphalt drive in a fountain of sparks. The Jenkin's old tomcat, Maximus, slunk across the yard and the riot of light caused him to spring into the air and zip out of sight.
Celia: STBY LOL. sleep over L8r?
Vic: yea. Sat. may b get a recording of sounds? We can post on youtube? :0
Celia: K. I'll bring sound recording stuff. Nite GF
Vic: nite WYWH :)
There was a chill of excitement at sending that last text. "WYWH-Wish You Were Here". The thought of being close to Celia, maybe even kissing her sent a shiver of excitement along her shoulders and up her neck. Vic tossed her cell onto the bed and let the chill breeze wash over her. She closed her eyes and thought of Celia.
Vic jolted awake with an audible gasp, banging her head painfully on the window sill. She had been dreaming about ... what? About walking through thick woods again. And there was something in the dream with her. She almost could see the something that followed. Then there was the scream. But the scream was real. That was what woke her. It wasn't a human scream though...an animal? A cat? Probably Maximus and another tom fighting in the alley. This summer Maximus woke her up plenty with his constant yowling.
She studied the lawn and saw movement. At the edge of the yard. Vic leaned over and squinted into the night. A shade detached from the house and drifted across the ground. The moon was low against the rattling autumn leaves but it cast a threadbare luminance across the sky. Patches of lighter dark and darker light shimmered before her eyes as she strained to pierce the gloom. Then she was sure. A shadow crept down there. It disappeared into the rose bush at the corner of the house with a clacking of thorny branches. There was a whine at her feet as Skip joined her at the sill. They both sat stock still, staring at the brick wall. There was the subtlest hint of noise behind the bricks. It grew. Then there was a wet 'thud' above them. In the ceiling beneath the cupola.
Outside, there was the scrunching of tires on gravel and the slow grinding squeal of her mom's brakes.
Vic's head began to feel light and she exhaled in a gust. She hadn't realized it, but she had been holding her breath.
*** Sleep Over ***
Vic was sitting on the floor of her bedroom while Celia perched on the bed behind her and ran a brush through Vic's hair.
"And that's when my mom pulled in," Vic said, concluding the story.
Celia was quiet for several hollow, raspy pulls of the brush through Vic's hair.
"That's creepy as hell," she said finally. Then she slid onto the floor beside Vic and pulled out her phone. "I didn't want to freak you out, but I did some research on your house last week. I found something REALLY wild."
She tapped on the screen and pulled up a photo. It was an image of an old newspaper article. Vic took the phone from Celia's and zoomed in. The picture was a front page shot of the Alsuma Times. The headline read, "Mummy Mother Murderer Convicted." There was a black and white photo of a crowd surrounding a blonde woman. She was bent over and covering her face with her hands. Vic could tell by the long hair the men wore and the funky, old sunglasses that the picture was from a long time ago.
"Where did you find this?" she asked, passing back the phone.
"It was in the microfiche section of the library," Celia said. "I took that pic to show you."
"You like the library too?" Vic's mouth twisted into a toothy grin. For a moment, she was lost in Celia's eyes, then the brick wall behind her friend yanked her back to the now. "What's the article say?"
"Seems like your house was the scene of a triple murder in 1978."
"What?" Vic was shocked at the news. But, in a way, it made total sense. How else would they be able to afford this great house unless there was something seriously wrong with it? She assumed mom was able to buy it because of the poor shape it was in. Now it seemed unlikely her mom could afford it even then.
"Yea," Cilia continued. "Two kids were killed by their mother. She drained their blood, sucked out their organs and mummified them. Then she hid their bodies in the attic. Her husband died a few months earlier of a sudden heart attack that the article called 'suspicious.'"
"Oh my god," Vic said, "are you serious?"
"Totally serious! The mom told the cops that the kids disappeared from inside the house during the night. The two-year-old disappeared in the spring and the four-year-old the following fall. It said in the article that a phone repairman running wires through the attic around Christmas time discovered the bodies."
"But there is no attic," Vic began. Then she shot a glance to the corner of her room and leapt to her feet. "Oh...my....god," Vic repeated. "The attic has to be the space beneath the cupola. And the noise I'm hearing has to be ....ghosts....oh my god!"
"I know, right," Cilia said. "Is that totally cool or what?"
"Totally scary you mean." She dropped back on the bed. "Whatever happened to the mother?"
"The article said she was sent to an insane asylum. But after that, who knows. Maybe she moved back in and lives...you know where." Celia grinned at Vic maliciously and bobbed her head towards the brick wall.
"Oh cut it out," Vic snorted and shoved Celia so that she rolled onto her side gripping her stomach in laughter.
At that instant, there was a soft thud and a dragging scrape of something hard brushing past the bricks.
Both girls spun towards the wall in a shocked gasp of surprise. Then they looked at each other and burst out laughing. Skip jumped to his feet and stood stiff-legged in front of the wall; the fur along his spine a bristled brown line. Bunny, on the other hand, made a tail tucked retreat down the stairs.
"We are SO going to be on Youtube," Celia blurted excitedly. She knelt beside her backpack and dragged out an ice-cream cone shaped microphone and a thin laptop. Then she pulled out a compact digital camera and a tripod. In two minutes, the mic was attached to the laptop and the camera screwed atop the tripod.
The two dropped onto Vic's bed, pointed the camera at the wall and waited. For over an hour, nothing happened. Finally, Vic sighed and pushed to her feet. The clock on her wall said it was almost two in the morning.
"You never know when there's gunna be a noise," she explained as if in apology.
Celia stood up stiffly and walked over to examine the wall. Vic joined her and ran her hands along the rough surface of the bricks.
"So where do you usually hear it?" Cilia asked.
Vic thought for a moment then pointed to a corner in the roof where the bricks met the plaster ceiling. Celia pulled up a chair and climbed on top. She examined the ceiling and wall carefully.
"You know, there's a loose brick here." She wiggled at one of the bricks and bits of white masonry chittered to the floor. She looked down at Vic questioningly and Vic nodded.
"Go ahead," Vic said.
Celia turned her attention back to the wall and in two minutes, the brick came loose in her hand. In its place, there was a dark hole. Celia cocked a brow and smiled. "We could stick the camera in and see what's up there. I can wifi connect the camera to the laptop. We could watch live."
Vic nodded her head excitedly and dropped to her knees to retrieve the camera, tripod, and laptop. Celia turned on the camera light, hit the record button and eased the device into the hole. A glowing yellow light oozed from the opening as she tried to push the camera into the darkness. Only about half of the tripod's length would fit inside before it caught on something. The laptop screen displayed bright close-ups of the red brick face.
With a frustrated huff, Celia yanked the tripod out of the hole. She shown the light into the gap and stood on tip toes to get her face as close to the opening as possible. Then she dropped back down. "There's a tight corner the tripod can't get around. But past that, it opens into the attic."
"So what're we gunna do?" Vic asked.
Celia rubbed at her nose for a moment then held up a finger, an enlightened gleam in her eye. "I'll just hold it."
She worked the camera off of the tripod and dropped the plastic support to the floor with a thud.
"Are you sure?" Vic asked. She had always considered herself pretty brave but sticking her hand into an unknown hole wasn't something she was up for.
"Yea, no problem," Celia smirked. "The lights so bright it'll scare away any mouse or spider. Plus, I doubt anything's up there anyway. Other than ghosts that is." She beetled her brows dramatically.
"Well, all right," Vic said reluctantly. She had more than half a notion Celia was trying to impress her. If that was her goal she had succeeded.
Celia pointed the camera at herself in a selfie pose and they both giggled at her fish-eyed image on the screen. Then she eased her hand into the opening. Both girls watched the camera lens ease past the bricks and widen into a dark, dusty expanse.
"Whoa!" Vic exclaimed as Celia rotated the image. The enclosed space of the cupola was three feet square and three feet tall, not including the copper pyramiding above. In the washed-out glow of the camera lights, the walls appeared to be covered with a fine layer of cobwebs and dust. Celia switched her footing in the chair so she could rotate the camera the other way. There was a soft bump above them. Vic eyed the ceiling suspiciously. Did Celia do that?
As the camera rotated there was a brief glimpse of a growing pile of debris, then a shape flashed across the screen. Celia shrieked in pain and her eyes shot wide in fear. "Something's got me!" she screamed.
Vic dropped the laptop and reached up for her friend's arm. Her fingers seized Celia's elbow, sinking into the soft flesh as she pulled. She tugged with all her might, but Celia's hand wouldn't budge.
"Mooootheeeeer!" Vic howled.
Around the two girls, Skip ran in frantic circles, barking, snapping and leaping towards the ceiling.
Celia grabbed her ensnared forearm with her other hand and her knees sagged as she used her weight to free herself. Celia's cries of panic faded and her breath came in short whistling gasps.
Then, as sudden as a thread being cut, Celia's hand snapped loose. Both girls tumbled to the ground, sending the chair flying across the room. Over the thudding footfalls of her mother rushing up the stairs, there was the unmistakable and familiar scraping behind the bricks.
Just as her mother burst into the room, Vic rolled to her feet. Celia was still lying on her back cradling her hand. There was a nasty hole between the thumb and index finger and a thin white liquid oozed out followed by a thick stream of blood.
Her chest rose and fell with hummingbird rapidity and her wide eyes flicked from Vic's face to her mothers.
"What's the matter, Celia? Are you hurt?" Vic asked.
"Ih...Ih...it ...had...mmm..mmm..me," she stuttered.
"You're OK now," Vic said soothingly. She took her friends hands in hers and stroked them.
"What in the world happened?" her mother demanded and dropped down beside them.
Celia's breath didn't slow. She wheezed more desperately, arching her back with every intake of breath.
"in...in...haler....in....haler," Celia gasped.
At first, Vic didn't understand but her mother was already upending Celia's pack. The plastic, 'L' shaped inhaler tumbled to the floor and her mother grabbed it and pressed it into Celia's shaking hands.
Celia stuck the device into her mouth and huffed two quick breaths, the inhaler hissed in counterpoint to her gasps.
Celia's panicked breathing wouldn't slow. Vic's mom sprang to her feet and thundered down the stairs.
"Make her take more," she shouted over her shoulder. "I'm calling 911."
By the time the ambulance arrived eight minutes later Celia had stopped breathing. Vic and her mother performed CPR as best they could until the paramedics shoved them aside and hooked her up to the machines. When they rolled her out, she was as pale as a sheet.
They followed the ambulance to the hospital where Celia's mother and father were already waiting. Twenty minutes later the doctor came out to tell them Celia was gone. She died from a severe and sudden asthma attack.
"It wasn't asthma!" Vic protested. "There was something in the attic that got her. It bit her!"
"What are you talking about?" her mother asked. The doctor and Celia's aunt crowded in to listen.
"Celia and I were looking for ghosts in the attic. She put her camera in to film what was up there and something grabbed her. I saw it."
"Was there a bite?" Celia's aunt demanded of the doctor.
He held up his palms in walled defense. "No, no. There's no indication of anything like a bite. She had a single puncture wound in her hand. It was the only injury. Probably from a nail. I think the girls worked themselves up into a tizzy and when Celia's hand snagged on the nail, she simply panicked. It's a horrible, horrible thing to happen but it was an accident."
Celia's aunt shot Vic a withering glance then disappeared after the doctor through the swinging doors of the ER. Vic could hear Celia's mother keening in the distance.
*** After ***
Following the funeral and the flurry of rumors that ran through Thunderbird Falls High School, Vic's life resumed some timbre of normalcy. Her mother eventually convinced her there was nothing hiding in the cupola and Celia's death was a horrible accident. But part of her couldn't accept that. Her mother even called the exterminator a second time to check for animals in the attic. He found nothing. Vic couldn't live in that room any longer. Not after what happened. She left her bed and dresser upstairs and moved all her belongings into the guest bedroom on the second floor.
When she returned to school the following week, she found herself shunned by the other students. It wasn't that they were mean. It was that no one wanted the dark aura of the girl who lived in the cursed house to rub off on them.
Vic found herself spending more and more time at the library. The squat, brick two-story had been built in the 30s and was once the home of the city's municipal offices. The space had been given over to the library when the new city complexes were constructed in the early 90s. The old wooden shelves were moved from the original library and the tall oak structures stood in dark lines atop the lighter colored hardwoods of the building.
Three months after Celia's death, Vic found herself wandering through the musty racks in the library basement. A dusty microfiche machine jammed in the corner caught her attention. She thought of the headlines Celia had shown her and thought she’d have a look.
She remembered the date on the paper, and in a matter of minutes she’d loaded the microfiche spool and was reading the article herself. Celia pretty much told her everything of importance. Two children, two years old and four, killed by their mother. The children's bodies mummified and missing their organs. Discovered in the attic months later. The thing Celia didn't mention was the woman's name, Susan Rhodes.
Vic jotted down the name and marched upstairs to the computer center. After an hour of searching, she discovered Susan had been interned at the Eastern Oklahoma Hospital for the Insane. The hospital closed in 2008 so who knew what became of her. Maybe Celia was right. Maybe she moved back to Thunderbird Falls.
For an entire week, Vic returned to the library searching for clues to what happened to Susan Rhodes. The only shred of information she could find was in an article about a potential retrial. In 1983 a woman named 'Jennifer Yost', Susan's sister, petitioned the courts for a retrial. According to the article, the petition didn't go far.
Vic made a quick search of Jennifer Yost and found an address. It was on the outskirts of Thunderbird Falls. Maybe she could go to this woman and get some answers. She scribbled the address on the inside cover of her Algebra book and checked her cell. It was already dark outside even though it wasn't yet seven p.m. Vic hated winter. She saw three texts from mom wondering where she was. Vic texted that she was on the way and slipped on her heavy coat and slung her backpack over her shoulder. She only lived five blocks away but the February wind could be brutal.
*** Breakfast ***
Vic waited for the weekend to go to the address she'd jotted down for Jennifer Yost. That Saturday morning Vic rushed downstairs to find her mother cooking up a plate of bacon and eggs. Her mother started the house remodel with the kitchen and the warm aroma of bacon, coffee and toast wafted across the freshly painted white cabinets and gray faux granite countertops. Weekends were wonderful because mom switched her hours and Vic feasted on hot breakfasts instead of her usual fare of cold cereal and fruit.
"Whatcha got planned today, kiddo?" her mom asked. She laded out a heap of bacon and eggs onto Vic’s plate and slid it in front of her.
"I thought I'd go down to the library," Vic lied. She shot her mother a glance beneath her brows.
Her mother filled her own plate and slid into the chair beside her. "Well, I'm glad to see you getting back to life. What are you looking into this week?"
"Did you know our house was the scene of a murder?" Vic blurted.
Her mom's fork paused in mid-air before continuing the trip to her mouth. "No, I didn't." Her mom's eyes drifted up to study her. "Sounds interesting. Tell me about it."
"Well, there was this family. The Rhodes. And they lived here, like, a long time ago. In the 70s. Anyway, the mom killed both of her kids." Vic set down her fork and eyed her mother excitedly. Her mom leaned back in her chair sipping on her coffee.
"But it wasn't just murder. She also drained their blood and took out their guts. THEN she mummified them. The mom got sent to a loony bin but I haven't discovered what happened to her after that."
"Really," her mother set down the cup and dabbed at her mouth with a napkin. "You know, Victoria. You're just going to frighten yourself if you keep looking into this. I think maybe it would be wise to consider applying yourself to something more…productive?" She arched one brow in a look that demanded Vic's agreement.
"Yes, Mother," Vic grumbled. She dropped her eyes to her plate and poked at her eggs with her fork.
Her mother considered her above the lip of the cup for a few more seconds then set it down with a light clink. "All right then. After you finish your breakfast, I'd like you to take out the trash and feed the dogs. Then you can go to the library. But be back no later than three this afternoon."
Vic edged her glasses up with her finger and smiled. "OK, mom. I'll be back by three."
The gravel crunched beneath the wheels of Vic's mountain bike as she eased it up to the corner of Hickory and Seminole streets. She didn't have gloves on and her hands were frozen from the short ride across town.
She jammed her icy fingers beneath her jacket and grimaced as she laid them across the warm flesh of her stomach. As the feeling tingled back into her fingers, she considered the old house in front of her. A tall, unruly hedge ran along the street side broken only by the opening for the driveway. A battered tan Celebrity was parked in front of the cramped, square house and an aluminum porch awning was tacked onto the front as an afterthought. Except for the wisps of steam seeping from a pipe on the stained roof, Vic would have thought the house was long abandoned.
She took a deep breath and exhaled a cloud into the chill air before stepping off the bike and marching to the front stoop. Before her resolve could abandon her she balled up a fist and rapped on the front door.
She stood for several moments throwing a look over her shoulder at the bike and considered jumping on and leaving when the door creaked open and a chubby, gray-haired woman examined her through thick glasses.
"Yes, my dear. What can I do for you?" she asked in a grandmotherly tone.
Vic sucked at her lower lip unsure where to begin. She hadn't thought out this part of her plan.
"Umm, wellll. I'm doing a report for school and I wanted to see if your name was Jennifer Yost. And if you knew a woman named Susan Rhodes."
The woman's gray eyes swam behind her lenses in magnified focus as she considered Vic. "A report, eh?" she asked incredulously. "I suppose this is about the murders in seventy-eight." She said it as statement.
"Yes, ma'am. It is." Vic dropped her eyes and jabbed her hands deep in her pockets.
"Well then, you'll want to be out of the cold," the old woman said. She shook her head as she examined Vic. "Ain't you the spittin' image of myself when I was a teen; gangly as a crane and hardly a strip of meat on you. I believe you could do with a bite of hot soup." She pushed open the door and stepped aside.
Vic slid into the house wrinkling her nose against the sudden, sharp bite of cat urine. The living room was surprisingly roomy based on her impression from outside, but it was crowded with old furniture. A bulky cloth couch was pushed up against one wall and two puffy armchairs were jammed on either side of a hallway. Cats lazed across the arms of the furniture and faded photographs dotted the walls.
"PIease, take a seat," the old woman said before she bustled down the hall. "I won't be a minute."
Vic stared around at the room as one of the cats disengaged himself from the couch and crawled down to rub against her leg. From down the hall, there was the sound of clattering dishes, then the old woman scurried back in with a steaming bowl resting atop a yellow plate. She sat the plate atop the table and patted the back of the chair with her hand.
"Come now," have a bite and I'll answer all your questions. "It's been such a long time since I've had guests."
Vic shuffled to the chair and sank behind the bowl of soup as the woman grinned at her with gappy yellow teeth. Then she dropped into the seat next to Vic and folded her hands on her lap.
"Well, go on then," she nodded to the soup and leaned forward expectantly.
Vic picked up the spoon and dipped it into the steamy bowl. The rich odor of beef somehow managed to cut through the ammonia stench and she took a sip. The rich, meaty broth rolled down her throat and she nodded appreciatively. "Mmm, this is good."
The old woman clapped her hands in delight and rocked back in her chair. "Oh, good. I only cook for myself and sometimes I think I may have lost my touch." She dipped a hand into her pocket and fished out a napkin then coughed roughly into it before looking back at Vic.
"So, young lady. What is it you would like to know?"
"Well," Vic began. "Are you Susan Rhodes sister?"
"Yes, I am," she smiled. "Susan was my baby sister. We were the only two Yost girls in town. Susan married that good looking Gerry Rhodes back in 74'. Myself, I joined the army and never married."
The old woman repositioned herself in the chair so she could point back over her shoulder at one of the dusty pictures. "That's Susie and me there," she said.
Vic pushed up her glasses and squinted across the room at a faded color photo of two girls sitting on the hood of a blue car. One of the girls was maybe ten or eleven with pigtails and a goofy grin. The other was a skinny, homely girl with Coke-bottle glasses and dark hair pulled into a long ponytail. It was a summer day and both were dressed in swim suits and laughing.
Vic took two more sips at the soup. "So what happened in 1978?" she asked finally.
"I wish I knew," the old woman said almost in a whisper. "Susan's life all came tumbling down right after they moved into that house."
Vic looked up at this. "What do ya mean?"
"That was when Gerry had his heart attack. Right after they moved in. They weren't there a year before Suzie found him dead on the living room floor. Poor dear found him Sunday morning before church."
She clucked her false teeth noisily and went on. "He must have gotten up in the night and had the heart attack on his way to the kitchen. You know they say most people think they've got indigestion when they're having a heart attack."
"But the paper said it was murd.....I mean suspicious."
"Oh, pooh! That's the crazy media trying to drum up sales. There wasn't nothin' suspicious about it. He just up and died. But Gerry’s death had a terrible impact on my sister. She wasn't never the same after that. I think the shock of it all did something to her.
She used to visit every week. Sometimes she and Gerry would leave the kids and go out to a movie . After Gerry's death, I didn’t see here so much. She started telling me she was having crazy dreams and was scared to go out. Then she told me someone was following her."
"Dreams? What kind of dreams?" Vic asked.
"I can hardly remember now. It's been such a long time. I seem to remember that she said something about being chased." She tapped her chin thoughtfully and gazed up at the ceiling. "And I think it had something to do with a forest.
"Anyhow, that's neither here nor there," she waved a hand dismissively. "The long and short of it is that she was goin' bonkers. Just none of us knew it at the time. It wasn't long after she told me about the dreams that she told me she was dating someone. Well, I knew better than to believe that. Thunderbird Falls is too close-knit a town for her to be going out with a fella and no one know about it. It was then I started to worry. I just wish I'd known how sick she was. Then maybe I could have gotten her some help. And saved Jake and Seth."
"Were those the children's names?" Vic asked.
"Yes. They were such smart boys. Hardly a day goes by I don't miss all three of them."
Vic swirled her spoon in the dark broth for several heavy seconds before she went on. "So what happened to your sister? I mean after she was committed."
"You knew she was sent to Eastern Oklahoma Hospital?"
"Yes ma'am," Vic said. She finished the last of the soup and pushed the bowl away.
"Would you like some more?" the old woman asked.
"No, thank you. That filled me up. It was delicious soup."
The old woman's cheek's hummed with color. "Why thank you, young lady. That's the nicest thing I've heard in a month of Sundays."
She coughed into the napkin once more and cleared her throat. "So, anyhow, she went to Eastern Oklahoma. Susie was there until she passed in 98'. After the baby, her physical health went downhill as well. She never really recovered."
"Baby?" Vic asked.
"Yes, a baby. About six months after the boy's bodies were discovered she gave birth to a little girl. Oh, she was precious. It was about the time the trial started." The old woman sat in contemplation, twisting and untwisting the napkin. Then her watery eyes fell on Vic. "You know, I would have taken the child if I could. But I was an army nurse, a Captain. I didn't see how I could take care of an infant and keep my job. So, I let her go. The state took her and she was adopted. Sometimes I wonder whatever became of her."
She shook her head slowly and almost under her breath mumbled, "I guess there must have been some truth about Suzie's boyfriend after all."
Vic gazed at the table for a long moment then pushed to her feet. "Thank you very much, Mrs. Yost. For the soup…and the questions."
The old woman's face creased into a wide smile. "Dear, you are very welcome." She clambered to her feet with a groan and shuffled to the door. Vic followed at her heels.
She swung open the door and placed a hand on Vic's arm. "So, why are you so curious about my sister and her boys? You and I both know this isn't for a school report."
Vic dropped her eyes in embarrassment. "My mom and I moved into your sister's house last summer. I found out about the murders and wanted to know more."
The smile melted from the old woman's face and her fingers dug into Vic's arms with surprising force. "You be careful of that house," she hissed. "There's an evil there. I know it. Keep inside after dark. Your pets too." She released her grip and stepped out of the way. Her threadbare grin finding its way back onto her lips . "And if you ever need help just come by, OK? "
"By the way young lady. You know my name but I never caught yours."
Vic stuck out her hand, her lips parting to reveal a gleaming row of white teeth. "My name is Victoria Eunice Brighton. But, my friends call me, Vic."
*** Family ***
The deep, seductive voice called to her from behind the branches of the dark trees. "Victoria, it's time. It's our time." In fearful expectation, she watched as a shadow moved from behind one of the huge trunks and resolved into the shape of a man. He was not tall but Vic recognized immediately his romantic good looks. His long, dark hair cascaded across one muscled shoulder. His chest was chiseled and broad and a fine mat of curled hair grew between his nipples. Except for a tan loincloth that covered his genitals, he was naked. He beckoned to her with outstretched arms. "Come Victoria. Lie with me and the generations will flow like an unending tide."
Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew this iconic image of passion would entice most women. Vic felt something else. Fear. That and a growing edge of disgust. She'd had wet dreams before. They usually involved other girls. Like ones that included Celia before she died. "Victoria, come to me. It's our time, Victoria...Victoria.....Victoria."
She woke with a jolt at the soft hand of Mrs. Franks, the librarian, jostling her shoulder. "Victoria, wake up. We're closing in fifteen minutes."
Vic glanced around the empty library confusedly and wiped away the slobber on her left cheek. Then she logged out of the computer and grabbed her backpack.
"What time is it?" she asked.
"Almost eight o'clock," Mrs. Franks said. "Have you had any luck with your adoption search?"
Mrs. Franks was a kind, well-meaning spinster in her early sixties. She was a little taller than Vic but thin as a rail with ebony skin and silver hair she wore in short, tight curls.
"No, no luck at all," she said. "I found the month the baby was born and the month she was adopted. After that, it's a dead end. All adoption records are sealed except in special cases and those all require a court order. After thirty-seven years the records are impossible to find."
"Well, I think you have the makings of an excellent report anyway," Mrs. Franks said. "Even without discovering what happened to the baby." She swung open the tall, oak front doors that led down to the sidewalk.
Vic shrugged on her coat and slung her backpack over one shoulder. "Yea, I guess you're right," she said, "but I sure would have loved to solve that mystery."
She plodded down the concrete stairs and along the cold, windy streets. When she reached her back door and opened it Bunny and Skip bounded past and disappeared into the night. It was too cold to mess with them now and Vic knew they would be begging at the back door once they relieved themselves.
She yanked off her coat and dropped her backpack onto the kitchen table. The room was saturated in the meaty aroma of her mom's crockpot stew. In front of the pot, she found a tin of cornbread, an empty bowl and spoon and a folded note.
Vic didn't think she was hungry until the smell of the stew hit her nose. Now her stomach grumbled in eager anticipation. She broke off a hunk of cornbread, dropped it in the bowl, and ladled a hefty portion over the top. Then she grabbed the note and plopped into the wooden seat.
She spooned in two mouthwatering bites, hardly having to chew the soft beans and meat. She rolled them around her tongue and swallowed. As she raised her heaping spoon, her attention was drawn to the back door. Skip's piteous whines announced they were ready to come in.
Vic pushed up and opened the door. Skip dashed in but Bunny was nowhere to be seen. She called for the old hound but with the frightfully chill air whistling past she latched the door with the idea to put on her coat and find her after dinner.
Returning to the meal, Vic almost emptied the bowl when she remembered the note. She unfolded the creased paper. Inside it read:
Hope you enjoy dinner. There's ice cream in the freezer.
Please make sure the dogs stay inside tonight. It's supposed to be really cold.
I'll be back early. Have something important to discuss.
Something important? Vic flicked the note onto the table. I hope she gets home before midnight. Whatever it is I don't want to wake up to discuss it. Vic broke off another piece of corn bread and sopped up the last of the stew before setting the bowl on the floor. Skip licked it clean with tail-wagging enthusiasm.
Vic pulled open the back door curtain to see if Bunny was waiting on the porch. When she saw the old dog hadn't returned, she dragged on her coat with a snort and stepped into the cold. The wind had picked up since she'd come home. It howled around the cornice of the house mournfully and whistled through the empty rose bush.
"Bunny! Where are you?" She moved around to the front of the house. She pulled her coat tighter against the icy blast and scanned the darkness. "Bunny."
Behind her, Bunny gave her familiar ‘let me inside’ bark followed by a sharp, frightened 'yelp'. Vic raced into the back yard. A shadow skittered past the barren rose bushes. "Bunny, It's too damn cold to mess around." She stepped quickly to the spot. Bunny wasn't there. Then, a soft bang of the basement window slamming to. An icy chill that wasn’t related to the wind ran through her. It was the thing. The thing in the wall had Bunny!
Vic raced to the back door and flew up to the third floor. She flung open the door and ran to the brick wall. She pressed her ear against the rough, cold surface and listened. She heard it. The slow scratching approach. It grew louder as it went past and there was a thump in the spot above her head.
Vic couldn't stand it. Something was up there and it had her puppy. She glanced around the room until she spotted her desk chair. She pulled it over and stood atop it. Her head just inches from the sloped ceiling.
She wriggled her fingers around the edges of the old loose brick and edged it out. She hefted the weight in her palm and eyed the plaster ceiling. A part of her said this was crazy. The noise was just the wind and Bunny was outside right now. There was nothing in the ceiling but trouble once she busted out the plaster and mom came home to find it. But a louder voice screamed that Bunny was up there. If she didn't do something she would be gone. Just like the Jenkin's cat, Maximus. She raised the brick and slammed it into the ceiling. At first, she only dented the hard surface. Then she broke though. She worked on the edges, blasting apart the brittle material and sending pieces thudding to the ground.
She thought there was rushed movement behind the wall, but with the howling wind and the pounding of the brick she couldn't be sure.
Vic's bicep grew hot and tired with the effort and she paused to push her glasses back up on her nose. She examined her work. There was now a ragged two-foot hole in the ceiling. It was enough for someone to crawl through; if they wanted.
"Bunny? Are you up there?" Vic patted her pockets for her phone and pulled it out. She flicked on the flashlight and raised it into the opening. The tiny room appeared much as she remembered from Celia's camera. A confined, square opening with cobwebs along the walls and a lump of rags and newspaper jammed in the corner.
She stood on tip toes and panned the interior with the light. There, by the pile of rags. It was something fuzzy. She squinted. There was no mistake. It was the pink reflection of Bunny's collar.
"Bunny, I'm coming," she shouted. Below her Skip circled the chair in agitation.
Vic gave Skip a quick, worried glance then focused on the hole and jumped. She caught the edge of the plaster opening with her arms. The damaged drywall scraped painfully against her stomach as she dragged herself in and peered around. Below, Skip yapped and whined. Cautiously, she crawled to Bunny's side. Bunny's eyes held her in a glassy-eyed stare as she laid a hand on the old dog's flank. Already her body was cool to the touch.
"Oh Bunny," Vic cried. Hot tears dripped down her cheek as she scooped the pup into her arms.
Vic sobbed out her anguish until a soft, hissing voice startled her into the present. "Victoria," it called from the darkness.
Vic scrambled back and stared into the darkness next the rags. She held up the phone and snapped on the light. For the first time, she noticed the foot wide hole that disappeared behind the brick wall.
"Please, Victoria. Turn that off," the voice crooned.
An overpowering musky odor filled the cramped chamber. Vic’s thoughts fogged as if she were in the dream. Her arm dropped and she flicked off the light without thinking. The shadow darkened and gave birth to a face. At first, it seemed wavy and indistinct then solidified in the mirk. It was a dark, handsome face. Like from her dreams. She shook her head and squeezed her eyes. She willed away the fog that clouded her head.
When she opened her eyes the face was closer. No longer was it the dark, comely face of a dream lover. Long strands of Gollum-like hair hung down along a face pockmarked and pitted. Close set protuberant eyes bored into her and seemed to hover above a sniffling bulbous nose.
"Come, my love," the face squeaked through thin, rubbery lips. "Our line must not perish. You and I are the last. You and I are the future." The creature extended a scabrous white hand and smiled revealing rows of needle-like teeth.
Vic's stomach churned in disgust and she backed away in fright. In an instant, she went from darkness to light. She tumbled through the opening and with a loud 'yelp', landed on Skip. Stunned, Vic stared up at the jagged hole in the ceiling and gasped for breath. Skip scrabbled from beneath her and stood licking her face.
Then, Skip looked up. A deep, rumbling growl swelled in his throat as the hideous face thrust into the opening. Clawed hands grasped the edges and starved, misshapen shoulders slithered through.
Outside, there was a crunching of tires on gravel and a white light played across the window.
"Do not fight me, Victoria," the monster cooed. "It has always been this way. Let yourself go and I will please you." The powerful musky odor again filled the room and Vic's head swam. The form peering down at her seemed kindly and handsome once more. His words...wise.
Vic shook herself and rolled to her knees. It's not real, it's not real her mind screamed. She crawled for the door and clawed her way to her feet. Behind her, Skip howled and snapped at the form dangling from above.
"Skip! Come!" Vic commanded before stumbling into the hall. Her voice was cracked and weak but Skip came. Her finger's wrapped around the dog’s collar and with his help, she floundered down the stairs.
When she reached the kitchen Vic's head felt clearer. She snatched a knife from the butcher block and backed towards to door. Her mother was here. She was outside. She would be open the door and step in any second. Upstairs, a loud bump. Then, scraping sounds down the stairs.
The creature pushed through the doorway. In the bright illumination from the lights, the abomination was revealed. Naked except for torn rags covering its groin. It crawled into the room crouched double above the floor. Its spine was bent into a 'U' and one deformed leg stuck forward like he had been caught in some gruesome game of twister.
Skip barred his teeth and stepped between them. The creature hissed and circled around the table. He raised one pasty, clawed arm. The creature’s elongated middle finger was tipped with a long black nail that dripped with thick, white ichor.
Vic backed towards the door. She groped for the handle with one hand and yanked. The door pulled momentarily open then slammed shut. She turned in surprise and dragged on the handle again. The door pulled open an inch then slammed shut.
Her mother's face appeared in the window. "Don't fight it, honey," she smiled sweetly. "Just let yourself go. It's the family way."