15 Mar To Forgive, Divine
“To Forgive, Divine”Written by Nick Carlson Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 37 minutes
Kept company by a lone streetlamp’s flickering cone of light, Donovan Clark and Ellen Cruz reviewed the facts. Unlike many of their cases, this one seemed positively packed with substance. The leads were strong, the accounts were corroborated, and the net of skepticism seemed to have been pinched adequately tight. There was next to no denying what they were dealing with this time.
That did nothing to soothe their unease, however.
“Steady,” Clark muttered, adjusting the GoPro mounted to the roof of their van. He pressed down on the RECORD button. The single chipper beep sounded piercing in the enclosed space. “Leave some room for a clean cut.”
Three. Two. One.
“We’re on location in the heartland of Louisiana. Let’s review the confirmed cases before we head out,” said Clark, pretending as though they hadn’t rehearsed the exchange three times before. “Richard Blaire, a wealthy stockbroker passing through the area on the way to his next meeting, decides to spend the night at St. Peter’s Rock, a boarding house off of 32nd and Beech. He wakes up the next morning to find…”
Clark shifted through his notes with a dramatic pause. “…worn stumps where his fingertips used to be…and all ten of his nails embedded in the wall to his left.”
To his right, sitting at the table with him, Cruz winced, flexing her own fingers against her palms. It was the fourth time she had heard him repeat that phrase, yet it still made her recoil. Clark seemed not to notice or care; she could have been playing up the tension of the moment for all he knew.
“Doctors at the ICU attributed it to psychotic somnambulism,” Clark continued. “Fair enough. But they’ll have a harder time explaining the case of Trevor Chastain, a homeless man who’d managed himself a warm bed at St. Peter’s Rock.” He brandished a glossy photograph from the stack of papers. “…Little did he know that would be the last time he’d lay his head down for the night.”
They had planned on blurring most of the photograph in post, but Cruz still had to look away. The victim in the picture was nude, the remnants of his clothing shredded and soaked in his blood. His dark skin was flared red with wicked slash wounds in the shape of inverted crosses. But it was his face that disturbed them the most. His eyes were wide and glazed, frozen with death, and his mouth had almost contorted open in what could have only been a scream of the damned. One could see halfway down his throat, which glistened from the flash of the camera.
“Seems no one is spared at St. Peter’s Rock,” Cruz remarked once the photo had been stashed away. “Who or whatever this is doesn’t care if you’re rich, poor, black or white or purple.”
“And according to another eyewitness,” Clark followed, goaded by her remark, “whether or not you stay at the boarding house doesn’t matter either.” His next excerpt was a clipping from a newspaper. “Take Margaret Holmes. Spent the weekend at St. Peter’s Rock, then woke up the first morning at her own home to find drawers pulled open, mirrors smashed, and her kitten’s cold corpse dangling from its neck underneath the ceiling fan.”
“It followed her back,” said Cruz.
“Followed her back, latched on, cursed her, whichever you prefer,” Clark responded, slipping the papers back into an envelope. “Regardless, this Louisiana boarding house seems to be a hotspot for some of the most violent paranormal activity we’ve ever heard of. It’s very likely taking this on could be a one-way trip for both of us. If we go in, there’s a good chance something might come out with us.”
“Donovan, wait,” Cruz interrupted.
Clark let out a frustrated sigh, pounding a fist on the table. “For God’s sake, Ellen.” He reached up and cut the GoPro. “What did I say about waiting until the take is over?”
“This time merited it,” Cruz responded, her brow lowering.
“We don’t have all night,” Clark seethed. “This might be our last chance to get a good cold open before we arrive on location.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m concerned about,” said Cruz. “Since when did we adopt this ‘one-way trip’ ‘final destination’ kind of angle? You’re making this sound like a suicide mission.”
“It makes for good drama,” said Clark. “And let’s be real here, we have to be aware of the risks with this one. You saw the reports, you saw the pictures. Whatever this is, it’s mean and ugly as Hell…literally.”
“Okay, I get it, but this is…” Cruz hesitated, trying to find the right words. “…different. This is like…actual murder we’re dealing with. I’m just questioning whether the direction we’re going with this is…appropriate.”
Clark surveyed her for a moment. Then his face softened, but a glimmer lingered in his eyes. “You’re scared, aren’t you?”
Cruz, by contrast, hardened her expression and looked directly at him. “I’ve crept through abandoned mental hospitals, graveyards, warehouses, and sewer systems working with you. I’ve seen things I can’t explain working with you. But nothing in all those months has ever gotten under my skin, Donovan. This, however…yes. Fuck it. I’m scared.” She crossed her arms, turning away. “And frankly I think the way you want this to go down is…cavalier. Hell…I might even say ‘misguided.’”
“‘K. So how do you reckon we should go about this?”
“Maybe with a little more tact,” she said. “Let’s just treat this like a normal investigation. Rushing in spouting about ‘one-way trips’ might invoke something…like an actual one-way trip.”
Clark gave a half-smile, readjusting the GoPro. “You’ve got a good heart, Ellen. But ‘good hearts’ didn’t get us this far.”
Cruz sighed. Their show, The Halfway, didn’t reach the scope and scale of the more popular paranormal TV shows, but it had amassed a large enough online following for them to both be self-sufficient. Its impressive growth could only be attributable to Clark’s cutthroat business and marketing tactics. And the visual aspect doesn’t hurt either, she rued, reflecting on one of Clark’s comments to her halfway through their first season. “They wouldn’t watch if it was my ugly face plastered on-screen. So whatever you do, don’t grow out of those tight tops.”
“We’re at our season finale,” Clark was saying, “and we’re taking a brief hiatus once this episode goes up. What better way to rack up suspense than going to a place that might not be done with us once we’re gone?”
“Ten cuidado con lo que deseas,” Cruz whispered.
Clark looked up at her with a pointed gaze. “Hmm, what was that?”
“Something my mother used to tell me,” said Cruz, turning away. “Good advice by my reckoning.”
He regarded her briefly and shook his head with another smile. “‘K. Let’s keep it in English for the cold open, sound good?”
She only grimaced and wrung her hands together as he reached out to the GoPro again.
“Room for a clean cut.”
* * * * * *
The early morning sky was green by the time their van pulled into the boarding house’s parking lot. St. Peter’s Rock was a staggering black monolith, backlit by the scant eastern glow. Two lone lamps illuminated windows among the structure’s four stories, resembling a mismatched pair of eyes.
The van idled in place as the two readied their intro piece.
“St. Peter’s Rock,” Clark narrated. “A cultural icon in the Louisiana heartland. Historically a popular gathering point for Mardi Gras partygoers since the late 1800s.”
“…but as of late, it’s served as a playground for a particularly bloodthirsty presence,” Cruz followed, begrudgingly sticking to the script they had rehearsed on the drive over.
“Because of the attacks, traffic to the boarding house has absolutely plummeted,” said Clark. “The landlord is despondent. The building has been her life for decades at this point, and she would hate to see its reputation take one final fall to Hell.” He pointed his finger back and forth between Cruz and himself, another move they had rehearsed. “If we can not only figure out who or what is menacing St. Peter’s Rock, but also banish it for good…we could potentially save the landlord’s business and bring the lodgers back for the years to come.”
He held out his hand and stared expectantly at Cruz. She stared back, a small novel’s worth of comebacks coursing through her head. Their signature handshake, a staple of their show’s intro, more than ever felt hackneyed and inappropriate. But the corner of Clark’s lip twitched, and she followed through and recited her typical line: “‘We’ll meet them at The Halfway.’”
Clark finished the line: “‘And pray we find our way back.’”
He reached out and cut the cameras. “Listen,” he said, “I know that you’re upset.”
Cruz waited for him to finish his thought. After a moment she raised her eyebrows. “…and what?”
Clark shouldered a bag of camera gear. “And nothing. Keep it to yourself, at least until the filming’s done. That isn’t too much to ask, is it?”
Cruz seethed silently at him, but she hoisted another gear bag and threw the side door open. She stumbled at the sight of the building towering over them. The sun had risen slightly more; a halo of weak dawn yellow blazed around it in a semicircle.
“Fuckin’ scary, isn’t it?” said Clark, drawing next to her and peering up at it with awe. “We definitely gotta get some B-roll before everything becomes too bright.” He unpacked a tripod and mounted one of their Blackmagics. “You think this is freaky now, just think back to those photos, Ellen. Steel your nerves…you’ll need them.”
A cold breeze kicked through the air, forcing a shiver out of Cruz. Clark adjusted the camera’s aperture and panned slowly across the building’s face. As he acquired his shots, Cruz glanced at the sunrise with a glimmer of relief. This early in the morning its progress up the horizon was visible to the naked eye. She closed her eyes, breathing in a lungful of bracing air. She had a nasty feeling she should savor whatever sunlight she could before stepping inside the building.
* * * * * *
The lobby was gray from the early morning light and a dusty shroud of sullenness. Antiquated pillars rose to the checkered ceiling, whose immaculate patterning was broken by thin, branching cracks. Dark oakwood furniture lined the far walls, and apart from a scattering of mahogany placemats the concrete floor was barren and cold.
Noises from the floors above caught Clark and Cruz’s attention, of shuffling footsteps and squeaky faucets. Clark threw a scrutinous gaze upward. “There are still lodgers here?”
“Just the regulars,” a scratchy voice called from another room.
Clark and Cruz turned to the source. Lingering in a doorway was a middle-aged woman with a mane of red hair, toting a lit cigarette between her fingers. Her eyes were heavy with mascara and fatigue. She offered a ruby-colored smile as she walked towards them, a trail of smoke in her wake.
Clark signaled to Cruz, who positioned the camera and began rolling. “Good morning,” he said, approaching the woman. “I’m Donovan Clark, with The Halfway. And I presume you’re Abigail Stone, the landlord?”
“That’s landlady to you,” said Stone, ignoring Clark’s outstretched hand. “And yes. I’ve overseen this place the last three years, through thick and thin, storm and sun.”
“So…who else is here?” Cruz prompted.
Stone shook her head. “Poor, sorry wanderers. They got nowhere else to go so I’ve taken them in. They don’t pay the bills of course,” she added with a long dreg. “Hell, they couldn’t pay attention. They ain’t got a penny to their names. But you know what?” She pointed emphatically with her cigarette. A few ashy remnants fell to the floor. “It’s the right thing to do. Bless their souls…”
“And they’re here despite…all that’s happened?” said Clark.
Stone gave a sympathetic smirk. “They’re playing the odds…and who am I to turn them away? And all the while I’m doing my best to give them a warm, welcoming place to stay.” She sighed, shaking her head again. “So sad. They need all the love they can get. Only I can give it to them.”
“That’s mighty noble of you,” said Clark, offering his showman’s smile. “Perhaps we should move this to the front office for a more formal interview?”
“Oh, of course, of course,” she said in a smoldering tone. “When all’s said and done this ain’t a ‘social visit.’” She winked before turning and heading back for the doorway she came from. Clark and Cruz looked at each other. The same thought seemed to reverberate between them: This lady’s the real anomaly.
Once they had migrated to the front office, the two erected a typical interview setup and positioned Stone at her desk, with Clark sitting across from her. “Let’s start out with a recap of all that’s happened,” he said. “Back to the beginning…what was the first thing you noticed?”
Stone sighed, lighting up a fresh cigarette. “The first instance was about two and a half years ago…there was this god-awful smell coming from the vents. Now my first thought was that something crawled in there and died. If I’d put money on it I’d have said it was a possum. You ever smelled one of them dead? Like, actually dead? I had one under my crawl space once when I was a little girl, and my God, it could’ve made the Devil tear up.”
She blew a puff of smoke through her nose with a strained smile. “Then we realized it was coming from everywhere. And despite there being no dead things, there were maggots. Piles of them just…appearing, like how they appear on cuts of meat. Like, this whole place and everything in it was a cut of meat.” She leaned forward, her eyes yellow and watery. “You know what it’s like to wake up with a hole in your arm crawling with the disgusting little things? You know what it feels like to have dozens of tiny little mouths nipping away under your skin?”
Clark nodded, his gaze averted. Cruz, manning the camera, twitched as a shudder ran through her body. It seemed to take a moment for Clark to regain his bearings. “And things have only escalated from there?”
“I’m sure you’ve seen the articles,” Stone confirmed with a glare. “People have died here since. They’ve been mutilated, traumatized, what have you. He strikes at random, without prejudice. In all his cruelty.”
“Excuse me,” said Clark, doing a double take. “‘He?’ You know what this entity is?”
At this Stone actually laughed out loud. “Oh Hell, it couldn’t be more obvious to me. Gregory Trent.”
A hushed silence roared in the room. Clark side-eyed Cruz, who gave an imperceptible shrug. Never had one of their investigations yielded solid answers so early on.
“He was the landlord before me,” Stone continued. “Miserable son of a bitch went and drowned in the bathtub and I had to step up to fill the gap. I reckon he’s not done here. I reckon he feels unfulfilled, like he had unfinished business or something. I can’t imagine what, other than getting past third base with that Brazilian housekeeper.” She raised her voice and shouted at thin air. “You hear that? She left, you goddamn sicko! Get over it!”
“So, you don’t seem too fond of him,” said Clark, trying to reorient the conversation. “What was he like in life?”
“A real cast-iron bastard,” Stone snapped. “A narcissistic bipolar neurotic head case. Here’s his meds.” She opened a drawer and pulled out a white plastic bottle, rattling it for emphasis. “Everyone here hated him, but he gave them the roof over their heads, so what could they do?”
She snapped the drawer shut with a snap that made Cruz jump. “He’s the one doing it. Death apparently didn’t stop him from continuing to make everyone else’s lives horrible. He’s ruining my business, my reputation, and he’s hurting innocent people.” She leaned forward again. “Please…help us. Put this evil to rest.”
It was Clark’s turn to lean forward. “Ma’am, trust us when we say we are more than capable of dealing with the supernatural. We’ve overseen exorcisms, we’ve participated in cleansings…anything the other side has to offer, we’ve gone and dished it right back. Once over in Mongolia we even chased a Yeti out of a yak processing plant.”
“Allegedly,” Cruz corrected.
Clark closed his eyes. “…Allegedly. That’s off the record, by the way, Ellen. But, our repertoire is near unmatched in our field. Once we figure out exactly what we’re dealing with, we can take the next steps in sending Gregory Trent back where he belongs. …The other side.”
Stone nodded, slumping in her chair with a smoky grin. “Very good. Well, I’ll let you two get on your way.” She winked again. “I’ll be sitting right here if you need anything at all.”
A nervous smirk crossed Clark’s face. “We’ll definitely keep that in mind. Thank you for your help.” As they broke down the cameras and mics, however, Clark and Cruz shared another knowing expression. And we’ll stay far away, that’s for sure.
* * * * * *
They set up their base of operations in Room 225, the location of the most recently reported incident. “Where a passing drifter lifted her sheets one morning to find her midsection caked with swollen blisters,” Clark explained to the camera. “She had to be hospitalized due to blood poisoning from the sheer amount of pus. The physicians attributed it to a severe allergic reaction…but considering Gregory Trent’s rather…voracious carnal attractions as we’ve learned, we cannot rule out…” He paused, as if the impending word tasted sour. “…assault.”
Clark wiped his face, then proceeded after a brief pause. “The stakes for this investigation just rose to dire levels. This has elevated to…”
He hesitated again. Then he turned away and held out his palm. “Cut the video.”
Cruz lowered the camera. “You sound, like, overwhelmed.”
“I guess the weight of it all just hit me mid-take,” said Clark. “We’ll redo it once I get a solid line down.”
“Mmm,” Cruz said with a nod. “It’s all horrible, isn’t it? Is it making you reconsider your approach?”
“Absolutely not,” Clark said sharply, emptying a case to distract himself. “We have a name and all the necessary connections. With these things that’s half the battle.” He took out one of their EVP detectors, a brick-shaped audio recorder adorned with dials and knobs. “But how about that Abigail Stone? I say we make our Season 3 pilot about her.”
“She’s definitely a rare bird,” said Cruz.
“Overbearing is the word,” Clark mused, priming the detector. “Always has to get a word in.”
“Kind of reminds me of someone I know,” Cruz muttered.
Clark set the detector down on the bed. “What did I say about keeping the attitude to a minimum until we’re done here?”
“This is a minimum,” Cruz quipped.
Clark stammered, then rolled his eyes with a breathy laugh. “Good one. But I’m not paying you to make smart-ass remarks, Ellen. You can find work elsewhere if that’s what you want.”
At this Cruz reached over and grabbed Clark’s shoulders. He jumped as if electrocuted, but Cruz’s eyes were like lightning themselves. “I’m begging you, Donovan Clark…do not provoke whatever’s here. I know you’re jacking up the drama or whatever, but nothing good will come from it…I just know it. We’re in deep enough already, we don’t need to invite this entity’s wrath.”
Clark’s eyes glazed for a split second. Then he gently lifted her hands off his shoulders. “Ellen. Honey. This is the last I want to hear of this.” He stepped back, seeming confused at her indignant expression. “We are going to do this the way I prescribe. We have beats. We have leads. We have content.” A manic flash crossed his face. “We are making waves with this investigation already…and I won’t have your narrow sentimentality drag us down.”
Cruz was speechless. But Clark was a man possessed, now rummaging through the room, closing blinds and rearranging furniture. “Now let’s set the scene. Maybe turn on night vision to sell the creep factor. Our first step will be attempting to make contact with Gregory Trent.”
Regardless, Cruz sealed her lips and went about conveying his orders. But unbeknownst to him her heart had sealed too. I hope this episode turns out real damn good, she thought. Because after it airs you won’t have me to help ever again.
* * * * * *
With the intro finally complete, and with the room viewed through a filter of infrared green, Clark and Cruz were ready to contact Gregory Trent.
“Absolute silence,” Clark muttered as he readied the EVP detector. As if spurned by his words, the bedroom sank into a stifling vacuum devoid of sound. The blood rushing in their ears was like a distant ocean.
Clark raised the detector above his head. His soft intake of breath was a roar in the dead silence. “We call upon the spirit of Gregory Trent. We ask that you give us a sign of your presence.”
A gravid moment ticked by. Clark’s eyes, gleaming white marbles through the infrared, flickered around the room. “Is there anyone here with us?” he prompted.
“Give us a sign of your presence!” he demanded.
A bulb on the detector lit up. The needle on its miniature dashboard swung three-quarters of the way across and wobbled precariously in place. Clark wheeled his gaze into the camera and mouthed wordless excitement, jabbing his finger at the detector.
“This is unprecedented!” he whispered, holding up the detector, whose needle remained jumpy. “These readings are sustained! Gregory Trent really wants to tell us something!”
Cruz was astonished as she panned the camera around the room, hoping to pick up a visual indicator. After thirty seconds the needle dropped to the quarter mark. “Yes,” Clark gasped. “Let’s playback the recordings.” He pulled out a laptop from the case, throwing it open and stringing a USB cable from the machine to the detector. Cruz held on the screen with bated breath as it booted up.
“Now,” Clark declared, opening up the detector’s audio file. “Let’s hear what you have to say.”
The static blared for a moment. Then, muted but clear, a man’s voice broke through the noise.
“This! Is! Jeopardy! Here are today’s contestants!”
“What!” Clark spat as garbled fanfare rang from the speakers. Sure enough, Alex Trebek began listing off contestants’ biographies just like the show’s intro. “A lodger must have turned his TV on! Goddammit! Cut the film. Cut the film!”
Cruz lowered the camera, her chest aching from trying not to laugh. Clark set the detector down and snapped the laptop shut. “Goddamn boarding house fucks. Come with me, Ellen, we have to find whoever that is.”
“Donovan, chill out!” Ellen chided, but she failed to hide the warble of laughter in her voice.
Clark was not amused. “Give me the camera,” he growled before snatching it from her grasp. “I’ll go by myself. I don’t need you nagging down my back about…” His ranting was cut off as he stormed out the door down the hallway.
Cruz sighed. “Hopeless,” she muttered, walking towards a door that led to the bathroom. “That man’s gonna sabotage his own season finale, not me.” She flicked on the light and stared at her reflection in the mirror. Something’s not right, she thought, running a hand through her long dark hair. We dove too deep and missed the mark…we need to restructure this approach…
She ran her hands under the faucet, taking a casual glance up at the mirror.
Her reflection’s hand was still in its hair.
Cruz blinked, backing away into the wall. The reflection remained still, its blank eyes locked on its real-world double.
It smiled broadly. Its fingers curled, and with a strenuous pull, ripped a frock of hair from its head. Its teeth bared and its eyes widened as it tore away more hair. As Cruz watched, transfixed and horrified, its pale bleeding scalp came into view amid a black rain of hair, and the thing screamed – soundlessly – and banged its fists against the mirror, again producing no noise…
The glass cracked from the inside. Its anguished shriek finally exploded through, slamming Cruz to the floor – the light pulsated and blood oozed from the cracks –
The bathroom went black. Something metallic and hollow clanged on the floor, which finally jolted a scream out of Cruz…
Then the lights came on. Cruz’s reflection was her own, hair and all, her ghastly expression distorted by the prismatic mirror and dried blood, which had darkened to the point of seeming ancient.
“Holy fuck,” she wheezed, a hand over her heart. It had all happened so fast…yet it was the most bald-faced instance of paranormal activity she had seen in two years of The Halfway. The dingy little bathroom suddenly took on an ominous air. The walls seemed to have eyes…the air felt heavy with deathly spirits…
A new voice welled up. It reverberated and seemed to rise through a compressed space. An itch flared under Cruz’s skin as she turned her head to its source. The shower. “Oh God,” she whispered. The drain…something was speaking through the drain.
She considered scrambling back to the bedroom and grabbing the EVP detector…but the voice was already quieting. Forcing life back into her muscles, she crawled to the bathtub and peeked over the rim. The drain was coated with rust, but otherwise seemed innocuous…
She caught one lone phrase that seemed to trickle away like running water.
Cruz scooted away, her hand over her heart again. The words rattled in her skull, dredging up a blackish dread from her core. Whatever evidence they had found in prior episodes had been at most shaky, but she had seen enough horror fiction to piece together a plausible explanation.
An infestation, she concluded. She looked up at the broken mirror. Those two weren’t the same…it’s not just Gregory Trent here…
A third voice sounded off, this time from above. It was more familiar to Cruz. Clark had apparently found the TV-watcher. I have to get him, Cruz realized, heading for the bathroom door. She half-expected a grotesque rotting hand to reach out and snag her shoulder, dragging her to the bathtub where she’d be forced down the drain one agonizing inch at a time.
The bathroom, it seemed, was done with her.
* * * * * *
It was easy to track Clark’s voice up one story and down two connecting hallways. “…integrity of the investigation!” Clark was shouting. “You must turn it off!”
The voice that responded was senile and indignant. “I dunno who the hell ya think you are waltzin’ in here and tellin’ me what to do!”
“Oh, dear,” Cruz said as she quickened her pace down the hall.
“You knew we were coming! The landlord informed you!” Clark retorted.
“Take it up with Ms. Stone then,” the lodger cackled as Cruz found the open door and invited herself in. Clark was standing at the foot of the bed, fists clenched at an old man dressed in rags reclining upon it. “But I wanna watch Jeopardy!” he protested, gesturing at the television screen.
“At least turn it down,” Clark seethed.
The old man cupped his hand to his ear. “Whazzat?”
“Turn it down!”
“Can’t hear squat if I ain’t jackin’ up the volume! Sorry, young man!”
“Donovan,” Cruz said sternly. “I need you back in the room.”
“Yeah, you listen to her and git out,” the old man berated, but his sultry expression upon seeing Cruz told her he didn’t care if she stayed.
“Come on,” Cruz urged, striding over and grabbing Clark’s wrist.
“Fucking codger,” Clark hissed, but he backed off and the two exited the bedroom. The Jeopardy! “Time’s Up” tone played as Clark slammed the door shut.
“Miserable wretch,” Clark muttered.
“Well, while you were up here harassing homeless people,” said Cruz, “I got confronted by an actual entity back in our room.”
Clark wheeled around to her. “What!”
“It…” Cruz couldn’t bring herself to finish the thought. The fear had crept back in. “Just come look.”
* * * * * *
After navigating through the hallways they were back in their room. Clark entered the bathroom and stared in awe at the cracked, bloody mirror. “You said your reflection did this?”
“Yes,” Cruz confirmed, her voice weak. “And I heard something speaking through the shower drain. It said…something had ‘trapped’ it.”
Clark walked over to the bathtub and examined it in silence. “Something tells me those two were not connected,” he finally said. “Even for manic spirits…scaring the shit out of you and then calling for help doesn’t seem logical. Those were two distinct…expressions.”
“My thoughts exactly,” said Cruz.
“Let’s get some cover shots of the mirror,” said Clark. “And I know your heart isn’t in this like mine is, but for God’s sake, next time you go somewhere on your own, bring a camera.”
“Whatever,” Cruz replied, rolling her eyes. Just a few more hours of him, she told herself…
They migrated their equipment to the bathroom despite its cramped accommodations. They then killed the lights and filmed their cover shots, once again necessitating the infrared filter.
“We returned to the bathroom to find something cracked this mirror and made it seep blood,” Clark explained. Cruz, holding the camera, had to bite her tongue. It was another instance of Clark’s “creative liberties” for “narrative streamlining.” “Whether this is Gregory Trent’s spirit or something else entirely, we’re not sure,” he continued. “But we’re going to try the EVP detector in the bathroom and set up camera traps. Whatever did this might be grounded to this particular room. Who knows what tragedy transpired here?”
Taking another calming breath, he readied the detector and aimed it at the mirror. The cracks in the glass reflected multiple green glowing-eyed Clarks staring back at him. “Send us another sign of your presence,” he called out.
The enclosed room seemed to suck his voice into nothingness. The silence that followed was catastrophic.
“Gregory Trent!” he beckoned. “Why are you holding these spirits hostage?”
Cruz lowered the camera. “Hold up. How do you know Gregory Trent’s trapping the spirits?”
Clark held out his palm, obscuring the lens. “You heard Abigail Stone; he was an evil psychopathic bastard! Inflicting his abuse upon others even in death!” He lowered his hand and shouted to the ceiling. “Your trick’s out, Trent! Show yourself! Reveal your sorry face!”
Cruz’s camera exploded. There was a brief flash of electric light that seared their eyes – then a puff of acrid fumes and a sizzling crawl down her hands. Cruz screamed and pushed past Clark to the faucet. As she ran her hands through the faucet, Clark turned on a flashlight which swallowed the room in harsh bluish-white glow. The EVP detector was going haywire; the needle jumped back and forth like windshield wipers. The other two cameras had melted, their lenses collapsing in on themselves. The burnt plastic odor was overwhelming. And scrawled on the walls, trailing ribbons of paint to the floor, was one phrase repeated over and over again:
“Are you getting this!?” Clark yelped, swinging the beam around. He looked at the melted cameras and cursed. “So much shit happening right now – fuck me!” He exploded out of the room and fumbled through his equipment bag for a spare camera. “Ellen! Grab a camera and follow me!” Cruz, breaking herself from a stupor, followed him into the bedroom and grabbed a spare camcorder from the bag.
Clark threw the bedroom door open and his footsteps crunched as if he had trampled over eggshells. The hallway lights illuminated a writhing colony of cockroaches clustered at the foot of the door. The carpet splattered pale yellow with insect guts as Clark jumped like he had trodden on lava. Cruz haltered at the doorway upon seeing them, cringing and nearly vomiting on the spot.
“Jesus fucking Christ!” Clark cried, scooting away and filming the trampled mess of bugs. “What! No! You’ve gotta be shitting me!” he bellowed, sprinting down the hallway. Cruz shakily raised the camera viewing the carnage through the LCD screen and gasped at the sight. Where the splattered remains were was an amorphous blob of dead pixels.
“No! Don’t do this! Not now! Come back here!” Clark’s voice exploded. Cruz cursed and vaulted over the cockroaches, stopping herself against the opposite wall – and pushed off with a cry of disgust. The walls pulsated with meaty veins that bulged in and out of being, twisted and knotted into the words “FIND ME.”
“Dios mio,” Cruz stammered, crossing herself. It was the first time in over two decades she had invoked God’s name out of a plea. But as the venous walls around her continued to fester, she somehow knew God couldn’t help them now.
“Ellen!” Clark shouted from the far end of the throbbing hallway. “Film what you can and follow me!” He ran out of sight and Ellen followed. “I see him!” Clark declared from around the corner. “Ellen! I see Trent! In the elevator!”
“What!” Cruz caught up with him and stared down the corridor. At the end was a service elevator, whose doors were jammed halfway open. Standing inside it was a balding, shadowy man with pale, watery skin. Even from a distance Cruz could tell he wasn’t “there” in the corporeal sense. The specter’s eyes were empty holes in its pallid skull. Words were scrawled in the elevator wall behind him; they were obscured, but Cruz could tell what they said.
“Gregory Trent! Come out!” Clark demanded, walking towards him.
“Donovan! Are you insane?!” Cruz hissed. Her camera registered a manic Clark striding down a corrupted hallway towards a veritable portal of dead pixels. “Don’t do this! Stop!” she cried.
Inside the elevator, the specter smiled and waved goodbye as the doors began to close. “Oh no you don’t!” said Clark, setting his camera down and sprinting for them. With Cruz on his tail he grabbed the doors as they touched shut and threw them open once more –
“SHIT!” he cried, swinging his arms in circles and meandering forward. Cruz grabbed his shirt collar and heaved with all her might…Clark lingered with imbalance for a heart-stopping instant…then stumbled and fell backwards. “Holy fuck,” he wheezed, staring at what was only a second earlier a solid elevator…now an empty shaft plummeting into perpetual darkness.
Ellen approached the edge and looked down, aiming the camera. Then she looked up and went still with sheer horror.
Protruding from the ceiling was a cavernous maw bristling with human teeth. A ropy tongue descended from its throat, forming a fleshy noose that assimilated with the neck of the man they had just seen in the elevator. Even from Cruz’s fleeting mental snapshot, she noticed the man’s colors and finer details fading away, until it was a featureless cadaver dangling from the mouth-demon’s tongue. The beast reeled its lure back into its throat, grumbling with disappointment and hunger.
Cruz inched away from the shaft and fell to her knees, a balloon swelling in her throat. The urge to scream had liquefied into tears that ran freely down her cheeks. Drawing in breath became agony. Her mind felt centimeters from exploding.
“Where’s the camera, Ellen?” said Clark. His voice was a muted whine to her. “Dammit, Ellen, where is the camera you were holding?” Ellen only gazed blearily at her burned, empty hands. Clark looked past her, down the elevator shaft. “You dropped it down there, didn’t you,” he said. There was a dangerous tremor in his tone. “You actually dropped it. For fuck’s sake, you…you…”
No word was good enough apparently; he merely scooped up the camera he had set down. “At least this was recording…damn…all these dead pixels though…I know our audience trusts us but this still won’t look good…”
“I’m done,” Cruz managed.
Clark blinked as if he’d misheard. “Excuse me?”
“There is horrible darkness here,” Cruz muttered. She slowly rose to her feet. “This is beyond any of our capabilities…we were idiots to think we could tackle it.”
“Ellen…there’s still work to be done,” Clark said. “Trent’s spirit is still at large. We got him to reveal himself…”
“That wasn’t Trent!” Cruz snapped. “You don’t know what I saw up there! You don’t know anything about this! And yet you’re tearing through here nearly getting yourself killed because you think you’re this hot-shot ghost hunter!”
“For the last time,” said Cruz, her eyes watering again. “Drop this madness. You’ve dug yourself into a hole…we need to get out before the worst happens…”
Clark’s voice was a steely calm. “…You’re going to abandon this investigation, right smack in the heat of things? We’ve…we’ve come so far. We’ve seen things today that would have made weaker men into blubbering retards. This is what makes us stand out among the posers, Ellen.”
His tone took on an edge. “There are things in this world beyond our comprehension that scoff at our attempts to do so. We are the only ones who can bring them into the light. It is our sworn duty…and you want to flake on me?”
Cruz nodded. “Yes. I do.”
Clark gaped at her for a wrenching moment. Then he nodded. “Alright. Get out of here then. This is a closed set after all.”
“Gladly,” Cruz retorted, turning heel and storming off.
As she turned the corner down to the hall where their room was, she heard Clark’s narrator voice from behind her. “In a stunning development my partner Ellen Cruz has decided to leave the show due to a sudden, and quite frankly, rather unexpected bout of fearfulness. The rest of the investigation will be carried out by myself alone, as I continue pushing forward to…”
“Cabrón,” Cruz whispered as she burst their room door open. “I’m not ‘fearful.’ I just know my limits…”
But as she shambled into the bathroom, regarding her shattered reflection in the mirror, she thought back to the previous victims…carved up, assaulted, a few murdered. The hearing-impaired homeless old man who had lucked out with a warm bed and reruns of game shows. The countless, nameless others who’d endured an infested boarding house. They knew exactly what they were up against…and yet they wound up there anyway for a place to sleep. They apparently knew their limits…they apparently had enough faith to test them.
The giant maw in the ceiling returned to her mind, but this time it spoke to her in Clark’s voice. “We’ve seen things that would have made weaker men into blubbering retards.”
You mean I’ve seen things, Cruz corrected. You, on the other hand, have seen nothing. And you certainly won’t now, especially without me…
Her fingers closed on the rim of the sink. I do know my limits, she realized. My limits allow me to deal with this myself. My way.
Cruz ran the faucet and splashed water over her face. Cool logic seeped in where hot temper once flared. What do you know? she asked herself. Gregory Trent. The previous landlord. Abusive, mentally insane…died three years ago…inflicting suffering upon the living even to this day. She looked up. The thing in the mirror… Then around her. The beast that tried luring us to our deaths… She noticed to her morbid amusement that the scratched words in the walls behind her now read, “FOUND ME.”
“…trapped,” a distant voice wailed.
Cruz jolted, remembering the other occurrence. The voice in the drain had called out again…the entity that had claimed to be “trapped.” She approached the bathtub, then paused. What if it were another demon, posing as a suffering soul to try and draw her in? The thing in the mirror that had mimicked her reflection might just as easily mimic a man’s voice…
She waited a solid minute. In the silence, her sense of hearing seemed to sharpen.
She turned her head. This time the voice sounded less “contained,” like it was coming from two places at once. Still from the drain, but somewhere else as well…
Cruz strode from the bathroom out into the hallway. Ignoring the perforations on the wall, she crossed over to another room and let herself in. Thankfully it was vacant, and she immediately entered its bathroom and quieted herself, listening out. As the moments crawled on, she found herself inching closer to the shower.
“Trapped me,” the ghostly voice repeated.
She took a shaky breath. Whatever it was wasn’t confined to their bathroom alone…its voice was reverberating through the plumbing. Anyone anywhere in the building could have potentially heard it, including…
“Abigail Stone,” Cruz realized. With her eyes and ears all around the building’s business, she surely would have noticed the sepulchral cries throughout the various bathrooms and pipes. It seemed like a significant detail to account for, among all the raw horror she and the lodgers had endured. But during their brief interview, Stone had only seemed to talk about Gregory Trent and how horrible he was. Cruz didn’t doubt her then and she still didn’t now.
* * * * * *
Cruz’s knocking outside the landlord office door was met with silence. She frowned, remembering Stone’s promise that she’d be there if they needed “anything at all.” Her frown deepened as she thought back to all that had transpired on the second floor. Surprised she hadn’t come up to check on what was going on…is she even still in the building?
Cruz knocked again. And again, nothing responded. Closing her eyes and composing herself, Cruz grabbed the door handle and twisted it open.
Just as she suspected, the room was empty. The chair behind Stone’s desk was neatly pushed in. Nothing around the office seemed scattered or misplaced. Stone could have simply disappeared for all Cruz knew.
It was then she noticed a second door in the office, positioned deceptively on the left wall behind a metal cabinet. Rounding the cabinet, Cruz saw that it was white and relatively narrow, with a worn-out handle and lock. Another bathroom, she concluded. Stone definitely should have heard something if her office had its own bathroom…
Noises emanated from behind the door. Cruz pressed her ear to it. She heard shuffling and rustling cloth. There were human whispers, an effeminate rasp. Cruz strained to make out the words.
“You thick-headed, knuckle-dragging son of a bitch,” Stone scolded. “The same tired old tricks of yours…I endured it for twenty years and you’re still not done with us. Well fuck you then, you piece of shit…your reckoning will come, any minute now…just you wait, dick-for-brains, just you wait…”
And below the hateful whispers came a voice that was horribly familiar to Cruz. “Let me out…let me go…”
She knows! Cruz realized. She’s conversing with it!
Footsteps welled up from the bathroom…Cruz jumped, shuffling back behind the desk. The door opened, and Abigail Stone stepped into the office, followed by a fog of cigarette smoke. The scent nearly drove Cruz into a coughing fit. The neck of Stone’s sweater seemed loose on her shoulder; she readjusted it with a grunt, then noticed Cruz standing behind her desk.
“Ms. Cruz. What brings you here?” she croaked.
“Hello, Ms. Stone. I was wondering if I could ask you a few more questions.” She feigned a smile as she sat down in a chair. If working with Clark had taught her anything it was that one should pretend they didn’t know as much as they really did when interrogating someone. Interviewees were more likely to talk if the conversation felt more “open.”
Stone shrugged. “Sure, I guess. Not like I have much to do here anyway.” She reclined in her own chair, swiveling on it lazily. “What with ‘visitors’ from beyond the grave holding my building under new management. Pfft. So where’s your friend Donovan at?”
“I’m no longer partnering with him,” said Cruz. “We had a fundamental disagreement about how to handle the investigation. I’m working alone now.”
“Men,” Stone scoffed, puffing on her cigarette. “Think the whole world’s a lump of Play-Doh in their palms.”
“Tell me about it,” said Cruz, rolling her eyes. Play it up, she told herself.
“So what’s on your mind then?” Stone inquired. “What nasty things have you found prowling about my place?” She offered a rather mellow smile.
“We’ve uh…we’ve seen some things,” Cruz replied, treading carefully. “A large diversity of paranormal entities…beyond the scope of what a ghost like Gregory Trent might offer. He’s not working alone.”
“Son of a bitch,” Stone whispered, shaking her head. “He’s doing this, I know he is…”
“That’s my belief too,” Cruz agreed, choosing her words with caution. “There are two distinct possibilities…either he’s recruiting demons from wherever they come from…or, they’re being attracted by extreme anguish and fury.”
Stone cocked her head, her cigarette held out at a horizontal angle. “How do you figure?”
“Well,” said Cruz, “it seems unlikely that one spirit has the, for lack of a better term, ‘authority’ to command such a hideous array of demons…it’s more likely that they rose up and are laying waste to the building due to a preexisting surplus of negative energy. Like sharks attacking a bait ball.”
Stone scrutinized her, twirling the ashy stub in her fingers. “Exactly how sound is the science of…whatever it is you people do?”
Cruz shrugged. “‘Imprecise’ is the kind way of putting it.”
Stone gave a throaty laugh. “Of course. It’s all educated guesswork. Feelings over facts. You feel it’s one of those two possibilities, that’s the better way to put it. Am I in the ballpark, sweetie?”
“You could say that,” said Cruz. And so am I, she thought.
“And pray tell, what could be the source of all this negative energy?” said Stone, smiling again.
Cruz leaned forward…the guise was up. “Frankly, Ms. Stone, I’d like to ask you more about your relationship with Gregory Trent. …Specifically…if it’s still ongoing.”
Stone went motionless. Her cigarette was little more than a burning ember against her skin, but she didn’t notice. Instead she crumbled it up, littering the top of her desk. “You presume a lot, young lady. I have to say I’m impressed. Womanly intuition…I can fuck with that.”
“I’ve been hearing voices in the pipes,” Cruz said, dropping the ball. “A man’s voice pleading to ‘let him go.’” She stood up. “What have you been doing, Abigail Stone!”
Stone held her hands out in a calming gesture. “For God’s sake, take a Valium, sweetie! Goodness. I guess I can show you, considering you’d understand more than that cantankerous oaf Donovan Clark.” She stood up too, her stiff withered form seeming to unfurl to full height. “And I also guess you’ve presumed what lies beyond this door then?” she asked, gesturing to the bathroom.
“Someplace you can talk to Gregory Trent,” Cruz said, albeit with some uncertainty.
Stone’s smile morphed into a sneer. “‘Talk’ to him…if that’s what you want to call it.” She lurched to the door and swung it open. Cruz followed her, keeping her distance.
She gaped. The bathroom was darkened, lit by a flickering vanguard of candles. The walls appeared to be flimsy and artificial…until Cruz realized they had been upholstered with newspapers. Amid the faded headlines and fine print were several yellowing portraits of Abigail Stone and Gregory Trent, the exact man Cruz had seen mimicked in the elevator. His countenance had been defaced wherever it appeared: scribbled over with Sharpie, adorned with X’ed-out eyes and clown smiles, or scratched away entirely. Stupefied, Cruz almost didn’t notice the bathtub nestled against the far wall, which Stone was standing over.
“Three years ago, I walked into this bathroom to find his pale bloated corpse bobbing in noxious brown water,” Stone spat. “His old buddy Jack Daniel’s was with him. I never liked that man, he always had a bad influence over Greg.”
Stone turned towards Cruz, her eyes like dark pools. “But with or without a drink he was still a certified Grade-A cunt.”
She pulled open the neck of her sweater, exposing her upper arm and chest. The low light reflected off a jumble of burn marks and scars. “And that’s the shit you can see,” Stone lamented. “You’ll never see the bruises, the busted nose, or the broken ribs. And you’ll never see the life he took away from me. Twenty years of my life stolen by that sorry asshole.”
Cruz’s eyes flitted around, trying in vain not to focus on the shattering woman before her, but she and Gregory’s faces were everywhere. It was only then she saw the actual names among the faded print.
There was Gregory Trent. And Abigail. Abigail Trent.
Stone’s lips unfurled her tobacco-stained teeth. “And then he had the nerve…the goddamn balls…to just…drown, in this bathtub? To just call it quits from the world like that? Bet he felt nothing…bet he closed his eyes for just one second and BOOM! Dead.”
Her bony fists clenched. “That shit-lording bastard deserved worse. Hell’s not enough. Oh no, I’m only human, I can’t imagine a bad enough fate for Greg.” Her chest heaved with labored breath. “…But I can try. You bet your ass I can try my damnedest.”
“You’re trapping him here,” said Cruz. “He’s unable to move on and he’s bringing all this hatred and violence into this place…you’re the one responsible for all that’s happened here!”
Stone spread her arms. “Casualties in our war of attrition, young lady. I couldn’t let him win…I couldn’t let him move on without thinking he’d gotten to me. But I’m bored now…that’s why I called you two in. So I could have the last laugh as I watch him get banished.”
“You haven’t moved on!” Cruz yelled, jabbing a finger at her. “You’d rather let people get killed than move on and forget about him!”
“But there won’t be any more casualties now!” Stone cried with jubilation. “Now that you know how bad things really are you can drive him out for good!”
“You have no idea what you’re dealing with,” Cruz protested, her voice trembling. “Look what you’ve done to this place…all the suffering you’ve incurred…”
“Release me! Please!” Trent warbled from the bathtub.
“In due time, honey,” Stone answered the tub. “But I’m not giving you the satisfaction of doing it myself. …Miss Cruz…I trust you have all the necessities for an exorcism? Or whatever you people call it?”
Cruz stammered. Clark was the one with a background in the clergy, and she never did more than hold the book open for him as he recited verses. And despite their two seasons’ worth of strange happenings there was never any solid indication they had actually exorcised demons. She remembered that in Biblical times people with “unclean spirits” healed by Jesus were most likely merely suffering from epilepsy…
Stone scoffed again. “Don’t tell me you didn’t bring that stuff with you to a haunted house.”
“We did,” said Cruz. “But…”
“But nothing,” Stone fired, advancing upon her. “You want to make things better? You want to drive the darkness out? Then do it! Save them! Save me!”
“You evil bitch,” Cruz hissed. “Donovan deals with all that stuff and he’s not going to talk to me, not after I quit on him…”
“Fuck him!” Stone shrieked, grabbing at her hair. “Fuck that man! You can do it without him!” In a frenzy she jumped into the bathtub and grabbed at the spout, tugging with all her might. “Come on out, Gregory! Time to meet your maker!”
“No – Abigail, stop!” Cruz shouted. “You don’t know what – “
The spout wrenched off and Stone staggered backwards from the momentum – and before the candlelight snuffed out, Cruz saw a noxious brick-red fog billow from the hole like a mushroom releasing spores, blasting Stone in the face. As the room went black Cruz heard a scream and a painful crash. She turned and wrenched the door open, letting light back into the bathroom. Against her better judgment she whipped around to see what had become of Abigail Stone.
Stone had risen shakily to her feet, her knees wobbling and head down. Her sweater had been reduced to ribbons. She clawed at the remnants until it fell away entirely, exposing her bare chest and midriff. She pressed her fists over her heart, emitting horrible wheezing breaths.
“Gregory?” she rasped. “…No…no…you’re not him…”
Her eyes rolled into her head. Stone took a loping step out of the bathtub, her limbs swinging erratically. She opened her mouth but all that came out was a wet breezy rattle, like dead meat vibrating in the wind.
Cruz found her legs again and forced herself out of the office, slamming the door and backing away into the center of the lobby. She turned for the exit but fleshy black branches were snaking up the walls and doors, pinching shut her only means of escape. The entire building shook on its foundations, as if an entire parade of demons had raised their voices in a collective cheer.
Something pounded down the stairs – Cruz turned towards it – but it was Clark, clutching a video camera and a manila envelope overstuffed with files.
“Ellen!” he shouted, nearly tripping on the bottom step. “What the fuck is going on! What are you doing down here! I found a room full of records and I learned that Abigail Stone and Gregory Trent were married! I’ve got one Hell of a lead now! Why are you–”
The office door exploded off its hinges and Stone burst out of it, half-naked, flailing her arms and spinning in manic circles. “IT ITCHES!” she was screaming. “IT ITCHES INSIDE ME! GET IT OUT OF ME! IT ITCHES IT ITCHES IT ITCHES!”
“Holy fuck!” Clark cursed. “Ellen, what the shit!”
“I don’t know!” Cruz screamed, but she barely heard herself over Stone, who had already crossed the lobby to the other side with another door. She lashed out and busted it down too, melting through the doorway into the darkness.
“Holy fuck!” Clark exclaimed, rushing towards the room.
“Stop! Don’t get near her!” Cruz yelled, running up behind him. But Clark had stopped at the doorway, zooming in with his camera. He switched on the infrared filter.
The room was a storage area, overflowing with papers and boxes and office equipment. In the middle was a metal desk which Stone had thrown herself over. Her head seemed to be resting on a short platform…her arm was above her, seemingly grasping at thin air…then Clark boosted the ISO and the blade of a paper cutter came into view.
“MY HEAD! IT ITCHES IN MY HEAD!”
Stone brought the blade down on her neck.
“NO!” Clark bellowed, dropping the camera. Cruz had screamed and turned away, only hearing the smooth grind of metal and twin thumps of heavy flesh falling to the floor. Her sobbing mingled with the grisly flow of fresh blood from the storage room. The foundations trembled again and the fleshy branches crept higher. Everything else had gone quiet, but Cruz knew with an onset of dread they weren’t done yet.
Clark picked up the camera, running his finger over the lens. He turned towards Cruz. “There’s a crack in it now…but no dead pixels this time, so that’s a plus…I can’t believe she fucking did that, Jesus Christ…what could have compelled her to…” He swung the camera around and zoomed in on the headless corpse. “Astonishing developments…you won’t be able to see it on YouTube but remember that our patrons can see uncensored versions of every episode…”
“Donovan, shut up,” Cruz interrupted.
He lowered the camera. “What?”
“I said shut up!” Cruz roared through tears. “For the love of God, stop being awful for once in your life!”
Clark opened his mouth to retort, but his speech was drowned out by noises from the storage room.
He raised the camera again. The body was on its hands and knees, the stump of its neck lowered to the ground as if draining any remaining blood. A rapid, crunchy chatter emanated from its mangled throat…eerily bug-like.
From its shoulders and kidneys four giant brick-red insect legs sprouted and extended, wrapping jointedly around the human limbs and touching the floor. Writhing antennae bloomed from the neck, opening apart like flower petals. A head followed, a head with black eyes and adorned with warty horns, its mandibles fluttering noisily. Blown-up, Cruz could see individual plates moving on its face. It most resembled a New Zealand weta, a giant primitive cricket…and before they could react, it stood on two legs, mandibles clacking and antennae waving, and pounced on Clark.
Some unseen force seemed to drag Cruz away from the carnage but she knew it was her own survival instincts kicking in. Clark was brought down instantly, his camera crushed underneath a clawed foot. The weta dug into his throat, quelling his screams…as he slowly died it cradled him in its arms, saggy human breasts swaying freely, slurping up blood and frothing with bug juice.
Her adrenaline left her and Cruz collapsed to the floor, overcome with existential tremors. She was trapped…her prospect of survival was all but dead. Surely the weta’s appetite was unbound by natural laws…in time it would grow hungry again and run her down…
And at the end of the day, Gregory Trent’s still trapped, she rued. We failed…this place will be condemned by darkness. That poor old man upstairs, the weta will get him too, he’ll never know what hit him…
She forced herself up. No. My job is incomplete…my limits haven’t been reached yet.
Trent was trapped, she remembered. Trapped with nowhere to go. Unable to be freed from his wife’s psychic hold. Now stuck for eternity because there was no way Stone could attain closure now. No way out.
Wrong. There is a way out.
Ignoring the sucking, mashing sounds behind her, Cruz crawled towards the landlord office. The branches hadn’t covered that doorway…whatever they were probably didn’t care if someone found themselves in there.
As she worked her way across the floor and into the shadowy bathroom, Cruz reflected on her hopeless chances of making it out alive. That ship has sailed…but that doesn’t mean I can’t do all I can…
She worked her way into the bathtub, lying face-down over the drain. She tasted rust and scum; the tub felt like a coffin around her. It might as well be, she thought.
Pressing her lips to the drain, she whispered, imagining her voice carrying through the building’s miles of plumbing. “Gregory Trent…come to me.”
* * * * * *
Light…light…what is this? What trickery is this?
No trickery, Greg. You’re free now…
Who are you! Abigail? What are you scheming!
Abigail Trent is dead. I am not her…
Why are you doing this, whoever you are!
I am carrying you where you need to be…I am fulfilling what should have been done years ago.
I have read your soul. You are Ellen Cassandra Cruz. You’re a spicy young woman, that’s for sure. Red-pepper hot, I might say. Get it?
Very funny, Gregory.
What good fortune that I now inhabit such a vivacious young body. You and me could go places, Ellen. I could take you places myself, if only you let me in deeper.
Trust me, Gregory, we are certainly going places…
Where are you taking us? Someplace more private? I approve. Someone might hear you scream.
I very well might, Gregory.
Enhanced with a male spirit’s strength, Cruz’s body found it easy to pry open the ghostly branches blocking the stairway. They had walked right past the weta, which was gnawing on severed limbs like carrots. They made it past, but the branches did not let them go unscathed. Great sheaths of flesh had been scraped away by the branches’ thorns, and as the body lurched up the stairs, they trailed double streams of blood behind them.
Wow. I like a bit of masochism. Already you interest me more than my wife. She didn’t find it fun. She called me a “monster.” As if that was supposed to hurt.
If you like pain, you’ll like what I have planned for us…
Stop it, you’ll make me pop a hard-on. I wonder if I can manage it in a woman’s body. Here, let me try it out!
Hold your horses, Greg, we’re almost there…
But as Cruz’s body ascended the second flight of stairs, they grew slow from impending blood loss. Physical limitations were just that. They had to be quick if it wanted to achieve what they had in mind.
How high are we going? You got a penthouse suite up here?
The top of the town, Greg…
You really sweat the details. I must warn you though…I’ve been in that harpy’s clutches for three years. It’s going to take more than pain and a penthouse suite to make it all worth it. I intend to indulge in reality as much I can.
Indulge all you want.
They arrived on the fourth and final floor. There were no branching corridors, just one long hallway that ended at a window.
Perfect? What is perfect? Why did you say “perfect?”
Shh, aren’t you a man who likes surprises?
As a matter of fact, I do not! Tell me what’s going on!
Just a minute longer, Greg…
The body’s legs were growing weak. Soon they were dragging one behind it, like a cartoon character crawling away from an explosion. The window grew closer, agonizingly closer…
This vessel is failing fast, Ellen! What are you doing!
I said I had pain planned for us…
No! Stop! Let me at the reins!
For a scary moment the body spasmed, as if overwhelmed with conflicting signals. Their arms, once held stiffly like a zombie, had fallen limp to their sides. Staying upright was a challenge. But the window was just within reach…
Stop resisting! I only want you to pass on!
No! Not now, please not now! I haven’t seen the light in years!
Abigail Trent may have been a bitter wretch, but you’re no better. Far from it. You don’t deserve the light.
You psychotic bitch! Stop! STOP!
Cruz took control for a split second. Using the last of her strength she stood up and bent her knees, applying a springing pressure to her heels
You ugly cunt! Don’t you dare! DON’T YOU DARE!
Too many have suffered. You will be the last.
No! NO! NOOOOOOO!!!
The window shattered. The world became a blur of meaningless color. Cruz plummeted through open air, tumbling, the cold breeze feeling like Heaven on her many wounds. The shards of glass around her sparkled like raindrops in a sunshower. It was the most beautiful thing she had seen…at least, for the entirety of the day.
* * * * * *
Clyde McDowell had stayed put in his room. Despite his poor hearing he had detected a hellish commotion from all the way downstairs. He was in no condition to hobble out and investigate. He knew all too well of the boarding house’s reputation, the rumors of hauntings. He hadn’t experienced it personally yet, but his dreams at the boarding house had been the worst they’d ever been in his seventy-four years of life. Not even his decades on the streets could have concocted nightmares as twisted as the last few days had been.
The sun blotted out for a second. McDowell turned his head to see, to his shock, a body falling past his window. That was what finally compelled him to get up. He limped to the window, cursing his bad leg, and pushed the panes open. “Oh dear,” he muttered, staring down at the ground below. It was a young woman splayed out in the parking lot. Her body appeared unbroken, but the blood pooling around her head told him enough.
At least it was instant, McDowell thought as he slunk back inside and closed the panes. He had seen enough suicides out on the streets to feel much sympathy for it anymore.
He sat down on his bed and felt a sudden lightness in his lungs. At first he thought he was about to fall into a heart attack, but everything – from his limbs to his head – felt lighter as well. There was an overall impression of spryness, a vitality he hadn’t felt in many years. Even his bedroom seemed bright. It was as if a mighty pressure had been lifted…like a plug had been pulled and a drainful of dirty water had finally been sucked away, leaving everything shiny and polished like new.
McDowell thought little of it as he settled back into his mattress and turned up Jeopardy!. Alex Trebek’s soothing tones only reinforced his strangely newfound impression that he might actually sleep well that night.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableNick Carlson Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
🔔 More stories from author: Nick CarlsonPublisher's Notes: N/A Author's Notes: N/A
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