Out With the Old Year

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

As I’ve gotten older, I tend to focus more on New Years than other festivities around this time. New Year’s Day is a chance for a new beginning, as well as a chance to look back on what one has accomplished. Curiously, I find myself trying to do more of the former instead of the latter. Maybe it’s because the past is already written, and I’m more interested in what hasn’t been set in stone yet. Regardless, it helps to know where one has been in order to know where one is going.

Some of my accomplishments this year are things I can be proud of. I’ve started this blog, worked on editing my dystopian novel, and started a new fantasy novel. Additionally, I’ve written a few short pieces of fiction here, and I’ve joined a local writer’s group. Most importantly, I’ve found new writers to be inspired by. If fiction is a window into the human condition, I’ve been renovating this year in all the right ways.

Granted, this doesn’t mean I’ve cultivated things to my complete liking. Trying to find time to work on books and participate in social media is a skill I haven’t completely mastered. If I could, I’d write here and elsewhere every day. But that’s an ambitious goal, and really I need to crawl before I go running around the Internet like a silly person.

I think that perspective also is important. This year many people have suffered misfortune and tragedy, while others have emerged victorious and triumphant. Their struggles sometimes get publicized, and sometimes they go completely unnoticed by friends and neighbors. Notoriety doesn’t add or take away from these challenges; they exist whether anyone knows about them at all. Compared to some of the things I do know about, my struggles seem quite small. This perspective makes things a bit more bearable at times.

One thing I can say is that anyone reading this has made it through another year too. That’s better than any holiday wishes or tidings I can give. Regardless of whether it’s been easy or hard, we’re still here doing whatever it is we’ve been doing. If a life is a story, then we all get to turn the page to see what comes next.

The Promise

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

No one can dispute that I love Marcus more than any other woman. Although he goes out to drink and meet women who simply throw their bodies at him, he always returns home without them. No, they are merely playthings, unworthy of more than fleeting attention.

I, on the other hand, have been there for many years listening to his troubles. Only I have the patience and capacity for love that can let him truly unburden himself. While the others think that his life is filled with many women who think they love him, I am the only one to which he confides his innermost thoughts.

These thoughts have grown darker over the years, and so I chose to do something about it. Poor, dear, sweet Marcus could not help that his curly brown hair and sparkling blue eyes would attract predatory women into his orbit. Truly, his tall stature and broad shoulders should not have been a bane to his existence. Naturally, I could appreciate him for who he was inside, and not for what others simply devoured with their eyes. The worst misery is to be alone while surrounded by sycophants.

I vowed to alleviate his condition, and tonight I made good on that promise. Already I had a place prepared, and with the bolstering of my heart and my passion, I waited patiently to return from his night’s carousing. Singing a song and swaying from drink, I saw sweet Marcus return to his home at midnight. Quietly escaping my perch, I crossed the street and intercepted him before he could enter his abode.

So quiet was my approach that I seemed to have startled him. “My word!” he exclaimed, dropping his keys onto his porch, his glassy eyes barely suited to the dark. “Who might you be?”

To answer him, I planted a gentle kiss from my lips upon his. He tasted like sweet sherry and tobacco. Pulling away, I saw a familiar smile creep upon his face. “Marcus,” I said, “I could not help but see you returning home alone again. Is your evening at an end, or do you have enough time to spare for me? I promise I shall make it worth your while.”

Marcus’s smile grew broader, and his precious eyes sparkled in mirth. “Well, I cannot refuse such an offer from someone as sweet as you,” he said.

“Splendid,” I replied. Putting my arm in his, I said, “There is a place I know where we shall not be disturbed. Come with me; I can lead the way.”

Marcus blinked, looking at his door and then at me in partial confusion. The poor thing had been so wounded that he did not know love when he saw it. To help show him I was true, I unlaced only the very top of my bodice. Putting his hand over my heart, he could feel how much I burned for him. Nodding his assent, we removed ourselves from his porch and back over to my family’s estate.

My family is an old one in the town, and the estate I lived upon had been in my family’s possession for centuries. Many people had offered to purchase it, on account of its proximity to the beach and a quiet cove which existed on the southeast corner of the parcel. A sandy path worked from the side of my house across a half mile stretch of field, and then it winded its way through some gravel on its way into the cove.

We gently walked along this path for a short while in silence until Marcus abruptly halted. “I must say that the breeze from the sea is nice, but my throat is rather dry. If you don’t mind waiting, I could return to my house and fetch some wine.”

“That is quite unnecessary,” I said, having prepared for this very contingency. From a pocket in my surcoat, I produced a small flask of Marcus’s favorite sherry. Unscrewing the lid, I gave it to him.

He took a long pull from it, and coughed from its potency. “My dear,” he said, “I do not know how you thought to bring my favorite brand of sherry, but I am eternally grateful. Is there something else you have mulled it with?”

I smiled demurely, bottling up the flask and returning it to its pocket. “I have added something extra, to help you further appreciate the evening.”

“Why,” Marcus said, his speech slowing and slurring more heavily, “I do believe whatever you added is working quite nicely. Lead on, my sweet damsel.”

My heart leaped at the familiarity. Our arms again intertwined, we made our way further through the rocks until we finally saw the pool within the cove, its serene waters dark at this time of night. Currently at low tide, the pool’s presence could only be witnessed by how it reflected the stars. I had seen it many times, and Marcus seemed to enjoy its calming influence.

The both of us skirted the pool’s edge until we had arrived at a small cave leading directly into the porous rock of the cove’s northern wall. Picking up a torch I’d left earlier, I lit it with some matches I kept on me. Seeing the torch light up, Marcus clapped happily.

Then his countenance turned into a worried expression. “I…forgot my keys,” he slurred. “We should go back t’ the house an’ get’m.”

Pulling out a ring of keys I’d placed with the torch, I said, “No need to worry. I have the keys you need right here.”

Marcus visibly relaxed, and I took his arm again and led him into the rocks. Within the wall, the sea had eroded many different caves. At high tide, the place was impassable, but low tide gave us access to the small path my family had carved out many years ago with the help of their slaves. Down here, voices carried, but the sounds would never go past the rock itself. Only the ocean mattered here.

For his part, Marcus looked delighted at seeing all the different life forms that lived along the rock walls. Algae and barnacles and certain molds all formed a colorful display that seemed to dance in the torchlight. Swaying to and fro, I had to keep him balanced lest he slip and hurt himself.

“This’s a long walk,” he said after a while. “Where did you say we’re going?”

I smiled and pulled him along. “It’s just around this turn,” I said. “Just a little further to go.”

True to my word, we rounded our journey to the right, and we arrived at our destination. Here, so close to the ocean, there was a series of small pools that practically shimmered from algae caught inside. I left my torch behind, and I brought him to marvel at the cave’s beauty. He needed to see this, so he could know my true feelings for him.

The sight stupefied him, to my eternal delight. Taking him forward, I brought him to within the largest central pool. “Here is where I wanted to take you,” I confessed. “This is a beautiful place for a beautiful thing. Only we will know about it.”

Marcus licked his lips and nodded. He opened his mouth to speak, but I put a hand to his lips. Kneeling down, I felt below the water and found two stout chains. They were heavy, and I could only bring up one at a time. At the ends, they had manacles with a lock. Using the keys I brought, I unfastened the first, put it around my beloved’s wrist, and locked it in place. Then, I accomplished the same with his other hand.

“What’s going on?” he asked, his voice barely getting the words out coherently.

“I brought you here to make you a promise,” I said, collecting my skirts and getting out of the pool. Already the tide was coming back in, and it took an extra moment to find the right step to climb upon.

“Don’t leave me here,” he begged, and I could hear the sherry wearing off in his voice. “For the love of God, take off these chains!”

Although I tried to brace his resolve, I understood his weakness. Fortunately, it did not matter. “I cannot bear the thought of you being in pain any longer. Our love is meant to be eternal, like these caves and the waters of the ocean. I will always remember you, and these caves will be a monument to that love. Farewell, my dear Marcus, until we meet again in the next life.”

Having thus unburdened myself to my one true love, I exited the chamber and the cove itself, leaving Marcus to the mercy of the tide.

Percy’s Will

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

In the blackest part of night, with no moon, thick clouds, and no lights, and two hunched forms crept their way across the northern edge of someone else’s back lawn. Stumbling about in the darkness, they finally found the tall hedge leading south and followed it. Heavy booted feet crinkled the grass, and neither of the two men could hear anything except their own labored breathing and somebody’s dog barking a mile away. The air reeked of encroaching forest and manicured lawn. Their arms and fingers ached from carrying five cans of gasoline each.

Then the rear man’s boot slipped, and he fell into a pile of leaves. Liquid inside the sealed canisters sloshed about. “Fuck,” he cursed.

“Will you shut the hell up, dumbass?” hissed the man in front. “Get down!” Both men flung themselves to the ground. Up ahead on the left, a light turned on. The back door opened, and what looked to be a kid in blue pajamas poked his head out. The two trespassers laid there, barely breathing, hoping the kid would just go away. This was a big payday, and they didn’t need some shit kid messing it up for them.

Eventually the child satisfied his curiosity, and the light flipped off. The man in front slapped his partner on the shoulder. “Smiley, what the fuck is wrong with you?”

Smiley shrugged, getting to his feet. “Sorry, Cal. I just slipped is all. It’s dark out here. Lemme use my-”

Cal cut him off with a punch to his shoulder. “Pick up those gas cans, and let’s get moving. We just have to get across the road.” Smiley did as he was asked, and they renewed their journey forwards. Minutes passed, and they reached the front edge of the hedge between two giant houses.

“Is that chanting?” whispered Smiley, thrusting his chin towards the house on the right.

“Don’t be a moron,” said Cal. Looking around, he was more interested in not getting caught on the cul-de-sac. Well, it would have been a true cul-de-sac had there not been a giant mansion parked in the middle of it. Most people wanted privacy from their neighbors, hence the tall hedges, but the owner of the house they were going to decided he’d build right in the middle of five other giant manses. Some people are just fucking weird.

Cal also noticed the pavement on the road wasn’t proper asphalt either. There were red brick lines running across the northeast down to the southwest, and at the other corners. Between it, the request for what they were supposed to be up to, and the weird fucking neighbors, Cal almost regretted coming here.

Almost, except he’s getting paid real money for this, the kind that’ll let him live on a beach and watch pretty things in bikinis prancing by.

So he hiked up the cans of gasoline and said, “Let’s move.” The liquid inside the plastic containers sloshed, and for a moment he could have sworn he heard some movement. There was no going back. He needed cash, and cash is what he’d get. Why were the weirdos always rich? Both of them made it, gasping for breath and sweaty in the cool winter air, hugging the north wall. They scanned around, and found no one following them.

Cal took a minute to catch his breath, then he started crawling around the house. This was one of those old mansions, built in the thirties in extravagant style. The owner’s family left him with a shit ton of money, and in typical rich kid style he had this place built to taste out in the Catskills. It was by far the largest estate here, dwarfing the other buildings in square footage and stories. The roof had those black tar shingles that seemed to glisten though there wasn’t any light, and it had some steeped attic windows that reminded Cal of every scary movie he’d ever seen. As he thought about the shingles, some siding fell off the house in between Cal and Smiley. Some termites scurried off.

Smiley looked like he was having second thoughts. He had a sopping wet brow and his breath was all labored. Even in the dark, Cal could tell by his friend’s gait that he was looking for a way out rather than in. Cal picked up the pace so he wouldn’t have too long to think about his escape. They rounded two corners, and proceeded along the southern facade. Finally, they got to the only door to the place. It was a giant oaken barricade painted black with two demonic looking silver knockers held in tight maws. Smiley reached a hand out to knock, but Cal batted it away in time. “The owner’s dead, dumbass. Who do you think would answer?”

“I don’t like this place,” whined Smiley. He pointed at the silver numbers on the right door frame. Going down in a slight incline, it read, “666.” That was a bad number. A really bad number.

Cal ignored his friend and tried the door. It didn’t budge, even though the executor of the owner’s estate promised it would be unlocked. Something must have been blocking it, so he put his shoulder to it and tried harder. When that didn’t work, he banged on it, until finally he grabbed the knob with both hands and tried tearing it free. Heaving mightily, his finger caught on a loose bit of metal and it split the digit open. Blood poured free, spilling onto the black oak. Without any obvious reason why, the door opened softly with a sigh. Then, stale air rushed out and wafted over the two intruders, like a large beast exhaling.

Using his good hand to drag his friend with him, Cal marched inside and heard the door close. Maybe Smiley wasn’t as chickenshit as he thought. If that was true, he was liable to go marching about the place and doing stupid stuff. Cal got his flashlight out of his pocket and turned it on. Smiley did the same.

Glancing about, Cal noticed he was at the start of a long hall done in mahogany floorboards and paneling. There were a lot of places to get lost in, and the crimson carpeted stairs on the right led to even more doorways and corridors on a second floor. Smiley was about as bright as a dead hamster, so he decided to give his pal the same warning the executor gave him.

“Listen up, numbnuts,” he began, taking the gas from Smiley and setting it on the floor. He grabbed a handkerchief and wrapped it around his finger as he talked. “We’re here to set fire to the place, and nothing else. We don’t take anything, and we sure as hell don’t go exploring, got it?” Smiley nodded emphatically. “Good,” said Cal, visibly relieved. “We’ll stick together and pour gas in these halls. Just these halls only. The lawyer said we gotta do the bottom floor, the second floor, and the third floor. Got it?” Smiley nodded again.

Each took a couple cans of gasoline and started walking down each side of the hall, sloshing some every few steps. The wood should go up like kindling. However, by the time they got halfway down, Cal had run out of gas, and Smiley did too. “Fuck,” Cal breathed. They didn’t bring enough.

“What’s wrong?” asked Smiley, the fear creeping into his voice again. He was okay when Cal told him they were going to torch the place. Unexpected things, though, frightened him again.

“Nothing,” said Cal. “Let’s go get more gas and finish off this floor.” They walked back to the entrance, got one more can each, and barely sprinkled off the rest of the ground floor.

At the end, the door to the kitchen was open. Cal heard a noise coming from his left, and he saw Smiley poking his head inside. “The fuck is wrong with you?” Cal asked rhetorically.

“I thought I heard something,” replied Smiley. “It sounded like laughing, Cal. Is this place empty?”

“Yeah, idiot,” said Cal, his nerves getting frayed by his dumb-as-rocks partner. “Come on. The lawyer said Percy never let anyone stay here.”

“Wait, this is Percy’s place?” breathed Smiley. He started clutching at his chest.

“Yeah, Smiley,” said Cal.

“You didn’t say this was Percy’s place,” Smiley said with a shaky voice. “I wouldn’t have come if you said that.” Of course, thought Cal. Percy was somewhat of a local legend up in the nearby town. Because he was rich, people used the word “eccentric” to describe him instead of “mean, moneyed, and menacing.” He was verbally abusive to everyone he met, and there were always rumors of what he did late at night. Old age had only exacerbated these qualities until everyone steered clear from him. When the news came around that he was dying of cancer, people quietly celebrated.

It wasn’t a terrible surprise, then, that Percy’s lawyer came around and asked Cal to commit arson. Percy didn’t have any heirs, and he’d be damned if anyone else would enjoy his estate. There was rumor that a cousin of some sorts from Europe had inherited the place. Cal was there to make sure it didn’t happen. Originally Cal wanted someone with a little more brains to accompany him, but he realized that smarter people might actually ask what they were up to. So he had to settle for Smiley.

“We’re going to burn this fucking place down,” said Cal, tugging on his friend’s jacket again. “It ain’t gonna matter what you hear after that. Let’s get the rest of the gas and pour it on the second floor.” Grudgingly, Smiley went and grabbed the other cans and took them upstairs. They sparingly poured some on the carpet, the foul smelling liquid staining the fancy carpet and ruining the lacquer on the walls. Being very careful, they took a few steps and sloshed more liquid. Taking more steps, then pouring liquid. It became rhythmic and soothing to the two arsonists.

Ahead, Cal thought he heard something banging, and then he held his hand up to stop Smiley. On the right, wood was knocking against wood, and he could have sworn he heard grunting. Smiley must have heard it too, and the pair walked carefully forwards. That lawyer must have lied to him. Stupid fucking lawyers and their lies. He wouldn’t put it past Percy, the mean son of a bitch that he was, to lure someone here to die in a house fire. There was no way Cal would get burn this place if it meant killing people. Carefully, Cal crept forward. The grunting was louder and more insistent, one coming from a deep voice and another from a higher pitched voice. It was two people fucking alright.

He was about to turn around when Smiley went for the door and threw it open. Cal’s heart leaped into his throat, choking him on fear and panic. Smiley just stared into the dark room, and then he turned to Cal. “It’s nothing,” he said, giggling from what had to have been shock. “This place sure is scary. We were both fooled.”

“No I wasn’t,” protested Cal. “You’re an idiot. Let’s finish up.” Sulking, he picked up his gas can and finished off the second floor. They went back and grabbed the only two gas cans left, and began trudging up the stairs to the third floor.

This one had a darker carpet, almost purple, and it seemed to swallow the light from the flashlights. Weird, macabre statues lined the entire hallway. It was like there was a posting of mute, motionless sentries in front and behind him. Cal stood there, transfixed, somewhat expecting the things to come to life at any moment and try to kill him. The closest one looked human, except it had a melted face and it had its hands raised like it was trying to fend off someone. All he could make out was a mouth contorted in agony.

And that’s when the rain began hitting the roof, landing in soft splashes. Great, Cal thought, as if this couldn’t get any worse. As if to call out his challenge, a great flash of light beamed through the giant circular window behind him. Then the whole manse shook as a giant thunderclap pounded them. Smiley practically jumped, and Cal was beginning to regret coming here. “Just finish the job,” he told himself.

Popping open the canister, he began pouring with a purpose. Smiley did the same thing, and soon they were hurriedly splashing the flammable liquid as fast as they could. Another lightning bolt flashed, followed four seconds later by another giant thunderclap. They redoubled their efforts, almost running with the cans upturned. Please, just please, prayed Cal. Then, the sloshing stopped, and Cal realized he was only halfway down the hall. The job wasn’t finished. The lawyer said they had to get it all or the house might still stand.

To make matters worse, Smiley said, “We’re out of gas, Cal. What are we going to do?”

“Shut up,” said Cal. “I’m trying to think.” He was torn between saying fuck it and lighting the place up or just hauling ass. There was a lot of money at stake, and he didn’t want to be told to come out here again. If that other guy inherited, he’d probably demand an investigation, and then people might watch this place. “Fuck,” Cal breathed, which didn’t do much for Smiley’s disposition.

He decided to try to finish the job. The lawyer said there was probably more gas in the attic (of all places) in case they ran out. But that fucker also said 10 cans of gas should be more than enough to do the job, Cal reminded himself. “Look, Smiley,” he began, grabbing his friend and bringing his face to within a few inches of his own. “I know where we can get more gas. There should be some in the attic. We can go up there, grab some, and finish pouring here. Okay?”

Smiley shook his head. His eyes were like saucers. “Cal, that’s no good. You said we shouldn’t go into the other places, Cal. I want to go home! Please, let’s just go home!”

“Not yet!” yelled Cal, slapping his friend. “Look, I’m sorry, Smiley. This place has me on edge is all. I’m really sorry for hitting you,” he repeated, while Smiley started bawling. “We can go get the gas, Smiley, and then we can finish pouring it. And then we can watch it burn. Would you like to see this place not hurt anyone?”

Smiley stopped crying, and shook his head yes.

“That’s great,” said Cal. He took his flashlight and shone it on the ceiling. Directly above him was the pull cord to bring down the stairs to the attic. “Watch out,” Cal said, and then he tugged. The door to the attic swung open with a groan, and a wooden ladder practically fell out into position. “I’ll go first,” said Cal, putting his flashlight in his mouth and grabbing the ladder with sweaty hands. Slowly, he made his way up into the black attic.

Eventually he found a smooth wooden floor and pulled himself up. Swiveling his head to and fro, he saw what could only be described as the strangest menagerie of grotesque items he’d ever laid eyes upon. Jars of formaldehyde held organic specimens of deformed fetuses, reptiles, and mammals. One jar held a preserved human hand, clutching some sort of rodent. At the far wall, lightning flashed just in time for Cal to see an illuminated purple smock, blood smeared all over the front. Just above it was a giant mask, painted with black and white tribal markings. As Cal took the light away from it, he could have sworn the eyes didn’t dim immediately. And the pupils stared holes through him.

The air up here was stale, filled with the coppery smell of blood like an old penny on his tongue. To the side, there were shelves filled with old parchment books. He cautiously took one out, and began thumbing through it. It had a black leather cover, and the writing in it was done in an elegant hand with a pen that sputtered ink. There were a few drawings inside, mostly occult symbols that held no meaning but dread. Dropping the book, Cal turned around to see some stuffed creatures pegged to the roof. One was a two headed bat with large fangs and red liquid seemingly dripping from its mouth. On its right was a spider with a foot-long body, large forelegs rampant and maybe even twitching. Cal hated spiders, and he had to close his eyes and breathe, opening them again to make sure the spider wasn’t really alive.

Behind him, Smiley made it up into the attic and hit something with his head. “Ow,” he yelled, letting go of the ladder and almost falling down. Cal caught him in enough time and helped him up. When he got his friend situated, Cal aimed his flashlight at what accosted his friend and recoiled at the sight. It was an upside down crucifix. This one, though, was strange. The figure of Jesus was nailed to the wooden boards, but the hands were reversed. Its hands were digging into the wood, and the figure’s eyes were rolled into its head in what could only be construed as ecstasy. Blood from the crown of thorns poured downwards toward’s the figure’s dangling hair. And worst of all sacrileges, the figure’s loins were filled with an unmistakable erection.

Smiley saw what Cal was looking at, and he scampered away. Knocking over some of the books, one in the back was dislodged along with a black candle that had seen much use. The cross was still swinging, and Cal had to almost feverishly will himself away from looking at it to look for the gas. At the south end, sitting above a pile of books, were two old red steel cans. Trying to ignore the cross, Cal headed for what he needed, shaking the cans to make sure they had gas in them. Not even wanting to trust his ears, Cal opened them both up and sniffed. Great, he thought. Turning to Smiley, he said, “Do you want to finish pouring the gas downstairs? Will you be okay?”

Smiley nodded, trying to climb to his feet, but slipping when his hand was on the dislodged book. It had a strange cover, with some strange, dark markings in it. Cal shone the light over, and he saw that it might have been a leather cover that had a tattoo. Surely he had to have been seeing things. Setting down the gas cans, Cal picked up the book and opened it. There was nothing inside, just blank parchment of a variety he never saw before. This kind had human liver spots on them.

Realizing what the book was made out of, he dropped it, open faced, to the ground. He picked up the cans of gas, and handed it to Smiley. Without any further prompting, Smiley ran down the stairs. Cal looked around, and realized that Percy had to have been a Satanist. However he got hold of these things, they had to be illegal. Definitely some of it might have been acquired through torture. Part of Cal wished Percy died in as much pain as possible. He deserved it for scaring him like this. So did the lawyer, too.

Cal opened his can, and began pouring it up here. He sloshed some gasoline, and he hoped this place would go up quickly. Pouring some of the gas on his fingers, he threw it onto the cross. That shit needed to burn too, he told himself. It was an abomination.

Walking backwards, he tripped over the book, his bloody finger landing on the open page. Immediately his finger began to throb in pain, and he heard a hissing sound coming from the vile tome. Shining his light on it, he saw that there was writing in a perfectly neat copperplate script.

It read, “Smiley will burn you alive.”

How could that be true? How could Percy have known? Was this a joke? Cal had seen too much, endured too much, to be completely dispassionate about what he read. He tried rubbing his eyes and shaking his head. Looking back to the page, he saw the writing swirling about.
________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Downstairs, Smiley poured the rest of the gas. The rain was really hitting the roof hard, and he almost didn’t need his flashlight with all the lightning. Thunder wracked the house, deafening him. That cross scared him to no end, and he wouldn’t go back up there, no matter how much Cal promised him the money. Timidly, he went back to the ladder and called up. “You up there, Cal?” he called.

That was a stupid question. Of course he was up there. He was probably playing a trick. This whole thing was probably a stupid trick. He hated Cal sometimes. Smiley yelled, “I ain’t coming up there again, Cal!”

Lightning flashed, and Smiley caught another glimpse of the cross. It had blood dripping from it. That was bad. It was really, really bad. Smiley took a few steps away from the ladder, and wondered what he should do next. Above, Smiley heard a loud crash and a muffled scream. Something flew out of the attic and landed on the floor at his feet.

It was that ugly book that scared Cal.

It now read, “Only one of you will make it out alive.”

Smiley wet himself like he was five again. Feeling the warm fear trickling down his leg, he ran as hard as he could down the stairs. On the second floor landing, he tripped and fell on his face, breaking his nose. Warm blood got in his mouth and he sprayed it everywhere with his labored breathing. It would probably hurt later, but he was too scared now to be in much pain.

He wasn’t thinking clearly. How did that book know what was going on? It had to be evil, just like the rest of the house. He had to light the fire. Reaching into his pocket, he fumbled for the matches and took a small handful out. Striking them on the package, he lit all the others and threw them at the gas covered carpet. The fire had no problem spreading.

Running down the next landing, Smiley avoided washing out again. Above, the flames were getting higher, and he swore he might have heard someone screaming his name. It didn’t matter. The book said only one person would make it out alive. Smiley really didn’t want to die here. Cal said the lawyer warned them about going into the attic. It was his fault. He deserved to die. Smiley reminded himself he hadn’t done anything wrong.

Smiley grabbed the door knob and threw the left door wide open, hauling ass outside. The rain splashed on his bleeding nose, and the cold water mixed with his warm life’s blood. It felt so good to be outside. He turned around to watch his handiwork. The place was starting to pour smoke outside the windows, and he could see the orange flames licking the other rooms.

In front of him, the door slowly closed. At the last moment, a bloody hand with a split finger grabbed the edge. The portal opened wider, and then Smiley saw something that he’d take to his grave: a gout of flame reached out and grabbed the hand, dragging it back inside. “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, SMILEY!” was all he heard before lightning flashed, and the thunder drowned out the plea.

Not caring if anyone saw him, Smiley ran. He ran fast and as hard as he could. And he never would go back into those mountains again.