Jeff Seymour - Author of Fantasy, Literary Fiction, & c.: 2013

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Saturday, December 7, 2013

Cover Reveal: Soulwoven

Hello, friends and readers!

There is much news to relate on the Soulwoven front. More on that in a few days, however, because today I want to focus on the book's cover!


Boom! The artist Kendall Roderick and I spent a few weeks hammering out concepts and working through revisions before proposing two variants to my Kickstarter backers. They chose this one overwhelmingly (it was my favorite too).

There are a lot of things I love about it. I think it does a good job of evoking some of the things that Soulwoven is other than an epic fantasy: it's modern in its construction and aesthetics and themes, and it's meant to be read seriously. And, of course, it has a dragon.

I'm a big fan of the ink-splatter effect as well (I pushed for it, and Kendall outdid herself making it happen). I wanted to work the idea into the book that the dragon isn't really of the world. It's not a new concept---I first saw it in Stephen King's IT---but it's one that resonated with me. The thing the characters are seeing as a dragon is just the closest shape their minds can give to something much more primal and unyielding than that.

Hence the grunginess and simultaneous definition and lack of borders to the dragon's shape.

Maybe I'm just digging too deeply, but this is part of the fun of indie publishing. I get to art direct my own cover, and that means I get to make it art. Or at least try to.

The print cover will have a slightly different layout. The dragon's body will wrap around the spine and onto the back cover, where it will circle around the marketing text there.

Enjoy! Share! Swoon! Tell your friends! Soulwoven comes out February 21, 2014. You can add it on Goodreads today!

Friday, November 1, 2013

All Hallows Write Wrap-up

Well, All Hallows Write 2013 is done, and I've had a few hours of sleep and am ready to start processing the experience a bit.

First off, it was really everything I hoped it would be. It was fun to have the pressure of an insane deadline and an ambitious project and to try to pull it off. And it feels immensely satisfying to have conceived this thing and brought it to life. I do think I'll try it again next year, though with some tweaks to make it a bit more palatable to people with jobs and lives and families. I missed out on a pretty fun holiday, and I don't want to do that every year.

The story itself...well, to be honest, I can't really evaluate it right now. I suppose I'll leave that up to you. It's here and will go up on Wattpad tomorrow. It was extremely ambitious to try to write in 13 hours, and I'm pretty amazed that I finished it. I got in two revision passes, which means that I'm pretty happy with the bones of the story (the plot details, the characterizations, etc.), but I'm also fairly certain that the language isn't as polished as I'd like.

Maybe more importantly, it showed me how little I really know about the horror genre. I'm wearing my influences baldly on my sleeves in the story. I'm not really breaking any new ground. I wanted it to be fun in the way that a haunted house can be fun, and I wanted it to make you think in the way that my favorite horror stories always do. I have no idea whether my use of the conventions I played with was trite or cliche, because I don't read enough horror to make that judgment.

It was good for several things, though. One, it scratched my itch to do something difficult that I'd never tried before, and that's not an itch I get to scratch all that much anymore now that I've put my adventuring days behind me in order to write seriously. Two, it stretched my mind. I got a chance to try out a new kind of story, a new kind of narrative, a new kind of suspense and atmosphere and tension, and that will probably seep into my other work in places where it's appropriate. Three, it showed me what I'm capable of when I have the time to work on a project properly.

Writing is a funny career, because in order to succeed at it without starving to death or getting very lucky, you must become so good at it that you can make a living working part-time before you jump into full-time. A lot of people never really do write full-time, because if you can make a living doing it part-time...why not relax and take your time and enjoy life? You (probably) suffered for years to get there.

I can't wait until I can do this full-time. Not a day goes by that I don't wonder whether the next project will be the one that lets me get there.

Anyway, if you enjoyed the story, let me know, and if you didn't, let me know that too. I really have no idea whether it's any good, and I'd appreciate the feedback.

Oh, and you can buy Three Dances here if you want more stories (sometimes every bit as weird, but not nearly so horrific) from me.

All Hallows Write Story: What Lies in Darkness

So last night I did an event. It was my own bright idea. Details here.

Before I started taking my writing seriously, I used to do lots of things that taxed my endurance, like long-distance canoe races and high-altitude hiking. I gave those hobbies up to chase this dream, and I wanted to get a bit of that feeling back. And I also wanted to try writing a horror story on Halloween.

This is what emerged. It's dark. Really dark. And it's gruesome and heavily laden with profanity. Forewarned is forearmed. I wrote it in one burst between 6:45 p.m. last night and 7:45 a.m. this morning.

I hope that it's nonetheless enjoyable, if horror is your thing.

I'll post more about the experience tomorrow. Right now I need to sleep.

-Jeff

--

What Lies in Darkness
by Jeff Seymour

Chapter One
Fingers in the Dark

I DIDN’T SLEEP A LOT when I was fourteen.
It was the darkness above my bed. Not the lack of light but what was in it, lying there, waiting for me. I could feel it. Every night it would drip down from the ceiling and into my mouth. It would seep down my shirt and over my chest and my stomach and thighs. It would squeeze.
The school psychologist told me it was just night terrors, but it wasn’t. I know that now. I was never asleep before the darkness came.
The summer storms were especially bad that year, and that didn’t help. They were big rollers that came crashing across the plains and broke on our little suburb like it was a rock out on the ocean. The rain drummed on the roof like an army of gnomes with gnarled fingers, and the wind pushed against the side of the house as though it wanted nothing more than to roll it over and crack open its belly to get at the good stuff inside.
Me and my little sister Georgie, we were the good stuff.
My uncle was staying with us that summer. His bedroom was right above mine, and he didn’t sleep much either. I could hear the floorboards creaking as he paced, night after night. Even when the storms were going on, I heard his feet on the floor. Pacing. Turning. Pacing. Turning. While my heart raced and the darkness tried to strangle me in my sheets.
That’s all the setup you need. The rest I’ll tell like it happened.
You asked me about darkness. About what’s inside it.
I’m going to tell you about the summer I found out, and I cut my uncle’s fingers off, and my best friend died.

***

I’M TRYING TO BREATHE.
            The darkness is in my mouth, and it feels like a handful of fingers. It’s pulling my cheeks out, pinching my tongue and trying to push it to the side so that it can go deeper. It feels so real—like there’s a man wrapped in it, floating up in the dark spaces near the ceiling, and his arm’s behind the fingers, pushing. If he gets them to the back of my tongue, he’s gonna tear it out and eat it, and then he’s gonna stick his arm down my throat, rip a hole in my esophagus, and yank out my heart through my mouth.
            So I grab the sides of my bed and I fight it.
            Creak.
            Uncle George is still awake, somewhere up above me. The red lights of the clock by my bed read 2:30 a.m. My parents have been asleep for hours; I heard their voices stop arguing around midnight.
            Creak.
            There’s a storm outside too—a real rager by the sound of it. The gnome fingers are hammering, hammering, hammering on the roof. Even in the basement, I can hear it. The house feels like it’s about ready to give up the ghost, and me and Georgie with it.
            Georgie’s the reason I can’t let the darkness win. Sometimes I want to. Sometimes I wish I could let it tear out my heart and stop feeling, stop hurting, stop struggling, but I don’t.
            ’Cause if it gets me, it’ll go for Georgie next, and I won’t let that happen.
            Our daughters, Frank. It’s not right… My mom said that before my dad hushed her for the last time.
            Most nights I beat the darkness. The feeling of the man and his fingers gets weaker, and then he goes away, and I can breathe and sleep.
            Creak.
            Uncle George must be pacing real slow. There’s only one board in his room that creaks: the one by the door.
            The fingers have got hold of my tongue pretty good now. One of them grazes the dangler in the back of my throat, and I choke.
            Some nights it feels like the darkness is gonna beat me, and I give up on trying to sleep and go stand in the living room to watch the storms roll through ’til dawn.
            This is gonna be one of those nights, I think, and I might as well just admit it.
            I roll over and slip off the bed, and I spit out the darkness’s fingers. I feel them trying to work their way back in until I’m standing up and walking away from the bed, the bottom cuffs of my pajamas dragging on the cold wood floor.
            Creak.
            Uncle George rattles the door upstairs, and I freeze. My heart jumps into my throat.
            Creak.
            The door doesn’t open.
            I sigh in relief.
           
GEORGIE’S NOT IN HER ROOM across the hall. I can tell ’cause her door’s cracked. She’s only five, and half the time when she thinks she’s got the door closed she doesn’t.
            She gets up in the middle of the night sometimes too. I think it must run in the family, ’cause my mom and dad take pills for it. Although a lot of people do that. So maybe it’s not just us.
            Our house is a split level, and the living room’s on the middle floor. I bet that’s where Georgie is. She likes watching the storms too. My heart’s still pounding from my fight with the darkness, so I take my time walking down the hall, let my toes squish in the brand-new carpet Mom made Dad put in down here last winter. It’s the nicest thing in the house. I’ve heard her say so.
            The new carpet ends at the bottom of the stairs though. I sigh and put my toes on the old stuff. It’s rough. Feels like a cat’s tongue. I hate that feeling. Like the stairs are tasting you, trying to decide whether to eat you or not.
            Georgie’s not in the living room.
            There are two big picture windows in the front wall. Just as I get up the stairs, the lightning flashes and the street lights up behind them. Everything’s stark white and black for a split-second—the crabapple tree in the yard, the Dawsons’ house across the street, everything. The sheets of rain are so thick I can see them.
            When the lightning’s gone, I catch a flash of something white near the front door.
            Georgie’s nightgown, I think.
            The floors up here are hardwood. Better than the licking cats on the stairs, but cold at night, even in the summer.
            The thunder rattles the windows. I flinch, close my eyes, take a deep breath. I’m old enough I should be used to the storms by now.
            When I open my eyes, I see Georgie.
            She’s standing by the front door. Two little windows run up next to it, and she’s pulled the gauzy curtain that covers one of them aside and is peeking out at the rain. I join her.
            “Whatcha doin’, Georgie?” I whisper.
            My parents wouldn’t hear a freight train come through, but I don’t want Uncle George to know we’re up if I can help it.
            “Watchin’,” she says. Her voice always sounds like it’s coming out of a toy or a cartoon.
            “Watchin’ what?”
            Her hair’s brown, and it curves down around her ears. Mom gave her a bowl cut last week, and she loves it. Georgie giggled while Mom tickled her neck with one hand and worked the scissors with the other.
            “Nothin’.”
            I squat next to her, ruffle her hair, and plant a kiss on her cheek, like Mom does. She squirms when I do it, but I don’t care. It’s more for me than for her.
            The street looks pretty much the same through the little window as it does through the big one, ’cept you can’t see the Dawsons’. Their porch light casts long shadows at night, though, and you can see those. I’ve watched them from the living room. They sort of look like people sometimes, if you catch ’em from the wrong angle.
            They’re sort of doing it now.
            ’Cept one of the shadows is moving. The thing that casts it is a telephone pole. It’s windy as hell outside, but it’s been that way before and that telephone pole doesn’t move. Not like that. The shadow’s coming toward us, strolling across the street like a human being.
            “Georgie,” I whisper, “get away from the door.”
            It’s just a feeling, but Georgie’s only five, and she doesn’t care if what I tell her to do doesn’t make sense. Thank God for that.
            She moves away from the door.
            Creak.
            I hear Uncle George’s door open, down the hall that leads to my parents’ room.
            “Ellie?” he whispers. “That you? You girls need something?”
            My heart jumps into my throat. My tongue sticks when I try to answer him, and for a second I feel the fingers again, pinching it, trying to reach inside me and pull out my heart.
            I open my mouth and croak out nothing.
            “Ellie?”
            Creak. The other foot. He’s about to leave his room and come out into the hallway. Our space, mine and Georgie’s.
            “No.” The word comes out in a gasp. “We’re fine. Just getting some water.”
            Uncle George stays silent for a second.
            “Okay,” he says.
            Creak. Creak. The door shuts.
            The fingers in my mouth float away.
            I stalk back to Georgie, grab her by the arm, and yank her toward the living room and the stairs. We’ll spend the night in her room, and I’ll sit in the rocking chair and read while she sleeps. I don’t want to watch the storm, and I don’t want to be alone upstairs with Uncle George.
            Knock.
            Knock.
            Knock.
            I freeze. It feels like something cold cracks open on the top of my head and oozes down my neck. The feeling’s so real I touch my skin. My fingers come up a little clammy, but it’s just from sweat.
            Knock.
            Knock.
            Knock.
            Before I can tighten my grip on Georgie’s arm, she snatches it away.
            “I’ll get it!” she sings.
            Mom just taught her to answer the door last week. It’s her new favorite game.
            “Georgie, no!” I whisper.
            But she’s fast as hell when she wants to be. She gets to the door before I’m even all the way turned around. Flicks the deadbolt over while I’m closing the three feet between us. Opens the door.
            The chain stops it. It’s too high for her to reach.
            There’s a man outside, wearing a black double-breasted suit and a hat. I can’t see his face. I’m looking straight at it, but I can’t see it. All I see is darkness.
            “Hello,” he whispers. The sound feels like the edge of a knife in my ears. “Can I come in?”
            My palm hits the door and slams it. I flick the deadbolt back and tug the curtain over the windows. I bundle Georgie up in my arms, and I run like hell back downstairs. When we get behind her door, I prop the rocking chair against the knob—We don’t have locks we don’t have locks why the hell don’t we have locks?—and drag her dresser over, and then I sit cross-legged on the ground and listen.
            Georgie’s got a window that’s half above the ground, just like me.
            No footsteps.
            No one coming.
            No one trying to get in.
            Just the sound of Georgie crying because she doesn’t understand and the storm thundering away outside.
            And the feeling of fingers, trying to rip out my tongue and get down my throat.



Chapter Two
The Good Friend

I PUT GEORGIE’S FURNITURE back in place around the time the sun’s coming up the next morning. She’s been asleep for hours; I’ve been reading children’s books, because I didn’t want to break down the barricade and go get something more interesting.
            I’m glad Georgie sleeps so well with the lights on.
            At breakfast, I’m tired as hell and I’m sure everyone can see it, but nobody says anything. Uncle George looks at me a little funny, but he doesn’t say anything about seeing me up last night. My mom asks whether he’s got any leads on a new job and place to live yet. My dad tells her it’s too early in the morning to start that shit, but Uncle George just nods and says he’s going to spend the day making follow-up visits to places he’s dropped off resumes at. I pour myself a cup of coffee as everybody’s getting up to leave. My mom glares at me, but that’s as far as the scolding goes.
            I’m drinking my coffee on the sofa, watching Georgie watching bad cartoons on TV and wondering how long it’ll be before I can take a nap, when someone knocks at the front door.
            The handle of the coffee mug snaps off in my fingers. My palm slides along the edge, but it doesn’t draw blood. It just leaves a long white scrape that looks like a road, bisecting one of the lines between my thumb and my index finger.
            “Anyone going to get that?” Mom calls from the kitchen.
            Georgie shakes her head. I don’t blame her.
            Slowly, carefully, I look outside.
            There’s a girl my age with dark-brown hair at the front door. She’s wearing a green sweater and tight jeans, and she’s rubbing her arms and looking miserable, even though the storm’s gone and all that’s left of it are some puddles in the street and the yard.
            It’s Charlie, my best friend.
            I leave Georgie to her cartoons and open the door.
            Charlie’s big brown eyes are full of tears, and she’s bobbing up and down on her heels, looking like she’s about to cry.
            “Have you seen my dad?” she whimpers.

FIVE MINUTES LATER we’re sitting on my bed. Charlie’s got her head in her hands and her long hair hanging over her face, and she’s sobbing.
            “He’s gone!” she moans.
            I rub her back. He’s done this before. My mom didn’t even bother leaving the kitchen when Charlie started crying in the entry.
            “I bet he’ll be back soon,” I say. “He always comes back.”
            She shakes her head and wipes her nose. “Not this time, Ellie. He didn’t just leave this time. Something got him.”
            For a second, I feel the fingers in my mouth again, and I remember staring at the face of a man in a suit and seeing nothing but shadows.
           “Why do you say that?” I ask. It feels like someone else is asking it, and I’m just sitting in her head, listening.
            “I heard a knock,” she sobs. “At the door. And he got up to answer it—”
            Her chest is heaving now, and I feel like there’s cold ooze running down my spine this time, dripping toward the edge of my jammy pants.
            “And then I didn’t hear anything for a while, and when I got up the door was open and he was gone…
            She breaks down completely.
            I sit very, very still. Even in the daylight, there are shadows on the ceiling in my room—in the corners, behind the light fixture, hiding in the tiny spaces behind the ridges in the spackle.
            I feel like I can hear them laughing.
            “Charlie—” I whisper, as brave as I’ve ever been in my life, “—someone knocked on my door last night too.”

CHARLIE GOES ABSOLUTELY RIGID, frozen, pale as the inside of a pear while I’m telling her what happened.
            But her eyes are feverish.
            “I think we should call the police,” I say. “Maybe he got into trouble with the Mafia—”
            “Our family’s English, Ellie.”
            “I know—”
            “Dad wasn’t in the Mafia.”
            Her fingers start crawling up and down her arms like little spiders, as if she’s not even aware of them.
            “I know what this is,” she whispers.
            I feel the shadows on the ceiling leaning out, growing.
            Coming to get me.
            “There’s a story. My uncle used to tell it to me, back before the accident. Farmers around here in the frontier days said there was a shadow man who lived in the woods. Every few summers he’d come around, pick a house and take people from it, one by one.”
            She’s been remarkably calm since I started talking, but now she’s starting to unravel again. Her eyes are getting bigger, and her mouth is turning down, and I can see the waterworks getting ready to bust out.
            “One by one, Ellie, everyone in the house, one by one, oh, God he’s picked the house and he’ll come back—he’ll come back—”
            “It’s just a ghost story, Charlie. Farmers in the woods freaking each other out.”
            “He eats their hearts, Ellie! Their hearts! My heart! My dad’s heart! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!
            “Calm down, Charlie.”
            I glance at the ceiling. I swear the shadows are twice the size they were when she came in. They look almost like they’re quivering, but it’s probably just the light, shaking because Charlie’s shaking while she cries and that’s making the bed shake and that’s making the wall shake.
            Charlie grabs my arm.
            It hurts. Her fingers dig deep, into the muscle, all the way down to the bone. Her eyes are wide and shot with blood and soaked with tears, and her pupils look as big as dimes.
            “Tonight!” she says. “He’ll come back tonight! You have to come stay with me, Ellie. Oh, God my mom’s on those pills like your parents and she’ll sleep like a rock and I’ll be alone. You have to come, Ellie! You have to come!
            I open my mouth to tell her she should come stay with me instead, if she’s so worried.
            Creak.
            Uncle George’s door closes above me. I hear his bed squeak as he sits on it.
            I turn back to Charlie. Her other hand’s in her hair now, and she looks like she’s about ready to tear it out.
            “I’ve got family dinner,” I whisper. “But I’ll try.”




Chapter Three
Family Dinner

WE HAVE ROAST BEEF that night. My dad spends ten minutes sharpening the knife before he carves it, chatting with Uncle George the whole time about his day. Things went pretty well with the resumes, he thinks. A couple people might be interested.
            “You tell them the things you have to?” my mom asks from above a bowl of half-mashed potatoes.
            “For Christ’s sake, woman. He doesn’t have to tell them that shit. If they want to know, they can goddamn look it up themselves!”
           “’Sallright, Frank,” Uncle George mutters. He looks at me over top of his beer, then glances down at Georgie. I shiver.
            A storm rolls in while Dad’s carving the beef. The knife looks sharp as hell. It’s good steel, he tells George, heirloom steel. One day either my husband or Georgie’s—whoever gets married first, he says with a look in my direction—is gonna love it. Goes straight through the rib in the beef as he’s talking, and he has to pick it out of the slice before he loads it onto my plate.
            The beef’s pretty raw in the middle. Just barely warm, and the juices run red. But that’s how Dad likes it, so that’s how we eat it.
            It makes me feel a little nauseous as it slides down my throat.

WE ALMOST GET THROUGH DESSERT before the fight breaks out. Mom stays quiet the whole meal, drinking glass after glass of white wine. Dad has three beers. Uncle George switches to tap water after the one.
            He keeps looking at me over his food though. I cross my arms over my chest and wish I could slink under the table or get up and leave. The beef isn’t sitting well in my stomach anyway, and I think for a second about saying I’m sick and going to the bathroom and shoving my finger down my throat to make it come up.
            But the thought of fingers in my throat makes my heart hammer, so I don’t.
            Mom’s watching Uncle George and getting madder and madder. I can see it. She holds her tongue though. Everything’s all right. We just have to get through the ice cream and then Dad and Uncle George will go watch sports highlights in the den and I’ll be able to ask Mom about spending the night at Charlie’s.
            Uncle George glances at Georgie.
            She’s squirming on her chair, bouncing up and down and looking at Mom like she wants to ask if she can be excused but she knows she’s not supposed to.
            Mom explodes.
            “Don’t you look at her you sonofabitch, I sweartoGod I’ll—”
            Dad slams his hand on the table. Mom clams up. Now everybody’s looking at me and Georgie. Georgie’s face is screwed up like she’s about to cry, but she’s not going to, not at the table just because Mom yelled. She’s supposed to be tough about that.
            I told her so.
            “Ellie, Georgie, bed.”
            I can feel the shadows in the room congealing. There’s a crack of lightning and a blast of thunder hard enough to rattle the windows. The rain starts up. Fingers kneading, knocking, looking for a way in.
            “But Dad—”
            He slams his hand on the table again. His eyes look like the pits of a plum picked in hell.
            I get up and lead Georgie downstairs by the hand. The shadows on the ceiling down there follow me around while I’m helping her brush her teeth. When I turn, they’re not there, but I know they’re just hiding, waiting for me to lie down and turn off the lights.
            I tell Georgie she did good. I put her to bed, read her a story, kiss her on the forehead. The shouting’s going on full-bore upstairs, and it’ll probably keep up for hours.
            I floss, spit, brush my teeth, check on Georgie, anything to keep out of my room for a little longer. I’d call Charlie, but my phone’s on lockdown after 9:00 p.m. because Dad thinks if it’s not I’ll spend all night texting boys. I think about risking the TV in the den, but there’ll be hell to pay if Dad catches me down there, and if the fight with Mom ends early for some reason, he’ll still head down to watch TV before bed.
            There’s a book in my room. A nice book, about families where shit like this doesn’t happen. I’ll just read it all night, even if I have to start over again to keep reading. I won’t even get under the covers. Charlie will be all right tonight. It was just the Mafia.
            I crack the book open.
            The lights go out.

I FIGHT IT. God, how I fight it. The darkness is stronger than usual tonight, maybe because there’s no light at all in the whole goddamn house, but maybe I’m stronger than usual too. I toss and turn, flail, twist and buck the darkness off my chest every time it gets too heavy, gnash my teeth on its fingers, spit and shout. I fight it like it’s real, like it’s a person and I can hurt it. I want to hurt it real bad.
            And while I fight, so do my parents.
            “…fucked up, Frank! These are your daughters, for Chrissake!”
            “…wouldn’t do that, Jess, not to us…”
            “…other people think?
            “…no need…”
            “…dammit, Frank!”
            “…you shut your mouth, Jess…”
            “…want him out!”
            “…blood, goddammit!”
            Uncle George went to bed an hour ago. I heard him lie down. It’s 11:07 p.m., and I’m fighting like hell.
            Uncle George’s bed squeaks.
            Footsteps in his room. Heading toward the door.
            I can’t do this. I can’t fight all these things at once. The darkness gets its fingers into my throat and I gag and spit them back up, but they’re right back in again. I can’t breathe…can’t breathe…can’t breathe…
            Creak.
            Uncle George’s door opens.
            I lose my shit completely.
            I fly out of my bed and run for the door. The darkness is still in my mouth, my throat, my chest, but I don’t give one flying fuck about that because Georgie is sleeping across the hall and she doesn’t know and she wouldn’t understand even if we told her.
            I can’t find the door, and my fingernails scrape the drywall and I don’t have to worry about not screaming because I can’t even fucking breathe and then my fingers hit the knob and I twist and the door pops open. It’s six steps down the hall to the right to get to Georgie. I count them and then I turn left and try her handle and it’s dark as Dad’s eyes in her room but I run to her bed and snatch her up and thank God, she’s there.
            “Ellie?” she mumbles against my shoulder, but I don’t say a goddamn thing because the shadows are still on my chest and they’re squeezing now and my head’s starting to pound and I still can’t fucking breathe.
            I race up the stairs and the cats lick my toes but they can lick my ass for all I care because I’m out, I’m out, and I’m never coming back I swear to God, I’m never coming back and I’m taking Georgie with me and they can all go straight to hell.
            The front door’s not locked.
            I go straight through it, out into the storm, and slam it behind me.
            Georgie and I are soaked in an instant, but the Dawsons’ porch light is on. Their power never goes out when ours does.
            There’s light out here on the street, even if it’s washed out by lightning and surrounded by thunder and drowning in rain.
            I can breathe again.
            I take two breaths, and then I start to run.
            It’s only two blocks to Charlie’s house.



Chapter Four
The Shadow Man

CHARLIE’S NOT HAPPY to see me.
            I sprint almost the whole first block carrying Georgie, who’s now soaked and screaming and squirming. But then she starts to feel like a bag of concrete, and even though my legs are happy to keep on going, my arms just give up. I have to put her down and just tug her with me. I dunno what the hell’s wrong with the Gershins and the family nobody talks to on the corner, because we go right by their houses and nobody notices shit.
            Charlie’s house looks like it could’ve been built in the 1800s. It’s all red brick, both floors and the basement. It wasn’t built in the 1800s though. It was built in the 1970s and made to look like a barn with a face on it from the front. Two big upstairs windows make the eyes, and the mouth’s the door. When we get to it, Georgie quiets down a little.
            All the lights are on at Charlie’s house except the one in her mother’s bedroom.
            I pound on the front door. There’s light on the street, but the shadows are moving at the edges of it, and the wind is howling and Georgie’s still sniffling and I want to get inside and the hell out of the rain and warm up and dry off and have a cup of coffee and figure out what the fuck I’m going to do next.
            I pound on the door a second time.
            “Fuck off!” Charlie’s voice shrieks from inside. “You get the fuck away from here!” She sounds hysterical. “I swear to God, I’ll kill you, I’ll fucking kill you, you hear me?”
            The darkness creeps up behind me. I can feel its fingers on the back of my neck. They’re reaching for my mouth already.
            “Charlie, it’s Ell! You have to let me in! I’ve got Georgie with me!”
            “I’ll fucking kill you! Fucking cut your heart out and eat it, I swear to God! What did you do to him you bastard? You fucking bastard!”
            “Charlie! Charlie, please!”
            But she’s just screaming obscenities now, totally lost it, gone, and the darkness is sticking its fingers into my mouth and soon I won’t be able to talk at all.
            Charlie’s house has windows next to the door, just like ours. Her foot smashes into the glass from the other side of one. A little shard flies out and hits Georgie in the face and cuts her cheek. She shrieks and sits on the stoop. The cut’s not bad though—just a tiny thing that oozes a bit of blood.
            Charlie stops screaming.
            So do I.
            A second later, Charlie seems to get her shit together again.
            “Georgie? Georg—oh, Jesus, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry!”
            I hear the deadbolt turning, and the chain being unhooked, and something heavy being dragged over the slate tiles on Charlie’s landing.
            The door opens.
            Charlie looks like shit. Her mascara’s running down her face in streams, and her eyes are worse than they were this morning, and she’s shaking. She’s got a huge kitchen knife in one hand.
            “Ell, you came. Oh, God, you came and I almost—but why’d you bring Georgie?
            “Can we come in?” I ask. “It’s freezing as shit out here.”
            “Jesus, you’re soaked. What the fuck, Ellie? Why’d you come like this? Yeah, you can come in. Of course you can come in.”
            The fingers in my mouth disappear. I take Georgie’s hand and walk inside. The rain blows in behind me. I reach back to close the door.
            It resists.
            A voice like a knife says, “How very kind. Thank you.”

THINGS HAPPEN FAST. Charlie drops her knife and runs into her house. I turn around and grab Georgie and see that the thing behind us is the man in the double-breasted black suit with darkness for a face. The thing reaches out, and I surge forward.
            Its hand grazes Georgie’s cheek.
            Charlie’s running for her room, I know it. I follow. Her house has fucking locks on the doors, and her room’s closer than the back door.
            Ahh… I hear.
            The sound echoes all around me.
            Charlie slams her door. I hear the lock click.
            Shit, shit, shit. There’s no fucking way she’s gonna open it.
            The bathroom next to it has a lock too. I throw Georgie in and peek back at the thing in the front door as I join her.
            It’s not chasing us.
            It’s standing in the door jamb, with the finger that touched Georgie’s cheek in its mouth.

THE BATHROOM DOESN’T FEEL NEARLY AS SECURE as I thought it would. The door seems light enough that even I could bust it down if I tried hard, and there’s no other way out. At least Charlie’s room has a fucking window.
            Jesus, we’re gonna die in here.
            Outside, the lightning flashes, and thunder rolls over the street.
            The front door slams.
            The lights go out.
            Again.

I SCRABBLE FOR GEORGIE IN THE DARKNESS. I can’t tell if she’s crying and screaming or not, because next door, Charlie’s doing it loud enough for all three of us. I clutch Georgie to my chest, and I feel her fingers close on my soaking-wet shirt.
            I meant that, says the knife-edge voice. It’s in my mind now, not my ears. It’s cutting my fucking mind.
            I needed the invitation. You should have paid more attention to the street.
            It’s not talking to me. It’s talking to Charlie. Jesus Christ, it’s talking to Charlie.
            She screams something incoherent back. I hear something crash against the wall.
            People doing good deeds die all the time, sweetheart. Would you like to know what I did to your father?
            The screams get shriller.
            There are no dark fingers in my throat, though. I can breathe.
            In time, Ellie, all in time, the voice says.
            Charlie bangs on the wall in her room. The knife-edge voice sucks in a deep breath, then lets it out. It feels like the whole house is breathing.
            Charlotte. I ate your father’s heart, yes, but first I hurt him. I plucked his fingernails and fed them to him. I removed his tongue and ate it. I broke his teeth with my fingers and ground their fragments into his eyes.
            Charlie’s not shouting anymore, and she’s not throwing things. She’s just sobbing. I can hear her on the other side of the wall.
            Charlotte, he wanted it that way. He had to hurt before he died. You want to know why he invited me in?
            “No!” Charlie shrieks at the top of her lungs.
            Another inhale, another exhale, like Mrs. Bradley the gym teacher when she finally gets her first cigarette after school’s over and she can get away from it.
            He thought I was just a dream. The house rattles, but I don’t hear any thunder.
            It almost sounds like the windows are laughing.
            He thought if he invited me in, he would finally beat all his bad dreams and wake up next to his wife the next morning, happy for the first time in 15 years.
            But it doesn’t work that way, Charlotte.
            I have been here since the hearts of man first came to this place. I have hunted, and I have fed, and I will continue to hunt and to feed until there is nothing left of your species, and that will be a very, very long time from now.
            The lock on Charlie’s door snaps. I hear it through the wall.
            Charlie whimpers. She gets up, crashes into something. She must be going for the window.
            Too late for that, Charlotte. Much, much too late for that.
            Charlie shrieks.
            Everything goes silent.
            I grab Georgie and unlock the bathroom door, and I run like hell.

IT’S A STRAIGHT SHOT TO CHARLIE’S FRONT DOOR. Even in the dark, I know that. I don’t know where the Shadow Man is, but I’ve got a death grip on Georgie and it’s only ten steps or so. I covered it in a few seconds flat before. I can do it again, and we’ll get back out on the street and go home and maybe for once in their miserable fucking lives Mom and Dad will stop fighting over us and just help us.
            Clever, clever, Elizabeth…
            The voice hurts more when it hits my mind this time, like there’s a bit of anger to it. The happy smoker’s gone, and in its place is the edge of Mrs. Bradley if someone interrupts her while she’s enjoying that first cigarette.
            But not clever enough.
            I bang my shins on something and fall forward, smash my head on a piece of wood.
            A coffee table. Charlie’s fucking coffee table that she dragged in front of the door. Jesus Christ.
            You’ll never escape, Elizabeth. I hear crunching sounds from Charlie’s room, and snapping. The raw roast beef in my stomach comes up all over the coffee table.
            But if I’m at the table, I’m almost at the door, and if I’m almost at the door, I’m almost out.
            Never so simple, Elizabeth. Never so simple as that.
            I scramble over the coffee table and get to the door.
            The knob’s gone. And the deadbolt lever’s sheared clean off.
            Georgie’s silent, but I can feel her shaking.
            The windows upstairs rattle again. The voice in my head starts laughing. It sounds like its mouth is full.
            It’s the house, I realize. That thing. It’s not just in the house. It is the house.
            Charlie’s house has a back door in the kitchen, but it’s not gonna work either. None of the doors will work. None of the windows will open. I’m sure of it.
            My foot hits the knife that Charlie dropped in the entry. I reach down and pick it up with the hand that’s not holding Georgie.
            “You want to do this the hard way?” I whisper. It’s what my dad used to say, before he punished me. “Then we do this the motherfucking hard way.”

CHARLIE’S GRANDFATHER COLLECTED CLOCKS. Old, broken-ass clocks. There are two of them in her living room, and they’re made of marble. They weigh a fucking ton.
            Charlie’s house is nicer than mine, but there’s not a window in this whole fucking neighborhood that one of those clocks wouldn’t break.
            I drag Georgie into the living room. It’s not far; it’s just past the coat rack, where my fingers drag over Charlie’s coat and I grit my teeth and refuse to think about her sobbing or shrieking or the sound of things snapping and a house with a full mouth.
            Georgie’s still alive. Georgie’s arm is in my hand, and she’s breathing, and she’s all I fucking have in the world and this goddamn thing isn’t going to lay another fucking finger on her.
            I know I’ve hit the living room when I bump into the sofa and nearly drop the knife. The clocks are on the mantle above the fireplace, which is a few steps to the left of the sofa if I remember right.
            My shin crashes into a brass bucket, and then I do drop the knife.
            Oh… says the voice.
            Oh, I see, Elizabeth. Clever, clever Elizabeth. Now the voice sounds really angry. Like it’s not fucking playing. You want to do this the hard way? The motherfucking hard way?
            The house inhales. The house exhales.
            The knife-edge voice is in my ear. “You don’t know hard, Ellie.”
            There’s a fire poker in the brass bucket. I grab it, and I jab it where I think the Shadow Man’s stomach would be.
            He grunts. I hear that, but on top of it I hear the house wheeze. A gust of wind runs over me and shoots out of the chimney. Something breaks upstairs.
            I get up and start swinging the poker at the place where I hit him before.
            Hurt this motherfucker hurt this motherfucker hurt him hurt him hurt him!
            “You like that?” I shout. “You like that, motherfucker? You like it when we fight the fuck back?”
            The windows upstairs rattle. The rattling gets louder, until it shakes the ones down here too, and the doors.
            “Yes,” his voice says. Gloved fingers close around my throat and lift me off the ground. A second hand reaches into my mouth and grabs my tongue.
            I scream, but I also swing the poker as hard as I can between his legs.
            Nothing happens.
            And then he screams too, and he drops me.
           
IT’S LIKE GETTING MY BRAIN BORED OUT by a power drill. I let go of the poker and grab my head. But for a second the darkness clears, and I realize that there’s light coming in through the windows from the street. The stairs into the basement sound like they’re collapsing. The Shadow Man’s on the ground, clutching his knee in one hand.
            In the other hand, he’s got Georgie.
            She’s holding Charlie’s knife, and it’s covered in something black that looks like blood.
            The lights go out again.

“DON’T YOU TOUCH HER YOU SONOFABITCH! I swear to God, I’ll cut your fucking dick off and feed it to you!”
            I wind up to swing the poker at the place I saw the Shadow Man, then stop.
            I don’t know where Georgie is.
            Oh you will, will you?
            There’s a steady breeze flowing into the house now. I wind up again. Stop again.
            I don’t know what to do.
            Tell me, Elizabeth Mailer, who hasn’t even seen a dick, how will you do that?
            He sounds angry. Plum pits from hell angry.
            With this?
            A light in the hall comes on. He’s standing in it, holding the knife in one hand and a squirming Georgie in the other. He waves the knife at me, and then the light blinks off again.
            I don’t need a dick to hurt you, Elizabeth.
            “I know just how to do that.” His voice again, right in my ear.
            I turn and swing, my best softball swing, the one my mom taught me.
            The poker whiffs completely and sails out of my hand.
            I hear glass shatter.
            The Shadow Man spits something out. It hits me in the forehead.
            It’s a tooth.
            The front door opens. The lights come on. The Shadow Man is nowhere to be found.
            Go ahead, the knife edge whispers in my brain. Go ahead and try to save her. Bring help. Bring others here to die. Or run away, and live with the guilt of knowing you brought me into your best friend’s home and left your beloved sister with me here alone.
            I breathe, and I stare at the door.
            I’ll be waiting, Ellie, right here. And I’ll hurt you, and I’ll hurt whoever you bring with you.
            I hear the sound of snapping from Charlie’s mom’s room. When the voice speaks again, it sounds like its mouth is full.
            And then I’ll eat your heart.



Chapter Five
Home Again

THE LIGHTS ARE BACK ON at home too, at least on the outside of the house. The bedrooms are dark, like everybody just fucking went to sleep.
            Maybe they did. Mom and Dad were yelling loud enough not to hear a door slam, and maybe Uncle George just wanted another beer.
            I honestly don’t give a fuck.
            They’re not going to believe me, and I don’t have fucking time to try to make them believe me or call the cops to a dark house where the front window will probably be fucking fixed by now anyway because that thing was eating Mrs. Halloway’s heart and I bet that’s where it gets its fucking juju or whatever from.
            I go straight to Georgie’s room.
            She got a flashlight for her birthday this year. It’s a cheap-ass plastic one in the shape of a big smiling bear, but she loves it, and we play games with it sometimes when I can’t sleep. If that bastard has Georgie when I go back in there, then I want something of hers with me. And I want a light too. My light. Our light. That he can’t put the fuck out with his black magic.
            And I want a knife. A big, sharp knife. An heirloom knife that no fucking husband of mine will ever use for shit because I’m going to use it to chop the fucking Shadow Man into tiny pieces.
            The carving knife is right where it was the last time I saw it, sitting on the chopping block on the kitchen counter next to a rib roast that’s already got flies crawling all over it.
            It’s lighter than it looks. But it went right through that bone. Right through it, like butter.
            “Ellie?”
            Uncle George’s voice. My heart jumps into my throat. I whirl around.
            He’s reaching toward me.
            The knife goes through the fingers on his right hand at the first knuckle. Bone and all.
            Like butter.
            I didn’t even mean to do it. I was just turning around.
            Blood spurts from the top of Uncle George’s fingers, and he yanks his hand back. The fingertips fly across the room and smack against my mother’s white kitchen cabinets. They leave bloody trails down them.
            “Fuck!” Uncle George shouts. I’ve never heard him raise his voice before. “Jesus tittyfucking Christ! My fingers! My fucking fingers! My goddamn motherfucking fingers!”
            There are pits in his eyes too now. It’s in our blood.
            “Jesus—aagh!” He stomps in a circle, holding his spurting fingers in his other hand. “You fucking bitch! My goddamn fingers!”
            “You deserve it!” I shriek. The words have been there all along, waiting to come out. “You fucking deserve it for what you did to those girls!”
            Uncle George smashes his head into the wall. His eyes look wild. “Did my time,” he grunts. He only half sounds like he’s talking to me. “Did my fucking time already. Not gonna fucking do it again. Not gonna fucking do it again. Not gonna fucking do it again.”
            The words have a rhythm.
            It matches the creaking of the floorboards above my bed.
            I push past Uncle George and out the front door with the flashlight in one hand and the knife in the other. He’s rocking back and forth, eyes squeezed shut, one hand clamped around the other so hard it leaves his skin pale as paper. He’s still muttering his mantra.
            My parents don’t even fucking wake up.
           



Chapter Six
What Lies in Darkness

CHARLIE’S HOUSE LOOKS MUCH TOO NORMAL. All the lights are on except the one in her mom’s bedroom. The living room window’s fixed, just like I figured it would be. The door’s closed. If it wasn’t for the knife and the flashlight and the bruises on my throat, I might be tempted to think I’d dreamed all this shit.
            I walk up to Charlie’s door. I’ve got something of a plan, but I have no idea how to put it into action.
            Where the fuck is the heart of a house, anyway?
            The front door opens for me. The furniture’s all where it was when I left.
            I step inside.
            The lights go out. The door shuts.
            The hunt begins.

I SWITCH ON THE FLASHLIGHT. It flickers and dims, but it doesn’t go out. I could kiss it.
            Thanks, Georgie, I think.
            Sweet thought, Elizabeth, the knife-edge voice says. But it’s not so simple. Never so simple.
            The flashlight dies, then comes back to life.
            You have light because I want you to, says the voice. I can hear the house breathing great gusts of air in and out through the chimney. And when I want you to have darkness, you can be sure you’ll have that too.
            I step gently over the coffee table, shining the dim light of the flashlight down the hall toward Charlie’s room. There’s nothing there, and I sure as hell don’t want to go that direction, or up the stairs at the end of the hall that lead to her mom’s bedroom. Not if I don’t have to.
            The flashlight goes out, and I freeze.
            He can take away my light, fine, but I’ve still got my knife, and I’ve got my other senses. And if I hear him coming I’ll stab him in his fucking heart or cut off his fucking head.
            There’s a thought—where’s the brain of a house?
            Clever, clever Elizabeth. Can’t solve a problem one way, so find another, is that it?
            He’s trying to distract me, so that means I’m on to something. Have to be. What’s a brain do? Sends signals to the body. Where do the signals that run a house come from?
            Yes, Elizabeth. Where do they come from?
            It wouldn’t be that hard for him to sneak up on me if he just talked to me in my head while he did it. I’d never hear him coming.
            “Georgie?” I call out. “Georgie, are you there?”
            The lights flash back on. There’s blood all over the wall, and a knife’s stuck through Georgie’s head, pinning her just above the door to Charlie’s room. The lights flash back off.
            “No!” I shriek. I scramble forward. “You motherfucker! I’ll kill you! Kill you!
            Something crunches under my feet. A cold, oozy substance squeezes up around my ankle.
            It feels like raw roast beef.
            The lights come back on.
            The thing over the door to Charlie’s room is a doll in Georgie’s clothing. I look down at my feet.
            Charlie looks back up at me.

I YANK MY FOOT OUT OF HER CHEST and slam my back against the wall. My heart thunders. The lights stay on. Charlie’s eyes are open. They don’t look much different than they did when she was alive.
            She looks scared.
            And in pain.
            Her fingernails are broken. The tips of her fingers are bloody.
            He did that after. He did that after to scare me. She shrieked and then stopped, she—
            Lost consciousness a few seconds after I tore the heart from her chest. Died shortly thereafter.
            The lights go back out except for one overhead that’s illuminating Charlie’s face. There’s blood all over her chin and cheeks. I think her tongue is missing.
            I don’t know if you heard, the Shadow Man says, but she blamed you for what happened to her. “I was just trying to help Ellie!” his voice sounds exactly like hers. That’s what she told me while you were cowering in the bathroom, not bothering to try to help her.
            Focus. I have to focus. Find the brain. Where do the signals come from? What runs the house?
            Do you know what I am, Ellie? What I really am?
            Who runs the house?
            I’m a fly, Ellie. A cosmic fly. I follow the smell of shit. There’s a lot of shit on this street to draw a fly like me. A fly who eats blackened hearts.
            I know. I know who runs the house. Who runs every house.
            And what shit stank the worst, Ellie? Where did I start? Where did I go first?
            The staircase that goes up is about twelve steps down the hall from Charlie’s room.
            Whose fault is it that I’m here at all, Ellie? Who drew me here and made all these people die?
            Houses are run by the people who own them. And the people who own them live in the master bedroom.

THE STAIRCASE squeaks as I walk up it in the dark, knife in one hand, flashlight in the other.
            When I’m about halfway up, my flashlight flickers to life again.
            There’s a big toe at the top of the stairs. It’s painted purple.
            I swallow a lump of bile and keep walking.
            The toe points to the right, down the hall toward the master bedroom. A few feet later there’s a finger, then an ear.
            Don’t let him see you’re afraid, I tell myself.
            I don’t need to see that, the knife edge whispers. The house breathes in and out, Mrs. Bradley inhaling her first cigarette again. I can smell it.
            The door to the master bedroom’s closed. I pause in front of it. There’s gonna be something awful inside, I’m sure.
            But there’s also gonna be a chance to hurt the Shadow Man.
            And I’m gonna start right now.
            I rear back and kick the door as hard as I can, right under the knob.
            It shivers a bit, but otherwise it doesn’t budge. So I kick it again, and again.
            The windows clatter.
            I am gonna hurt you, motherfucker, I think.
            You’re going to try, says the knife edge. And it’s not going to work. How’s your toe?
            It hurts. Like a motherfucker. Kicking the door was a dumb idea.
            I open up the master bedroom and head inside.

IT TAKES ME A SECOND TO FIND the nasty thing. The flashlight catches the reflection of Mrs. Halloway’s head sitting at her vanity, staring at itself in the three mirrors. It’s missing an ear, and there’s blood on its mouth. I bet its tongue’s gone too.
            Why the tongues? I wonder.
            We all have hobbies, dear, says Mrs. Halloway’s voice. Prim and proper. First-generation English immigrant. Used to throw the best birthday parties for Charlie, back before her dad left the first time.
            Her body’s on the bed, and the sheets are ripped around it. Her chest is split open like Charlie’s was, but her fingernails aren’t broken.
            God—he was telling the truth, I think. Charlie was alive, and I just ran away.
            It hurt, Ellie. Jesus Christ, it hurt so bad. Why didn’t you help me? I told you it was gonna happen. I told you…
            I grit my teeth. I set the knife and the flashlight down next to Mrs. Halloway’s head on the vanity. The light goes out immediately. The vanity chair’s pretty heavy, but I’ve got my dad’s arms. I pick it up, whirl around in a circle, and chuck it through the windows behind Mrs. Halloway’s bed.
            Oh, dear! My brain! My precious brain! Oh, curse my arrogance, why didn’t I kill you when I had the chance? Now you’ll get your sister back and I’ll waste away to nothing!
            Mrs. Halloway’s voice, but sarcastic like she never was. The lights come back on.
            Georgie’s standing in the door to the master bath.
            There’s no sign of the Shadow Man.
            I grab my knife and my flashlight, and I run for her.
            “Ellie?” she asks. She sounds sleepy.
            The lights turn off. I slip on something thin and slimy on the floor, and I hit the ground so hard that my chin bounces and I bite through my tongue.
            “Careful,” whispers the knife edge in my ear. “I don’t want that part damaged if it can be helped.”
            “Ellie?” calls Georgie’s voice. It sounds a little afraid this time, like she’s waking up.
            It’s coming from the stairs.
            “I’m coming!” I shout. “Georgie, I’m coming!”

THIS TIME, Georgie keeps calling my name.
            Please, God, I think. He didn’t rip her tongue out and eat it. It’s not him, it’s her. It’s really her.
            I thump around the Halloways’ upstairs hallway, upsetting a vase on an end table and sending little bits of Mrs. Halloway skittering along the hardwood. I slow down when I hit the stairs, because if I fall and kill myself with the knife, then Georgie’s really fucked.
            “Ellie! Ellie!” It’s coming from the kitchen.
           At the bottom of the stairs, my flashlight blinks to life again. The kitchen’s just down a back hall opposite Mr. Halloway’s office. I’ve got enough light to run, and I run like hell.
            Georgie’s voice is coming from the middle of the room, and my flashlight’s getting brighter as I get closer to it.
            Right above the oven, there’s a sign.
            The kitchen is the heart of the home, it reads.
            I tighten my hand on the knife. A kitchen’s gonna be hard to kill. What do I break? What does it really need?
            And more importantly, where the fuck is Georgie?
            When I get into the kitchen, the lights come on.
            Georgie’s in the oven.
            And it’s set to start preheating to 450 degrees in about ten seconds.
            I drop all my shit. I know that’s what he wants. I know that’s just what he wants. But I don’t give a fuck. Georgie’s screaming my name now and banging on the inside of the oven’s glass door with her fists. I get there with eight seconds left on the timer, and I yank for all I’m worth.
            Nothing. The oven’s his. Right. I look around for something I can break the glass with. Anything I can break the glass with.
            An arm slides around my neck from behind. Another clamps down on the back of my head. They both start squeezing, and my neck feels like it’s about to pop.
            “Oh, Ellie, Ellie,” the Shadow Man says. “Not that simple. Never that simple.”
           I try to turn around, but his weight’s bearing down on me, and I can’t do it. The timer’s at three seconds now.
            “Sometimes I like my food well done,” the Shadow Man says. “Shall we watch? Together? You can tell me when you think she’s ready.”
            The oven beeps. The heating element turns on. Georgie screams and ducks away from it.
            I squirm. I flail. I fight. The Shadow Man just holds me while the windows upstairs chatter. Georgie’s crying now, really crying, and I think the bottom of the oven is starting to hurt her.
            “Feel familiar, Ellie? Can you answer my question yet?”
            I don’t give a fuck about his question.
            My legs are free, and I kick the glass door of that oven as hard as I can. Again, and again, and again.
            It cracks on the third kick.
            The Shadow Man flinches.
            On the fourth kick, the glass breaks.
            Georgie tumbles out onto the kitchen floor, and she looks mad as hell. Her nightgown’s browned in a few places. The top of her bowl cut’s singed and fraying. Her knees are bright red.
            She picks up a piece of glass. The lights go out.
            The Shadow Man screams, and there’s an enormous crash from upstairs.
            Like part of the wall has fallen away.
            The lights come back on. The Shadow Man’s holding a piece of glass shoved into his eye. Georgie’s gone back for another. I grab one too.
           “Get him, Georgie! Get him!” I shout. The lights go back out, but this time I’ve got hold of the Shadow Man, and he’s not going fucking anywhere. He screams again, then again. My hand’s bleeding, but I’m stabbing him anywhere I can, and so is fucking Georgie. There’s black blood everywhere. It smells like the mold in shower drains. The Halloways’ house goes bat shit. Windows breaking, drywall cracking. The sink blows sky high. The other oven door shatters, and the whole unit falls out of the wall. The lights flicker on and off, enough for us to see that the Shadow Man is trying to get the fuck away.
            He stops trying to escape and bites my face.
            It hurts. It hurts enough that I stop stabbing him and push him away. Georgie’s got hold of him, but she’s not strong enough to keep him from weaving to his feet and charging out of the kitchen. The back door opens and shuts.
            The lights come on.
            Georgie crawls into my lap and gives me a big hug, and I sit there, covered in my blood and the Shadow Man’s, and I hug her back.
            “I’ll never let you go again,” I whisper. I hug my little sister tighter. “Never.”
           
IT’S NOT OVER.
            Not that simple, the Shadow Man told me, over and over again. Never that simple.
            The kitchen is the heart of the home?
            Not my home.
            I give Georgie back her flashlight and tell her the Shadow Man couldn’t stop it, even though that isn’t true. But he was dumb enough to play with it, and that still helped me. I pick up my knife too, because I think I’m still going to need it.
            Then I head to the garage, Georgie in one hand, knife tucked into my belt.
            I find a sledgehammer.

THE HEART PUMPS BLOOD. And blood’s the thing that keeps us alive. It brings everything in our body the shit it needs to survive, and it takes away the shit that would poison us if it built up. That’s what people do for a house. They bring in the good shit and take away the bad shit. And what pumps people in and out of a house?
            The front door.
            Not that simple. Never that simple. I don’t think the Shadow Man can just leave a house once he’s in it, any more than a person can just leave someone’s heart once they’re in it. He comes to the heart of the house and he asks to be let in, and once he’s there he eats away whatever’s inside the house until, I bet, it collapses, and then he’s free to do the whole thing again.
            I think he disappeared to lick his wounds, and he opened and shut that door to fake us out. And I think he’s counting on us to just leave.
            But I said I was gonna kill this motherfucker. And I am.
            “Go outside,” I say to Georgie. The storm rolled through a while ago. The streets are wet and glistening in the porch lights.
            She shakes her head. Doesn’t want to leave me. I don’t blame her. I take my knife out of my belt and give it to her. She’s had better luck hurting the Shadow Man than I have from the start anyway.
            “If he shows up…”
            She nods.
            We step outside the house, but I leave the door open. I pick up the sledgehammer and wind up for a swing.
            Couldn’t…just leave…
            I hit the door as hard as I can, right on the hinges. The whole house shakes, and the Shadow Man gasps in my head.
            Could…you? The knife edge still sounds sharp when he speaks.
            I hit the door again. The top hinge squeals and bends.
            Do you…know…
            Boom. The top hinge breaks.
            …how…we get…started?
            Boom. Bottom hinge bends. It’s easier going now, because the weight of the door’s all screwed up and the hinges don’t like it.
            Didn’t…need an…IN-vitation…
            I knock the door all the way off its hinges as he says the last word. The door falls onto the stoop like a tombstone. Bricks are dropping out of the house’s walls like rain now. It’s almost over.
            …to get…to you…Ellie…
            I go to work on the door jamb. First the right side.
            Not when it’s…in the…blood.
            Left side. If he’s gonna come, I bet he’s gonna do it—
            He hits me like a truck barreling down the Halloways’ front hall at a hundred miles an hour.
            His hand goes right for my heart. I think if he’d hit me like this the first time we tangled, it would’ve gone straight through my rib cage.
            But this time he’s weaker, and it just hurts like hell.
            The sledgehammer goes flying, and I land on my back in the grass in the Halloways’ front yard. The Shadow Man’s hand rises for another strike, and I reach up to gouge his sightless black eyes with my thumbs.
            He freezes, perched atop me. A gout of dark, moldy blood spurts onto my face.
            Ah… his voice says in my mind.
            The Halloways’ house collapses in a cloud of brick dust and mortar. The Shadow Man turns to dust along with it.
            Through the dust I see Georgie, the carving knife held in two hands, her bottom lip quivering.
            I sit up and take the knife out of her hands. I hold her against my throbbing chest. I can’t believe the fucking neighbors haven’t woken up.
            It’s like every adult on this street is a goddamn walking corpse.
            Georgie cries a little, but not as much as I think she oughta.
            When she falls asleep, I tuck the knife back into my belt, pick her up, and carry her home.



Chapter Seven
Dawn

IT’S STILL HOURS BEFORE THE SUN COMES UP when I get home. There’s a light on in the living room. Uncle George’s room is dark. The garage door’s open, and my dad’s truck isn’t there.
            I can see my mom, sitting in the living room, staring out of the windows with a mug in her hands.
            She sees me too, and she’s out the front door and running toward me before I even get onto our property.
            “Ellie?” she asks. “Jesus God! Is that Georgie?”
            She runs forward to take her from me, but I turn my shoulder and don’t let her.
            “She’s fine,” I say. “Just asleep.”
            Mom’s eyes narrow. “Don’t you fucking act like you’re her mother, Elizabeth Mailer. Where the fuck have you been? What the fuck have you been doing?”
            I look at my mother, really look at her, maybe for the first time ever. She’s short and stocky. Her hair’s pulled back in a ponytail so tight it looks like it hurts. Her unit tattoo’s stretching on her sagging arms. She’s got so many freckles nowadays she looks almost like she got a really spotty fake tan.
            But more than that, she looks small, and she looks hurt.
            I could push her buttons. I could really fucking hurt her, if I wanted. I’m her eldest daughter, and she’s done me wrong, and she knows it.
            “Protecting Georgie,” I say quietly. “Someone has to.”
            I walk inside with my sister in my arms and the carving knife hanging down over my thigh. My mother doesn’t stop me. She follows me.
            “I don’t want to live here anymore,” I say.
            I walk to the sofa and sit down. Mom sits next to me.
            She stares at her coffee.
            “Your dad took George to the hospital,” she says. “His fingers…” She shakes her head. “He said he slipped while he was trying to cut a late-night snack. Said he was a little drunk.”
            Mom looks up. I remember the blood on the cabinets. Mom’s not stupid. No way she bought that story.
            “Ellie,” she says, “what the fuck happened tonight?”
            “I don’t want to live here anymore,” I say again.
            Mom heaves in a deep breath, lets it out.
            “I’m sorry, baby,” she says.
            I nod.
            By dawn, we’re in her car, driving toward Grandma’s.

***

UNCLE GEORGE DISAPPEARED from the hospital as soon as his fingers were sewn on. I think he knew what that shit would look like, and that even if I said he never tried to touch me, people would draw their own conclusions. Mom told Dad what she thought happened, and Dad said if he ever saw Uncle George again, he’d kill him. He probably wasn’t lying.
            Things were better between Mom and Dad for a while after that, but they still split up before I finished high school. It was probably for the best. They sold the house and moved us first though, as a favor to me, I think, and I never had to go back to that fucking street. I hear nobody found any bodies in the wreckage of the Halloways’ house, and nobody ever figured out why it fell down that night either.
            Georgie says she doesn’t remember what happened. I hope for her sake it’s true.
            Me?
            I still sleep with a carving knife by my bed. It’s my heirloom.
            You want to know what’s inside darkness? Deep, deep inside? At the heart of it?
            We are. Every time we know what’s right and don’t do it, a little more of the black builds up around us. And if we let enough of it stack up, it’ll draw things to us. Things that feed on darkness. Things that need it.

            And God have mercy on your soul if that shit ever happens to you.