Authors: Mia Zabrisky
There’s a house in Vermont you don’t want to know about. A Victorian ruin on the edge of a nondescript town. The front door is scratched and weathered beyond time, and the façade has a tired, ghostly look that makes you pause in mid-step.
Natural forces have squeezed the house until it has taken on the distorted shape of a crushed cardboard box. As soon as you enter it, you can smell the wet insulation. You can hear the rain coming down, and the water seeping through the foundation walls. Walls so unstable, they will need shoring up to prevent their inevitable collapse.
Picture a basement with very little afternoon light coming in through the ivy-covered casement windows. Picture a dungeon-like bathroom with a tarnished, cracked mirror that makes your face look freakish. See the gooseneck showerhead mounted on the wall, the funky drain on the floor, the rust-streaked porcelain tub and seat-less toilet. The smell of insanity is strongest down here—a dank musk, a black pit, a waterlogged silence.
Now listen. Out of the darkness comes a low groan. Follow the groan through a long passageway, down three cement steps toward the back of the basement, where an old wooden door cracks open. The groan is coming from inside this small dark room.
This is where Bella lives. Her wings forced back with twine.
The small room smells of root vegetables and damp earth. On the far wall, lit by candles, is an odd alter composed of prosthetic limbs. A man stands with his back to us. He wears jeans, a T-shirt and a black mask that fits snuggly over his head. We can see the tips of his ears through the holes in the mask. He makes a low, repressed sound.
Heaped around him in the shadows are the carcasses of plastic dolls, their glass eyes removed. Their hollow sockets stare out at us—apocalypse on a miniscule scale.
The muscles of the man’s back contract. He is holding something in his hands, squeezing. His breathing becomes amplified, more rapid.
We travel closer, over his shoulder—he is holding onto a woman, lovely, thin, so pale and waxen she could be dead. His thumbs are pressed into her painted white shoulders. She’s alive. She’s staring up into his face. Horrified by the sight of him. She despises him—everything he is and everything that he has done to her.
Close on the man’s face—through the “mask” we see his eyes. They are piercing and frenzied. His ears are large and defined. He can hear everything with those ears. Even the smallest peep.
He squeezes his thumbs into the woman’s painted shoulders and screams, cords of his neck standing out. He digs his thumbs deeper into the flesh of her arms and his voice builds to a rageful, insane hiss, like a pressure-cooker screaming.
He screams until she can’t stand it anymore, until her wings pop open and spread fully behind her. Like an eagle about to take flight. The man joyously throws his head back and howls.
Nobody can hear them down here.
Bella just wants it to be over with.
She wants him dead.
Hope Hollow, New York
Tobias Mandelbaum sat for a moment inside his parked car, observing the house on Welcome Street. The mailbox said Kincaid. He peeled off the wrapper and ate his candy bar in two or three bites, then carefully folded up the wrapper and stuck it in the glove compartment. He removed his sunglasses and wiped them on his shirt.
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Too much coffee hurt his stomach. He stepped out of the car, opened the trunk, took out the 30-year-old backpack and slung it over his shoulder. He stood for a moment, inhaling the fresh chilly air. Then he headed across the snowy front yard toward the house.
Behind the house, the land sloped down into a field, and then rose up into the woods. Everything was dusted with powdery white snow. The first snowfall of the season. He could see his exhalations clouding the air as he approached the front door and then paused for a moment. You could tell a house was haunted when it gave you the creeps, and you stood there wondering whether or not you should go in, even though it would be easy to get inside because of the big hole in the bottom of one of the window screens, the window itself propped open several inches.
He knocked and got no reply. He waited a few troubled seconds and knocked again. “Hello?” The door wasn’t locked. He went inside and inhaled the oldness. The place was deserted.
Now a gust of wind swept through the house, and the curtains moved in restless whispers. Tobias slipped the backpack off his shoulder, lowered it to the floor and dropped it on the welcome mat. “Delilah?” he said. “It’s me. Tobias Mandelbaum. Anybody home?”
But he already knew the answer—she was gone.
And she’d taken her kids with her. Those three unfortunate children.
Sunlight shone through the gauzy curtains covering the wide old-fashioned windows. He stared at everything. There was so much to stare at—the boxes and crates that maybe held something, the broken toys and abandoned mittens, an empty milk carton, a sink full of unwashed dishes, a teakettle on a back burner, a coffee cup on the kitchen table, an oak desk littered with ballpoint pens and unpaid bills, an old clock that no longer told the time, strange scratches on the living room walls. He just stared at the walls like a blind man. He couldn’t understand what those scratches were saying.
Tobias went upstairs. The bedrooms were empty, except for a few stray personal items. They had left in a hurry. He was hit with the loss. The loss of a friend and ally in this crazy battle of theirs. He walked down the hallway and cautiously opened the attic door. A cold wind rattled past him. He put one foot on the bottom step, and a chemical aversion overwhelmed him. Delilah must have taken her, too. Delilah would never abandon Isabelle. He changed his mind and closed the attic door and hurried down the hallway toward the bathroom, where he splashed cold water on his face.
He grabbed a towel, wiped his face and caught sight of his reflection in the bathroom mirror. He looked very old. His hearing was gradually getting worse. He had a row of narrow white teeth. His smile was strong and dazzling, but his eyes were wary. He had holding-back eyes.
Okay, so he was old and crabby and not so good-looking, but he was still fast on his feet. He caught himself quick. He moved his arms like water, very fluid. He moved like a fish through water. He was slippery and elusive, and nobody could catch him. And the limp? The limp was an illusion he’d cultivated to throw people off-guard. The limp was a convenient deception.
He went downstairs and felt totally defeated. The stairs creaked. The banister creaked. The walls creaked. Delilah hadn’t mentioned this sudden departure, and he doubted she’d left a forwarding address. She must have been afraid of something. She must’ve been running from something. Tobias wondered about the Judge. Where was he? At the bottom of the stairwell, he could feel his insides ripping apart. Time was slipping away from him. He felt an urgency in his gut to accomplish all the things he needed to achieve—not just
fate depended on it. He thought about his daughter, Bella, his little angel. He had given up on her. She was lost to the sands of time.
In the sunshine-filled foyer, he picked up the backpack and closed the door behind him. He got in his car and drove away.
The old Thorpe dairy farm consisted of a large weather-beaten barn and a dozen ramshackle outbuildings. It was isolated, with nothing but woods and conservancy lands for miles around. Colton Thorpe had been called many things by the residents of Dignity—eccentric, introverted, a hoarder, a loner, an oddball, a nut. He didn’t use email or Twitter or have a Facebook page or own a laptop or even a cell phone. His biggest concession to technology was an IBM Selectric typewriter and an answering machine from the nineties. Nobody ever called to leave a message, except for the occasional salesman. He had no family to speak of. No relatives in the vicinity. An uncle very far away who didn’t care if he was dead or alive. No friends. However, Colton was independently wealthy. He had inherited the farm and 120 acres from his parents, and he sold off the parcels an acre at a time. He lived on a dead-end country road, with an all-encompassing barbed wire fence that delineated his property from the outside world. He wasn’t the only odd duck ever to post “No Trespassing” signs on his land, but he was probably the most paranoid. Once a week he patrolled the perimeter with a shotgun.
Tonight he drove his Chevy pickup truck into town, bought groceries, lingered over the sports magazines at the cigar store, and then took the gravel road back to the farmstead. He parked in the driveway and got out. The dilapidated two-story house was washed in moonlight.
He felt a chill as he looked at the old sheep’s pen with its broken split-rail fence—it reminded him of a gap-toothed smile. The property was vast, with many outbuildings and a tumbledown, towering barn whose westward tilt was propped up with several long boards. The paint had peeled off, revealing the wormy wood underneath. Eventually the whole structure would come crashing down.
The place seemed deserted tonight, as if nobody lived there. Colton liked that. It kept most people away, except for kids on Halloween. He waited with mounting tension, expecting to hear Bella’s wail any second now. It upset him that she was silent tonight, but that was okay. He knew she couldn’t escape. She wasn’t going anywhere.
Usually she would be crying. Or else screaming.
Sometimes she sounded like a wild dog.
Other times she sounded like a hissing snake.
But always she sounded traumatized and sad. He liked that.
Now he approached the house—his house—with caution, and took out his keys. He unlocked the door and went inside. The living room was littered with fast food containers, scribbled notes on lined yellow pads and stacks of magazines placed strategically around the room. Nothing had been moved. He checked the old-fashioned phone on the coffee table with its rotary dial. The answering machine was blinking. Now that was odd. No one ever called here. There was one unanswered message. Colton grew momentarily confused. Who would be calling him?
He hesitated with his finger poised over the button. Finally he pressed “Play,” but there was only the sound of a dial tone. That was all.
Blackwood, New York
One cold December night in upper New York State, Benjamin Pasternak woke up from a disturbing dream and looked over at Cassie, who was sound asleep beside him. He thought he’d heard her scream, which was crazy, because he couldn’t hear a thing. He’d been born deaf.
Benjamin took after his grandfather, who was also deaf. From an early age, Grandpa Harry Pasternak had taught his grandson how to imitate the human voice by placing the boy’s hands against his throat and chest and letting him feel the vibrations coming from the old man’s lungs. He taught him how to form words with his mouth and make those same vibrations. He taught Ben how to read lips. Sometimes Benjamin wore hearing aides because they helped a little bit, but not much. It was more of an electronic blip or buzz in his ears, like a dog coming very close and snuffling your hair. That type of breathiness. But they’d helped him early on when he was first learning to speak.
However, the voices inside Benjamin’s head were different. It happened maybe once or twice a year—not often enough to drive him completely insane—and it was always unexpected and freakish. Usually, he would hear someone crying or talking to him in a ghostlike voice. He knew he wasn’t “hearing” them as much as he was picking up on their feelings and fears. Like a bat with radar, he could sense their emotional state wafting toward him through the air. Gradually, the voice would grow so loud or strident, he couldn’t ignore it anymore. When that happened, he would follow the distant echo wherever it led him. For years he’d been making occasional pilgrimages around the country trying to pinpoint the source of a particular voice inside his head, and he always found the person connected with that voice. Usually he saved them from a horrible fate. Occasionally he’d be too late. And then the ghostly voice would fade away, never to return again, until next time. There was always a next time.
Crazy, he knew.
He sighed and waited in the dark, while Cassie slept soundly beside him.
28-year-old Benjamin didn’t want to go through it again. Not again.
He lay back down and closed his eyes, conjuring up peaceful thoughts. Three weeks ago, he had rescued Cassie from a bad car accident near Hope Hollow, which was about 80 miles away. She’d been one of the voices inside his head, and she had led him to her without her ever knowing about it. He had followed her pain and fear to the fiery wreck and had hit the brakes when he’d seen her standing in the middle of the road. He’d almost run her over. He got out of his truck, and she flung herself around him, and as soon as he’d swept her up in his arms, he knew that he was in love with this woman and that this was his destiny. He recognized her from the day before, when she and Ryan Waverly had come to visit. Tobias Mandelbaum had put Benjamin on some sort of mysterious list, and they kept asking him—do you know why you’re on the list? And Ben didn’t know why, but his grandfather used to know a man named Mandelbaum many years ago, when Ben was just a kid. Benjamin didn’t know anything else. He didn’t have a clue why he was on the list, but he’d been struck by Cassie’s beauty and her elusive, lovely smile.