Returning to her own room Susan sat beside the casement in her nightdress, the magazine she had abandoned lying open at its first page. While the house exhaled warmth during the day, sunset drew the night in through the open window, laden with the dark, pagan smell of elms and hornbeams. She got up and walked to the kitchenette, holding her hair back as she stooped to light a cigarette from the stovetop. Catching her reflection in the window she pondered it from both sides, then gave up, vanity exhausted, settling on the bed with the quilt arranged about her legs. Comfortably ensconced, she was reminded of the portable turntable she had dredged from the garage by its needle bumping against the label and convinced herself she could ignore it, flipping determinedly through the magazine until she swore and threw down her feet to obey its tireless summons.
Subordinated beneath the hiss and pop of the oscillating vinyl and the shuddering of the refrigerator cycle she discovered another sound, low and crisp and intermittent, the passage of animate weight through the rugosa hedge embracing the foot of the white plaster wall. She stowed the needle and stood in silence by the turntable. A moon outlined the crawling clouds in glowing white and cool perse blue, its slim curve like the blade of an Arab sword. Cruciform shadows lay on the boards in the passage outside, glimpsed in section through the door that she had left ajar while the restive sounds dragged back the gnawed, demonic utterance she had struggled to efface, the smell of blood rising on steam from the laundry tub filling her throat with a prickling catch. She swallowed hard, but was forced to cough once into her hands.
The noise ceased. A bird called an abortive note from the elm as though startled from a dream. The sight of her own reflection in the pane over the bed, its pallor and the shadows draped beneath her eyes administered a fright that pressed both fists to her breast; the shuffling recommenced, gathered by a rough, concerted foray into the body of the roses and culminating in the taut crack of a branch, its stiff thorns scraping the parched plaster. The window stood like a hole gaping in ship plate at the bottom of an ocean. Susan whispered to herself and crept onto the bed, the old springs groaning underneath her as she leant across the sill to dart a hand toward the casement. It was achingly distant, her bare skin silvered by the moon over a yawning darkness, silent until an arid squeal was answered by a heavy, rasping slide as something found and began to climb the unseen wall below.
She jerked back her hand and sat on her heels. Outside, whatever ascended observed the same precipitate silence as though in mocking imitation until she felt that to move was to give it license to do the same and pressed her eyes closed, turning her head from the brass lamp perched before the pane. When she leant onto her hands, the climber scuffed the narrow oak framing and committed weight to the crumbling black ledge. Susan screwed up her face and threw herself at the latch, the sill bruising her hip as she strove for it; a gouging shriek kicked off a tight, explosive rush against the plaster and as she cried out and toppled backward a white blur lashed up at her arm.
William carried two bottles of vodka under each arm, halted in the entrance hall by the smell of cooling blood. He thought it at first an artifact of the house itself, the timbers' oaken darkness sometimes exhaling a kindred note with evening, but the mortal scent lifted its face to him as he questioned it further and he set the bottles down. Moving slowly in the silence he drew the handgun from the back of his jeans and reached behind himself to lock the garage door.
The balustrade made no complaint at his scaling of its carven framework. Climbing onto the heavy handrail where it turned into the second flight with the pistol between his teeth, he jumped at the floor overhead, easing himself over and letting himself down onto the boards without a sound. With eyes and ears he scanned the darkness of the hall in both directions, discovering fat little circles of soupy red forming a trail along the floor, resisted by the tight, stout weave of the rugs where it had wandered over them.
"Christabel..." he called, discreetly. The blood led him into his own rooms, impressed in narrow footprints around his piled clothes and a red smear across the chest at the end of the tester frame. He followed it to the bathroom door where it was painted liberally around the handle. The shapes blurred, overlaid by all the other portals to that sight he knew awaited him, one hundred other disallowed companions, bloodless, beaten, strung or disarticulated according to the inexorable will that trailed him, the wailing of their kin rising all around. For a moment William stood without being able to command his hand, the curing blood like some dire, debarring seal until he raised an arm and pushed once at the door. It swung inward and halted halfway from the wall.
Susan's body had gathered loosely behind her knees between the white tiled wall and the end of the deep footed tub. Her eyes were closed and a plum-coloured bruise marked her forehead. The shape under his foot became the cord of the brass lamp at her feet, its base half-caved and spattered darkly. The pathos of her lonely refuge dispatched his faltering impetus and for a moment he could only stare at the arm she had swathed with black cloth; without a sound, she opened her eyes and slid the limb behind her back.
Her sentience gave him a moment of thoughtless joy, before whispering such terrible suggestions that his gaze darkened with dread and he murmured against them, setting the pistol on the sink. She watched him sink to his knees and cried out as he reached for her ankles, extricating her from beside the tub with grim per function.
"Susan... Christabel... this is important... were you were bitten? It doesn't matter where, just tell me now..." In twisting away from him she found she could summon no meaningful resistance, sitting spiritless while he pressed a hand to her neck as though it required his last degree of courage. Her skin replied on her behalf, as luminously warm as he remembered, well-served by the pulse that thudded against the heel of his palm. Unable to accept such simple certainty he made a survey of her arms and legs, pulling back her nightdress and feeling along her back and over her sides and stomach, his fingers finding unbroken skin instead of sliding into sticky wounds or meeting buried, jagged shapes. One of his T-shirts wrapped her arm, hastily and ineffectually, and he took the limb in both hands. "Is this everything?" he urged. Looking down at it, Susan nodded, eyes flooding thickly as she mashed her face into his shoulder, loosing a rough, spluttering sob. “Ishah i’sidati...” he whispered, lifting an elated smile toward the ceiling and embracing her in his inapposite delight, mouthing gratitude to his presiding deities. “Don’t cry, cloudcheeks." He sagged as she wiped her face and grimaced at the deposit her streaming nose had left on his sleeve. "Putain de fucking merde de bordel... don't do that to me, Christabel. Now I need a fucking paramedic."
"I'm sorry... there's... I put snot on you..." she confessed.
"Never mind." William sighed, embracing her again, then lifting her elbow and examining her arm. Her bloodied fingers seemed like those of a severed hand in their listless curl; he touched his own to their tips. "Please tell me you can feel that."
"I can, just... don't... don't touch it."
The objection seemed senseless, and she relented, at first looking away while he worked the blood-soaked shirt loose, then down at the fuzzy lines and clotted red of the lacerations. They ran in slack, skewed concert from the inside of her elbow to where they had torn free over her wrist, leaving the skin cut away from the flesh beneath and lying in half-translucent ripples. Another solitary gash had dragged through the upper surface of her forearm before veering toward the others. They had crossed a series of consequential veins, and three still bled profusely. Though they gave William little joy they were not the poisoned, blackening ulcers of his worst fears and he plucked a small triangle of broken glass from the largest.
“Put your finger there, and press hard. No, hard." he insisted when the digit slid off across her skin.
"What's the time?" she murmured, drawing his frown to the bruise on her head and the diffuse nature of her gaze. With shreds torn from a length of towel he contrived a peculiar braided dressing, winding it onto her limb like maypole ribbon.
"Are you thirsty? Feel sick?" he inquired. She shook her head while he examined her eyes intently. "No flashing lights? Can you hear okay?" Her skull seemed free of the pulpy depressions and slashes of blackened red that he sought so assiduously, stroking back her hair, but he leant in toward her ears and mouth to discount the faint, varnish-like scent of leaking fluids.
"I'm alright." Susan sighed, eyes closed.
“Clench your fist.” he instructed, adjusting the tightness of the final knot. "Okay... what happened?"
She spoke between involuntary breaths, leaning forward onto her left arm.
“My room... I was in my room, and I thought I heard... I went to close the window, and they were coming up the wall...”
“You're three floors up.”
“No, I mean... they tried to.” The little exposition defeated her. "Then... something... I think the window broke, and they fell.”
Again he allowed his attention to extend outward through the empty rooms.
“Stay here. I'll have a look.” he told her. Susan used the edge of the basin to haul herself to her feet, the white tiles bowing violently toward her when she followed him, forcing her to stagger sideways with her arms out. He turned back in time to make a lurching save at which she shrieked and seized a handful of his hair. “If you were a baby monkey that would be cute.” he exclaimed, head dragged sideways in her grasp.
"You'll drop me!"
"I won't drop you." She held on grimly as he attempted to unload her on to the bed, a dark stain creeping across her bandage and forcing him to bear her into the hall, her grip on his hair loosening only as he purveyed her to the stairs beneath her apartment. Susan sat slowly on the lower treads, and he ascended on his own.
An atmosphere of brief, thwarted brutality and the glass scattered across the bedclothes remained to illustrate her story. The casement hung out over the drop at a strange, defeated angle, the upper hinge ripped free of the wood and the lower rail broken from the stile. Blood lay in fluted smears across the sill, in dark, soaked rounds upon the quilt and spatters on the floor; glass crunched under his boots when he pulled the bed from the wall and leant out to examine the scene below. A series of gouges tracked their way up the plaster from the confusion of thorny, flattened roses at its foot. On the stairs Susan hunched at the sound of him forcing the frame back into shape; he met her in the doorway when she climbed toward him and glanced back over his shoulder at the window.
"There's nothing down there, honestly. Tell me what they looked like, while it's fresh.”
She shook her head.
“I don't know... I hit my head, and after that... there's really nothing. I can't see them.” she admitted gravely. In her need to fashion something coherent she found it easier to keep her eyes from him. "That night in the laundry, when there was someone outside... it was... like that, but, it’s... there’s something...” She stared at the moonlit window. "It's mad. Why would you do this?" Like chimes troubled in a distant room, aspects of her discourse struck him, tugging at the cords binding a great black prodigy; it relished her description as a demon dotes upon the final syllables of an invocation. “I know this sounds mental, but they didn't look like a person... I mean, a normal person.” Susan shook her head against her hand and wrestled again with images that fragmented under the force she brought to bear. "I had the lamp... I hit them hard... they had hold of my arm and the window broke, then... she fell...” In grappling with the events in sequence she stumbled on a homologue and looked up, opening her good hand toward him. “My grandmother had this old book, one of those... an almanac. On one page there were good fairies, the nice ones... then she'd turn over to the evil ones, with teeth and horrible faces. That's what I see.”
“White, black, in between?”
“White... very white."
"Female?" he suggested. She nodded, frowning. “Big, small?” She shrugged, then looked up at him.
“I... big. Like you. But I can't see any more than that. It's just... a stupid... blur.”
Standing in the darkness with his back to the cold glow of the window, William seemed to become aware of his own unsettling aspect and glanced out through the frame.
“You need to get dressed so I can take you into town.”
Susan looked down at the ragged stains on the front of her gown and shook her head again emphatically.
"No doctors. Just get me something out of there." she sighed, nodding at the dresser.
"Christabel, don't be a mental case. I'm taking you to an ER."
"No... I'm not going to a bloody hospital..." Her stare followed his own, even as he closed his eyes to evade its imploring petition. "Could you not just clean it up for me or something?"
"Kali ni'ah... poupée..." He gazed up at the ceiling and let his head fall to one side. "I could stitch it, but it'll be a long time, not a good time, and I don't know if I can... your little face would be looking right at me." She looked away, despondent. "Alright..." he groaned. "I'll try."
“What about the guard?” she asked wearily as he assisted her down the stairs.
“If he’s dead, he’ll keep, and if he’s alive, he’s fucking fired. Come on... I’ve got the shit in my room.”
She held his hand along the corridor. Words came to her from an almost wave-ridden distance, her own name, then the slitting, suede-like noises she recognized as the sounds of her own flesh opening, a tearing snarl leaping up at her and falling away. Susan stopped and tried to look down at the remembered face.
“You've got a gun.” she whispered. "Why?"
“Get in here and sit your arse down.” he replied.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce