Buried Alive, and The Demon Comes
“This is ridiculous,” said Lucy beside Bill in the smothering, wet dark.
“I could crawl toward the front of the house, to the porch,” whispered Bill. He turned his head that way and could see light coming in through the slat boards that built the face of the porch’s underside. He could see the backs of the stairs.
“I’m hungry,” said Lucy.
“I can crawl to the stairs,” he said. “There’s the tread there already half broken. Ready to give. I’ll pry it up the rest of the way. I’ll smash it open.”
“You’re getting me all hot and bothered with your masculinity.”
In the damp dark Bill could smell Lucy’s cheap Wal-mart perfume, and the ammonia sweat of fear beneath it.
The men had stopped walking around upstairs for some time now. Bill had watched the last of their shadows pass over those stairs, but he hadn’t heard the car start up and drive away. Where were they? What were they doing? He imagined that he and Lucy had been beneath the house for about a half an hour now. The air was choked with dust and mildew and the slab was wet from all of the dripping in the house, but it was breathable and not too cold – not just yet. How long could they last under here? A day or two? It was supposed to get cold again, a snap of winter’s return for a few days before real spring began; last night’s dip in temperature had been a harbinger. Of course, the cold wouldn’t matter as much as thirst. Already his wounds seemed to have depleted him of fluids and his lips felt crinkled and waxy, his throat terribly dry.
Bill thought the plan of busting out from the front porch steps was futile, but it was all he had. Maybe, with the stair treads a foot wide, since he was skinny he would be able to shimmy through. It was breaking them from underneath that seemed hopeless.
Bill wondered about the men, and how, between five of them, they’d decided that burying alive their two annoyances inside a rotting old country house was really the way to be rid of them. It was the old chestnut of the villains walking away from the imperiled hero, giving him the opportunity to make his escape.
Unless that hadn’t exactly been their plan.
Bill listened, and he thought he heard a noise. Not from directly above, not the main floor, but from the upstairs.
Bill reached into his inner jacket pocket. At first his fingertips found his squashed pack of cigarettes, then the fingers wrapped around his cell phone. As he pulled it out, in the dark, lying next to him, Lucy said, “They work for Sanhedrin.”
Bill said, “What? Who?”
“They are descendents of Judas.”
Bill chalked this up to more of Lucy’s babble-talk about C-sections and Native Americans. This time because she was nervous, she was afraid. So was he. He listened, past the sounds of their breathing, of the dripping underside of the house (soon to be frozen again) at the noises from the upstairs.
The creak of the second story floor. The sound of something dragging, like a sack of laundry.
“What the hell are they doing?” Bill imagined a couple of the men on the second floor, their faces rotting and melting, wrapping a canvas sack around the sphere and somehow wresting it out of the air where it was fastened like rebar in concrete. Woven into the fabric of reality, more real than real, he thought. But that didn’t make sense. He’d seen their shadows pass, he’d heard them all leave, counting the footsteps. Even if they were just waiting outside, no one had gone up those creaky stairs. There’d been a half an hour of silence, and then, this.
Bill cocked his head, straining to get full volume out of his ear. It was impossible to be certain, what with being buried beneath the floorboards, but it sounded to Bill like the noise upstairs was coming from the bathroom, at the north end of the hall, toward the front of the house; the bathroom, the greasy room with the gunked-out bathtub. Whatever was moving around up there had originated in that room. Whatever was dragging was being dragged or dragging itself out.
In the dark, with only the slivers of light coming from gaps in the porch wood several yards away, Bill imagined something climbing out of the infested tub, something that looked like one of the men in the cheap suits after whatever sickness had claimed a couple of them (yellow eyes, wound mouth, red, puffy cauliflower ear, even Mancini had started to get rinds of discoloration in those beady little eyes…Lepere’s own like a herd animal’s…)
“The zeros,” said Lucy, “the rings they wear. There’s a zero-th law in physics. Do you know what it says?”
“Shhhh,” said Bill, placing a hand over her forearm. Lucy’s skin was dry and papery to the touch. He’d usually thought of her as a tough broad, built like an end tackle. Now he realized she was vulnerable, capable of being shaken. His Lucy. Usually the first to light up a Virginia Slim and walk casually away after an extraction (a cockroach the size of a kitten didn’t faze her), their present situation had Lucy rattled, and reasonably so. It made him think of the bird, with its papery feathers, beating away inside the box it was now kept, trapped like they were.
His phone came out of its hibernation mode and bathed them in bluish light. The little tower icon had a slash through it, and the screen read, miserably, “No Signal.” He put it back into his jacket pocket.
Whatever was upstairs started down the hallway. A pattern had developed; two knocking sounds, like a walking cane coming down on the floor, one for the right hand, one for the left – knock, knock – and then the dragging. Or maybe a walker, thought Bill. And old man shuffling along behind his walker, dragging a leg benumbed by stroke and rendered useless. Whatever it was, it was moving toward the top of the stairs.
The fourth element, came the chilling thought. What had Lepere said? A demon.
And now the thing was at the top of the stairs, and Bill could hear it breathing. The sound of it reminded him of the way Troy had breathed when, at two years-old, he’d had a terrible fever that’d lasted for three days. Bill had hung on during that time, lying awake each night alone with Troy, listening to the little boy’s rapid breathing, like a tiny air compressor. AwwCHUFAwwCHUFF. It had been torture beyond anything Bill had ever experienced, and he’d bore it alone.
“I’ve seen those rings before,” Lucy whispered in the dark, so low Bill almost couldn’t hear her.
Bill’s pulse had quickened. He could feel the thump of it in his temple, like his blood had thickened and turned to oil. He licked his lips in the dank dark. He heard the thing upstairs start making its way down, snorting and chuffing like a young bull. Dragging some thick body mass behind front hooves – those weren’t canes hitting the wooden floors.
“Lucy,” whispered back Bill, straining to hear any change in the movement or breathing, any signal that there whereabouts had been discovered. (For all he knew, their position was already made, but caution prevailed.) “I’m going to start for the porch steps.”
Her head turned in the gloom, he could make out the faintest edge of her face, that homely face he could kiss right now, his heart racing. She said, “Judas Iscariot,” she said. “The one who sold Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.”
Bill thought of the coins placed beneath the witch. The witch, who posed like Bill’s idea of Christ on the cross.
“I didn’t know,” Bill said. “Was that a good deal for back in the day?”
Lucy jerked her head back. Even in the near-black adumbrations beneath the ground flooring, he could tell she was frowning at him.
Above them, Bill heard the cane-sound, the knock, knock of two more steps (front legs, he thought, those’re the front claws – or hooves – hooves with tufts of coarse, oily hair sticking out from the clefts) and then the laundry sack thump of the body – or whatever – trailing.
“You never read the Bible?”
Bill’s ears were thrumming with blood again. He almost couldn’t hear her. Was it odd that Lucy, about as New Age as they came, was talking about the Bible as they lay beneath freshly lain lumber, their backs on the concrete, as something alive upstairs made its way down toward them? He supposed not. Bill figured she was in shock. They both were.
“Stay here.” He smiled in the dark, touched her arm and started sliding himself beneath the floor towards the front of the house, toward the porch.
“Okay,” he heard Lucy say.
There were bits of rock and tufts of dead grass beneath the house. A thick layer of silt. Bill tried to move as quietly as he could. He stayed low – which wasn’t much of an option – careful not to bump any of the floor beams with his shoulders or back. Above, the thumping continued down the stairs. Bill thought he heard something else; a snorting. Behind him, Lucy was whispering.
“You need just the right woman,” she said.
He wanted her to stop. That she was talking was scary. It gave the upstairs thing an extra aim. “Shhh,” he said, scraping himself along the concrete.
“Smart, but not a sophisticate. Cute and charming, that’s all you need. The rest will take care of itself.”
Bill squinted his eyes shut, willing her to shut her mouth. Receive my signal, he thought, and close that frigging trap of yours. Over his head, the thing had reached the bottom floor. It was definitely snorting, smelling the air, making him think of a hog snuffling its slop. Clop. Clop. Then dragging, this thing with no hind legs, now terribly loud above them, sucking in air through some unimaginable nose. For some reason, Bill thought of the wound-mouth man.
And he thought of Troy. He called out to his son with his mind.
I want you to know I love you. I will always protect you.
Yes, daddy. I will pertekt you, too.
Go, Prime, he told himself, and stretched and inched his way to the light draining in through the porch steps.
I can walk, said Troy. That’s why I have feet.
Yes, Bill thought, that’s why you have feet.
He lengthened and contracted like a snake, s-curving his way. He was maybe ten feet from the underside of the porch steps when he heard the thing above – and behind him – stop moving.
Bill became motionless, listening, breathing quietly. He could hear it breathing too. Smelling the air. Testing. Sensing them. The second he knew it, there was a loud crack as something sharp and strong (a talon, Bill thought, like the ebony-steel tip of a leathery wing) hit the floorboards, splitting them. Bill got to moving again, this time not afeard of giving away his position. If anything, he would draw it away from Lucy – the impact had been back behind him, and above her. He strained to hear over the scraping and rustling of his own movements, listened intently to see if it changed position and followed him. He couldn’t discern that it did. Instead, he found himself only a few feet from the porch steps, and he realized with the sense of a cold weight settling over his heart, that salvation wasn’t just in reaching these stairs. Now here, he remembered, he had to bust out of them. And he’d been gunshot, for Chrissakes, twice, and was still bleeding in both places, the pain searing through him with every move, threatening to steal his consciousness.
The crack again, and the sound of splintering wood. He thought Lucy may scream, but she didn’t. She was murmuring. He couldn’t make it out. Prayer? He thought to twist around and look back at her but that would do no good. What if he even managed to somehow, miraculously, get free?
Then you’ll have to confront whatever it is in the living room above her.
His heart somersaulted. This was true: not only did he have to manage to break through wood stairs from where he lay underneath them, with no tools, not even a knife, but once exhumed, he’d have to go back into the house, back to where Lucy was, and whatever was above her, driving down to greet her.
And eat her, said Troy.
Bill stretched and pulled himself, straining every muscle, wrenching every bone. His wounds, the exhaustion, the terribly cramped space were too much. He felt himself withering, his body collapsing like a punctured balloon.
Bill lay in the dark, breathing heavy, his eyes closed. Maybe it will be best to just let it happen, he thought. No more struggling.
From inside his filthy, ripped blazer, his cell phone vibrated.
For a moment, Bill’s mind couldn’t process what it was. A bunch of nerves discharging? Was he having a heart attack from the exertion? Then he realized: my phone.
Behind him, the thing auguring down into the floor had stilled. Lucy wasn’t talking, wasn’t crying, nothing. Even the wind soughing outside, stirring the creaks and groans of the old Stender country house had calmed. It was as if the world was waiting for him to take his call.
Bill rolled over onto his back. He reached in to his blazer. It was another uncomfortable angle. All motion seemed huge in this oppressive space. Proportion was out of whack.
Bill put the phone to his ear and offered a tentative, “Hello?”
“Bill?” It was Francine.
“Francine? Hi. Is everything okay?” And then he remembered: I’m supposed to pick up Troy today. Here he’d been conversing with his son in his head – the boy was expecting him later that very day.
“Fine, Bill,” said Francine impatiently. Then, “What…what are you doing?”
“A little housework,” said Bill, the answer just sprouting out. “It’s nothing.”
“A bit early for spring cleaning, Bill. But, you’re an idealist, right?”
“An idealist-pessimist,” he corrected, and then, Bill frowned. Something was oddly familiar about all of this.
“Well, Troy has the flu. So you’re going to have to take him to the doctor when you pick him up.”
How come you haven’t? Bill heard the question in his head. He asked, “How come you haven’t?”
“I just took his temp this morning, Bill. You want me to? I will. But you’re the one that wants to stick to the courts. You pick him up at noon. So, I’m just trying to keep to that, you jerk. Okay? It’s 11:45 now.”
Bill wondered what time it actually was. It was maybe close to that, after all. But this was not today’s conversation. This was not, as the sportscasters said, Live. This was Memorex; this was a conversation that he and Francine had a week ago, the last time he was supposed to get his son, and the boy had been sick.
Hurrying now, his heart thumping inside his ribcage, Bill tried to deviate. He said, “I know you are, Francine, and I appreciate it.”
It didn’t seem to matter. “Oh,” she said, with a sarcastic tone, “that’s wonderful, Bill. I hope you use that kind of language around our son. In fact, I know you do. I’m going to bring it up to my lawyer.”
“Francine,” said Bill, closing his eyes. “I’m sorry.” Then: “I’m going to do my best to get out of here – I’ll come get him this time, I promise.”
“No, no,” she said, still carrying her end of the week-old conversation, “we’re sticking to the plan. That’s how you want it. His temp is 103, so, you’re going to take him to Dr. Miller. It’s time that y-”
Time that you get a real job, she had said, she had always said. Like Gary. Gary, her oafish boyfriend. The carpenter with a ramrod right hook. This was a conversation already come and gone. It didn’t matter how he tried to amend it; it was stuck in time. Bill hung up the phone, cutting her off in mid-sentence.
He started to maneuver the cell phone back into his inner pocket but looked at the LED on the front of it instead. There still were no bars, and the little phone icon had that slash through it. He’d gotten Lucy’s text from before, but that was it. He tried 911 anyway, but when he got a nothing but a little bleep indicating a failed call he flung the phone aside.
Then, like a man under an automobile about to change the oil, he slid himself, on his back, underneath the steps, and started punching.
Inside the house, the thing, the fourth element, the pet of the Iscariots, resumed its own jackhammering. So, thought Bill, there was some creature, with its hard-boiled talons ramming away at the living room floor, and then there was Bill Prime, non-Bible-reader, his knuckles beaten to a pulp in seconds, ragged and beginning to swell, slamming away at the underside of porch stairtread like a man breaking out of a casket.
Troy, he thought, I’m coming.
Next week is the Final Chapter! The Dream (10.26.11)
CHAPTER NINE: The Dream