The ringletted girl with the five-dollar dress and the ten-dollar attitude fled her stifling small-town apartment that morning and made her way into the New England woods. If she’d known how close she was to drawing her final breath – oh, death was with her, even then – she might have done so many more worthy things with her time.
Or maybe not. Some people, the girl’s mother was fond of saying in a voice made throaty by years of cigarettes and bad factory air, just plain didn’t want to be right with God. They didn’t have it in them, and they sure as sugar didn’t have God in them.
Sure as sugar. The girl’s mother would never dirty her rough but pristine tongue with a word like shit, oh no. Sure as sugar no. She never used the word sugar to mean anything but that, though – when she wanted to sweeten her coffee, it was pass me the white, darlin. Momma needs her white.
Oh, couldn’t use bad words. Cleanliness outside and in. As if momma didn’t know about the cancer already squatting in her lungs, clawing at her ribs, digging its toes into her muddy womb.
When she first saw the house, there didn’t look to be anything strange about it. It was a simple two-storey cottage in native rock and varnished wood, and aside from its seclusion it didn’t have the feel of a place that
somebody unusual would call home. It was just a house like any other, and nicer than most. It was nicer than the long line of flea-pit apartments the girl and her mother had lived in, the long line of places that could be rented on a single textile worker’s salary. The long line of places they’d lived in since that fine day her daddy had tired of hitting her – tired even of fucking her, although that had taken longer – and finally walked out on them both.
The house was quiet, deserted, and its door was unlocked.
An unlocked door is the Good Lord’s half-open eye, child, the girl’s mother spoke inside her head. It means He’s watching you, to see if you have it in you to be right with God.
The girl pulled that eye right open. Hope it smarts, you old bastard, she thought nonsensically as she stepped inside. I hope it hurts just like a sonofabitch.
Inside, the house maintained its neat, ordinary theme, but the girl wasn’t fooled. It was the smell of the place, the desperate tidiness of it, the compulsive and frantic sense of cleaning being done to avoid thought. The liquor cabinet was well-stocked but unvaried in its whiskey and vodka motif, and none of the bottles had any sign of dust, oh, not a trace. And that wasn’t the cleanliness talking, was it? No, those bottles didn’t have time to get dusty. Heavy turnaround in the little cottage in the woods. Daddy had a thirst. Maybe momma too.
They may have had a thirst, but their appetites were obviously not great. And that was fine, because the girl had no big interest in brown or clear right now. The long walk had left her hungry, and the kitchen table was laid out with bowls of breakfast. Good old Quaker Oats, by the look of it. She thought it was
(sure as sugar)
the lumpiest, most awful congealed mess she had ever seen, and under normal circumstances there would be no way she’d eat it without
(pass me the white, darlin)
something to go with it. But not today. Today she was hungry.
The girl didn’t stop to wonder why the porridge had been left out, at least one of the servings still steaming in its huge chipped terracotta bowl. Why the breakfast had been abandoned before a single spoonful could be consumed. Later, she’d ask herself whether things might have been different if she’d thought about it. Later, she’d wonder a great many things.
She ate standing, after she’d settled on the smallest chair and it had broken underneath her. The largest serving was still too hot, the next one down was rubbery and cold (maybe momma scooped her share out of the pot ahead of schedule, the girl thought, and left daddy’s on the stove until he woke from his stupor. Maybe daddy alone was the one with the thirst), but the smallest bowl was just right. She ate.
Full and warm and drowsy, she made her way upstairs and promptly confirmed her estimation of who was the drinker in the family. Definitely daddy. That bed, hard and unmade and – when she lay down on it – soaked in that familiar reek … oh yes. She’d had that breath panted into her hair, that drool spilled down the back of her neck, too many times to mistake it. She stood quickly, with a shudder.
Separate beds, yes, and the middle one didn’t look slept-in at all. A bed that smotheringly soft would never remain so smooth and taut. It would be reduced to a lumpy nest within a month if anyone were actually sleeping on it for any length of time. Obviously the momma of the house was
(screwing the brains out of daddy’s boss, then sneaking back in the morning and pretending she woke up early)
getting her sleeping done elsewhere, and had other vices to occupy her time. Vices other than the bottle.
The smallest bed in the house was perfect, and she sighed as she lay down and made herself comfortable.
Just for a minute, she told herself. Just rest my eyes for a minute.
It came out of the ceiling, where it had gathered and coagulated after consuming the cottage’s original owners. It had seeped up there and gathered like an aneurysm, digesting and replaying and enjoying its meal, over and over again the way a cow will chew on cud, and as the girl’s eyes drifted shut it had begun to work its way back out through the slats in the ceiling, the air-conditioning grille in the wall, the light fixtures. Like thick, glistening black tar it ran down the walls and swelled into great, obscenely-bulbous stalactites hanging from the roof, and then the great wet ropes of darkness braided and fused and bulked up, looming over the bed.
The girl opened her eyes and saw it, saw the great sodden mass pulsating in front of her, saw her own befuddled and then horrified face reflected in its moist pudding-skin, saw the softening lumps of putty-like bone and clumps of
hair that still sat half-dissolved in its surface. Its central mass swelled above and beside the bed like a vast hunched toad, tendrils varying in thickness from treacle-trails to barrel-breadths squirming and shifting with horribly vital peristalsis around the room. A reek like mildew and gravebugs filled her nostrils and her throat and a soft, chuckling muddle of voices yammered in her ears.
Hungry again yes oh please stay here stay still so sweet so hungry so warm and sleepy and delicious stay stay stay oh yes just for a moment longer lie there and wait –
Unable to even scream, the girl hurled herself out of the bed and ran across the floor. Her foot landed squarely on one of the pseudopods and it sucked her shoe off with a single greedy slurp, but she yanked free – something in her ankle clicked, but it was just a sprain and in her glassy panic she wouldn’t feel it until the next day – and was gone down the stairs before the scuffed trainer could vanish into the black paste like a small mammal submerging in a tar pit.
She crashed out of the cottage at full tilt, tumbled down the well-scrubbed front steps, and sprinted into the woods without a backward glance at the silent house and its malignant new occupant.
Three days later she was run over and killed by a mentally handicapped man driving a minivan.
Exquisite prose, striking and evocative stuff. For me, this is right up there with Dead Heart as your very best output on this blog.
So Goldilocks meets the Blob meets reality? Way to update that beloved children’s classic. There’s a wonderfully darkness to your imagination. But the ending? Jeez and lol, man.
Many thanks, this was actually an exercise in “X story as written by Y author.” You’ve solved for X, want to try for Y? May be tricky as by all accounts you have not read much of Y author.
No idea, but I’m guessing it’s some downbeat gritty-dirty-realism nihilistic type with snappy prose and a hint of noir. Your opening “the five-dollar dress and the ten-dollar attitude” seems very iconic somehow. Clearly, I should read him or her!
I think I’m going to leave it open for a while longer though, before spoiling.
Please don’t tell me it’s Pratchett and the above was just ironic darkness, because I was sold! (Everything read authentically messed up and dark. Except maybe the last line, which kinda made me laugh.)
No no, Pratchett would have had way more footnotes.