Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Men and Women of Rivendale

The thing he would remember most about his days, his weeks at the Rivendale resort — had it really been weeks? — was not the enormous lobby and dining room, nor the elaborately carved mahogany woodwork framing the library, nor even the men and women of Rivendale themselves, with their bright eyes and pale, almost hairless heads and hands. The thing he would remember most was the room he and Cathy stayed in, the way she looked when she curled up in bed, her bald head rising weakly over her shoulders, the way the dark brocade curtains hung so heavily, trapping dust and light in their intricate folds.

Frank thought he had spent days staring into those folds. He had only two places to look in that room: at the cancer-ridden sack his wife had become, her giant eyes, her grotesque, baby-like face, so stripped of age since she had begun her decline. Or at the curtains, constantly adrift with shadows. They were of a dark, burgundy-colored material, and he never knew if they had darkened with dust and age or if they were meant to be just that shade. If he examined the curtains at close range, he could make out the tiny leaf and shell patterns embroidered over the entire surface. From a distance, when he sat in the chair or lay on the bed, they looked like hundreds of tiny, hungry mouths.

• • • •

Cathy had told him little about the place before they came — that it was a resort in Pennsylvania, in the countryside south of Erie, and that it used to have hot springs. He hadn’t asked, but he wondered what happened to the spring water when it left such a place. As if somebody somewhere had turned a tap. It didn’t make any sense to him; natural things shouldn’t work that way.

Her ancestors, the family Rivendale, had run the place when it was still a resort. Now many, perhaps all of her relatives lived in the Rivendale Resort Hotel, or in cottages spotted around the sprawling grounds. Probably several dozen cottages in all. It had been quite a jolt when Frank walked into the place, stumbling over the entrance rug with their luggage wedged under his arms, and saw all these Rivendales sitting around the fireplace in the lobby. It wasn’t as if they were clones or anything like that. But there was this uneasy sort of family resemblance. Something about the flesh tones, the shape of the hands, the perpetually arched eyebrows, the sharp angle at which they held their heads, the irregular pink splotches on their cheeks. It gave him a little chill. After a few days at Rivendale, he recognized part of the reason for that chill: the cancer had molded Cathy into a fuzzy copy of a Rivendale.

Frank remembered her as another woman entirely: her hair had been long and honey-brown, and there had been real color in her cheeks. She had been lively, her movements strong and fluid, an incredibly sleek, beautiful woman who could have been a model, though such a public display would have appalled her and, he knew without asking, would have disgraced the Rivendale name.

Cathy had told him that filling up with cancer was like roasting under a hot sun sometimes. The dusty rooms and dark chambers of Rivendale cooled her. They would stay at Rivendale as long as possible, she had said. She could hide from nurses and doctors there.

She wouldn’t have surgery. She was a Rivendale; it didn’t fit. She washed herself in radiation, and after Frank met these other Rivendales with their scrubbed and antiseptic flesh, the thought came to him: she’d over-bathed.

She never looked or smelled bad, as he’d expected. The distortions the growing cancer made within the skin that covered it were more subtle than that. Sometimes she complained of her legs suddenly weakening. Sometimes she would scream in the middle of the night. He’d look at her pale form and try to see through her translucent flesh, find the cancer feeding and thriving there.

One result of her treatments was that Cathy’s belly blew up. She looked at least six months pregnant, maybe more. It had never occurred to either of them to have children. They’d always had too much to do; a child didn’t have a place in the schedule. Sometimes now Frank dreamed he was wheeling her into the delivery room, running, trying to get her to the doctors before her terrible labor ceased. A tall doctor in a brilliant white mask always met him at the wide swinging doors. The doctor took Cathy away from him, but blocked Frank from seeing what kind of child they delivered from her heaving, discolored belly.

Nine months after the cancer was diagnosed, the invitation from the Rivendales was delivered. Cathy, who’d barely mentioned her family in all the years they’d been married, welcomed it with a grim excitement he’d never seen in her before. Frank discovered the invitation in the trash later that afternoon. “Come to Rivendale,” was all it said.

One of the uncles greeted her at the desk, although “greeted” was probably the wrong word. He checked her in, as if this was still a resort. Even gave her a room key with the resort tag still attached, although now the leather was cracked and the silver lettering hard to read. Only a few of the relatives had bothered to look up from their reading, their mouths twitching as if they were attempting speech after years of muteness. But no one spoke; no one welcomed them. As far as Frank could tell, no one in the crowded, quiet lobby was speaking to anyone else.

They’d gone up to their room immediately; the trip had exhausted Cathy. Then Frank spent his first of many evenings sitting up in the old chair, staring at Cathy curled up on the bed and staring at the curtains breathing the breeze from the window, the indecipherable embroidered patterns shifting restlessly.

• • • •

The next morning they were awakened by a bell ringing downstairs. The sound was so soft Frank at first thought it was a dream, wind-chimes tinkling outside. But Cathy was up immediately, and dressing. Frank did the same, suddenly not wanting to initiate any action by himself. When another bell rang Cathy opened the door and started downstairs, and Frank followed her.

Two places were set for them at one of the long, linen-draped tables. “Cathy” and “Frank” the place cards read. He wondered briefly if there might be someone else staying here by those names, so surprised he was to see his name written on the card in floral script. But Cathy took her chair immediately, and he sat down beside her.

There was a silent toast. When the uncle who had met them at the desk tapped his glass of apple wine lightly with a fork, the rest raised their glasses silently to the air, then a beat later, tipped them back to drink. Cathy drank in time with the others, and that simple bit of coordination and exaggerated manners made Frank uneasy. He remained one step behind all the others, watching them over the lip of his glass. They didn’t seem aware of each other, but they were almost, though not quite, synchronized.

He glanced at Cathy; her cheek had grown pale and taut as she drank. She wasn’t eating real food anymore, only a special formula she took like medicine to sustain her. Although her skin was almost baby-smooth now, the lack of fat had left wrinkles that deepened as she moved. Death lines.

After breakfast, they lingered by the enormous dining room window. Cathy watched as the Rivendales drifted across the front lawn in twos and threes. Their movements were slow and languid, like ancient fish in shallow, sun-drenched waters.

“Shouldn’t we introduce ourselves around?” Frank said softly. “I mean, we were invited by someone. How do these people even know who we are?”

“Oh, they know, Frank. Hush, now; the Rivendales have always had their own way of doing things. Someone will come to us in time. Meanwhile, we enjoy ourselves.”

“Sure.”

They took a long walk around the grounds. The pool was closed and covered with canvas. The shuffleboard courts were cracked, the cracks pulled further apart by grass and tree roots. And the tennis courts . . . the tennis courts were his first inkling that perhaps he should be trying to convince her of the need to return home.

The tennis courts at Rivendale were built atop a slight, tree-shaded rise behind the main building. He heard the yowling and screeching as they climbed the rise, so loud that he couldn’t make out any individual voices. It frightened him so that he grabbed Cathy by the arm and started back down. But she seemed unperturbed by the noise and shrugged away from him, continuing to walk toward the trees, her pace unchanging.

“Cathy . . . I don’t think . . .”But she was oblivious to him.

So Frank followed her reluctantly. As they neared the fenced enclosure, the howling increased, and Frank knew that it wasn’t people in there making all the noise, but animals, though he had never heard animal sounds quite like those.

As they passed the last tree, Frank stopped, unable to proceed. Cathy walked right up to the fence. She pressed close to the wire, but not so close the outstretched paws could touch her.

The tennis courts had become a gigantic cage holding hundreds of cats. An old man stood on a ladder above the wire fence, dumping buckets of feed onto the snarling mass inside. Mesh with glass insulators attached — electrified, Frank thought — stretched across the top of the fence.

The old man turned to Frank and stared. He had the arched eyebrows, the pale skin and blotched cheeks. He smiled at Frank, and the shape of the lips seemed to match the shape of the eyebrows. A smile shaped like moth wings or a bite-pattern in pale cheese, the teeth gleaming snow-white inside.

• • • •

Cathy spent most of each day in the expansive Rivendale library, checking titles most of the time, but occasionally sitting down to read from a rare and privately-bound old volume. Every few hours, one of the uncles or cousins would come in and speak to her in a low voice, nod, and leave. The longer he was here, the more difficult it became to tell the Rivendales apart, other than male from female. The younger ones mirrored the older ones, and they were all very close in height, weight, and build.

When Cathy wasn’t in the library, she sat quietly in the parlor or dining room, or up in their own room, catnapping or staring up at the ornate ceiling. She would say every day, almost ritualistically, that he was more than welcome to be with her, but he could see nothing here that he might participate in. Sitting in the parlor or dining room was made almost unbearable by the presence of the family, arranged mummy-like around the rooms. Sometimes he would pick up a volume in the library, but invariably discovered it was some sort of laborious tome on trellis and ornate gardening, French architecture, museum catalogs. Or sometimes an old leather-bound novel that read no better. It was impossible to peruse the books without thinking that whatever Cathy was studying must be far more interesting, but on the days he went, he never could find the books she had been looking at, as if they had been kept somewhere special, out of his reach. And for some reason, he hesitated to ask after them, or to look over his wife’s shoulder as she read. As if he was afraid to.

This growing climate of awkwardness and fear angered Frank so that his neck muscles were always stiff, his head always aching. It was worse because it wasn’t entirely unexpected. His relationship with Cathy had been going in this direction for some time. Until he’d met Cathy, he’d almost always been bored. As a child, always needing to be entertained. As an adult, constantly changing lovers and houses and jobs. Now it was happening again, and it frightened him.

The increasing boredom that was beginning to permeate his stay at Rivendale, in fact, had begun to impress on him how completely, utterly bored he had been in his married life. He’d almost forgotten, so preoccupied he’d become with her disease. When Cathy’s cancer had first begun and started to spread, that boredom had dissipated. Perversely, the cancer had brought something new and near-dramatic into their life together. He’d felt bad at first: Cathy, in her baldness, in her body that seemed, impossibly, both emaciated and swollen, had suddenly become sensuous to him again. He wanted to make love to her almost all the time. After the first few times, he had stopped the attempts, afraid to ask her. But as she approached death, his desire increased.

Sometimes Frank sat out on the broad resort lawn, his lounge chair positioned under a low-hanging tree only twenty or so feet away from the library window. He’d watch her as she sat at one of the enormous oak tables, poring over the books, consulting with various elderly Rivendales, who drifted in and out of that room in a seemingly endless stream. He’d heard one phrase outside the library, when the Rivendales didn’t know he was near, or perhaps he had dreamed his eavesdropping while lying abed late one morning, or fallen asleep mid-afternoon in his hiding place under the tree. “Family histories.”

The pale face with the near-hairless pate that floated as if suspended in that library window bore no resemblance to the Cathy he had known, with her dark eyes and nervous gestures and narrow mouth quick to twist ugly and vituperative. They’d discovered it was so much easier to become excited by anger, rage, and all the small cruelties possible in married life than by love. They’d had a bad fight on their very first date. He found himself asking her out again in the very heat of the argument. She’d stared at him wide-eyed and breathless for some time, then grudgingly accepted.

Throughout the following weeks, their fights grew worse. Once he’d slapped her, something he would never have imagined himself doing, and she’d fallen sobbing into his arms. They made love for hours. It became a delirious pattern. The screams, the cries, the ineffectual hitting, then the sweet tickle and swallow of a lust that dragged them red-eyed through the night.

Marriage was a great institution. It gave you the opportunity to experience both sadism and masochism within the privacy and safety of your own home.

“What do you want from me, you bastard?” Cathy’s teeth flashed pinkly . . . her lipstick was running, he thought. Frank held her head down against the mattress, watching her tongue flicking back and forth over her teeth. He was trapped.

Her leg came up and knocked him off the bed. He tried to roll away but before he could move she had straddled him, pinning him to the floor. “Off! Get off!” He couldn’t catch his breath. He suddenly realized her forearm was wedged between his neck and the floor, cutting off the air. His vision blurred quickly and the pressure began to build in his face.

“Frank . . .”

He could barely hear her. He thought he might actually die this time. It was another bad joke; he almost laughed. She was the one who was always talking about dying; she could be damned melodramatic about it. She was the one with the death wish.

He opened his eyes and stared up at her. She was fumbling with his shirt, pulling it loose, ripping the buttons off. Maybe she was trying to save him.

Then he got a better look at her: the feverish eyes, the slackening jawline, tongue flicking, eyes glazed. Now she was tugging frantically at his belt. It all seemed very familiar and ritualized. He searched her eyes and did not think she even saw him.

“Frank . . .”

He woke with a start and stared across the lawn at the library window. Cathy’s pale face stared back at him, surrounded by her even paler brethren, their mouths moving soundlessly, fish-like. He thought he could hear the soft clinking of breaking glass, or hundreds of tiny mouths trying their teeth.

• • • •

The thing he would remember most was the room and the Rivendales watching. They had a peculiar way of watching; they were very polite about it, for if nothing else, they were gentlemen and ladies, these Rivendales. Theirs was an ancient etiquette, developed through practice and interaction with human beings of all eras and climes. Long before he met Cathy, they had known him, followed him, for they had intimate knowledge of his type. Or so he imagined.

Each afternoon, there was one who especially drew Frank’s attention: an old one, his eyebrows fraying away with the heat like tattered moth wings. He walked the same path each day, wearing it down into a seamless pavement, and only by a slight pause at a particular point on the path did Frank know the old man Rivendale was watching him. Listening to him. And that old one’s habitual, everyday patterns were what made Frank wonder if the world might be full of Rivendales, assigned to watch and recruit.

He was beginning — with excitement — to recognize them, to guess at what they were. They would always feed, and feed viciously, but their hunger was so great they would never be filled, no matter how many lives they emptied, no matter how many dying relationships they so intimately observed. Like an internal cancer, their bland surfaces concealed an inner, parasitic excitement. They could not generate their own. They couldn’t even generate their own kind; they had to infect others in order to multiply.

Frank had always imagined their type to be feral, with impossibly long teeth and foul, blood-tainted breath. But they had manners, promising a better life and a cold excitement one need not work for.

He was, after all, one of them. A Rivendale by habit, if not by blood. The thought terrified.

The thing he would remember most was the room and the way she looked curled up in bed, her bald head rising weakly over her shoulders.

“I have to leave, Cathy. This is crazy.”

He’d been packing for fifteen minutes, hoping she’d say something. But the only sounds in the room were those of the shirts and pants being pulled from drawers and collapsed haphazardly into his suitcase. And the sound the breeze from the window made, pushing out the heavy brocade curtains, making the tiny leaf and shell pattern breathe, sigh, the tiny mouths chatter.

And the sound of her last gasp, her last breath trying to escape the confines of the room, escape the family home before their mouths caught her and fed.

“Cathy . . .” Shadows moved behind the bed. It bothered him he couldn’t see her eyes. “There was no love anyway . . . you understand what I’m saying?” Tiny red eyes flickered in the darkness. Dozens of pairs. “The fighting is the only thing that kept us together; it kept the boredom away. And I haven’t felt like fighting you for some time.” The quiet plucked at his nerves. “Cathy?”

He stopped putting his things into the suitcase. He let several pairs of socks fall to the floor. There were tiny red eyes fading into the shadows. And mouths. There was no other excitement out there for him; he couldn’t do it on his own. No other defense against the awesome, all-encompassing boredom. The Rivendales had judged him well.

Cathy shifted in the bed. He could see the shadow of her terrible, swollen belly as it pushed against the dusty sheets and raised the heavy covers. He could see the paleness of her skin. He could see her teeth. But he could not hear her breathe. He lifted his knee and began the long climb across the bedspread, his hands shaking, yet anxious to give themselves up for her.

He would remember the bite marks in the cool night air, the mouths in the dark brocade. He would remember his last moment of panic just before he gave himself up to this new excitement. The thing he would remember most was the room.

Steve Rasnic Tem

Steve Rasnic TemSteve Rasnic Tem’s last novel, Blood Kin (Solaris)–a Southern Gothic/Horror blend of snake handling, ghosts, granny women, kudzu, and Melungeons–won the Bram Stoker Award for 2014. PS Publishing recently released his novella In the Lovecraft Museum, and Centipede Press has scheduled Out of the Dark: A Storybook of Horrors, 225,000 words of the best of his uncollected horror tales, for this winter. In the spring of 2016 Solaris will publish his new novel Ubo, a dark SF meditation on violence as seen through the eyes of some of history’s most dangerous figures.