Madeline had a plain, dull face that only a mother could love, even though hers hadn’t. She’d been a clever child, clever enough to realize early on that fairness was a fairy tale, and clever enough to realize that it wasn’t her mother, really, who was to blame, even if she couldn’t help but blame her. Whenever Madeline’s stepfather had told her to get out of his sight, her mother had repeated the phrase in a ghostly echo. When Madeline emancipated herself at sixteen, she figured that was the end of that, and she looked ahead to a future of possibilities. She’d been clever—but not clever enough to realize that the future only built itself from the refuse of the past.
Now, as she waved goodbye to thirty-five, Madeline had taken on sharp, greedy eyes and a hungry mouth. Her husband frequently vanished at night, bound for gambling dens and seedy basements to win at poker. By day, he looked for employment, although he never seemed to look too hard. He told Madeline to stop worrying, he would find something. Whenever she suggested she try to find a job, he said, “Doing what? You don’t even have a high school diploma. Who’s going to hire you?” He told her any day now he’d put a baby in her, and then she wouldn’t be so caught up in such stupid notions.
So Maddy wandered around their decrepit ranch house and patched up the faded and curling wallpaper, and the rickety thrift store furniture, and the burnt-out light bulbs, and then sat down to forget herself in front of the old tube television. Or she went grocery shopping with a pocketful of coupons and yelled at the cashier when he told her they were expired. What did he know, the little shit? If she had thought to rob her mother blind before she left home, she would have. That was a regret she still held deep. Her mother, a heavy smoker, had passed on years ago and bequeathed all her money to Maddy’s stepfather, who would never give her a dime.
Sometimes she wished her husband would die. She knew what a nasty thought it was, but she couldn’t help it. When he was her fiancé, and her boyfriend before that, he had promised her great things. He had told her he would give her a comfortable life.
Instead, her life consisted of staying in during the evenings and listening to the pipes groan over the sound of dullards talking on the television—except for this night, when such sounds vanished behind the motor of an approaching car.
She heard it from the living room—heard tires creeping down the long, unpaved driveway to the house, and knew at once that it was not her husband’s car. She looked at the thin white curtains, hanged ghosts, through which two bright headlights glowed like the great yellow eyes of a demon. The car stopped and she heard the door open and slam.
She was thrilled with wonder at who it could be. It was now past ten o’clock on a night heavy with an impending storm. All afternoon, miserable clouds had swirled and drifted lower over the empty fields surrounding the house, and she had been waiting for the rain that still hadn’t come.
Now footsteps crunched up the walk to the front door. The headlights still flooded the dark living room, along with the blue glow of the television. Whoever was out there knocked on the door, four loud raps.
Maddy hesitated, then finally rose, and with a measure of caution opened the front door. Beyond the wooden door was a thick, opaque glass door, and through the rippled glass she could see the figure of a man silhouetted by the blazing headlights of the car behind him.
“Who is it?” she called through the heavy glass.
“Can you open this door so I can introduce myself properly?” he said. His voice was muffled and somewhat high pitched.
“You can introduce yourself just like this,” she said.
“All right. My name is Lucien Amos. I’m a lawyer.”
“What do I need a lawyer for?”
“I’m here about a will . . .” and he said something else she couldn’t hear.
“What will? What did you say?”
He repeated himself, and this time she heard “an inheritance.”
She opened the glass door and saw a man there, not very tall, nearing middle age. He wore a gray suit that looked as if it had belonged to his grandfather, and his face was pudgy and pocked with scarring from childhood acne. He had black hair, parted at an odd angle, and little black eyes nestled in deep sockets.
“What will?” she said, trying not to sound too eager.
“If you’ll just let me come in, I can explain all of it, Ma’am.”
His voice had a reedy whistle to it, as if it were coming to her from the bottom of a long pipe. No stranger to the hazards of a woman alone in her house, with an unfamiliar man on the doorstep, Maddy stood firm in the doorway. “Tell me right here.”
The man sighed. “Your uncle Gerald passed away, and he’s left you a considerable inheritance.”
Her jaw clenched while she thought. Her eyes lit up at the prospect, but she could not deny that it would be next to impossible to acquire an inheritance that legally did not belong to her. “I don’t have an Uncle Gerald,” she conceded. “You don’t even know who I am.”
“You’re Madeline River, née Koltzman, aren’t you?”
She frowned, disliking that Lucien knew her. “But that doesn’t change the fact that I don’t have an Uncle Gerald.”
“Well, now, you don’t think it’s at all possible that there’s an uncle who was estranged from your mother, who you never knew about?”
The insinuation sounded altogether too possible, in fact, coming from this man’s suggestive voice. Her stepfather had managed to cast off her mother’s family like old clothing, pulling her mother further from them until they were specks in the distance. Yet her stepfather hadn’t married her mother until Maddy herself was six. Surely she would have known about any mysterious uncles before then. Surely her mother might have said something. And if she didn’t know about this uncle, then how could he know about her?
“Well, if you’re sure, then I guess I’ll just take my leave.” He hefted his briefcase under his arm and started to turn. Maddy knew that if he stepped off that porch, she would never see him again.
“Hold on,” she said, and he paused. “Just hold on. I didn’t say it wasn’t possible. I just said I didn’t know of any uncle.”
That word, inheritance, made her hands tremble with desire and her mouth pinch together involuntarily. But the cautious depths of her, an intrinsic distrust secreted in her soul’s cache of learned personality, pulsed with dread. There was something about the man that set her teeth clenching together as if to keep him out. Perhaps, she tried to convince herself, it was just the low dark clouds that made the sky seem so close to the earth—that the impending storm left anxiety crackling through the air, and that was all that made her feel so nervous.
Lucien Amos shifted impatiently. “Let me come in, and we can go over the paperwork. I have everything right here. We can get this all squared away tonight.”
She shook her head. Just as she knew if he stepped off that porch she would lose him and any hope, she somehow knew that if he set foot through the threshold, she would be relinquishing something she was not yet ready to give up.
“Why can’t you show me the papers right here?”
At once, a cold wind like an exhalation of death swept into the house through the doorway, stirring the ghostly curtains and whistling through cracks in the foundation.
“I do apologize, Ma’am, but I won’t take the papers out of my briefcase where the wind could take them. You understand.”
“It’s only . . .” The cold blustered in again, and Maddy tried not to shiver. “Only, my husband has just gone to bed, and he’s a very light sleeper. If he hears anyone in here, he’ll be upset.”
“Oh, your husband isn’t in bed,” said the man, with a queerly certain intonation.
“I said, he isn’t in bed. He’s out playing poker, and losing quite badly, I’m sorry to say. But not to worry: you can get rid of him as soon as you get your inheritance.”
“What?” Maddy looked wildly around. “How could you . . . ?”
The man’s face, now lit and now shadowed by the harsh light coming from behind him, seemed to shiver. The warped and bubbled skin shifted over his skull as if his face didn’t quite fit right, as if he’d put the wrong mask on this morning and it was starting to itch whatever lay underneath. “Now, let me come in, Maddy, so you can get what’s coming to you.”
She had started to shake, no longer with desire but with dread. “I can’t.”
“Why, of course you can. It’s going to start raining soon, and when it does, well, I won’t remain any longer on this porch. I’ll go back to my car and drive away, and you’ll never see me again, Maddy, you’ll never get your inheritance. Don’t you want what’s coming to you?”
Sure enough, the thick, damp smell that approaches just before a storm, that odor of wet grass, ripe and rotting vegetation, crept into the house until it enveloped her, cool and humid and smothering.
“I’ll make a phone call,” she realized. “I’ll call my aunt—I haven’t spoken to her in years, but she would know, after all, whether or not she had a brother. You just wait right here and I’ll give her a call.”
“You can’t call her,” said Lucien. A flash of lightning revealed the angry contours of the clouds hanging so low behind him that they blocked out everything past the end of the driveway, as if the world had disappeared behind that gray beast gnashing its teeth, which had eaten up the road and the houses beyond, and was coming to eat hers now, too.
Maddy closed the opaque glass door and ran to the kitchen. She pulled open the drawer for the phone book, dug through rusted pairs of scissors and dull bottle openers, pens that had run out of ink, unbent paperclips, and finally the old little notebook she never bothered with anymore, with yellowed pages that had outdated phone numbers penciled in. She found her aunt and hoped that the number hadn’t changed, then snatched up the phone to dial.
Before she could even punch in the numbers, she realized there was no dial tone.
She hit the phone against the receiver and put it back to her ear but heard only dead air.
From beyond the opaque glass door, the black figure called in, “Now, I told you. Didn’t you believe me?”
“Just wait,” she said, digging out her cell phone. She started to dial before noticing that there was no signal. Could the clouds be that heavy, she wondered, that they would block the satellite reception? Were the clouds made of iron, or had they truly devoured everything else?
“Just let me in,” he called. “Let me in, and all your problems will be solved. Your husband can even be taken care of. I can help you with that.”
She shook her head, dropped the cell phone, and looked around the semi-dark kitchen. The dust on the counters had thickened and floated in the air like fungal spores, and black grime caked the crevices around the sink drain and faucet. The stormy smell intensified and grew rank, like sewer water, which somehow attuned her ever more to the house’s disrepair—the splinters in the furniture, the dirt scattered across the floor, the mold growing in the corners, the flies buzzing around an overstuffed garbage can. Was this her home? She felt the urge to run as far from this place as she could, to open that door and dash out into the night, into the clouds, disappear into the storm.
But Lucien stood outside the door, blocking her path, and each time he spoke, his strange tinny voice seemed to settle around her as another layer of dust. How could it be that she had so contented herself to the tragedy of her marriage that this strange man was the only one who could remove the blindfold?
“Don’t be mad, Maddy,” he said. “Mad Maddy. Don’t be mad. Just let me in.”
She stood in the hall and stared at the door, where his silhouette seemed taller now, and slightly hunched.
“You’ve never had anything of your own, have you, Maddy? It’s always in the hands of others. Don’t you want something of your own? I can give it to you. Or I can take it away and leave right now. I can giveth and I can taketh away. You have only one decision to make—do you want it? Or don’t you?”
She couldn’t tell him to go away, but that increasingly hunchbacked shape in the doorway was too dreadful to be let in. What would he look like when she next opened the door? Would he be something else entirely?
“I want it,” she said at last. “Please—I want it.”
The shape reached up a hand with long clawed fingers and scratched gently on the glass. His voice crept in, the very sound of the scratching glass, as if he used his environment to create a voice that didn’t belong to him. “Then let me in.”
The house shook suddenly, and its windows blazed with the violence of the tempest now rending the sky, and at last rain began battering the roof. The figure hesitated, then turned, true to his word—and Maddy stumbled down the hallway in her eagerness to stop him from going. She made it to the glass door and flung it open just as Lucien had reached the edge of the porch with one foot hanging off.
“Wait!” she shouted. Rain dazzled the blinding headlights, made them twinkle like great stars. “Wait.” Lucien turned to face her, his joints moving awkwardly as if the bones didn’t line up right. “Come in.”
A grin curled over his face, revealing a full set of gold teeth that she had not previously noticed, and his deep-set black eyes gleamed. She stepped aside to let him pass through the doorway, then shut out the rain.
But he had brought the smell of the storm in with him; it clung to his clothes, heavy and rotten, as she led him to a table where they sat by the surreal light of the television and she signed the papers. The type was too small to read, and he flipped the pages too fast for her to keep up, but she signed and she signed, feeling lighter with each scratch of the pen.
“Congratulations,” he said. “Your inheritance.” He lifted from his briefcase a small brown sack, made of what looked like burlap, and set it on the table.
“But how much? How much is it?” she said, reaching for the sack. She pulled open the string, expecting to see a wad of bills within, but instead found only ash. “What?” she said. “What is this?” She dug through the ash, finding small white particles that looked like bones or teeth. “What?” she kept repeating, until at last she found a plain gold ring with a small diamond set upon it, and recognized it as her own wedding ring, the same one she currently wore on her ring finger. It was a magic trick, it was an illusion. “What is this?”
Lucien stood up, still grinning. “Your inheritance,” he said, and his face seemed to melt, barely glued onto his skull or whatever lay beneath. He laughed a high metallic laugh and walked back down the hall, his shadow stretching out impossibly behind him like pulled taffy, Maddy trailing with the sack in her hands and careful not to step on that long misshapen darkness he left in his wake.
He stepped out onto the porch, his back rippling beneath the suit and his knees seeming to bend at the wrong angle.
“You’re not a lawyer,” said Maddy.
When he turned to look at her over his shoulder, his eyes gleamed gold, along with his entire grinning mouth that was filled with gold, and the gold seemed to light up and glow as if a pair of car headlights had been placed inside of his skull and now shone through the empty spaces of his sockets. Maddy cried out at the sight, too terrified to follow him onto the porch—him or it or whatever Lucien Amos was—and then he disappeared into the rain, and the headlights winked out.
She looked down at the sack of ash, and she knew what her inheritance was—what we all inherit from the earth and from the countless generations that came before, all the way back to the beginning.
Behind her the house groaned, and when she turned to look back she saw a chaos of darkness and cobwebs and ash. Outside, even the driveway itself was receding into the endless expanse of gray and rain that blocked out the world, advancing on her house, which she knew would soon be engulfed—her house or her tomb, she could not say, but it would be one or the other or both soon enough.