The house looked like a sand castle after the tide had come in. Except sand suggested a crumbling grayness, and the tall, narrow house was a fresh white. A front porch was large enough for a swinging bench if I could bear that level of domesticity. Blue shutters marched from the ground floor to the third, and above that—
“. . . a finished attic,” the Realtor told me.
The house was . . . nice. Nothing I’d ever wanted. I loved my job, loved that my years were split between sublet apartments and archaeological digs around the world.
But things had changed.
New job, new town, new responsibilities.
“There are four bedrooms, two bathrooms,” he said, and ushered me in.
The house was simply laid out—a hallway, a room on either side, stairs at the end of the hall. The kitchen was to my left, and it might have been updated since the thirties, but nothing else seemed to have been. The floor was scarred hardwood, and the doors had actual keyholes. The dining room was dark. Windowless.
“That’s unusual,” I said, roused to comment.
The Realtor sighed. “The house was bigger once. There was even an attached stable. But time takes things away.”
That was the first utterly true thing he’d said. Six weeks ago, I’d been a daughter. Now, I was a parent to my fourteen-year-old siblings, Maddy and Aiden. Now, I was an orphan.
Six weeks ago, I’d been a footloose archaeologist. Now, I was trying not to let my grief sink me, starting a job as a community college teacher in Missouri, and taking on a mortgage.
The twins needed stability. I wished I could have kept them in their Chicago home, but our parents had double-mortgaged and I couldn’t afford the payments.
“There’s even a garden,” the Realtor said. “You like to dig, right?”
You like to dig. That was one terrible way to sum up my now-dead career as a field archaeologist. It wasn’t worth correcting him. Controlling my grief had ground me down to the essentials. I had to be strong for the kids. I had to make it work.
The second floor echoed the first: a regular bedroom on one side, a windowless bedroom on the other, stairs and bath at the end of the hall. “Isn’t there a law about windows in bedrooms?”
“Grandfathered in,” the Realtor told me.
It was good enough. A week later, we moved in.
• • • •
“Holly,” Maddy yelled from the floor above, “I’m claiming this room!”
It was the first thing she’d said to me since I’d told them about the new house. A miscalculation on my part. I’d accepted the necessity of moving; I’d expected them to have done the same. But Maddy had shrieked, thrown her purse at me, and stormed into her room, where she posted her displeasure on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, tagging me so I’d know I was ruining her life. Even Aiden had complained, just once, but bitterly—you’re getting rid of Mom and Dad’s house?
I’d been furious and hurt. Didn’t they understand what I’d given up? Didn’t they think I missed our parents, too?
Didn’t they know I was doing my best?
So now, with Maddy laying noisy claim to a room, I took it as a good sign. Maybe she’d forgiven me.
Aiden stood beside me, contemplating his sneakers. When I nudged him, asked, “Don’t you want to pick a room?” he looked at me blankly. His new normal. He used to be an expressive kid. There were pictures boxed somewhere in storage to prove it.
Another shout from above. “Holly, I can’t get a signal! I need the internet!”
“I’m working on it,” I shouted back. The local cable company had made soothing noises about super-fast cable, made less soothing noises about how soon it could be connected. “Can you wait a week?”
A wordless shriek was my answer.
Aiden didn’t weigh in one way or another. Then again, his laptop had broken and he wouldn’t let me get him another. Not even a tablet.
Aiden had been in the car when the truck plowed through the intersection. Dad had died behind the wheel, and Mom . . . Aiden had been playing with his laptop when the truck hit. His laptop had torn through the car like a missile, breaking Mom’s neck.
“C’mon,” I said. “Let’s go pick a room.” He pulled away when I touched his shoulder.
Maddy had picked the second-floor bedroom with the wide window, alongside the larger of the two bathrooms. It was a nice day and sunlight radiated brightly enough to penetrate through the hall and into the dark bedroom. I put my head in. Not as grim as I remembered. Still, I wanted Aiden to have real light if possible. I urged him upstairs.
Maddy said, “Why can’t he be down here with me?”
“Don’t you want your own bathroom?”
“I’ll have to share with you,” Maddy said. Her grimace made it clear what she thought of that.
I shook my head. I wanted to be on the same floor as Aiden. He needed looking after. “You can have it all to your lonesome.”
That didn’t make her happy either. She scowled and trudged up the stairs after Aiden. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong now, and gave up trying to figure it out.
Aiden ignored both third floor rooms, and peered up the narrow stairs. “There’s an attic? I always wanted to live in an attic,” he murmured, as if he’d nearly forgotten that desire. As if he’d nearly forgotten how to want things.
We went on up. The attic was spacious, shadowy beneath the slanted eaves, but dry and clean. The floorboards had been painted white, and unlike the lower floors, the west side of the attic had a window. In keeping with the blind walls below, the window had been painted black.
A small window on the north wall spilled light across the floor, raising dust motes. Aiden wandered the room, testing how far he could go before the slanting roof made it impossible to walk upright.
“Can I have this room?”
“There’s no bathroom up here. No outlets; it’ll be dark,” I pointed out. But this was the first thing Aiden had asked for since the accident. I wanted to give it to him. I had kept all my gear, had battery operated lanterns from my digs. We could make it work.
“I think it’s painted on the outside,” Maddy said. She picked at the glass with her thumbnail, but the black wasn’t coming off.
It was an odd window. The north window was the usual type of attic window, a wood-paned hexagon that didn’t open. The black window looked like a regular window, two large panes, one above the other.
Maddy shoved at the sill, grunting with frustration, and my heart skipped. “Don’t!” I imagined her falling through, another abrupt tragedy. My hands shook.
She huffed. “Jeez, calm down.”
Aiden ran his fingers along the join of frame and glass. “Maybe they caulked it shut.”
“You’ll roast during the summer,” Maddy predicted. “The whole attic’s gonna stink like sweaty boy.”
“I don’t care.”
“You’ll be two floors away!” Maddy said, an edge in her voice. Her inevitable anger.
Aiden said, “You can text me.”
“You’re a dick,” she said.
“Hey,” I intervened. Maddy stomped downstairs, and I tried to remember that she was grieving, not just a pain in the ass.
I found a smile for Aiden. “You sure you want the attic?”
He nodded, studying the window.
“Maybe I can get the paint off.”
The air was cooler in the deep slant of the wall, and the black glass was blacker, the color deeper, dense. I ran my fingers over the glass, testing. It was cold even on the warm day. The glass didn’t have any of the streaks or bubbles I expected from paint. Stained glass, maybe.
I unclipped the penlight from my belt loop. The light bounced back, didn’t seem to penetrate.
I breathed against the glass, laid my palm against it. The window . . . twitched.
I jerked back, falling over my feet, dropping the light. It hit the floor, bounced, and disappeared into a gap between the wall and eaves.
“You okay?” Aiden said. Not quite concern, not quite disinterest. At least he’d noticed.
“Bird must have hit the house,” I said. “Startled me.”
• • • •
I took a bedroom on the third floor, the better to keep an eye on Aiden. I chose the dark one in case Aiden changed his mind about the attic. I never knew what the teens were thinking, and half the time I figured they didn’t either—changing their minds as the wind blew.
It was nearly three am, after a brutally tough series of days—packing, moving out, the drive, moving in—and I couldn’t sleep because Aiden was doing . . . something . . . in the attic. Scrabbling and scratching and thumping.
I struggled up the stairs, leaden with exhaustion. “Aiden?”
He crashed about and swore, a flurry of noise, but no boy. I finally located him, a dark shadow beneath the dark eaves, glimmering light edging his face.
“My penlight . . .”
“I can’t reach it,” he said. “And I can’t sleep with it shining.” He sounded as tired as I felt, near tears.
The penlight had caught somewhere beneath the black window—even more eerie at night, velvety matte and as deep as a starless night. I tore my eyes away and tested the gap between the wall. Two inches. Wide enough to swallow the penlight, too narrow to get a hand down there.
I sat back, tried to think. My penlight had a carabiner at the end of it, making it easy to hook to things. “Get me a wire hanger.” Aiden did, and I pressed my shoulder against the window, trying to get the angle right. Metal grated, wire catching. I pulled.
In my ear, the window sobbed. Something like a dying foghorn over distant waters. I nearly lost my grip. Just the wind, sighing through the eaves outside. Nothing more.
I yanked the hanger up; caught on the end was a small book with a metal clasp.
“What’s that?” Aiden asked, peering over my shoulder.
“Old,” I said, my fingers sandy with dust. “Guess we’re not the first one to lose stuff here.” I passed him the journal and went back for the flashlight.
Once I had it snagged, I switched it off and left us in the dark.
“Can you sleep now?”
“I’ll try,” he said.
“You want me to stay until you do?”
Quick, heartfelt. Hurtful. A clear rejection.
“Sleep well,” I told him, and sought the hall below. The strange wind, that breathless sob of air, seemed to follow me. I shuddered. It took me far too long to realize it wasn’t the wind. I opened Maddy’s door, and her sobs hitched, broke. “Get out!”
Her face was blotched and swollen with tears. When I hesitated, she threw her pillow at me and said, “I hate you! Get out!”
Mom would have known what to say; she would have soothed Maddy’s tears. Dad would have jollied Maddy out of them, fed her ice cream and made her laugh so hard she nearly puked chocolate sauce. They’d done the same for me once upon a time.
I lay in my bed, in the darkness as absolute as a tomb, and refused to cry. Above me, the window keened.
• • • •
The next night, Maddy got over her huff enough to boot me out of the kitchen when she declared my pizza making skills “pathetic.” I climbed the stairs into Aiden’s attic. He jerked away from the window and I felt that familiar swoop of anxiety.
The window was still sealed. No four-story drop for him.
I wondered if I’d ever get free of that sick sense of terror, that at any moment I was going to lose Aiden or Maddy.
“Hey,” I said. “Pizza in ten or twenty or whenever Maddy gets bored of playing chef.”
Aiden pointed at the black window, greased with his earprint, and said, “Do you hear that?”
He gestured me over to the window. Reluctantly, I put my ear to the glass—so strangely cold on a warm night—and I heard the whistle and suck of a vast wind, stronger and louder than it had been last night. Not just a wind, but a gale. I retreated, went to the other window, and peered out. Late spring evening, the sun still high, and the trees . . . motionless.
“It’s not windy outside.”
“Not here,” Aiden said. “The window goes someplace else.”
“That’s not possible.”
I put my hand back on the black glass, leaned closer, rested my forehead against it, trying to look through. The window shivered; vibrations moved through my skull. I pictured black storm clouds in a black sky, a whole range of inky colors, rising and falling. It wasn’t wind, I thought. It was like whale song, the cries of some enormous beasts some enormous distance away.
I shivered. I’d had this same cold feeling once on a dig in the Yucatan, right before I saw a jaguar stalking our camp. The hind-brain recognized threats before the conscious mind could.
“I think you should move downstairs,” I said slowly.
“Please.” I looked at the attic room, at Aiden. He seemed small and lost in this space, dwarfed beside the window. We’d rigged lights but all they did was cast shadows. Aiden crossed his arms over his narrow chest.
“No. I like this room. I like the window.”
“I don’t think it’s safe.”
“Driving down the street’s not safe,” Aiden said. He sounded tired and bitter.
Maddy poked her head into the room. “I’ve been calling and calling . . . what’s going on?” Suspicion crawled across her features, shifting quickly to anger. “What are you two talking about?”
“Nothing,” I said, just as Aiden said, “The window.”
Maddy glared at me and stomped over beside her brother. “What about it?”
“It’s weird,” he said.
“Weird how?” she snapped.
“I think it goes someplace else,” Aiden told her.
Maddy wrinkled her nose. “Like where?”
“It’s got to be a trick of architecture,” I said, trying for rationality. “No wind outside, but maybe beneath the eaves?”
Aiden didn’t even look at me. “Just someplace else.”
“What’s that?” Maddy asked. She pounced on Aiden’s bed, dragged a book out of the tangle of sheets. I recognized it when she brought it up, and forgot about the window for a moment.
“Oh, the book?” I held out my hand, but Aiden snatched it from Maddy.
“It’s about the house,” he said. “About that window.”
The window loured behind us, black and cold. I thought about that bluster of wind, about the sounds that traveled thinly through the glass. “The book’s about the window?”
“I just started reading,” Aiden said.
I licked my lips. I itched to have the journal in my own hands, but Aiden cradled it close. Maddy shifted to stand at his shoulder. A united force.
“You tell me what you find out,” I said. “And don’t mess with the window.”
• • • •
Aiden delved into the journal with all the fervor of a born-again into the Bible. At first, I was glad to see it—I wanted to know about the window just as much as he did. Was it paint or some special glass that made it so dark? What made the winds—an accident of architecture, or design? I imagined the three of us talking about it, bonding. But though Aiden spent all his time with the journal, he shared nothing with me. When I asked him direct questions, his answers were unsatisfying, and full of covert glances at Maddy. He was talking to her, but not me.
After six meals spent in attempted interrogation, while Aiden ignored me and Maddy rolled her eyes and bitched about the food, I gave up. At least, I gave up asking Aiden. All he’d coughed up was that the window had been in the stables and was moved to the main house after the stable came down.
I decided I’d have to read the journal myself. Easier said than done. Aiden guarded the book zealously. I was determined. I couldn’t let it go. Now that I’d heard the winds behind the black window, I couldn’t stop hearing them.
At night, in my room, the sound crept through my walls, moaning like the spirits of the forsaken. When I wasn’t listening to the window, I was listening to Aiden cry out in his sleep, to Maddy sobbing in the dark.
I was equipped to solve old mysteries. To be a parent? I was ill-equipped, digging without a plan.
When Aiden was out of the attic, I was in it, poking at the window. The glass stayed cold, but when I breathed on it, the glass refused to let my breath touch it. The sounds outside were louder, it seemed, or maybe I was just . . .
The window scared me.
The black window felt like a threat, a looming storm over our heads.
The next time Aiden headed for a shower, I braved the black window’s judgmental eye and tossed his room ruthlessly. I found the journal with my fingertips first—the cracked leather binding, the thick paper, crumbling at the edges—and pulled it out from his pillowcase. I locked myself into my bedroom, journal in hand.
Aiden shouted through the door, but I ignored him. Did him good to get upset about something other than our parents for once. Besides, he’d lied to me when he said he hadn’t read far into the journal. Aiden had bookmarked dozens of pages—the journal bristled with curling scraps of paper. He’d read it through more than once.
Maddy joined Aiden, drawn up the stairs by his unexpected fury, and she added her protests to his. “It’s not funny, Holly!” she shouted. “Give it back. It’s not for you!”
“When I’m done!”
As I read, my outrage at Aiden’s lies turned to a brittle anxiety. Aiden had bookmarked it like a textbook, studied it. And the material was . . . disturbing. Each scrap of paper marked another horrifying entry about the window.
The window had been in the stable. But no one knew who had put it in. The stable hand said it just appeared one night. It had been a mystery, but a benign one.
Until the stable hand disappeared.
The horses shrieked and Annabel fled the supper table, gathering the boys as she went. I followed, quick as my bad leg would allow. I feared fire, but what we found was something peculiar. The horses frothed with terror, and Annabel and the boys hastened to get them to the paddock. I lingered, and when I saw . . . when I understood, I fell back against the doors, numb and bewildered.
Our stables are small, as befit our small family. Eight stalls, eight horses. Yet, the eighth stall had vanished as if it had never been.
Four stalls along one side; three along the other, a smooth expanse of sanded wood where there should be another space, and Edward and Pretty, the spotted mare, vanished along with that eighth stall.
My breath failed as I saw the unaccountable window had not disappeared with Pretty, but moved, closer to the house, settled into the first stall.
I read on; apparently the horses never recovered their nerves and Annabel had the stables torn down, the land given over to a much needed vegetable patch. I checked the date—1942—the midst of World War II, and the homeowner’s bad leg probably a result of World War I.
The pounding on my door stopped.
I flipped to the next bookmark, though my fingers were numb from clutching the book so tightly. The paper fluttered free and I lost the spot.
I browsed roughly, the pages tearing beneath my fingers, scanning the tiny text. The page that I stopped on was a faded sketch of a house plan. I recognized the tower at the end—where we lived now—but most of the page was taken up by the main house. The western wall of the house was marked with a black X. The note alongside it was laconic, a simple—the window is returned here.
I flipped the page, read more crabbed text.
The boys are fascinated by the black window, though Annabel tries to keep them from it, mindful of Edward’s incomprehensible fate. We have sealed off the parlor, much to the relief of the daily girl whose job it was to clean beneath that window’s gaze.
Though we have barred the door, the boys prove most enterprising at finding the key. How many mornings must I drag them out of there? They wait to see how daylight fails to seep through the darkness, and wonder at the shadows untouched by the sun’s rays. Annabel is distressed, nearly to hysterics. She has locked the room once more, and thrown the key away. Perhaps that will be the end of it, and we will, like one of Poe’s tales, have this room bricked in.
The next page dropped a photograph into my lap, showed me the family. Mother, father, two boys about Aiden’s age.
They looked nice, I thought and cringed. There was disaster looming on every page of the journal—the main house gone, the black window moved to the attic.
I opened to the next marked page, close to the end. The handwriting, tidy through all previous pages, was pen scratchings and damaged paper here.
The boys went through the window. I woke this morning certain that something was wrong. Houses become a part of you. Our breath lingers in the halls, our hearts beat in the empty spaces, our nerves search out the measure of our walls like they are our skins. I knew, even as I woke, that the house had changed. It was too empty, too small, too . . . terrible. A silence had crept inside where there should have been boyish voices.
The dining room was vanished. Only a smooth expanse of faded wallpaper remained. The boys . . . I knew they were gone. That they had managed to coax the window open. Annabel came upon me there and screamed. She tore through the house haranguing the servants to “look for the window! The black window!” By the cook’s shrieks, we found it, a black gloss in the pantry, shelves missing where the window had come to rest.
Annabel is determined to retrieve them, and may the good Lord forgive me, but I can not encourage her. The boys are lost to us; I know that. Nothing lives behind that false glass. I have heard the eerie cries, seen the darkness massed behind the window. It is the land of the dead waiting there, and nothing living can abide in it. But she will not be swayed.
I will use the servants’ exodus as cover for our own. I will plunder the house of our possessions; I will send Annabel to the church to pray and prepare for her rescue attempt. While she is out, I will fire the house and see if fire will do what tearing down could not.
The next pages proved that he had followed through, that he had burned down their home, and that Annabel had not forgiven him. She left him in the ashy rubble and returned to her family.
He moved into the ramshackle tower—the only remnant of his home.
I had cause to store all my goods in the attics while the rebuilding occurred—a rebuilding I had no desire for, but the community pitied me and in a paroxysm of civic duty subjected me to a welter of dust and noise, the chatter of strangers who commiserated with me over the loss of my family, and would not see that I had become that most useless of citizens: An old man who wants to be left alone. An old man with a secret.
The black window, you see, returns; it always returns. I have barricaded it behind furniture and hope that left alone, it will sleep. That it will remain unopened.
I closed the journal. I didn’t want to read more; I didn’t need to. So much of Aiden’s obsessiveness made terrible sense. The land of the dead? Aiden was still young enough to believe what was written. And Maddy—she hated me, sided with Aiden no matter what.
Panic broke through me, a lazy roll deep in my guts.
The house was silent. Aiden had stopped yelling at me. Maddy had stopped trying the door handle. When?
Aiden hadn’t wanted me to read the journal. Why?
Because I would stop him.
Would stop them.
But now they knew I knew.
I was on my feet, fumbling with the door latch, the slippery key, the old knob fighting me. I clung to hope. Aiden might be grief-stricken, guilt-mad, despairing, but Maddy . . . she was so angry. She wouldn’t let him go; she’d already lost so much, our parents, her friends, her school, her home . . .
I had climbed rock-strewn hills alongside goats, navigated tight underground caverns with ease, but I made a series of pratfalls as I raced out of the room, toward the attic. Toward the faint sounds that told me I wasn’t too late, wasn’t too late—
Glass cracked like a gunshot. Like a broken window.
• • • •
When I burst into the attic, Aiden was just dropping my wood ax to the floor. Beside him, Maddy held a lumpy woven coil that I recognized—the rope ladder from my field gear.
A silvery crack raced across the pristine blackness of the window, like a zipper pulling apart.
The space beyond moaned, hungry.
“Don’t,” I whispered, breathless. “Please, don’t.”
The window tore. Darkness spilled into the attic, icy and thick as fog banks. Maddy spun and hurled the rope ladder into the darkness. Aiden slipped over the side, vanishing like he’d been swallowed whole.
“We just want Mom,” Maddy said, her voice as broken as the glass. “We want Dad. It’s okay, Holly. You tried.” She slung a leg over the sill.
I forded the room, blackness spreading like ink over my legs, sneakers, ankles, jeans, coiling hungrily around my hips. I caught Maddy’s arm, but she slid from my grasp, sucked out into the eclipsing darkness. My nails left rake marks on her flesh, and her blood spotted the floor between us.
Then they were both gone.
• • • •
I went after them though my legs shook and tears slicked my face. I crossed the sill, and slung myself down the first rungs.
Maddy and Aiden were so young. They believed blindly. If some delusional writer said it, it must be true. It could be built on. The land of the dead? A fact; therefore, our parents would be waiting for them.
The ladder’s rope steps curved and swayed beneath me as I climbed down into . . .
I wanted to think ‘void’ but void suggested emptiness and this place was anything but empty. It was black and cold and so full of dark, broken things that the air vibrated with their passings and collisions. So crowded that I felt my lungs constrict. My bird’s eye view was dark, dark, dark, but there were shapes moving around me, above me, below. And threaded beneath all of that movement, other dark lines. Buildings? Roads? Nothing I understood.
Something bellowed in the darkness, a foghorn burst of loss and hunger, a cry that weakened my bones.
Maddy’s pale hair was an unmoving beacon. My hands and feet were slow to move me down one rung to the next. Maddy clung, shaking, to the ladder. When I reached her, she launched herself at me, holding hard enough to bruise.
“Go up!” I told her. Tried to tell her. The words were torn from my lips and shredded. Nothing human was welcome here. I shoved Maddy upward.
We both looked up, and there was nothing to see, no sign of the window to our world. Her face contorted, terror and fury and betrayal—this wasn’t what she’d wanted.
I had to believe we could escape; I shoved harder. “Go!”
Her lips moved, Aiden, and I nodded.
She climbed slowly, so terribly slowly, and I felt all of that black within the black swooping around us, noticing us . . .
I forced myself downward. Aiden had been just a moment before us on the ladder. He couldn’t be too far . . . Unless he’d fallen.
My throat and eyes burned.
This place felt like it was eating away at my bones from the inside. Some sizzle in the air made my lungs ache. I leaned into the ladder, coughing. I rubbed my face on my wrist and left it smudged black.
I went down.
Hand under hand, foot below foot, I went, swaying through the caustic air, buffeted by cold, fume-laden winds.
I nearly stepped on Aiden’s head, his pale hair coated with black streaks. He clung to the end of the ladder, a flutter of cauterized nylon dangling below us, into an abyss.
He stared down, hypnotized, one foot free. Ready to step off.
Wanting to believe.
His wrist felt like it was in rigor, ice cold and stiff. I recoiled, then seized hold again. He turned his head, slowly registering my presence. His eyes were black holes in a black-smeared face. His lips moved. I thought I saw the word why, the word find.
Below, the darkness shifted, revealing a landscape so inhospitable, the last of my breath went.
Aiden leaned forward, the ladder swaying, shifting with his weight, leaning over the darkness like a lure above black waters. I had one hand locked on his wrist, the other on the ladder. I tried to pull us up even one rung, but he resisted.
It was the final shock, piled on all the others. I couldn’t save him. No matter how desperately I wanted to. I couldn’t drag him up the ladder if he wouldn’t go.
I rested my face against his cold cheek and sobbed, the cries scoured out of my throat. “Please, please, please. They aren’t here. They’re gone. All we’ve got is each other.”
He couldn’t hear me. But he could feel my tears on his skin.
A cold touch on my hair, not a creature passing too closely by, not a gust of that foul, cold wind, but Aiden’s tentative fingers. An awkward pat. Offering comfort.
Aiden’s eyes glittered with tears, damp black streaks on his skin. The first connection I’d made with him since the funeral, and it was over the grief I’d been refusing to let him see.
I had been an idiot.
I pulled at the rung above, staring at his tear-stained face, and after a long, painful moment, Aiden did likewise.
We scaled the ladder, the fabric of it thinning, wearing beneath the constant winds.
We climbed and we climbed, stiff, cold marionettes. We climbed, sobbing and scared. We climbed. Just when I decided the window had vanished and left us stranded, clinging to the ladder, Maddy reached out her hand.
I pushed Aiden through the window, followed after. The attic was creaking and dead around us, the boards gone silver and cracking beneath the dark fogs.
“Hurry, hurry!” Maddy croaked.
We staggered from the attic, down the stairs, and out into the afternoon light. The kids looked like hell, skin grayish, lips and eyes stained black. Twin streaks of blackish blood ran from their noses, their lips. I didn’t feel much better. My nail beds were black and my breathing bubbled.
We huddled against each other, watching the house, watching the attic disappear.
• • • •
We ended up in the hospital for three nights, coughing up blood and bile and something that tasted like machine oil. The doctors were horrified as well as bewildered, though they assured us we were recovering.
Maddy and Aiden refused to leave my side so they found us a room to share. Aiden whispered on our second night, “Do you think Mom and Dad were there?”
“No,” I said.
“But it was dead there. It was the land of the dead,” Maddy said. She sounded like a two-pack-a-day smoker. “The book said so.”
“The book was wrong,” I managed. “I’ve seen humanity in every stage of ruin. There was nothing human over there.” I took a needed breath. “If it was the land of the dead, it wasn’t our dead.” I had been dreaming of what I’d seen, waking shuddering and anxious.
Maddy shivered, fell silent. She should have been the healthiest of the three of us, but the long minutes alone in the attic had done their own sort of damage.
We’d all come out with damage, but I reminded myself of the key part. We’d all come out.
• • • •
Three months later, Maddy and Aiden came home from a field trip and said they’d driven past our old house. They said it was being sold as a one story cottage, and that the front window was black.