Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Fiction

The Floor of the Basement Is the Roof of Hell

The contractor’s name was Terry. He hadn’t been on Candy and Jason’s initial shortlist, but she’d seen his company truck the next block over, at the Martindales’, and copied the number down. Now here they were at dinner, which Terry insisted on paying for since he could business-expense it. Before getting into the particulars of their situation, he introduced himself and his business via a story from his childhood, about dropped nails on his father’s construction projects. For every hundred straight ones he found he would get a dollar, and his father’s workers would get a talking to about carelessness and waste and safety. The guys on-site hated him, Terry said, leaning back from his plate, his glass of wine left, Candy thought, strategically full.

It’s important that potential clients situate him somewhere between a lush and a teetotaler, she imagined. It’s good to have appetites, just, it’s bad to indulge them.

As for his story about the nails, she imagined it was what he opened every sales pitch with, since it established that he A) ran a clean site, B) was in a family business, and C) had once been a cute, adorable kid.

Terry was the second contractor they were interviewing, but the first one to take them out to dinner on his card. In the final analysis, when stacked up against a two-month, seventy-five thousand dollar job—foundation work is neither cheap nor convenient—a dinner somewhere north of a hundred didn’t really amount to much. But it was a good restaurant, Candy had to admit, and it’s not like Terry was hard on the eyes or anything. She and Jason had ordered the salmon, as they’d agreed to do until they looked closer to the thirty they could still remember than the forty they were fast approaching, and Terry had the sugar steak the restaurant was known for, that the kitchen wouldn’t dare cook anywhere even approaching medium well.

She asked Terry how much he’d made, collecting all those guilty nails.

“Gambled it all away betting on kickball,” he said. “Fourth grade was rough.”

So, Candy appreciated: D) a sense of humor as well.

Terry wiped his mouth with his napkin, as if signaling that the banter portion of this was drawing to a sad but necessary close. Time for the business.

What Candy and Jason needed, they explained, was for their two-story house not to crack in half. Evidently a fault line of sorts had developed in the foundation. Jason blamed it on the drought.

Terry nodded about this possibility while chewing his steak. By the way he neither dismissed Jason’s idea nor ratified it with anecdote, Candy could tell he was humoring him. That, in his line of business, he knew every reason a foundation might start to crumble. And none of those reasons had anything to do with a lack of rain.

To save Terry the awkwardness of trying to show some modicum of respect for Jason’s idea, Candy dropped into the story of how, in the sprawling basement, they’d found a gun-safe room that had been on neither the listing nor the blueprint, that the realtor said probably would have upped the appraisal by twenty-five thousand, at least.

“Hidden door,” Jason added, leaning forward as if the neighboring table might be trying to tune this conversation in.

“Probably a panic room,” Terry said, dabbing the corner of his mouth again. “Just doubled-up for the gun collection. Guns weren’t still in there, were they?”

Jason shook his head no.

“Still has a dirt floor,” Candy leaned forward to say, as if this wasn’t information she wanted said too loud.

“Under the subfloor thing,” Jason added, looking satisfied with himself for having known that word.

“Hunh,” Terry said, narrowing his eyes in thought. “That is kind of . . . oh, yeah. It’s unfinished. Of course. The dirt floor makes it count as technically unfinished. When the house was built, the builder was probably instructed to leave it like that, just raw. One unfinished room in a basement means the whole basement is unfinished, as far as property taxes go. Then another crew came in, finished it out under the radar. Know anything about the previous owner? The paranoid type?”

“Short sale,” Jason said with a shrug. “Think it was a foreclosure.”

“No cement in the toilets or anything, right?” Terry raised his hand for the ticket. Before Jason or Candy could say anything about the toilets, Terry added, “That room probably wasn’t floored with concrete because—did you know concrete is exothermic? That means it breathes out all this heat as it dries. If somebody got their work orders backwards, if the walls were already painted, then that concrete, drying, could have peeled the paint back off.”

“Thus, a subfloor,” Candy said.

“Probably sealed,” Terry said, taking what felt like a celebratory first drink from his glass of pinot. “You can spray this . . . it doesn’t matter. Listen, no charge, nothing extra, I’ll go down there, I’ll look into it, make sure it’s nothing you’re going to have to deal with years down the road, right? You want this to be your last big job on the house, don’t you?”

Jason and Candy nodded, did want this to be over once and for all.

“How was the—?” he said, indicating the salmon they’d each taken the fewest possible bites of.

“Flaky, buttery . . .” Jason tried, holding his hand up in the air for the perfect word. “How do you describe fish?”

“Delicious,” Candy proclaimed. “Thank you.”

Terry signed the credit card slip, closed the leather folder back over it, and the next morning, Jason and Candy cancelled the third interview they had scheduled, and signed with Terry.

• • • •

 That night, a loaf of French bread devoured between them at the kitchen island, along with most of a bottle of wine, Candy and Jason celebrated the end of the interview grind by fucking in the hallway between the office and the front living room. The idea was that, if Candy laid back on the pillow Jason had chivalrously retrieved from the bedroom upstairs, then she would be lying directly on a line that bisected the house—the fault line, the crack.

She tied a scarf around Jason’s eyes and told him to imagine he was giving it to the house, and, while he wasn’t looking, she closed her eyes too, imagined there were golden nails scattered all around her, and that they weren’t at all distracting Terry from his thrusts.

Afterward, even though it matched nothing, she arranged that pillow in a corner of the couch. The game between Candy and Jason for years had been that that pillow, left out, was an invitation, a suggestion, a slow lick of the lips.

Never mind that it was the busy season for Jason, that he was out of town again in the morning.

It’s for when he gets back, she told herself. It’s for him to see when he leaves, to make sure he doesn’t miss his flight home. It’s to remind him about just now.

Candy walked along the back of the couch and let her fingertips brush the sticky top of the pillow, and then she happened to look through the ceiling-to-floor front window.

There was a vehicle out there, at the gate, wasn’t there?

Yes. Just a vague shape, the almost-glint of a windshield.

A pickup? No headlights, no dome light.

But trucks don’t ease up and park all by themselves.

Candy walked to the window, could see the truck no better. But, turning back to the house, she could see directly down the hall where the rug was still scrunched up on one side from her grabbing it, to keep from sliding off the fault line.

She pursed her lips in a smile, hoped Jason hadn’t gotten the house pregnant.

She also hoped it had been a good enough show.

She would have to remember to check the outside of that window, for smudges, for smears.

“What has gotten into you, girl?” she said out loud, mischievously. She had an immediate answer for that, too.

Candy smiled, followed the handrail upstairs.

• • • •

The next morning she texted Kath Martindale from the next street over, to ask if it was too early to call. Kath texted right back, and they were talking over their separate coffees a moment later.

What Candy wanted was the scoop on Terry.

“Who?” Kath asked, switching ears with her phone it sounded like.

“Your contractor?” Candy said back. “Looks like the Marlboro Man if he didn’t smoke? I saw his white pickup at your house the other day.”

“A white truck?” Kath said.

“You had your foundation worked on?” Candy prompted.

“Oh, oh, yes,” Kath said. “I let Ben deal with all of that. There isn’t enough Xanax in the world, right? I was at my sister’s for most of it. Have you seen my tan?”

Candy hadn’t, but for the next ten minutes she heard about it, until a knock on the door saved her.

It was Terry, in the flesh. He peeled his sunglasses from his weathered face and scuffed his boots on the welcome mat. Behind him, diesel engines were firing up and a large truck was delivering a port-a-potty. Candy hadn’t considered that aspect of all this. But of course. She couldn’t have men tromping in at all hours of the day for the half-bath by the kitchen.

“Yes?” she said, and then stepped aside to invite Terry in, out of the clamor and bustle of what was now, obviously, a job site.

Dinner Terry had been at home in the elegance of the restaurant, directing the wait staff around without having to say a word. Daytime Terry was at a loss for where to start.

Candy stole a glance down, to be sure her robe wasn’t open. Well, that it wasn’t open too much.

“Jason around?” Terry finally got out.

“He’s probably at cruising altitude by now,” Candy said, tilting her head up into the idea of the wide blue sky. “Can I help you?”

“It’s just,” Terry stammered, “we usually—we assign, or, we ask someone to run point on the project.”

“That’s not you?”

“The homeowner, I mean,” Terry said. “Just for any questions, any decisions, that sort of stuff.”

“That’s me,” Candy said. Then, about the yarn bracelet Terry was wearing, “Your daughter?”

“Son,” Terry said, showing off the bracelet. “My daughter’s still teething.”

“You’re lucky,” Candy said. “Kids, I mean.”

Terry nodded that he was indeed lucky, then Roff, Jason’s oversized poodle, was bustling and barking down the stairs, and Candy had to oversee that big meet and greet.

The procedure, as Terry outlined it, gaining confidence, was designed to be as noninvasive as possible. He instructed her to secure any china in cabinets, as there would be episodes of shaking. There was simply no avoiding that; digging under the house at an angle with heavy equipment was a shaky enterprise—but safe, safe, he guaranteed. He’d never damaged a house in fifteen years.

Candy offered him lemonade. He accepted.

Standing in the foyer, tousling Roff’s curls, he detailed the next step: inserting massive hydraulic jacks under the house, lifting it as few inches as possible—there were waterlines to be aware of—and fitting pylons underneath, to take some of the strain of the house’s weight off the foundation. But that meant carving down deep enough to find some bedrock to anchor those pylons to.

“The basement stairs?” Candy asked. Because those jacks would be under the house proper, not the basement. She pictured the staircase to the basement accordioning out . . . out . . . and then snapping in two.

“On my to-do list,” Terry said, tapping his notebook with the eraser of his wide, flat pencil.

“What about the gun room?”

“That old panic room . . .” Terry said, as if just remembering. “It’ll be fine, of course, but I should check it out. We don’t want to dig too close, collapse a wall.”

“This way,” Candy said, and very intentionally led him down the hall from last night, stopped to step out of her house shoe, straighten that scrunch of rug with her toes. Terry’s face gave nothing away.

Roff bounded downstairs before them into the cold of the basement, and Candy, on the way back to the last door on the right, the one so flush with the wall that it disappeared, explained that they didn’t even know what to do with all this space, all this extra.

“Mother-in-law suite?” Terry said, peering around.

“Not in my lifetime,” Candy said with a chuckle, and then they were there.

“Fifteen by fifteen,” Terry said, standing beside Jason’s weight bench. Besides the mounts on the wall for rifles and shotguns and maybe pistols, the weight bench was the only thing in the room.

“Mind?” Terry said, already feeling along the edge of the carpet by the wall.

Candy stepped back, let him fold the carpet back then find a panel in the subfloor, work it up from its fitting.

“Dirt all right. Come feel, though.”

Candy knelt by him, touched her fingertips to the dirt, not sure what to expect.

It was like the desserts on a restaurant cart: plastic. Fake. Dirt just for show. The look of dirt, but not the feel. Not a grain of soil would dislodge.

“It’s kind of been . . .” Terry said, searching for words, “like, sprayed with superglue. A sealant. Keeps moles and mold back.” He worked a screwdriver up from his pocket, flipped it around to tap the plastic handle onto the hard shell of dirt.

“Oh,” Candy said, drawing her hand up to her mouth for some reason.

“It’s a polymer, should last forever,” Terry said, and worked the subflooring back into place, smoothed the carpet over it. “To be honest, I wouldn’t do a thing to it, other than not think about it.”

Candy agreed one hundred percent.

Still, that night?

She was thinking about it.

Before seeing it, she’d only known about it, from Jason, who had told her he had no idea that was even a thing in the civilized world, leaving bare dirt in a home like that. Seeing the imitation dirt herself, though, that clear crust, that shell—now Candy couldn’t stop thinking about it.

This whole time, it had been right here underneath them? A grubby little imperfection in an otherwise perfect home?

By midnight she was back in Jason’s weight room, as she was calling it. She’d pulled the carpet back, managed to work that panel of subflooring up.

In thriller movies, and in the Poe stories she remembered from a boyfriend or two before marrying Jason, this was always where you buried whoever you’d killed. It didn’t work out, of course, but it was exciting for a while. Especially when the detective would be walking right over the very patch of ground, effectively tamping the grave down with each footstep.

Candy didn’t know anything about who had lived here before. Somebody paranoid enough to hire layers of workers to hide a room. Somebody who had been foreclosed upon. She reminded herself to call Kath, helpful, helpful Kath, about that as well.

She tapped her chin with her index finger and stared at the frozen-in-place dirt. Roff sniffed at it, must not have smelled like anything.

“Well, well, inspector,” she said, and strolled ever so casually right across the dirt.

It wasn’t quite even, but it didn’t give, either.

Candy sat on Jason’s weight bench and wrapped a length of yellow yarn around and around her wrist. It was too long for any kind of sensible bracelet, of course, unless you tied it into a complicated fish tail or something. But summer camp workshops had been twenty years or more ago already. She wasn’t even sure what drawer she’d filched the yarn up from, walking through the house with all the lights on, a glass of red wine in hand.

She inserted one of the yarn’s ragged ends into her mouth, in thought. And then she poured her nail polish remover onto what she was calling the hairsprayed dirt.

Had Jason been in town, had he walked in in his gym shorts, his preppy towel wrapped around his neck like a deodorant commercial, Candy might have told him she was doing this because Terry had said that magic word “polymer,” which had made her think of how the nail salon smelled.

But there was more to it than just a vague association, of course.

When they’d taken possession six weeks ago, they’d been diligent—diligent to the point of pills and lubrication—about christening each room of the house, to prove that they owned it. Toward the end of the process they’d cheated a bit, by starting in one room, moving through another, finishing in a third, up against a wall if there wasn’t any furniture, but still, cheating or no, a crime scene unit would have found proof of them in each and every room.

Except this one. Because they hadn’t found it by then.

Candy knew this was where they should have brought the pillow last night, not the hallway.

But she could make up for it.

In the old days, you christened a ship by breaking a bottle against its hull.

She wasn’t sure exactly how a person might ceremonially welcome hairsprayed dirt into the world—or into a home—but she imagined that it might involve letting that dirt have its first breath of air in years.

And there was nobody there to tell her otherwise.

• • • •

She woke to the walls shaking around her, to dust sifting down from the ceiling.

She was lying by Jason’s workout bench.

Upstairs, Roff was barking at the front door.

Somewhere a plate crashed into tile floor. Then another.

It was starting, then.

Candy worked her arm under her, angled herself up.

Had she really slept here? Of all places?

She stood, unsteady at first.

The vapors had conked her, she decided. Yes, as it was supposed to, the fingernail polish remover had interacted with the hard, supposedly permanent shell over the dirt, but in this closed space, that reaction had had nowhere to vent. So it had had to filter through her lungs, which gave it access to her bloodstream, and the rest was blackout history.

That had to be it.

When the house shook next, it was hard enough that Jason’s weights jingled on the bar. From how this assault felt, Candy assumed the tractor was backing up to the street to get a running start, then throttling forward through as many gears as it could before it slammed into the house. Something along those lines.

She knelt to slide the subflooring panel back in place and timed it poorly—right when the next tremor came.

This one cracked the crust over the dirt in two.

A breath of hot, corrupt air sighed up.

“Oh,” Candy said, standing back, impressed.

This was something.

Without taking her eye from this development, she collected the empty bottle of fingernail polish remover, checked the floor by the bench to be sure she wasn’t forgetting anything, and then she whistled once, sharply, for Roff.

For maybe the first time since his training, he didn’t respond, was having a panic attack about the end of the world he could hear happening right outside the front door.

“Well then,” Candy said, and skirted the dirt and the subflooring panel, stepped out into the hall, sure to close the invisible door behind her.

• • • •

After a quick change of clothes and some general freshening up—tennis skirt, messy bun, eyeliner—Candy edged out the door, careful to keep Roff in, and walked into the noise and clamor. She was carrying a plastic platter of patio glasses, with a pitcher of lemonade set among them like a queen, the glasses already sloshing full.

The diesel engines whined down and six hard hats tilted back on their respective heads.

Candy flounced out among them, eyeing the damage along the way.

They were indeed digging a big expensive hole under her house.

“Gentlemen,” she said, presenting the tray, and six hands took six glasses, then a few of those faces split into a secret smile.

“I don’t see Terry’s truck, do I?” Candy said conspiratorially.

“No, ma’am, you don’t,” one of the men answered.

In the patio glasses—cups really, since they were made of plastic—was Jason’s beer. It wasn’t the same color as the lemonade in the pitcher, but the glasses were foggy green.

“Hot day,” Candy said, and looked up into the sun. It was swimming with worms of flame. She tried to blink it away.

What was happening to her?

What if Jason pulled up now, his meetings cancelled, his flights all early, and saw her out here barefoot, showing this much leg, giving his beer away to men who needed steady hands if they were going to keep the house from crashing down?

“Kath,” she said to herself, just remembering her intentions to call her, and she turned to do just that, stepped on something sharp halfway to the door. She collapsed around the pain.

Ten minutes later she had been hand-delivered to her couch, and Terry was walking in, not smiling.

There were no engines rumbling outside. No great shovels tearing into the earth.

“I apologize,” Terry said, his yellow hard hat in his hands. “They’re all gone.”

“Gone?” Candy said.

“Fired,” Terry said. “One, no drinking on the job, ever, zero excuses. Two—shit.”

He was just now seeing the bloody nail on the coffee table.

He checked his boots, crossed to the couch to inspect Candy’s foot.

She winced away but he caught her calf, was kneeling already.

“We’re not even using nails,” he said, disgusted. “This is an excavation right now.”

“I’m sure it was already there,” Candy said. “The landscapers.”

Terry wasn’t buying it.

“We need to wash it,” he said, and went to the kitchen for water. He stopped at the doorway.

“Those were already broke,” Candy called across to him.

He lowered his head, stepped in—crunched through—ran the faucet, was still running it when Candy stepped in behind him.

He looked over his shoulder, continued wringing the dishrag he’d found.

“You shouldn’t be—” he said, but was interrupted by a white platter crashing onto the tile.

He looked from it up to Candy.

She pushed a white saucer off. It shattered.

Terry turned the faucet off, rubbed his neck with the hand not holding the wet dishrag.

“We needed a new set anyway,” she said, pushing a coffee cup off. A red coffee cup, one of the standalones, not part of any set.

“Our insurance can cover it,” he said, crossing to her, kneeling again, to apply the wet rag to her foot. “Just tell your husband that—”

“My husband isn’t here,” she said, and when he looked up to her about that, all the way up her, time dilated around them. This moment.

She stepped outside of it, kind of saw herself.

Was there any reason to be doing this? Really?

No, she told herself.

Somehow that made it even better.

“Not here,” Terry said into her neck five minutes later, when she had him pressed up against the sink, the window directly behind him like a picture frame.

“I know just the place,” Candy said, and took his hand, led him down the hall, every other footstep on the tile dabbed red. All the way down the carpeted stairs. All the way to Jason’s weight room.

“No windows,” she said, spreading her arms, spinning slowly, losing her clothes.

When the weight bench creaked underneath them, threatening to give—apparently it wasn’t rated for love, or whatever this was—they rolled onto the floor, and Candy’s raw foot pressed against the raw dirt, and that brief grit was just the right thing, just the perfect thing.

• • • •

Kath wasn’t answering her phone.

Terry wasn’t even two minutes gone. She could still feel him.

Candy paced.

Roff was licking up the blood from the tile.

“Good boy,” Candy said, sweeping past.

She couldn’t stop moving, wasn’t sure what would happen if she did.

Things were happening fast, weren’t they?

And: things?

“Cheating on your husband, you mean,” Candy said aloud. “Breaking your flatware.”

Were they more or less equivalent?

They were, she told herself.

It’s not like she’d used the special pillow with Terry or anything.

It’s not like she’d needed it, she added.

Next, an actual blip later, it felt like, she was back in the weight room.

She expected it to smell like sex, but if it smelled like anything, it was just . . . earthen, she supposed. Like the digging outside.

She knelt to rub at a wet place in the carpet with the belt of her robe, and then another place, and then Roff was there as well, helping her.

She sat on the weight bench with her face in her hands, and of course that was when the phone upstairs started ringing.

Candy made a dash, caught it on the fifth ring.

“Thought you weren’t there,” Kath said.

“I was—I was downstairs,” Candy said, out of breath.

“You were downstairs, or he was . . . ?” Kath said.

Candy looked around the room, said, “Jason’s in Philadelphia. Somewhere up there.”

The pause that came next was meaningful.

“I was calling to ask about who used to live here,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“The former owner, you know,” Candy said.

“Oh,” Kath said. “Jim, you mean? The pervert?”

“The what?” Candy sat down.

Kath explained: it never went to court, the allegations, but Jim K-something—Koppel?—had evidently liked to stand around playgrounds, and just watch.

“Maybe he missed his son or daughter,” Candy offered.

“Or maybe he was stocking the spank bank,” Kath said.

“There was an indictment?”

“Everybody knew,” Kath said deliciously. Her, the mom of eight-year-old twin boys. “But then he just pulled the old eject lever—not that one—and, blip, no more Jim Koppel. Probably some country with, you know, a tourist industry more suited to his, ahem, tastes.”

Candy had her eyes closed.

Jason had told her that the mounts in the weight room were for rifles and shotguns and pistols. And they looked like that, didn’t they? She could imagine firearms on the walls down there. A walk-in safe.

But could it have been something else? If so, what?

“Anyway,” Kath went on, “his loss, your gain, right? I’d always wanted you to live closer like this.”

Candy nodded, didn’t know what to say.

“Do I see trucks in your driveway?” Kath asked then.

“Workers,” Candy said. “They’re all fired.”

“Interesting . . .” Kath said. “Even that—what was his name?”

“Terry,” Candy said, then added the necessary “Something like that.”

“I found him in Ben’s house rolodex,” Kath said. “Can you believe I live with someone like that? He has three rolodexes. Business, house, and personal.” Kath laughed, added, “Three that I know about anyway.”

“So he did work on your foundation?” She prayed Kath wasn’t going to repeat foundation in a suggestive way. “I just need it for Jason,” she added, digging in the desk drawer for a pen.

She scratched the info down, Kath still talking into her ear even though the conversation was long over.

“Are you all right, girl?” Kath could have said.

I don’t know, one part of Candy would have said back.

There was another part of her too, though. Now there was.

“Roff!” Candy said, as if he were doing something he shouldn’t be. As if he were even in the room. “Listen, I’m sorry, but my dog, he’s—” and that was how she got the phone hung back up.

She sat on the couch, hugging the special pillow to her chest.

This wasn’t so bad, she told herself. She’d always been pretty sure that what Jason did out of state, that was none of her business. No questions, no answers they would have to deal with. That’s what marriage was. Just, she didn’t travel out of state. So she was having to make do.

That was exactly it.

In Philadelphia or wherever Jason was, he was probably right now sitting down the bar from some tall leggy thing. Some inevitable thing.

Good for him.

Maybe he’d learn some new tricks.

With Terry, just now, Candy thought she might have a thing or two she could apply, when Jason was home.

Without really meaning to or thinking about it or making a decision, she dialed Jason’s number.

It rang and rang.

She didn’t leave a voicemail.

“Roff!” Candy called, then did the whistle the trainer had trained him on.

No clawed feet, slipsliding down the tile of the hallway.

Still clutching the pillow, she searched the house room by room, starting at the top even though it was too hot upstairs for a dog.

Eventually she had to go back downstairs.

The invisible door was open, just like she hadn’t left it.

“Roff?” Candy said.

She carefully turned on every light in the basement. It was so empty down here. Jason had suggested wicker furniture, so he wouldn’t have to carry heavy stuff down the stairs, ha ha. Candy had said she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with this space yet.

And the door at the end on the right was still cracked open.

Candy whistled again, harsher, harder.

Nothing. No dog.

It was just a stupid leftover secret room, right?

Candy stiff-legged it down there, looked in, the light already on.

No Roff.

It still smelled like fresh-turned dirt, not like sex. Which was good. Which was great.

Except.

The crack in the shell of dirt, the slit in the ground, it was . . . it was bulging, now. That was the only word for it.

Like there was pressure down there.

Candy turned the light off, closed the door, and went to the hardware store.

• • • •

She had to get someone from Paint to help her load the bags of concrete onto her flatbed cart. He said he didn’t mind.

“Patio or bathroom remodel?” he asked, trying to look like the bags weren’t heavy.

“Basketball goal for my son,” Candy lied. It came so natural.

“Must be going deep,” he said, throwing the sixth bag on.

“Thanks,” Candy told him, and leaned into the cart’s wide handle, to push, ended up pulling instead, which meant doubling back through Tools.

Another worker loaded it into her SUV, patted the last bag into place, like telling it to stay. As if its weight could possibly shift. Candy tipped him eight dollars, all the cash she had, and drove away. The road looked different, now—the hood of her SUV was in the way, with the back end squatting down.

She turned the radio up. It wasn’t a station she ever listened to, but screw it.

She let off the accelerator halfway home.

The restaurant, the one Terry had wined and dined her and Jason at.

It was a blackened husk.

Candy stopped in front of it.

This must have happened . . . the last day or two, she figured. How had she not heard? Every time a liquor store got knocked over, it made the paper. A snooty restaurant would be front-page material.

Terry would know, she told herself, and looked around, like for the left or right turn that would lead to the road that would lead to the highway that would take her to his place. To wherever he was.

But she’d left his info on the pad of paper on the desk, hadn’t she?

“Shit!” she said, and banged the heel of her hand into the steering wheel.

Terry would also be able to tell her the best way to mix this concrete, too. The directions were there on the bag, but she didn’t think they guaranteed success. There was nothing about covering a hellhole in the surprise room in your basement, say. The one that was less a crack, she had to admit, more a slit. Like it was going to birth something early one morning, while she was sleeping.

She called Kath. Of course.

For once Kath was rushed, which meant she was helpful, could reel off Terry’s address from her weird memory instead of having to paw through Ben’s rolodex again.

Terry’s house was only fifteen minutes away.

His white truck wasn’t parked in the driveway. But there was a minivan with a plastic tricycle wedged under it from the side. Which made sense, Candy supposed, there being a minivan. A family. And it made her aware, too: she’d only been factoring Jason into this dark equation. But that was just her side of the problem. There was also a wife to take into consideration. And a son who liked to tie yarn around his father’s thick wrist. And a daughter, still teething.

Candy closed her eyes, didn’t quite come to a stop. That would be a giveaway. That could prompt questions, whenever Terry finally got home.

She mashed the pedal, turned hard enough that that top bag of concrete, which had been patted into place, told to be good, to behave itself, slid off the pile, impacted the floor of the SUV’s cargo space hard enough that Candy felt it in the wheel.

She was crying a little, she had to admit. It was stupid to pretend you weren’t doing what you were already doing.

That included fucking the contractor.

She hit the steering wheel again, and again, and screamed through her teeth.

• • • •

The basement hall in front of the weight room—the sex room, the cheating room, the room she hadn’t meant to ever find—was swirling with concrete dust.

The garden hose was draping in through the window of what Jason had told Candy had probably been the rumpus room for the last owners.

Candy doubted that, now. Though a pedophile probably would have wanted it to be a rumpus room. Just, he would have his own inflection on that word, “rumpus.”

Candy was mixing the concrete on a dark green tarp. She’d wanted the wheelbarrow, but guiding it down the stairs had gotten immediately complicated. For a stir stick, she’d spun the head off a plunger and coated the wooden handle in shortening. Her pecs and delts and triceps were on fire from all this churning, but she was determined.

She was going to tell Jason that the excavation had cracked open the dirt floor, and Roff had fallen in, and Terry wasn’t answering his phone and she didn’t know what to do so she just did this, okay?

The part about Roff was probably true, too.

She wouldn’t mention anything about her foot having probably bled into there, though.

It didn’t even hurt anymore. Jason need never know about that. And if he saw somehow, then she’d just stepped on a broken plate on the way to get a late night glass of water, and it was the fault of the big diggers again, and neither her nor Jason would have to picture her and Terry, writhing together.

And Candy wasn’t picturing it now, either.

Not even a little. Not his smell, not his breathing, not the pressure of his fingers on her sides.

Candy stirred harder, deeper.

The concrete was like oatmeal made from gravel.

When it seemed to match the consistency recommended on the bag, she tried dragging the tarp over, to lift one side, let the slurry slide over and in.

No doing. If one bag was too heavy, then six at once, with water, was impossible.

When there were no shovels in the shed, no spades in the garage, she finally had to clamber up a tall tire of the big yellow scoop-tractor—her name for it—using the treads for ladder rungs, and liberate a wide wooden plank that had been cut to fit the bottom portion of a window without any glass in it. Candy didn’t understand and didn’t care.

In the weight room—in the hall outside the weight room—she scooped pounds of concrete at a time onto the end of the plank, transferred it into the slit. When the slit seemed to have no bottom, was just going to drink all she had and ask for more, please, she broke up a shoe rack from her closet, laid the planks across the opening in the dirt like scaffolding, plastered the concrete on thicker and thicker, until it was a mound.

It was an hours-long process.

At the end of it, Candy was sheened in sweat. Air circulation sucked down here. Or, no, it didn’t suck at all, that was the problem.

She laughed deliriously, wiped her forehead with the back of her forearm, and stood, had to steady herself on the wall.

It was done. Fixed. Over.

Thank you.

She’d roll the tarp up for the dumpster later. Not the dumpster her and Jason tipped the kitchen trash in, but the big industrial one that had been delivered right after they’d signed on the dotted line.

Just more construction detritus.

Candy was breathing hard, and deep.

Water. She needed water.

She made her way upstairs, was surprised to find it was night time.

She was less surprised to see the outline of a pickup sitting by the gate.

She crossed to the window, couldn’t be sure, so she opened the front door, telling herself she was just going to step out as far as the edge of the porch. There were nails out there, she knew now.

Terry was standing there.

“I was ringing the doorbell,” he said.

“You should—” Candy said. “I can’t—”

“I just wanted to be sure about your foot,” he said.

It made sense, she supposed.

Tetanus, lockjaw, all that.

She walked back inside, left the door open behind her, settled onto the couch.

Terry followed, didn’t close the door behind him.

“I’m sorry about your guys,” Candy said.

“Just let me see,” he said, kneeling in front of her again.

He hadn’t said anything about the obvious signs of her exertion. About the pale dust surely in her hair, in her clothes, in all her creases.

When the light was wrong, he lifted her so easy, to set her more sideways on the couch, the pillow nestling right into the sway of her back.

Candy told herself no, that this didn’t mean anything.

The rough pad of his finger on the arch of her foot sent a shiver through her.

“Sorry I’m so dirty,” she said, hugging the pillow to her stomach, now. Watching him over it.

“I am too,” he said, his index finger pressed between her big toe and the next one.

“I know,” she said, and leaned forward, and Candy didn’t know if this was a second christening of the formal living room or a dechristening, but, in the moment, the door open, the drapes fluttering all around them, the room filled with their breathing, she didn’t much care, either.

• • • •

Candy woke to the sun setting. She was pretty sure that was what it was doing.

Meaning?

The night had passed. And the day as well.

She sat up fast, eyes desperate for the door.

It was closed. The deadbolt was straight up and down, meaning it wasn’t locked—of course it wasn’t; Terry didn’t have a key—but that he’d thought to do that, to protect her from the leering eyes of whatever new crew he was bringing in, that had maybe been there all day already . . . did that count as love?

Close enough.

She showered until her skin was new, and when claws clicked on the tile in the bathroom beyond her foggy door, she said hello to Roff before remembering that Roff was gone.

She opened the door to nothing, to no one.

She closed her eyes, sat on the step in the shower and let her chin shiver.

When was the last time she’d eaten? The last meal she could clearly recall, it was that salmon at the restaurant.

The restaurant.

Wrapped in a towel, having to hold it shut with one hand—against who, she couldn’t imagine—Candy opened her laptop in the bedroom, dug into the newspaper’s headlines. When she didn’t have a subscription, she bought one, who cares.

There was nothing for the last three days, then nothing for the last week. Finally she just searched up “restaurant” plus “fire.”

It had gone up four months ago.

The photo gallery could have been from yesterday.

Candy shut the laptop, made herself breathe deep and calm.

She was mistaken. That had to be it. She was mistaking one place for another place. It had been dark when they got there, hadn’t it? And—and Jason had made that stupid joke, about how no cars in the parking lot meant they would be getting good service.

It hadn’t seemed odd, though.

Why hadn’t it seemed odd?

Oh: because then Terry’s white pickup had pulled up alongside them, so he could usher them in.

There had been other diners, she was pretty sure. Almost certain.

There had been the clatter of silverware in the darkness. The rustle of napkins on laps.

And, their waiter . . . Candy had assumed Terry had a rapport with him. Something like that. It was because, instead of speaking, Terry had pointed to his steak on the menu, and then, after Jason had decided on the salmon for him and Candy—not a decision at all—Terry had pointed to the menu again for the waiter.

A language barrier?

And it had been good, hadn’t it? For fish? For healthy stupid normal fish?

Candy felt it rising in her throat. She turned to the side, kicked the trash can over just in time to splash her stomach’s contents down into it.

It was nothing. It was pink bile and clear juices and some grainy stuff. Probably concrete, Candy figured, and had to laugh about it, because otherwise she was going to cry and cry and cry.

Shouldn’t Jason be home by now? How long was this trip? What floozy was he shacked up with?

She didn’t know where that last thought had come from, exactly. Floozy? Was that even in her vocabulary?

She felt around for her cell, touched Jason’s face, let a line open between them.

Voicemail.

Candy hung up, was afraid what her mouth might say, how it might betray her.

We’re going to need to do the front living room again, dear.

Your dog is dead.

There’s a hole opening up under our house.

But . . . but there wasn’t anymore, right?

Candy pulled on some clothes, stepped into her house shoes, and made her way downstairs, turning on each light as she went, and waiting for it to fully glow on before she submitted to crossing its expanses.

You’re being stupid, girl, she told herself.

You’re guilty, so you’re spooking yourself out as punishment.

Before going downstairs, she stopped to roll open the breadbox, pull out a corner of the French bread Jason had been pinching off, to feed her . . . how many nights ago?

She was watching the windows, the corners, so she didn’t see the bread before she put it into her mouth, and she didn’t spit its fuzziness back out until she was on the stairs down to the basement.

Green. Mold.

She gagged again, didn’t have anything to throw up.

Had she been asleep on the couch for two days?

The lights in the basement were all still blazing. It was like stepping into a tanning bed. Candy squinted but didn’t turn any of them off.

The basement door was still shut as well.

All was in order.

Candy repeated that to herself: this is all normal, this is all perfectly all right.

It wasn’t.

She creaked the invisible door open—did it used to creak?—and, in the weight room, the lights were off.

A wall of hot air breathed out across her.

She stepped back, let it pass, spread out, then she felt in for the switch, clicked the light on. It sputtered, caught.

The concrete was still there—her first fear had been that it had been swallowed, like Roff—but the slit in the dirt, it had bulged more under the concrete, it looked like. There was an opening in the concrete, now. It made the concrete look like puss.

And it was so hot. What had Terry called it? Exo-something?

Exo-hot was what it was.

Like the sex they’d had down here had kept happening. The walls were sweating with it.

Candy stepped forward to touch one, her house shoe squelching into the outer edge of the concrete. It was supposed to be rock, but her house shoe stuck.

She stepped back, her shoe staying, and retrieved the crusty plank she’d stolen from the yellow tractor. She pushed its other end into the thickest part of the slurry of concrete she’d slathered onto the broken pieces of her shoe rack.

It was still soft.

She shook her head no, stepped back, her hand finding the wall, her fingers coming away from that contact with . . . paper?

Terry had been wrong about one thing at least: concrete drying wouldn’t peel the paint in the weight room. It would peel the wallpaper.

Under the wallpaper there was just light gray sheetrock.

Candy felt an edge out, pulled it all down in disintegrating clumps, the tearing not sounding like tears. The air was too damp in here for that, too moist, too thick. The gun mounts stayed in place, each standing now on a small pad of wallpaper. Like erections, Candy thought, and giggled. It wasn’t good giggling. She was out of crying, though. She was running out of a lot of things. This week was hollowing her out, leaving her empty. Soon she would just be a face, nothing behind that face.

She started to back out through the doorway but caught on some writing on the sheetrock. In the lightest pencil.

It was some drywaller’s scratch pad. A math problem, measurements tallying up here where no one would ever see.

And at the next join there was another math problem. And lower, like—yes—like this piece of sheetrock had been written on while it was laying down somewhere. Probably the family room out there.

The next measurement was upside down, proving her theory, and then, back around by the doorway, where she could already see the last equation taking shape in slanted-gray numerals, there was something else, way down by the baseboard like a secret.

asmod

But it broke where the drywall stopped.

Candy stood, focusing all over the weight room at once, tracing the joins with her eyes. Most of them had been mudded over, or whatever they called it. But high up on the wall, upside down again, behind Jason’s weight bench he’d had since college, the word maybe completed.

eus

Unless there was a missing part in the middle.

Candy licked her finger, rubbed the letters.

They smudged into nothing.

She nodded that that was good.

She was still in control. All this could still be dealt with, swept under some rug.

She went off to find that rug.

• • • •

It was at Kath’s, Candy was sure. Ninety percent certain.

Not a physical rug, but advice.

Candy was going to spill to Kath about all of this. She wasn’t going to censor or edit. That was always the problem: people in trouble A) never ask for help, and B) when they do, they always try to tell the story which makes them sound the least culpable.

Candy was culpable as hell, and she knew it.

She hadn’t had to open her robe for Terry.

At the same time, he hadn’t had to run his hand up under it.

Candy wondered if she even knew herself anymore.

And maybe Kath would have something to eat, too. If Candy could tell her the whole sorry affair without breaking down, and be honest about it, throw herself at Kath’s feet and ask for guidance, for help, then maybe Kath would light a torch, show Candy the way out.

So far the only thing that had really been lost was Roff, and some plates.

And Jason was going to be so distraught about Roff that he probably wouldn’t even notice if Candy’s right hand was still sticky with Terry.

We can use that, Kath would tell Candy. And then pass her a dishrag.

But—Candy shook her head no, turned into Kath’s long driveway.

The writing on the wall in the basement, that didn’t mean anything. It didn’t factor in at all. What mattered was what Kath could help with. Kath who, two years ago, had stepped out on Ben and still kept the marriage together somehow, when Ben had even walked in on them at what, in Kath’s whispered retelling, was both the best and the worst moment, depending on where you were standing, or not standing.

So, if anybody could help her, it would be Kath.

Candy braked hard, left the door of her SUV open like an announcement to Ben that this was emergency stuff, and walked into Kath’s without even bothering to knock, like always.

The house smelled . . . not bad, but like the dining room in Candy’s parents’ house: like dust. Like it hadn’t been walked through in ages.

“Kathy?” she called, half-imagining she was about to walk in on Kath with whoever her next not-Ben was.

The downstairs was empty, though.

She gripped the handrail on the way upstairs, announcing herself the whole way with both Kath and Ben’s names.

Nothing. No one.

Even in the master bath.

Except . . . the bathtub had a blanket spread over it?

Candy stood before it for a full two minutes.

“Kath?” she said at last.

The surface of the blanket didn’t rustle.

Candy was breathing hard now, shaking her head no, her fingers clutching the lip of the sink behind her.

“I just talked to you,” she said to the blanket, at which point a bird or a squirrel fluttered or scampered outside the window right above the blanket and Candy startled, knocked Kath’s perfume rack onto the floor.

Some shattered, some rolled.

Candy, barefoot again, had to step between the shards.

Halfway down the stairs, she couldn’t help it: she ran.

In her SUV she held onto the wheel until she could stop hyperventilating.

Terry.

Terry, then.

It didn’t matter if his wife answered the door.

• • • •

The deal Candy made to herself, sitting outside Terry’s house, was that however these next few minutes went down, she was going to check in to a hotel immediately afterward, she was going to order everything room service had, and she was going to stay there and recuperate, recover, deal.

Now that there was no dog to feed, she could do things like that.

It’s not like Jason didn’t have enough reward or loyalty or whatever points. She could probably stay there a year before it cost anything.

Also? Screw the money.

Satisfied with her plan, she stood from her SUV, closed the door this time and beeped the lock, made fists by her legs for the walk up to the front door.

She was the other woman now. And she looked like boiled shit, she knew. Would that make it better?

She confabulated on the way: the digging outside her house, it had, it had messed up a water line, it had sprayed her in the kitchen, her house was a mess, Terry wasn’t answering his phone.

That would work. Another woman would sympathize with an exploded kitchen, wouldn’t she? She would have to.

The doorbell didn’t pull any moms with kids on their hips up from the depths of the modest home, though.

Neither did a second ring.

And, this time, the door was locked.

Minutes too late, Candy noticed that the minivan was parked in exactly the same place, with the same plastic tricycle wedged under it from the side.

But it had only been a day, right? No, two days. Or three.

Candy stepped timidly out onto the lawn, cupped her hands around her eyes to see through the front window, into the living room.

Nothing. No one.

But, with the minivan here, and Terry’s truck just having a front seat, where could a family of four be?

Candy let herself into the backyard, stood on a storage bin, peered into another window.

A kid’s bedroom. A boy, it looked like.

She stepped down, went deeper.

The sliding glass door was open.

She shook her head no but went in all the same. Because she had to see. Because not seeing would be miles and years worse.

There was a splash of what had to be blood across the television screen.

It was dried black.

And the smell.

Kath’s house had just smelled unused.

This was different.

And, now, Candy knew where to go.

In the bathtub, the blanket sloughing off, were three bodies. Mom, son, daughter.

It looked—no no no!—it looked like big hands had tried to playfully stuff the daughter back into the mother.

Candy fell back against the wall in the hall, some picture dislodging, falling to the ground, a single crack of glass resounding.

She left by the front door, sure to lock it behind her.

She was snuffling, crying, even though this was worse than crying.

Terry, he—he wasn’t Terry. Or, he was, but he wasn’t. He was something. He was wrong. He had done this. He was doing this.

Candy stepped calmly into her SUV, locked the doors, and screamed and screamed, rubbed her cheeks with her hands until they burned.

At which point her phone dinged once, a voicemail.

“Surprise,” Jason said, talking low like he was in a crowd, “got home early, will be there in five, four, three, two . . .”

Candy pulled the phone away, thumbed for the timestamp.

Five minutes ago.

He was in a cab. That’s how he always talked, sure the driver was trying to tune in his every word.

She dialed back desperately, but Jason never answered when people were around.

She felt like she was melting. Like she was falling apart, crumbling into herself.

Her shoulders hitched once but she didn’t let it get any further, into a real collapse.

Jason.

She dropped the SUV into gear.

• • • •

The front door of her house was open.

The yellow cab Jason had taken was still there. It was under the heavy shovel of the big yellow tractor. The driver had tried to dive out. He hadn’t made it.

The back door on the passenger side was open.

Candy turned her SUV off.

Feet numb, face cold, she picked her way through the construction mess, watching the ground closely enough that the blue port-a-potty suddenly beside her was startling. The door yawning open was what had made her look up.

No one was creeping up on her, though.

Everybody in there, all six of them, they were dead. This was the crew Terry had fired.

Candy shut her eyes, balled her hands into fists and pushed past, opened the front door and walked into her house. Terry leaned back from the kitchen. He was wearing Jason’s apron.

“Oh, hey,” he said, going back to whatever he was doing. “Thought it might be you.”

Candy scanned the front living room, the hall.

No Jason.

“You’ve probably got a few questions, don’t you?” Terry said.

He was cutting vegetables?

“Jason?” Candy said, her voice not quite shaking.

“In the shower,” Terry said, and when Candy rushed ahead to dash upstairs, Terry’s meaty hand clamped onto her upper arm. “He’s okay,” Terry said, “really. Promise. Demon’s word of honor.”

Candy pulled away from him—he let her pull away from him—and looked up to his face, his normal human face. “D-demon?” she said.

“Just a name,” Terry said, batting the word away with the knife he was still holding.

“You’re . . . you’re Asmod,” she said, digging the writing up from the weight room wall. The panic room wall.

“Keep going, keep going,” he said, intent on the carrot he had.

“Deus,” Candy completed. “Asmodeus.”

“Ah, yes.” Terry leaned back to let the name wash all down him. “You never realize how much you might miss your own name being said, do you?”

“You were—you came up from the hole,” Candy said.

“Not quite,” Terry said, tut-tutting that with his knife. “I was having a good old time in Mr. James Kempel, child molester extraordinaire. But then he found that room, and locked himself in. Decided he would rather starve than do it again. Some people, right?”

Candy shook her head no. Her hand was in her pocket, trying to dial 911.

“But you let me out when you opened that door,” he continued. “Well, when good old Jason boy did. But you had so much more potential, didn’t you? That’s what it’s all about, potential for . . . for fun.”

“The restaurant,” Candy said.

“Ding ding ding,” Terry said, cocking his head upstairs, like hearing something beyond what Candy could. “I had to dispose of good old Jimmy boy somehow, right? Waste not, want not. I think I read that somewhere.”

“You didn’t eat the fish,” Candy said, her voice dial-toning out. Like her mind.

“Fish and me don’t get along,” Terry said through thinned lips, punctuating it with a slice to the tomato he’d rolled onto the cutting board. “Not that what sealed the deal for you was exactly fish, of course . . .”

“What about him?” She tilted her head upstairs.

“Let’s finish with you first, shall we?” Terry said, suddenly right up against her, his hands feeling through her hair at the base of her scalp, his other hand to her hip like he knew it. Which he did.

Candy punched what she was pretty sure was the final digit on her call, hit what had to be Send.

A moment later, Terry’s front pocket buzzed.

“Oh, sorry,” he said, raising a finger for her to wait.

He brought a phone up to his ear, said in exactly Kath’s voice, “Oh, oh, Candy? Yes, well, as you know, I’m just rotting in that tub I insisted Ben would like. And guess what? I think he does like it, can you believe it?”

He dropped the phone. It cracked on the floor, rattled away.

Candy swallowed the lump growing in her throat.

Her face was hot now. Behind her cheeks, she was crying.

“Let him go,” Candy said, about Jason. “You’ve got me.”

Terry stepped back, regarded her from this angle, from that angle, the fingers of his right hand to his chin as if he was in deep thought. Important thought.

He shook his head no, finally.

“Nothing against you, of course,” he said, setting the knife on the island to look in the refrigerator for something, “but, Jason boy offers . . . I still have some unfinished business, from when I was Mr. James Kempel!”

He said the name like an announcer on a gameshow might.

“You just don’t have all the necessary equipment,” he added, shrugging about this sad fact.

“I won’t let you,” Candy said. “I’ll warn him.”

“You’ll call him?” Terry said, waggling another phone up from a different pocket. Jason’s phone.

“Ja—!” she started, didn’t get to finish.

From across the kitchen, Terry had somehow pinched her lips shut, was pinching her lips shut, his fingers miming just that in the air by his head.

“I did appreciate the lard on that plunger, though,” he said. “That showed ingenuity. It kept it from sticking to the mix, didn’t it? I don’t think a man would have thought of that. As proof? A man never has thought of that. Until . . . let’s say tomorrow? It’s given me an idea, once I’m more, more inside your dear hubby. More at the controls. And making certain visits around the neighborhood, shall we say. And the . . . I don’t know. The playground?”

“He’ll never let you,” Candy tried to say.

Terry heard it all the same.

“But I’m cooking his favorite meal,” Terry said, wowing his eyes out like a cooking show host. “Dine with the devil, it leaves a string inside you. One I can pull. And, I think, yes, it’s almost ready. Time! I need to get him down there. I don’t think I can trust dear old you to not warn him, so . . . yes, I’ve got it.”

What Candy expected was for Terry to call upstairs in her own voice.

Instead, he cut a sharp whistle. Roff’s whistle.

The dog padded into the room, leaving bloody footprints.

“Who’s a good boy, who’s a good boy?” Terry said, and, on cue, Roff’s tail flopped back and forth and he barked once.

“Roff?” Jason called from upstairs. Meaning he’d already been missing him.

“It’s like we think of everything, isn’t it?” Terry said, batting his eyes coquettishly and, with two fingers, touching Candy’s left shoulder to nudge her sideways, away from the bottom of the stairs, away from where Jason was about to be.

She could hear his footsteps on the landing now.

Roff stepped to the bottom of the stairs, to keep Jason’s eyes there.

Candy bounced, unable to step forward. She could only go back. Her first thought was to circle around, come at Jason from the formal living room. But there was no time.

Instead she edged sideways, into the kitchen.

And—Terry. Where was he? Was he even here?

“Mmph, mnph,” she said, straining to make a sound, to get Jason to see her, anything.

And then, yes, she was in view!

She looked up to Jason, coming down fast.

Terry was right behind him, smiling, leaning in.

Candy jumped to the side, into the island, and flopped her hand up enough to get at the knife handle. Because it was too heavy somehow, she lowered her face to its blade, slit her mouth open, screamed in the instant, “No! You can’t have him! 

Both Terry and Jason looked up to her.

“I’m sorry,” Candy said, and stepped forward before Terry could stop her, plunged the knife into Jason just below the sternum, and then carved up, for the heart, or whatever she could find.

Jason made his mouth into the first shape of a question, one that was in his eyebrows just the same, and then he folded around her, hugging her.

His insides were warm.

Candy looked down over his shoulder, down his back.

Roff was still sitting there like a good boy, his tail wagging.

She turned her face to Terry, two steps up the staircase, his hands neatly behind his back.

“A little more slashy than I was going for, but I’m sure we can still save some portions,” he said, and caught Jason right as he was falling, pulled him and the knife away from Candy.

There was nothing to say.

He hadn’t had her, not all the way. Not until now. Not until this.

She’d eaten the fish named Kempel in the restaurant that was burned, and she’d stepped outside her marriage, but none of that was unrecoverable-from. All of it could be, Candy thought, undone.

Except this.

She sat hard back onto the second step, watched Terry haul Jason up onto the island and lean in, bite the tongue up. It stretched, stretched, and then Terry reached under, popped the white string under the tongue with the knife. The tongue stretched longer, until Terry sawed through it.

He tossed it to Roff. Roff sucked it down, his tail a blur.

Then Terry went to work on the butchery part of the night, completely disregarding Candy.

“Can I?” she said, tilting her head back down the hallway, and he dismissed her.

She walked past the bathroom, went downstairs. To the weight room, the gun room, the room she wasn’t going to panic in. That was all past. It was too late for any of that.

There was only this left.

Using the plank, she guided the slurry of concrete to the side, exposed the slit in the dirt again. It was still bulging.

You can start over, she told herself.

You can do it all again, better.

With that, she stepped in, moved side to side to work herself down, until, when she looked up, there was just a slash of light overhead. One already sealing itself back.

In the darkness a male voice asked her how old she was, and she closed her eyes, let Jim Kempel’s fingers probe her face, her shoulders, the rest of her. For all time.

It was a nice house, she thought.

It had been a nice life.

Until.

Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones is the author of sixteen novels and six story collections. Most recent are Mapping the Interior, from Tor.com and the comic book My Hero, from Hex Publishers. Stephen lives and teaches in Boulder, Colorado.