Copyright © 2016 by Michael Kanuckel
Lady Silver was just about to close up shop for the day when the little silver bell behind her front door jingled. The bell did more than jingle the brittle, musical note it usually sent out through the dark, woodsy-smelling storefront; it jangled as if in a storm. The door slammed open as if in a gale, striking the wooden chimes, metal charms, and dreamcatchers hanging from the wooden beams of the ceiling.
Lady Silver’s green eyes narrowed. Even in this day and age, she heard stories all the time about religious nuts and other garden-variety whackjobs who attacked fortune tellers and gypsy camps and freak shows: usually it was nothing more than a little vandalism and intimidation, threatening remarks and cans or rocks thrown from a speeding pickup truck…but sometimes she heard stories about gang rapes, and mutilations- even murder. Lady Silver slipped her pale hand underneath the table where she read the cards and rolled the bones, resting her long, slim fingers on the grips of a .38 automatic kept in a cheater’s clutch strapped to the underside.
She almost pulled it out and shot her visitor on sight, when he stumbled into view.
He was a little too tall and a little too thin, pale as a fish that had spent a lifetime swimming in waters buried under a mountain. Hectic color stood out on the gaunt cheekbones of his face. His hair stood up in wild corkscrews. His hands trembled. Lady Silver’s visitor looked insane, and he also looked like a used-up old man with everything eaten up from inside him by some cataclysmic illness or a lifetime of misery. His eyes didn’t look old though; no, his eyes looked crazed but vitally alive, so blue that they almost seemed to glow- his eyes made it look like there was a storm raging inside of his mind, streaks of lightning flashing in the orbs so often poetically referred to as the “windows of the soul.”
The gaunt visitor stopped at the curtains that divided Lady Silver’s private reading room from the rest of the shop, where there were distressed-looking shelves that were actually brand new loaded with the same old snake oil her kind had been selling since time out of mind: herbs for vitality; scented oils for relaxation; charms to ward off evil or bring everlasting love; potions for a woman to get a child in her womb, or for a man to be able to put one there. Along the way books, vitamins, and CDs had joined the old standbys, self-published self-help books and dietary supplements that sounded scientifically proven and tested but were just the same old thing as the herbs and tinctures. It was all just trash, quick money hoaxes for the rubes. Lady Silver believed in cash, not magic. She knew what she was. She just hoped she wasn’t about to die (or kill) over the con game she’d made into a career.
The gaunt man swayed visibly as he stood there, one skeletal hand reaching out to grab a fistful of the green velvet curtain hanging around the doorway. He seemed to have one foot beyond the veil of the mortal world, but his eyes still threw sparks as he stared into hers.
“Do you do hypnotism?” the gaunt man asked.
Lady Silver leaned back in her seat, face set with a smile on her full lips and a sparkle from the electric candles flickering throughout the room shining in her emerald eyes. Her hand dropped away from the hidden gun beneath the table and instead went to the waistband of her skirt; skilled as a close-up magician, she pulled down on the front of her white blouse until the fabric revealed the tops of her white breasts; her own mother had told her that the more a man could see, the more open his wallet became.
“Is very dangerous,” Lady Silver said, laying on her throatiest Eastern European accent. “There is much risk, ven dealink with matters of ze mind.”
The gaunt man stepped fully into the room. Stumbled in, really. His face dripped sweat, and he stank; he stank like the men Lady Silver sometimes brought into her tiny upstairs apartment when it had been a bad month and the rent was coming due. “Cut the carny bullshit,” he said. “I know how hypnotism works- it’s really nothing more than a reinforced suggestion of something the subject would do on his own anyway. The hypnotist just nudges him. Now, do you do it or not? I don’t have a lot of time.”
“What is it that you want?” Lady Silver said, ditching the sexy spy accent.
“I need to go someplace in a dream,” the gaunt man said. “Someplace I used to go all the time when I was a kid, but now I can’t dream my way there anymore. I need you to nudge me onto the path.”
“You want to be hypnotized so you can go somewhere in a dream?”
“Yes!” the gaunt man said. “Now, can you do that or not? I’ve tried, I’ve been trying for weeks, and nothing works. I’ve lost the way in, and time is running out, and no one will help me because they say I’m wrong, that she can’t be lost in a dream, she’s kidnapped or most likely dead, but they don’t know. I’ve got to go and fetch her before it’s too late!”
Lady Silver shook her head, huge gold hoop earrings jangling against the charm necklace draped over her collarbones. “Who?” she said. “Where?”
“My niece, Molly,” the gaunt man said. He pulled out the chair across the table from Lady Silver’s, legs scraping along the bare wood floor with a high shriek. Outside, thunder rumbled so nearby that it seemed to shake the world. The gaunt man fell into the chair, his blue dress shirt gone grey with sweat. “She’s lost in Hundo House and no one knows how to get there but me and I can’t find it anymore, and no one else can save her.”
“Mister,” Lady Silver said. “This all sounds real crazy. Why don’tcha just go ahead back where ya came from an leave me be, okay?”
“I know it sounds crazy,” the gaunt man said. He ran shaking hands through the greasy strands of his hair, making it stand up in crazy blonde porcupine needles. “I know that, but there’s nothing else for it. She’ll die. Please!”
Lady Silver pursed her lips, sitting back in her velvet-backed seat and trying to look into the heart of the stranger across from her. She could read people; she’d learned how from her mother, who’d been a master of cold reading and channeling spirits from the other side for the dumb hicks who came to her tent at the various county fairs she traveled to in a cross-country circuit. Finally, she nodded. “All right,” Lady Silver said.
The gaunt man smiled, revealing a ghost of the regular (and fairly good-looking) man he must have been before this calamity fell on him like a collapsed wall of cinder blocks. “I knew you would be the one,” he said. “Thank you. Alecks is my name. You won’t believe this,” Alecks went on, his smile widening, “but my mother’s name was Silver.”
The Lady Silver smiled back. “Small world,” she said.
At this, the smile on Alecks’s face fell away. “It can be,” he said. “It can be. And other times it can be so big that there’s no way to escape it.”
The first time he went to Hundo House, it was only a dream and he was very young. He opened the door to his bedroom and found not the short, narrow hallway with the bathroom door off to the left and the light from the kitchen glowing ahead of him like a lamppost in a dark alleyway, but instead a set of stairs going up. He knew the stairs, Alecks did; they were the leaning old stairs leading up to the second floor of his aunt and uncle’s farm house, way out in the country. That house had collapsed when Alecks was only two, and he really had no business even remembering it, seeing as how his mother had only taken him there three times, but there the stairs stood, and he knew them. Bemused and seeing no reason to be frightened, he climbed the stairs. At the top of the landing, he could see the morning sun glowing through the milky panes of a window. He came to the top of the stairs and found a long hallway leading off to the left and the right: to the left, the wooden floor turned into weird round stones (he had no idea what cobbles were at the time); to the right, the hallway was lined with mirrors and colored glass that made prisms of rainbow color dance across the floor. He went along the colored way and came to another door, a heavy door with a cut crystal knob bigger than his fist and an old iron key hanging from the lock-plate. The young Alecks bent down and peered through the keyhole. On the other side he saw a garden path bordered by tall green hedges and a fountain, clear water bubbling forth from the mouth of a stone lion. He used the key to open the door, and when he swung the heavy wood away the garden was gone and he was on a silent merry-go-round, spinning sedately round and round. And then he woke up.
That was the first time he went to Hundo House, which was what he called it when he told his mother about it. Silver had been going through a dreams phase, that fall of Alecks’s fourth birthday. Every morning, while she made herself scrambled eggs and toast and some waffles for him, looking impossibly beautiful in a shaft of morning sun that turned her hair into a halo of flame, the strap of her slip falling from her tiny, freckled shoulder, she would turn to him and say, “Any dreams, Al?”
“I dreamed of Hundo House,” he said that morning, as his mother bent over him to cut up his waffles, filling the world with her perfume.
“Hundo House, huh?” Silver said, amusement dancing in her blue eyes. Most of the time, she was happy when Alecks answered her at all; he hadn’t said a word until he was three, and Silver’s mother and the pediatrician both tried to convince her that the child was mentally retarded in some way. Now he spoke, after his own fashion, and his voice was the best music in the world.
Alecks nodded his head. “Yep,” he said. “It started out as my room, but then I open the door an it was some else place. It’s a house with a hundo rooms, all of ‘em different.”
“Hundred, darlin,” Silver said, smiling down on him. In the next room, someone snored and rolled over noisily on the couch-bed, a string of unintelligible syllables that were almost words darkening the air, and Silver’s smile faded like a flower starved for water. “Sounds like a neat place, all right,” she said, but her voice was too light and too sharp. “Weren’t ya afraid of getting lost in there?”
Alecks only shook his head, spearing at the chunks of waffle on his plate with the pudgy little fork he was allowed to use all by himself. “Nope,” he said. Syrup glistened on his chin, turned to amber by the morning sun streaking through their dirty kitchen window. “Can’t get lost. It’s my house- I got the key!”
He had the key, but it wasn’t there whenever he wanted it; the key was there when he really needed it. Like the first day of real school, kindergarten at Roland Elwood Elementary. All summer, he dreaded going. Preschool was a lot of fun, but that was only three hours a day and there were no teachers- only helpers. The children played and laughed, and sang some songs and took their first uncertain steps along the path of academia by singing the alphabet song and about the wheels on the bus going round, round, round. But now things were serious; now there was a teacher with an unsmiling face and a cold, stiff body that did not promise hugs or handholds on the way to the bus. That first day, when the teacher announced that it was time to go to the bathroom, Alecks and all the other boys filed down the tiled hall together and went into the bathroom together. While the teacher stood at the door, the boys all went together and stood in front of the urinals, lifting up their shirts and dropping their pants to pee. Alecks felt disgusted by the idea of doing that; bathroom time was private time. “I don’t have to,” he told the teacher. She frowned at him, but said nothing. Just after lunch Alecks did have to go, but was too afraid to hold up his hand and say so. The teacher might make all of them go together again, and stand there and watch them go. I can wait, he told himself. I’ll wait and go at home. And then came the incredibly hot gush of urine in his new jeans, spreading across his groin and down his leg. Alecks sat, terrified and silent, and thought that maybe he could make it until the bell and then run. But the teacher noticed, sniffing the air as she passed him by and making a disgusted little squawk when she saw the puddle by his feet. And all the other children laughed, and Alecks would never have a friend among them.
That night, Hundo House was there.
Hundo House was there less and less as he grew up, replaced at around the age of eleven by more mature dreams, dreams of grateful girls whom he saved from attackers in alleys and bullies in the hallways of school, dreams of teachers who knew how he felt about them and wanted him to know that it was all right. Dreaming became a more and more sporadic event for Alecks and, as he entered his teenage years, he rarely dreamed at all and only very rarely remembered anything about the dreams. Alecks went to work at his first part-time job when he was fifteen, twenty-five back-breaking hours a week of unloading trucks down at the pack-and-parcel warehouse for six bucks an hour, so that he would help his mom; mom had finally forgotten how to dodge bullets and come up pregnant- Alecks’s baby sister Justine. Life was hectic, frantic, and Alecks didn’t sleep as much as he slipped into the black waters of unconsciousness every night.
The years went by. Alecks grew up, his sister grew up, their mother died, and the boy he used to be, barely hanging on by a thread at this point anyway, shriveled up and died along with her. He had his work, his tiny apartment, and his books. Justine went on to a happy life with a wonderful man, they had a baby- Molly Mina Hartwell, the tiny little light in all of their lives. Molly started talking before she was two; she learned to use the toilet not long after; she loved to walk in the wooded park near her house, and sing, and make up stories. Molly had quite the little imagination, everyone said so. Justine told Alecks that her precious little girl had very vivid dreams, that sometimes she could hear Molly in her bedroom, talking and laughing in her sleep. When she started school, all of Molly’s teachers adored her.
Molly had just turned seven.
Molly had just disappeared.
“She’s nowhere,” Alecks said to Lady Silver, lying back on the leather sofa in the back corner of the private reading room. “There was a search, police, volunteer groups…nothing. The cops turned my sister’s life upside down, grilled her and her husband both- accused him of awful things that make me sick just to think about. They did it with me, too.”
Alecks could still remember the hot, tiny room the police had put him in. “Just a few routine questions,” the detective had said; but once they had him in there all they wanted to know, the pair of sweaty, blotch faced pigs in their dress shirts with the sleeves rolled up to reveal muscular forearms covered in military tattoos, was what he had done with her. What he had done, how many times he’d done it, where he took her, why he killed her. “Your own niece,” the fatter of the two would say, lighting cigarette after cigarette and blowing smoke in Alecks’s sweaty face. “Your own niece…why, for fucks sake? What did you do with her, Alecks? Where is she? C’mon- give her parents some closure. Give yourself a break, too. Get it off your chest. It’s gotta be just eating you up inside.”
“Where is she?” Lady Silver asked, echoing the rough, vulgar voices in Alecks’s head. Her voice was sweet, though- a soothing balm. Alecks could feel himself sinking, sinking back into the sofa underneath him and melting through it, drifting…he was going to fall asleep soon, and it would be a sleep like he hadn’t had in years, not since he was little, not since before he started working and before he realized what those sounds were that mommy and all of her boyfriends were making on the other side of the thin wall of his bedroom, not since forever. He was sinking into sweet sleep.
Just someone to listen, Alecks thought as he drifted. Didn’t even need the hypnotism, just someone to listen and to care, to ask. He felt a cool hand, slim fingers as delicate and fine as carved ivory, on his forehead and the side of his overheated face. The gesture didn’t snap him out of his sleepiness, but gentled him even more. He smiled softly, turning his skin toward the cool touch of a woman; he’d not felt such comfort in years- not for all of his adult life. There had never been anyone to love, no one but Justine and Molly for him to shower his affections on, and that wasn’t the same kind of love.
“Where is she, Alecks?” Lady Silver asked again. Her eyes were soft and glistening as she looked at the emaciated, tortured man lying in front of her. A wave of pity like nothing she’d ever felt before engulfed her, and she reached out to him. Poor man, she thought. Poor tired, used-up man. “Where did Molly go?”
“Hundo House,” Alecks said. His voice was heavy, slurry; spilled molasses.
Then he fell asleep.
Then he was there.
Alecks woke with a start, not knowing where he was or what was going on- only that something was wrong. Something hard bit into the flesh at the backs of his knees, filling them with a glassy pain; his lower legs were dull and far-off, disconnected. Everything was dark, and he was terrified. He could feel panic building up inside, like a pair of huge hands wrapped around his chest and squeezing; this feeling always made him think of his father, a man Alecks had never known- there was some dim trace, something so faint and will-o-the-wisp-ish that it was more comparable to a scent than an actual memory…some giant, huge-shouldered and shaggy, with tiny, angry eyes, taking him up in huge, viselike hands and holding him out, squeezing him, a voice like thunder.
Alecks sat upright in the darkness and then fell. He screamed, even though there wasn’t really much time to do it before he hit the floor. It would probably be more truthful to say that he squawked, liked a startled hen. Chicken; that’s what Alecks was, just a little chicken, a wimp…a pussy. That’s what the other boys always said, and his days at school were filled with nothing but terror and paranoia. The other boys threw things at him; they chased him and knocked his books out of his hands- schoolbooks, library books, books of his own that he got from his mother as gifts on Christmas and his birthday-; they threw balls at him on the gravel-strewn playground and then yelled “Smear the queer!” or came up and asked him what the capital of Thailand was before shrieking “Bangkok!” before he could even say anything and then punching him in the nuts. If Alecks was a chicken, it was only because he never had the opportunity to be anything else. He lived in fear, and going to school and walking down the halls there, be it the small elementary school, the musty old junior high, or the state-of-the-art high school that looked like nothing else so much as it looked like a prison, had made him feel like he wanted to throw up and shit himself simultaneously, every day. The only place he’d ever known he was safe was-
“In my room,” Alecks said. His outstretched hands, which had taken the brunt of the force when he fell, felt the pebbly texture of the hook rug on the hardwood floor. His grandmother had made the rug, along with his blanket and his old dog, Fred. Sitting in the dark, panting, sweating, and wild-eyed, Alecks knew where he was. He was in his room- he was home.
“Not home,” he said. He sat up and went to work on his numb legs with his hands, kneading the scant muscles in his calves and flexing his toes; his legs, he realized, had fallen asleep because he only fit in the bed from the knees up- the last time he’d slept in this bed he had been about two feet shorter than he was now. “Not home at all, and not my room. This is a dream and I’m in Hundo House. Finally.”
Standing up, legs still full of pins and needles, Alecks felt around with his hands until they struck the edge of his bed and moved up, coming to his bedside table. Fumbling a bit, stooped over and feeling like an interloping giant, he found the switch of his lamp and turned it on. The lamp, made of wood and brass and fashioned to look like a ship’s wheel covered in netting and heavy rope, filled the room with a soft, buttery yellow light.
The room was his room, his bedroom from back when he was a kid- and it wasn’t.
There was no door.
Everything else in the room was exactly the way Alecks remembered it: the red and white checked comforter on the bed, with the little hobo boys walking away into adventure with their packs slung over their shoulders; the miniature chest of drawers with the bass handles and the stickers stuck everywhere, stickers from books of them, or when he went to the doctor and got a shot, from school; the bookcase full of storybooks, toys, neat-looking rocks he found sometimes, with Fred sitting on the edge of the middle shelf and looking at him with his one glass eye (the other one fell out when Alecks was three or so, and both of the dog’s black eyebrows had been rubbed away, and one of his hind legs was hanging on by a thread), his brown terrycloth fur so bald in places that his beanbag guts were falling out.
Looking around at his bedroom, his childhood sanctuary, Alecks felt such a pang of nostalgic desire that all he wanted to do was crawl back under that quilt, smell the smell of his mother’s laundry soap on it, curl up into a ball, and go back to sleep.
Stay there, and sleep forever.
Alecks whirled in a circle, head up, nostrils flared. The idea didn’t seem to be entirely his own. He could feel a presence, something not from him, here in the doorless dream version of his bedroom with him. The idea was a persuasive one. What did he have waiting on him, out there in the real world? What? His job, where he spent eight hours a day watching an injection press make tiny plastic widgets, adjusting the machine when it went wonky, dealing with the same assholes he’d had to deal with as a kid- only now grown up, grown fat and old and angry about both, dim, cunning minds fueled by beer and hate? His tiny, empty apartment, not even a cat or dog there to keep him company- just shelves of books and movies? Take-out food, the occasional escort when his hand and the internet just wasn’t enough anymore, the pain of trying to survive in a world that didn’t give a tin shit if he made it or not…was any of that worth it? Was it really?
Crawl back into bed and go to sleep, a voice said. Now Alecks knew that it wasn’t him. This voice came from outside of himself. That was impossible though- Hundo House was his place. He had dreamed it up. There was no one else here.
“Molly,” Alecks said. Whatever presence there was in the bedroom with him, it receded away. Molly was here, somehow. Alecks didn’t understand how that could be, how his little niece could have found her way here, into the house built from his dreams- but there was nowhere else she could be. No one else to come and save her, like one of the knights in the fairy tales she loved so much.
“Our princess,” Alecks said. Justine called Molly that. “Just thought I’d drop in on my big brother, let him see how our princess is doing,” she’d say, popping in through the apartment’s door because she knew Alecks never locked it when he was home, sweeping into the tiny living room and dropping the warm, fat baby in his lap. Molly had looked just like a doll at that age- the plump cheeks, blushed apple-red, the curls of auburn hair she’d inherited from her grandmother, the big round eyes. She was beautiful.
“Is beautiful,” Alecks said. “She’s not dead, and I’m going to bring her home.”
The bedroom door was gone, but there was more than one way to skin a cat and the closet was still there- the double doors with the little metal knobs that Alecks had always checked and double-checked before he ran and leapt into his bed, making sure to jump when he got within grabbing range of anything that might be under the bed and throwing the quilt up over his head as soon as he landed so nothing could get him. Alecks went to the closet doors now and pulled them open, rusted hinges squealing like the iron gates of a cemetery. Inside there was only darkness with vague shapes on the floor, a bar where the shirts of his childhood hung in a row. There was a bad smell. Things had changed here. Things had aged. Dream or not, Hundo House was different. Alecks could feel it.
Stepping into the closet, Alecks grabbed hold of a cardboard box full of his toys (the cardboard was sodden, unpleasant to the touch) and moved it aside. Instead of the old blue carpet that lined the closet, there was a set of stone stairs leading down into a cool, damp darkness. Alecks recognized the steps- they were the ones embedded into the side of the hill on the path he used to take to elementary school.
Wiping sweaty palms on the legs of his pants, Alecks started down the stairs.
The house had changed. Alecks supposed this made sense; he was an adult now, and his world was filled with different fears and wonders- the bills instead of the boogeyman. Hundo House had never been a nightmare though. This recurring dream had always been a pleasant experience, like some sort of never-ending funhouse where the only exit was him waking up in the morning. He couldn’t remember ever feeling like anything was out of the ordinary when he dreamed of this place, or having the sense of being watched; he’d always felt like he was the only one here, like the whole thing was an amusement park, closed to the public but open just for him. And why not? It was his dream. He was the one who made it up, out of places he knew and loved, and places from out of his books, and from his imagination. It was his.
So how did Molly get here?
That was a vexing question, and one he could consider at his leisure after he found his niece and got them the hell out of here. Maybe he’d loved coming here in his dreams as a kid, but now it was giving him the creeps- big time.
It was cold at the bottom of the stone steps. In real life, this set of stairs leading up a small hill on the way to school had only been six steps; here they seemed to go on forever, worn smooth and round like stones in a swift river, slick and wet. Alecks had never been this way before, as far as he could remember. “The dream was different every time,” he said. “That’s what was so fun about it.”
The echoes his voice made were most definitely not fun, so he decided to shut up.
Alecks couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was watching, following. He wheeled around when he came to the bottom of the stairs, head craned up to look back along the way he’d descended, only to see a low ceiling and walls with ornately carved stone archways. He’d come through an arch and into another room and, having done so, reset everything and vanished the stairs. Those were the rules, he remembered suddenly. Go into a new room, everything in Hundo House changes.
Up ahead, Alecks saw something familiar. It was the corridor with the colored windows, the one he’d seen the very first time he dreamed of this place- the one that had led to the garden doorway, and the empty carousel with the hundreds of painted horses. And what way would a curious little girl take if she found herself in here? Alecks thought. Not through a giant stone door, or even a little round wooden one- she’d go along the stained glass corridor, marveling at all of the beautiful colors.
This was the way Molly had gone. She was here.
Alecks looked up at the ceiling. It crouched there, covered in foul lichen and obscene cobwebs gone black with some unspeakable grime. There were four more arches between where he stood and the stained glass tunnel- it would be gone as soon as he took a few steps toward it. He had to stop it somehow.
“Stay,” Alecks said, feeling foolish immediately.
“Uncle Alecks?” a small voice cried. “Uncle Alecks, is that you?”
Alecks gasped. Goose flesh broke out all over his body, making him shiver and shake. It was her. “Molly!” he said. “Molly, it’s me- Uncle Alecks! Wherever you are, just stay there. I’m going to find you!”
“Uncle Alecks?” Molly said again. Her voice sounded farther away, weak and echoing. She said his name again and again, drifting away…and changing. The voice sounded old, impossibly old- old and sinister, and filled with a lunatic glee.
“Uncle Alecks,” the voice said again. It sounded like the voice of a lifelong smoker, drowning in the fluid filling his lungs. Alecks heard laughter, low and deep, wet and burbling. “Come and find us, Uncle Alecks. We’re so scared.”
“What the f*ck?” Alecks whispered. His voice shook; his heart felt heavy and somehow skittish at the same time, like a lubricated glove making a big fist in the center of his chest. He took a step back, and bumped into something moist and yielding.
“You should not have come back,” a voice said. Alecks could feel the speaker’s breath on his ear, hot and wet- it smelled like exploded roadkill and the dumpster outside of a fast food joint on a summer night.
Uttering a high, breathless scream, Alecks ran. He passed under another archway and the tunnel he was in became the highway on the way into Boston, six lanes wide, the curved sides lined with flashing yellow lights; he could actually smell the Mystic River somewhere above him and hear the commotion of morning commute traffic that he couldn’t see. He ran on, panicked and blind, and after the next arch he found himself running down the blinding white corridor of a hospital, the emergency room Justine had called him from when she went into labor and found out that Molly’s umbilical cord was wrapped around her precious little throat.
Alecks could hear footsteps behind him. Dragging, scraping footsteps- the footsteps of every zombie from every gory horror movie he’d ever watched alone in his room, as a teenager in his bedroom and then as an adult with his own place. Something was coming for him.
Up ahead, the rainbow colors of the stained glass corridor were still there.
“Stay,” Alecks said again, and ran on. He passed under another arch, and the hospital corridor turned into the gravel-strewn embankment underneath the bridge where he’d slept when he ran away from home. He’d been fifteen, pissed off at everything, and his mother’s latest boyfriend (probably Justine’s father, but Alex didn’t like to think about that) had beaten him half to death one night when he was drunk and Alecks got up the courage to step in when his mother started screaming. Alecks kept on running, and the rainbow colors were still up ahead, just beyond the railroad yard on the other side of the bridge.
“Hey, what’s yer hurry?” a voice said.
Alecks skidded to a halt, kicking up a scree of gravel and wood splinters. A shadow moved in the darkness beside one of the bridge’s support columns, rising up to tower over him just as it had all of those years ago. It was the bum, the stinking wino in the green cargo pants, the one who had-
Alecks shook his head. “You can’t be here,” he said. “No one can be here. This is my place.”
The bum chuckled, stepping forward into the light. As he came he changed- what faced Alecks was an impossibly tall stick figure dressed all in black, arms and legs as long as a spider’s limbs, torso as long as a man’s entire body. The figure had no face; the lightbulb-shaped head above the collar of its black leather suit was nothing but running pus, a sickly whitish-yellow with only the suggestion of two eye sockets and a Jack-o-lantern’s lopsided, jigsaw mouth. The figure moved like a man on stilts in a parade, leaning this way and that, swaying like a drunk on the verge of passing out.
“Isn’t that precious, Mister Shake?” the thing said. It turned its awful head to the side, speaking to the shadows. “He thinks he made this place! Isn’t that just about the cutest, most delicious thing you’ve ever heard?”
“Pretty close, Mister Rattle,” another voice said. Another shape came from the shadows, this one squat and huge, with the barrel-chested shape of a strongman and limbs thicker around than the waist of Alecks’s pants. “Of course, I once listened to the sounds of a girl sold as a prostitute getting raped by her pimp’s dogs for disobedience, and that was like a symphony. But this is pretty good.”
“What,” Alecks said, and after that his mouth just flapped and no more words came out.
The first thing, apparently Mister Rattle, cut the air with a long-fingered hand. The curt gesture sent a spurt of goo from the ends of his fingers that splattered on the gravel in front of him. Alecks wrinkled his nose; it smelled like semen left drying in a gym sock in the corner of a dank basement room.
“You didn’t make this place, man,” Mister Rattle said. He came closer on his praying mantis stilt legs, the dark sockets where his eyes should have been wide and staring as his formless, running flesh poured over them endlessly. “No one made this place, but someone certainly runs it- and that would be us. Did you really think that you dreamed all of this up in your puny little head, and that it was just a playground for your amusement? Someplace to run to in your dreams, when the big, bad world was too scawy for you to handle all awone? Hmm?”
“The children of the world come here in their sleep,” the second thing, Mister Shake, said. His head was the size and shape of the top of a fire hydrant, sitting up on top of a pair of shoulders like Atlas must have had to hold up the earth. “They come to play, the come to escape, and we let them do that…for a while. When we can find them-”
“Which can prove to be challenging, as the rooms are always shifting,” Mister Rattle interjected, laughing a jittery, tittery laugh that made Alecks shiver. “Quite challenging- and very exhausting! We’re always so famished afterwards.”
“When we can find them,” Mister Shake said again, “we teach them new games to play. Usually they don’t like them. Usually they cry. And after a while, when they’re all used-up and we’re bored with them,” he trailed off, shrugging his massive shoulders.
“We make a meal of them,” Mister Rattle said. “Oh, so yummy in my tummy! That’s your precious Hundo House, stupid man. It’s our dining room- just one part of the mansion we call home.”
“You escaped us,” Mister Shake said. “Only through dumb luck, of course, you were ignorant just as all of your kind are ignorant, but still…you did escape from us. You would have been wise to never return. Yes, that would have been the smart thing.”
“You’re no smart thing though,” Mister Rattle said. “Not even for your kind. I mean, look at this,” the thing went on, holding out its impossibly long arms to take in their surroundings; it looked like the worst nightmare of a scarecrow ever, come to life. “This place could be anything. Anything. And what do you make with it? Nothing but shitty garbage from your own shitty garbage imagination. Just sad.”
“Why did you come back?” Mister Shake said.
“Molly,” Alecks said.
Mister Rattle brought all of its elongated fingers, of which there seemed to be about seventeen, together in front of its emaciated chest. “Ah, yes,” it said. “We do so love the little ones, don’t we, Mister Shake?”
Perhaps Mister Shake might have nodded, if it had a neck instead of just that domed head mounted to its barrel of a chest. “They are so delicious,” it said. “Especially before their meat gets tainted with all those nasty thoughts and juices from their sex. Really, man- there is nothing quite like the smell and taste of a prepubescent’s most secret flesh.”
“Take me,” Alecks said.
Mister Rattle and Mister Shake both cocked their heads quizzically. “What?” Mister Rattle said.
“Take me,” Alecks said again. “I escaped you. I got away. I thought that all of this was just mine. So take it out on me. Let Molly go. She’s only one child. You’ll get others, thousands of them. Millions. Just let this one go and take me.”
Mister Rattle stroked its chin, sending fountains of yellow-white pus cascading through its fingers. Alecks could hear it pattering on the gravel, a loathsome shower.
“She is precious to us,” it finally said. “Yes, the girl-child is precious to us, because she is precious to you. What do you think, Mister Roll?”
A third form came out of the shadows, and Hundo House changed with its slow, ponderous entrance until the bridge and the embankment were gone, replaced by the sort of room that a gentleman adventurer of another century would have called his study. The room was all dark wood and gleaming silver and brass, overstuffed chairs and glass-doored cases full of books. Alecks looked at the room and felt his head go dizzy; the walls were lined with mounted heads, children’s heads, glassy eyed, their mouths frozen in mid-scream. Between the trophies were huge portrait photographs, pictures of things being done to children that Alecks couldn’t even bear to look at; they were seared into his brain regardless.
Mister Roll was nothing but a great gelatinous heap, raw and dripping, all but shapeless, nude. Its rudimentary arms and legs laid against the mounds of oozing flesh, multicolored taint like whole galaxies in each horrible fold. One aspect of this new, horrendous creature was quite well formed, standing out from the piles of flesh below the heaving stomach, pulsating between the useless legs, quivering and glistening with some foul fluid; seeking, almost sniffing the air.
“I don’t see why we shouldn’t have them both,” said Mister Roll. The thing’s voice sounded the way the rest of it looked- as if a tremendous toad from the wettest, deepest parts of the universe’s bowels had learned to speak like a man. “The girl-child is going to be delectable. And this one, this one…well, we have such wonderful, delicious things to show him- such as he could never imagine.”
“An excellent plan,” Mister Rattle said. “I wholeheartedly concur.”
“You should not have come back,” Mister Shake said.
I should call the cops, Lady Silver thought. The fortune teller had thought this approximately ten thousand times since the gaunt man calling himself Alecks collapsed back on her couch. This guy is dead. Dead in my shop. I am well and truly fucked in this town, but I should call the cops. It’s the right thing to do.
“No,” Lady Silver said out loud, lighting another cigarette with hands that wouldn’t stop shaking. “The right thing to do would be to get up, get the fuck out of here, light the building on fire, and be two towns away before anyone has any idea what the fuck is going on. That would be the right thing to-”
The gaunt man lying on Lady Silver’s couch opened his eyes, those electric blue eyes. His eyes blazed, bright enough and insane enough to make her shy away. And then he began to scream, writhing in the dim light of the gypsy’s back room. Lady Silver had never heard a sound quite like it; she imagined it must have been what it sounded like when the flames burned through the wood and started licking at the feet of the woman being burned at the stake for witchcraft. The screaming went on, not building or fading, just one unchanging shriek, an anguish that she never wanted to know anything about.
Before she passed out herself, Lady Silver heard something else below the gaunt man’s shriek; the sound of someone chewing, really chowing down on their favorite meal. Underneath that she could detect grunts, rhythmic and urgent and mean.
Beneath all of these, the last thing she heard before being granted the mercy of unconsciousness, the desperate wails of a little girl.
Grief passed. After enough time went by Justine and Harlan Sommerset came to terms with the fact that their daughter was dead- killed by her uncle, Justine’s brother, who had been a recluse and a bit of a weirdo, but beloved to them. In time, Justine even softened enough to allow her husband back into their bed, and it wasn’t long before there was another child running around their large, too-empty house. It was a boy this time, and they named him Nicholas after Justine’s grandfather.
Nicholas was quite precious to her.
The boy started talking early, and learned to use the bathroom early, and what an imagination! He was always telling stories, whether his audience was a willing one or not. At breakfast time, when Justine made him his very favorite blueberry pancakes and sausage patties and home fries, Nicholas would tell his mommy about his dreams.
“Any dreams last night, Nicky?” Justine asked him, one morning when he was just about to turn five. She was nervous about this- she felt unsure about him going to school, he was so delicate and precious to her-, but tried not to think about it.
“I had the greatest dream!” Nicholas said. “I dreamed of Hundid House! It’s a house that’s always changin, and it’s gotta hundid rooms!”
Justine smiled. “Hundred, dearheart,” she said, and went to turn the next batch of pancakes.
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Something terrible happened to Treena Roberts. Something terrible happened to her friends as well, though none of them remember it. Some secrets can't stay buried though. Some evils refuse to be ignored. Idyllic small town life, a tight-knit community, the bonds of friendship and family...none of these things can stand against the shadows closing in on one young girl and her circle- and if they cannot face the truth of their own past, it will devour them.
Michael Kanuckel lives in a small rural town in the middle of Ohio with his two sons. He has been writing since he was in kindergarten, and always knew that he wanted to be an author. He has published short stories in various science fiction and fantasy magazines. Winter's Heart is his first novel.