It will be a dark and stormy night when we remember it, but only then, in the hushed tones of shared recollection. In real time, April 21 falls on a warm and cloudless evening, the sun lingering in streaks of pink and gold through an 8 o’clock sky. We sit too long on our front porch swings, too late for a school night, picking pieces of colored egg shells from the soles of our sneakers and holding onto what we are slowly beginning to realize is the start of an end.
The last good spring of the last good year. Everything will fall apart after this. Happiness, joy … these things are only ever recognized and real in their absence, the way that we only appreciate our health when we are sick, and our normal bodies when we are wounded. We do not know to appreciate it, is what I’m saying. We just have the vague sense that something, somewhere, is shifting, and that we have no control over it. So we do nothing.
When we see Clair and Frank walk towards the house, we do nothing, even though we know we should. Or we think we should. We haven’t known anything with any certainty for a very long time.
Maybe a police line doesn’t have to mean tragedy. This is Easter Sunday.
We were promised a resurrection.
Clair had not considered a fraction of a second beyond the front door. She had believed with a foolish but unwavering confidence that once they had reached that precipice, Frank would change his mind — would see how fundamentally silly it was for two grown-ass adults to be sneaking into an empty house on the basis of nothing but legend and rumor.
“You know, kids do this kind of shit so that they have somewhere to fuck,” she said as he reached out and pushed the door. Locked. Good.
“We can certainly fuck in there if you’d like,” he said, gesturing towards a broken window.
She crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m not having sex in a dusty, gross old house. We have perfectly comfortable beds down the street.”
He shrugged. “Fine. No sex then. Want me to give you a boost?”
“I’m also not crawling through that broken window. I would rather not severe all of my arteries tonight.”
Frank sighed, a deep, gale force that originated from somewhere deep inside a dying star and which spilled out of him with increasing frequency these days. Clair looked for the boy she had been so deeply in love with in high school, and saw shimmers and waves of him still around the corners.
Too much to abandon; not enough to satisfy.
“Fine,” she said, more concerned now in maintaining any semblance of a “good night” than in the integrity of an epidermis she was, at most, moderately invested in. “Give me the damn boost.”
Frank laced his hands together and Clair stepped into the platform, the toe of one shoe carefully balanced in the seam, afraid to let her full weight rest on him too long. She vaulted through the window and landed on wet carpeting — a squish and an ick — and tried not to think too hard about what was seeping slowly through the canvas of her Chuck Taylors. Knowing wouldn’t help. Knowing never did. She scuttled quickly to unlock the door and swung it wide for Frank to enter.
“Welcome home, darling,” she said, and Frank scooped her up and carried her inside a couple of steps before closing the door. Clair allowed herself a moment of relief; maybe there was some hope yet.
Some joy left in Frank yet.
He had only been in town two weeks. His first night back, Clair had been tending bar at Tim’s and she’d driven Frank home, his head in her lap, the smell of whiskey radiating from his pores and through her jeans as his sweat saturated the soft fabric around him. He hadn’t wanted to come back; she’d never wanted to leave. And if in her deepest, most primitive animal intelligence she knew that this equation fundamentally did not work — apples plus oranges never equaled bananas — she let his deep set brown eyes shut down her higher brain. She still remembers the way he walked down the hall when they were both sixteen. They had had all of these dreams, all of these hopes. And that matters, I promise you, because you cannot be haunted by a ghost you never loved.
Frank put her down and pulled a flashlight out of his back pocket.
“So what now?”she asked, taking in as much as her poorly adapted night vision would allow.
“We are standing in a piece of true crime history. What more do you need?”
Clair shrugged. The Wilson girl had killed her parents barely two months prior. The bodies still hadn’t been found in their entireties. She felt like carrion; predatory. They weren’t in the house with dissociated, historian eyes; Clair had shopped in the same supermarket as Carrie three months ago. She had seen the girl shyly pick up a box of Coco Puffs, clearly worried that sixteen was too old for a sweet, childish pleasure. Clair had smiled at her and picked up a box, too — vaguely aware that at thirty-two, covered in tattoos, hair dyed a variety of unusual hues, she had some absolutely unearned coolness clout with the town’s teenage demographic. Carrie had smiled back, and Clair had winked. “Never too old,” she had said before walking away.
Clair could never reconcile it; the idea of that same sweet girl who wanted a chocolate cereal with a cartoon bird on the box butchering her parents so brutally and absolutely that most of what remained was a pink mush.
So she took a tentative step back towards the door. “I dunno. Maybe a good reason to actually be here?”
Frank rolled his eyes. “It’s something to do in this town. And you told me you liked this stuff.”
“I told you I like horror.”
Frank waggled his eyebrows. “What could be more horrific?”
Clair stood on the verge of ripping him apart when she remembered that he had not been present for the past ten years. To him, this was abstract. Carrie and her parents were not real people. They were a concept.
“She was a nice kid,” she said.
“Apparently not too nice,” Frank responded, but seeing Clair tense, he corrected his course. “Where did it happen?”
“No one is sure, actually. Everyone tells it a little differently. The story is that there was this bloodstain in the snow, and it led the neighbors to the house –”
“A blood stain in the snow did that?”
“That’s the story.”
“So in this version of events, the kid’s parents had so much blood that it was able to fill the house and leak out the front door –”
“It’s an urban legend.”
“A legend at sixteen … that’s the dream.”
Clair backed against the wall. “You get that she’s a legend for being a double murderer, who is also now an orphan, right? She’s probably going to spend the rest of her life institutionalized.”
Frank shook his head. “She’ll get out. She was young. There’s parole and leniency for juvenile offenders.”
“So she can get out and what? Go to what home? She’ll always be that girl who murdered her parents. She’ll have to live with that, and she’ll have to live with everyone knowing it.”
Frank took her hand. “You’re kinda sucking the joy right out of this. For the record. I’m not cruel. I’m not inhumane. I feel for this girl. I do. I’m just … trying to … I dunno, embrace the uncanny.”
“It just feels kind of exploitative. We’re taking some weird pleasure –”
“Let’s call it fascination –”
“In a really brutal thing. That happened to someone.”
“We can leave if you want.”
Clair studied his face, and saw no lie. “We ca–”
And crash. Bang. The sound rattled the house, one blinding flash of lightning tearing the sky to shreds and illuminating the room a bright red.
“Where did that sound come from?”
“I don’t know — we should go.”
“No. We have to find it.”
“Because we’re here. What if someone else is here? What if they’re hurt?”
“Alright. I think it came from this direction.”
“No, it was that way.”
“I know what I heard.”
“It was that –”
“Whatever. I’m going this way. You go that way, we’ll meet in the middle.”
The door didn’t belong there. Clair didn’t know how she knew, but she was certain. There shouldn’t have been a door there. There shouldn’t have been a Clair there, if she was being honest, but someone had convinced her to stay, to chase the noise, and she couldn’t remember anymore if it had been her idea or Frank’s. Either way, there shouldn’t be a door there. She reached out and touched the seam. It looked painted over, but it swung softly open and she stepped inside.
The door swung shut behind her so softly, so smoothly, she might not have noticed had the room not gone darker than she previously thought possible. The scream heated, simmered, reached a steady boil, but before she could release it a delicate glow gentled her calm and gave her quiet — for the moment, at least. She moved towards it and saw in its wake a tall-too tall-figure with an impossible number of faces, shifting, never settling on its misshapen skull. The eyes were constant; a glowing, sickly yellow, spaced too far apart. The thing smiled, or let’s call it a smile for want of a better word, and beckoned to Clair.
“I only come out on nights like this,” it said.
“Nights like what?” Clair asked, only accepting her own voice, her own words, as a potential truth — the waking logic of a lucid dream. Surely this wasn’t real. Surely not this.
“Special nights. You know them when they happen. I was waiting for you, Clair.” Its voice was warm and thick, a sticky honey she couldn’t quite swallow.
“You know my name.”
“Of course I know your name. I’m Frank.”
Clair shook her head. “You’re not Frank. Frank is down the hall somewhere. And last I checked, more or less of the human persuasion.”
It cocked its head to the side and said, “What makes you think I’m not human? That’s a pretty strong accusation to lob, Clair.”
“Well, because … look at yourself.”
“And how would you recommend I do that? You might note an absence of mirrors in here. And if there were mirrors, well…there’s no light.”
Clair nodded. The logic was airtight. “You’ve got me there. But let me assure you now … you’re not particularly … humanoid.”
This calm was alarming. She was more frightened of her serenity than anything that was happening, and that made no damn sense. She leaned into it. “And you most definitely are not Frank.”
It moved a little closer to her. “Aren’t I? Junior year of high school, you got a pixie cut you hated. And when your hair grew back in, it was curlier than it had been before.”
Clair backed away. “That’s … how did you know –”
“Because I was there. My locker was two down from yours. I wore a leather jacket with a Nine Inch Nails patch on the back.”
Clair breathed slowly. Deeply. This was a dream. She was certain it was a dream, and so there was no danger in engaging. She would wake up the same.
“Ok. So what’s a nice Frank like you doing in a place like this?”
“Ten years ago, my dad and I were doing some duct work in this house. I was helping him out to get some cash for my own apartment. I heard a sound, like someone crying … and I followed it to this room. The door — the one you came through — it opened, and I came in … and something came out.”
“I’m not sure … just something else.”
Clair laughed. “So you’re telling me that the Frank I came here with is the thing that lured you in here ten years ago?”
It shook its head. “No. I’m not saying that at all. That may be the case. It probably is the case. But I guess he could be a run-of-the-mill shyster imposter.”
Shyster. What kind of monster says “shyster”?
“So why’d he come back?”
“How could I possibly know that?”
“And what did you mean, you only come out on special occasions?”
“Just what I said.”
“That is not an answer.”
“It wouldn’t feel that way to you … let me ask you: the Frank you came here with … does he feel like Frank to you?”
Clair said ‘yes,’ and meant ‘no’. He had been strange; cold, disconnected since he’d come back. She had chalked it up to the disappointment of coming home no further in life than he was when he had left.
“Has he treated you well, Clair?” it asked, slowly circling around her. “Has he given you the love and care and devotion a woman like you deserves? I knew it even in high school. From the way you laughed … the books you read. The terrible jokes you told. You deserve to be treated extraordinarily. I always wanted to …”
“You’re saying this because I want to hear it.”
“How could I possibly know that?”
“Because this is a dream. This is a dream, and you’re something I made.”
The thing smiled, infinite smiles overlapping and devouring themselves. “Yessssss, Clair,” it hissed. “This is all a dream, and there are no consequences to your actions. No prices to pay.”
Its features shifted one last time and settled. In the stillness, she realized that the glow seemed to radiate from its eyes, and now, bathed in that strange, orange light, she saw the defined cheekbones and improbable jawline of her own Frank. A little bit softer than the one she had left down the hall, a little bit kinder. She reached out; it was a dream, and there were no complications. She could feel the warmth radiating off of its assumed skin.
“What happened in this house?”
“A lot of things. A lot of things happen in every house. Some good. Many bad.”
“What happened … do you know what happened with Carrie Wilson?”
He brushed a few strands of hair back from his eyes. “That girl and her parents. I tried to keep her safe. I tried to protect her from it.”
He looked at her deeply, penetratingly. “From the House.”
“Did she kills her parents?”
He smiled. Shrugged. “Whether she did or not, I assure you, they are equal measures dead.”
Clair stepped back. “I don’t understand you. How can you be so cold?”
“I’ve been in isolation for longer than you can imagine, Clair. Thoughts of you sustained me. They kept me whole. The hope of seeing you again. I would always come back to that.”
“CLAIR!” She head every letter of her name, enunciated clearly, and she called back, “I’m here!”
“Follow my voice.”
She heard footsteps approaching, and looked at the thing. “Will the door open?”
It stared at her. “It will. But you’ll have to make a choice, Clair.”
“A choice? What choice?”
“It’s just a dream, right?”
“Yes … I think so … yes.”
“Then whatever choice you want.”
“Goddammit, no more! No more cryptic replies. Just tell me!”
“It’s your dream. You’ll see.”
The door swung open, and Frank stepped inside.
Frank ordered a gin and tonic. Then a whiskey and soda. Then a whiskey.
Clair smiled at him and said, “So why’d you come back?”
He shrugged. “Where else could I go?”
“What the fuck is this?” Frank said, staring in absolute and entire disbelief at Clair and himself, standing together in the small, dark room. He shined his flashlight around; the wood appeared warped and splintered, deeply moist in the most upsetting way possible. Clair looked at him, dazed, and said, “Frank?”
“Yes,” said Frank.
“Yes,” said Thing That Looked Just Like Frank.
“You know who I am.” Frank said.
“Why did you come back?” Clair asked.
He shook his head. “Why does that matter right now? What … who is that, Clair, and what the hell is going on?”
“Do you know who that is?” Clair asked, attempting to grip onto something like reality. Even dreams have a logic, she thought, and whether or not it is true, it provided her with a hand to hold.
“It’s … someone who looks remarkably like me.”
“Clair,” the Thing purred. “You know who I am. You know the truth, when you really think about it. You know in your heart.”
Clair rubbed her temples. She didn’t know anything. This was the time to wake up. Get a glass of water. Decide not to eat so much cheese before bed in the future. She could feel disaster around her; something tangible filling her nostrils and coating her sinuses. Everything was sour. Everything was bad.
“What happens in this room?” she asked again.
“Death happens in this room. But not completely. Just enough to keep you in the pale.”
“Why did you come back?”
“Jesus Christ, Clair, can we just get out of here?”
“You have to make a choice, Clair.”
“A choice? Clair, what’s he talking about?”
“You know you have to choose.”
“WHY DID YOU COME BACK HERE?!”
“I came back because! Because I had no other choice. I had nowhere else to go. I had nothing else to do. That’s why, Clair. That’s why I came back. And isn’t that good enough?”
The batteries in Frank’s flashlight died, but it didn’t matter. Clair knew her movements. She’d made her choice. She reached out a hand and grabbed a wrist, pulled back and out.
The door slammed shut.
At 11 pm on Easter Sunday, we had given up on the miracle. No resurrection, no transubstantiation, just a thick wave of pollen turning our cars yellow and our eyes watery. We rose from our porch swings and stretched our tired bones. Watched as Clair and Frank stumbled down the street, their arms wrapped tightly around each others’ waists. Frank whispered something into Clair’s ear, and she smiled.
It was a dark and stormy night, and it had only just begun.