No Stars

By Kelly Mintzer

The phone lines stayed silent after the white out had passed, but on the fifth day, the spreading bloom of blood in the snow drew the neighbors outside, into the early thaw of an eager spring.  They had kept their noses pressed firmly to the windows, riveted after a week of stasis and cabin fever, by a gradual melt that became a flood, the memory of snow more potent for how quickly what took days to amass turned liquid and slid down the drains of the lucky and into the basements of everyone else.  It was not an interesting watch, even by the drastically lowered standards of the now clinically bored; the absence of electric and cable and light had not magically rendered snow melting — the second cousin, once removed, from paint drying — into a must-watch event, alas and alack, it remained perversely dry for so wet an occurrence.  

Marion had nearly given up, had decided to change the figurative channel to something more interesting, like painting her toenails for the 17th time.  She had experimented with shades and colors and patterns and rhymes, and learned there’s no divinity, no deeper lesson, in nail art, whatever the philosophers might say (her father had told her, with an indulgent smile, that he was unaware of an abundance of polish scholars, which she had refused to dignify with a response) when she first noticed the crimson blossom creeping with sinister determination towards her house.  It was indeterminate in its nature, shifting steadily from a delicate pink into a vivid red, and finally turning lightless, absorbing every hue the blizzard had left behind. She did not know to call it blood. She just knew she hated it, and its steady, dogged advance.

 “Dad,” she said, and was returned a “Hmm..” and an eyebrow raise.  And while that response was wholly sufficient for “why don’t we order pizza?”, drastic times called for eye contact, so she said it again, “Dad”, and he said it again, “Hmm”, with an only slightly more expansive eyebrow raise.  

The stain was spreading through an invisible network of arteries and veins, pumping thick clots of shadow ink further across the street, deeper down the sidewalk.  Marion felt afraid, not by any definition she recalled, no sense of familiarity to the cold that had no place under three layers of sweaters and a roaring fireplace.  Was this fear? This alien sense that everything was on the precipice of ruin, based on nothing, based on a simple change, a minor thing really, but a tremor, a shake, a convulsion of the spine and fluid, don’t tell me, don’t let me know …

“Daddy,” she said, both because she needed a weapon, a word, that would jar, and because she felt so small, so alone … the way she had felt as a child, when her mother had left and Marion did not yet know she was never coming back.  The known, the present, the absolute had the power to bruise, certainly, but it was the waiting to find out Marion most dreaded. It was the anticipation that quaked through her voice, weaker than she willed it to be, broken and drifting.  

Her father looked up.  

“What is it, love?”he said, and she did not answer, just extended her pointer finger to the window.  Eric put his book down, and walked over to his daughter, reaching out to wrap his arm around her shaking frame.  The impact never came. Before he could rest his hand on her bony shoulder, he saw the damned spot spreading, far more rapidly now, eating the light and leaving a hot, bitter emptiness in its wake.  His arm fell flatly back to his side.

“What is it, Dad?” Marion asked, desperate to believe that despite the growing cynicism of her encroaching teenage years, somehow the parental remove was real; her father had years, her father had answers.  She waited in anticipation and hope, yet he shook his head. “I don’t know, Mar. Put your coat on. Let’s, uh … Let’s find out.”

Marion recoiled.  “Why? How? I mean, what are we going to do?”  She knew she had called his attention to it for a reason; she had known on some basic, primal level that he would suggest pursuing it.  Her father believed in answers and the attaining there of. She loved that about him. She hated that about him. There were answers and then there was knowing.  Marion wanted to fall in the cracks in between. Still, before her father could articulate the barest bones of a response, she had retrieved both of their coats. Eric took his wordlessly–her offering was a reprieve and spared him having to formulate a reasonable response.  When in fact, the creeping darkness had no impact on them now. As it was, that sweet, benign remove would vanish the moment they opened the door and stepped into slippery mess of melting snow. The slush filled Marion’s shoes immediately, and she ruefully considered the squish of her thick wool socks against her feet.  They’d been so satisfying and warm in the house, and now, traitors, offered nothing but misery. She did not dwell too long, however, on her pruning toes; it was a transient land and not meant for lingering, and more importantly, no, most importantly, they had reached, in just five rapid strides, the last footfall of clean white snow that would be devoured by the past, lost to history and irretrievable.  She took her father’s hand, six years old again, uncertain of his ability to protect her, but positive that it was better to face whatever was coming together than to do it alone. He laced his fingers through hers and tugged.

“Let’s go,” he said.  They moved their feet in slow tandem, a steady slice through the air and into the abyss.  They fell into the shadow as surely as the narrative dictated, as it was written, and followed it down, deeper into the negative image of the street where they lived, where Marion had learned to ride a bike, and later to drive a car, not their own any more, alien and remote; aloof and cold.

Eric pulled her hand, and gestured with his chin.  “Look. It’s coming from Teresa’s house.”

Marion’s vision lagged a second behind her footsteps, not quite ready to send the appropriate signals to her brain; this, then this, now this, means this, now register and comprehend and begin to cope.  She hadn’t played with Carrie since they were small, but to know that her childhood playmate might be holding the other end of the gasping maw slowly devouring the street in long, wet gulps … it was not an objective reality.

“Maybe it’s just oil,” she said idly, not to posit an actual theory, but because sheets of silence beg to be broken, and it delayed the necessity of proper consideration a little bit longer.  Her father nodded; there was a stuttering in his step, contradicting any possible affirmations and turning them into flat denials. There was no need to acknowledge that oil would not turn red as it crept steadily into the weave of Marion’s pale blue jeans, when the bleed spoke so elegantly for itself.  

Those isolating seconds, mere feet to traverse, between the cruel,  shimmering waves of curiosity, dread, uncertainty, and the solution–Colonel Mustard in the Study with a candlestick–stretched for lifetimes.  Marion learned, grew old, and forgot all over again, by the first step onto the Estrella porch. But in that eternity, something strange occurred, something somehow stranger than passing lifetimes by the mere act of taking one step forward.  Other doors on the street began to open, and neighbors, old friends, new enemies, constant indifferents, left the safety and security of their own living rooms and dens, the warmth of fires crackling, the shelter of blankets and of always not knowing, and walked willingly, or at least largely so, into the blooming stain.  

By the time Eric and Marion reached the porch, Sheriff Mills and his wife Mariah were standing, arms crossed tightly over their chests, in close, urgent conversation with Laura Williams and her son, Scott.  Marion nodded a hello to Scott–he was a few years younger, but they attended the same school, and Marion sometimes gave him rides in the morning. She held her father’s hand tighter, and spoke up.

“Hi.”  

It felt stupid, pointless, wholly trivial and entirely necessary.  Mills nodded at her. “Nice to see you, Marion, Eric.”

Eric was constitutionally ill-designed for small talk and the culturally agreed upon circuitous approach to a direct subject.

“What’s happening?” he asked, eyes scanning rapidly between the assembled party and the newer arrivals, gradually amassing on the porch, shoes wet, eyes curious.  

Mills sighed, as if he had spent his entire life answering that question and simply could not summon the interest or the stomach to address it one more time.  

“Nothing good,” Mariah said, and pushed her braids behind her ear, her hand holding steady in the air, and lingering, unsure of how to be fully idle in a moment that threatened to break with the slightest impact.  Mariah had always been kind to Marion; she had provided cookies and milk to the neighborhood children with warmth and a smile for the length of memory, and Marion found that the discomfort, the kinetic nerves currently possessing the woman made an already bitter taste push further up her throat, coating her tongue.  

“We don’t know that,” Mills said, rolling his eyes.

Robert Kline, four years old, and not a day over inappropriate to be present, pointed to the left of the door.  “Where’d the window go?”

Eric gently disentangled his hand from Marion.  She caught his fingers again, and he pulled free, slightly more forcefully.  “Just a minute, Mar.”

He approached the window frame gingerly, and slid his hand through the empty space.  “How did none of us notice that?”

Mariah shook her head.  “Too focused on the door …”

Eric arched an eyebrow, and Laura spoke for the first time, voice shaken and a little hoarse.  “It’s locked,” she said.

In the span of an exhalation, Mariah had crossed the porch, passed by Eric and vaulted herself through the empty window from.  

“Shit.”  Mills rubbed his temples.  “We can’t just go in –”

“We fucking can,” Eric said, and hoisted himself in through the window.  “Mar, you wait out here. I’m going to unlock the front door …”

He slipped out of Marion’s line of vision, and she followed the shuffling sound of his footsteps across the distance from the window to the door.  

She could measure the time between the last glimpse of his too long hair and “Ok, it’s unlocked” in bare boned seconds that stretched their mundane lives into unnatural shapes.  The wall between them felt so definitive.

Mills turned the handle and pushed.  “It won’t open.”

“Oh for Christ’s sake, Rick!”  Eric’s voice bore no semblance of patience, frayed to a fevered pitch.  “Try. Harder.”

Scott gently shouldered Mills away from the door.  “Let me try,” he said. He turned the knob and pushed.  The door ceded nothing.

“It won’t open.”

Eric sighed.  “Just come in through the damn window then-not you, Mar.”

“We are entering a house without permission,” the Sheriff said.  “You get that, right? We don’t even know if they’re home. They could have left before the storm –“

“They didn’t,” Laura said.  “I talked to Teresa on the phone right before the power cut.”  

“Still …”

“Still what, exactly, Rick?  Every window in the goddamn place is shattered.  Every. Fucking. One. And there’s the …”

Eric let the unspoken linger with the weight of doom and destination, unnamed, because it refused to speak itself, and because no nomenclature could match the impact of what each wary eye had already seen and on some primitive level understood.  Bad news.

Mills huffed and moved slowly to the window.  “Fine. I’m coming in.”

He crawled through, and Marion took the opportunity to follow quickly in the wake of his vast girth.  

“Dammit, Mar,” Eric said, but she had no mind for his reproachful tone.  Her eyes, her entire being, was too focused on processing the wreckage of the living room.  A thousand shards of broken glass bent late afternoon sunlight into ghosts and memory, things irretrievable and unforgettable that Marion knew with instant clarity and absolute certainty she would carry with her for the rest of her life.  Small drifts of snow melted dark spots on the blue shag carpet, small branches littered the room haphazardly.

“I’ve never been in this house,” Laura said, voice tinged with a note of surprise, as if she hadn’t realized she was going to say it aloud until the words hit her ears and she knew her own voice.

“I haven’t either,” Mills said, softer than he had been, barely a whisper.  

Everyone turned to look at Eric, and he softly shook his head.  “They never invited people over.”

“Guys.”  Marion swallowed hard the taste of early onset mildew polluting the air.  “Where is everybody?”

Eric held out his hand to her, and she took it immediately.  (There’s nothing here….)

“Maybe we should fan out,” Mills said, “Search the house.” (No life in this room….)

“Nuh-uh,” Scott responded instantly, “I’ve seen enough horror movies to know the stupidest possible thing you can do is split up.”

“This isn’t a horror movie,” Eric said, almost convincing, almost convinced.  (We have to keep trying…)

“I think we should stick together too,” Marion said, feeling already too alone to risk any further isolation by actual, physical separation.  

Eric squeezed her hand.  “Ok. But we need to start looking.”  (We’ll have to keep looking…)

They moved collectively through the living room, gingerly navigating the growing puddles and snapping twigs beneath the soles of their shoes, chasing some predetermined path to the dining room, so ominous in this light, thanks for asking, (but I hate this yellow wallpaper so much…) when their trajectory was stopped short and immediately by the sound of Mariah calling down the stairs, “Guys.  GUYS. Come up here.”

(Why don’t we check upstairs?)

They moved rapidly, paced to the urgency in her voice at not quite a run but so much more than a walk.  When they found her, she was in an upstairs bedroom, staring at a wall. (Something’s not right…)

A perfectly normal wall, perfectly average, just a wall on the east side of the house, with no windows to break the sunflower print.  Yup, nothing to see here, just a regular, old wa– (Almost, but not right….)

Except for the stain.  Beginning at the carefully crafted angle between the wall and the old shag carpeting, dark red was creeping through the fibers slowly and catching in angry clots here and there.  (Is that a…)  Mariah reached out her hand and touched the smooth surface of the wall, then pulled it back and knocked, once, twice.  (It looks like….)

It was muffled, hard to determine, raspy and raw, the voice screaming, yelling, “Get. Out.”  Not angry, not even frightened, just intent and certain. Get Out. (It’s a door.)

Mills pushed forward, found urgency in the sound of life coming from the still house.  He pounded on the wall, spotted the seams in the wallpaper and wood, and pushed. The door flew open violently, throwing him with an impossible force back against the perpendicular wall.  

“Oh my God,” Mariah said, and knelt beside him.  

“He was pushing …” Eric said, so softly Marion almost didn’t hear him. (Let’s just see what’s behind it, shall we?)

He dropped Marion’s hand and reached out, wrapped his hand around the door, and with a sickening speed, it slammed shut, pulling him forward and cleanly severing his fingers from his hand.

Marion screamed as her father dripped thick gouts of blood.  The voice called out again, stronger this time, more assertive.  “For God’s sake, Get. Out.”

“What did you see?” Laura asked, “Who’s in there?” Scott asked, “What do we do?” Mariah asked, and no one answered, just stared in cold shock and paralyzed horror.  

“Someone’s in there,” Eric said, even as his color faded, and he had no choice but to sit down on the bed to avoid swooning. Terribly inconvenient timing, I think we can agree.

Mills pulled himself to his feet.  “I’ll kick it in.”

There was no assent needed.  There were no options. Someone was inside.  (It’s a room….)

Mills kicked, hard, repeatedly, increasingly convinced of the futility of the gesture.  But finally, energy sapped and muscles singing, he kicked to the reassuring sound of a splinter, and on the next kick, broke through the wood.  

The light had grown pale and scarce.  But five days without electric had developed a superior night vision in the assembled party, and they strained their collective eyes against the dark, to peer through the hole.  

(It could be your room….)

Carrie was huddled in the corner, her hair matted into thick knots. She had her thin arms wrapped around her legs, pulled up until she could rest her chin on her knees.  “Get. Out.” she said.

Marion stepped a little closer, and stared hard through the opening.  A large room, why hidden?

(A room to grow in….)

The dark was thick, deep.  She struggled to put names to shapes, gnarled, and distorted, but laid out in precise and loving patterns.  Mariah wrapped and arm around Marion and said, “Stay close, now.”

They moved in a little closer, and Mariah called out to Carrie.  “Come on, sweetie. Come out now. It’s alright now.”

Carrie laughed, a hard, dry rattle.  “Alright now …” she repeated.

Marion and Mariah had reached the wall when the lights came on.  All through the house and up the street, illumination poured in artificial and welcome waves.  Carrie covered her eyes.

“She hasn’t seen light in da –”  Mariah stopped short. Marion began to scream.

The mangled pieces of Teresa and Elliot Estrella were recognizable only as theory.  Some blond hair here, a red curl there, the only indicators beside the glimmer of bone, that these two piles, arranged with such fondness and affection, had ever been human.  

(A nursery…)

Carrie lowered her hands.  “Please,”she said. “Get out.”

Mariah shook her head.  “We’re not leaving without you, Carrie.”

(A room all your own…)

Carrie shook her head.  “It won’t let me leave.”  

Mariah reached her hand through the opening.  “Just try, sweetie.”

Carrie looked at the pieces of her parents, then crawled slowly forward, sparing them soft, fond glances.  She scooped something up at the precipice, then took Mariah’s hand.

“I’m sorry,” she said, climbing out through the hole.

Mariah pushed a long strand of hair behind Carrie’s ear.  “It’s ok, sweetie. Let’s just get out of this house.”

Carrie smiled.  “Yeah. Yeah, let me get out of here,” she said.  She disentangled herself from Mariah, and walked over to Eric.  

“I’m really sorry, Mr. Sawyer,” she said, and opened her hand over the bed next to him.  “I think these are yours.” Plop, plop, plop, plop, four little piggies not heading to market any time soon.  

She looked around seeing everyone, recognizing no one. Then she began to run, straight towards the broken window.  

And time sped, in that way that it can when it is feeling perverse and spiteful, in a mood that doesn’t allow the human participants to catch up and provide any reasonable competition, so that she was falling through space and hitting the ground before anyone could register even the concept of what she had in mind.

(Welcome to the world.)

 

Marion huddled close to her father.  At the impact of Carrie’s body reaching terra firming, the house let out a deep sonorous groan.  Every door swung open.

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