The Ghost of a Murder Past (Part II)

Read Part I here.

Lacey looked through the frosted window as needles of rain tapped against the glass. The world beyond was a wet wonderland of glistening reflections of a city continuously moving into the future. For Lacey, however, it reflected the past, too, for her sister Beth stood out there in that cold dank world.

She often saw her sister, and this night was no different. Tonight, Beth wore Lacey’s lucky blue jeans. The cream blouse she wore under it all was her own. The neckline was torn and hanging from her shoulder, and spots of blood mottled it in all the places that Chris had stabbed her.

“Why are you still wearing my pants?” Lacey asked, but Beth didn’t answer. She never answered anything Lacey asked. She just remained silent, smiling, and staring. Always staring.

Lacey sighed, exhausted that Beth still hung around after all this time. Watching her sister, she brought her steaming tea to her lips and sipped the hot brew. She held it in her mouth, allowing her tongue to bath for a moment, and then she swallowed. She smiled as the warm feeling spread through her chest.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Knowing that the sound wasn’t the rain’s symphony upon the window, she looked around the room. The tapping was hollow with a subtle baritone flavor to it.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

She leaned down and put her mug onto the nearby glass coffee table, and her sister’s worried face stared up at her.

Lacey looked toward the kitchen. She could have sworn the sound came from over there, but unfortunately, all the lights were off. She saw nothing more than dark shadows and the soft green glow of the clock floating over the range.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

No, it wasn’t coming from the kitchen. She whipped around toward her bedroom, and slowly crept toward the open door. The room beyond was even darker than the kitchen as if all light ceased to exist beyond the threshold.

Beth watched her sister from the glassware and mirrors as Lacey crossed the living room. Beth smiled occasionally, sometimes she frowned. Beth always had animated features, always able to convey exactly how she felt without a single word. When Lacey looked at her sister, she saw worry. She saw fear. She saw something in Beth’s eyes she hadn’t seen since she first appeared to her the night after she was murdered.

Lacey stopped when she reached the door. She peered into the darkness, and watched a shadow dart across the room.

“Who’s in there?” She said, “I have a gun!”

She did, but it was in the nightstand next to her bed. At least she hoped it was still in there because she hadn’t moved it since she visited the man that killed her sister.

Lacey back up just far enough to snatch an angular piece of art made of chromed iron from the table next to her couch. She’d picked it up on a whim while at the local flea market while looking for handcrafted goods. There wasn’t anything particularly interesting about it, but she had an affinity for things with highly reflective surfaces, and this one, with its rigid and polished exterior, was amazing.

Now, it had another purpose, though. More than just a mirror with which she could see her sister, it was a weapon for fighting off her intruder.

As she entered the room, Beth followed her. She tried to turn the light on, but it didn’t work. After toggling the switch a couple more times, she moved to the window and yanked the cord. The blinds shot up with a loud stutter, and the light from the street lamp poured into the room.

The closet door was ajar, and she saw nothing in there but clothes and shoes. The nightstands remained untouched, and the bed was without wrinkles. Everything on her desk appeared where she left them, and no one hid underneath it. If it wasn’t for Beth stamping her foot and urging lacey to leave, she might have thought no one was there after all.

She frowned and looked at Beth who was standing in the long mirror by the closet. Her sister frowned back, and was no longer wearing Lacey’s pants or jacket. Instead, she’d changed into Lacey’s light-blue teddy and white lace undershorts.

“Why do you always wear my clothes?” Lacy asked, and then watched someone materialize from the shadows behind her in the mirror.

Lacy started to turn, but she wasn’t quick enough. The man grabbed her and threw her to the ground. The man turned her over, and she looked up at her attacker.

It was Chris. Maybe it didn’t look like him anymore, but she was certain it was him. He had unnaturally straight, white teeth behind his sneer. Only one of his eyes moved, the other remained slack, staring at nothing. His lips looked melted, partly healed and partly scarred from the burns caused by the gun she shoved in his mouth.

“You’re supposed to be dead,” she said.

He leaned close to her, and as he spoke with his dark, raspy voice, she felt the hot stickiness of his breath against her ear. “You thought you could kill me, bitch?”

Lacey closed her eyes, bucked hard, but couldn’t fight him. He was too strong. “What do you want?”

“You,” he said. “I miss your sister. The way she felt. You being her twin, you probably feel just as good. Of course, after what you did to me, I won’t let you off as easy.”

She was about scream to alert her neighbor, but he suddenly let go of her. He flew across the room, and crashed hard against a long mirror. An invisible force held him against the glass, and two hands coated in a tar-like substance slipped through the surface of the mirror. The glass rippled as if it was made of water, and they snared him.

Lacey scrambled back along the floor as the hands pulled him into the mirror. He screamed as if in pain, and a moment later he was inside. He looked around the reflected version of the room, and as he approached the glass, someone suddenly appeared in the room with him.

The woman was small, thin, and nude. She didn’t have any sort of pigment Lacey had ever seen before. Her skin was as black as the sky on a starless night. It was as if she was a shadow, only she wasn’t because she had blonde hair that seemed to have a soft phosphorescent glow in the moonlight.

“Beth?” Lacey said as the woman stepped toward the man.

He retreated until he pressed against the wall with nowhere to go. He said, “Stay away!”

Lacey thought she heard a laugh echo through the room, and the Chris’s shirt ripped open. The sweat on his bared chest glistened as deep fissures appeared in his skin. They were two inches long, and blood poured out of them as if they went in deep. Finally, a long slit traced across his neck, cutting deeper and deeper until his head barely clung to the existing meat.

The woman standing in the mirror turned as Chris’s body crumpled to the ground. The light illuminated the woman’s face, and it was Beth.

Lacey approached the mirror and placed her hand on the glass. Beth did the same, almost as if a perfect reflection of lacey. The surface felt warm. They smiled at each other, and then Lacey wept.

She didn’t know how it was possible, but Chris had survived her revenge attack. He’d come back to do to Lacey what he did to Beth, but her sister had somehow come back to save her life. She wondered if Beth knew this whole time that he was still alive, and that’s why she’d appeared to her.

Lacey blinked the blurring tears from her eyes, and Beth was gone. Chris was gone. Only Lacey stood in the room with one hand on the cold mirror.

 

 

How To Write Strong Female Characters

Elsa by the ever-so-talented juliajm15 over on deviate art. Click the image to visit her site.
Elsa by the ever-so-talented juliajm15 over on deviate art. Click the image to visit her site.

As a man, I used to find it difficult to write female characters. I researched how to do it right because, well, I’m a dude. I didn’t know what it’s like being female. I couldn’t fathom the struggles women go through in their daily lives.

That was until I realized that women are people.

Okay, I never ever thought for one second that women aren’t people. I knew then and know now that they are people. The difference is that you need to begin to see them as people and not as these foreign objects or as if they’re some strange mystery that no one seems to understand.

When writing a female character (lead or otherwise) you have to remember that everyone experiences the same emotions as the other. Sure, they won’t always be experienced the same from one person to the next, but the general feeling is the same. They feel love, disappointment, fear, anguish, hate, strength, and every other one you can mention. These qualities make a human real, and this, in fact, makes your female character real, too.

I once heard or read an interview in which the male writer was asked how to better write female characters, and he went on to say that just take a man and slap a woman’s name onto it (essentially).

I about lost my shit when I heard this advice.

First of all, women are not men. Men are not women. While we experience all the same emotions, we all experience them differently. This is not in a bad way at all. I’m not saying that women experience their feelings in a worse or better way than men. However, our biology, the thing that makes us one or the other, changes the way we experience certain things. Perhaps not always, but some of the time.

So what do we do when writing women?

Make them human.

The problem is, and I see this a lot, that male writers (and female writers when handling the opposite sex) tend to write their character into an inhuman role. Whereas a real living person might do things one way, their character totally flips reality on its head and does something completely asinine.

The key here is to observe the world outside of whatever stereotypical bullshit you’ve heard. Watch men and women interact with the world. Don’t learn peopling from movies or TV shows. Try to avoid learning it from books, too. Watch how they interact in real life situations, and see how not-so-different we all are from each other.

The Treasure of Ra (Adventure / Horror)

This is my winning entry from the 2015 NYC Midnight Short Story Contest earlier this year.


 

A little bleary and disoriented, I open my eyes and reach for my head. My brain pulsates as my fingers lightly caress a large lump where Regina struck me. I check my fingertips for blood, and there isn’t much. To reduce the discomfort, I pull the band from my ponytail and let my mother’s auburn hair fall to my shoulders.

The entrance to the tomb isn’t large, but the golden afternoon sun pouring through the door makes it seem bigger. The light isn’t powerful enough to penetrate too deep, so about thirty feet in it fades into a stark blackness I’ve only seen once when I visited the tar pits in Los Angeles.

I need to call the police, I think as I put my hand on my cell phone, but I freeze. If I call them, they’ll arrest me for trespassing and I’ll lose any chance of finding out what’s down here. I can’t do that, not when I’m so close.

As I stand, a spell of dizziness casts me against the wall and I lean there for a moment as if inebriated. I close my eyes and take slow deep breaths to abate the sickness turning my stomach. The smell of urine, common within pyramids, doesn’t make it easy but I finally succeed in keeping my lunch down. I wipe the sweat from my tacky forehead, and descend into the pyramid to pursue Regina and Kameron.

I reach into the satchel slung across my body and retrieve my flashlight. The bag feels lighter now because it no longer contains an ancient Egyptian device called the Sun of Ra. I suspect my partners stole it after Regina struck me. I silently damn myself for not realizing they would do this to me. It was a hard way to learn the lesson that you’ll never know who is capable of betraying your trust until it’s too late.

The powerful LED beam illuminates the corridor well, which reveals ornate and colorful Egyptian designs on the walls. It reminds me of when I used to excavate with my father as a young girl. He spent much of his life studying ancient civilizations and had always hoped I would follow in his steps. Before he died, he was quite dismayed to learn that his daughter chose instead to be a flight attendant and travel the world. Of course, life has a way of leading you to your fate because here I am, fulfilling a passion of which my father would be proud.

I arrive at a two-way fork and wonder which way they went. I remember my father once explained that the best way to track is to follow the actual tracks, but in here, the floor is clean and unmarked. I look up at the wall in front of me and study the hieroglyphs hoping it will point me in the right direction. Although I suffer from a poor grasp of the ancient script, a few phrases I recall deciphering on the Sun of Ra match some on this wall, and they point to the offering chamber near the tomb. So, I turn left.

I arrive at a room, which would normally be full of artifacts but archaeologists already scavenged it clean. On the opposite end is a door leading to another dark corridor. To the left of it, a decorative tile lays in fragments upon the ground, and behind its original resting spot on the wall is a small recess. It appears that either Regina or Kameron pried it off and inserted the Sun of Ra into it. The jar-like device rests perfectly within a cutout, and the metal rod that juts from the top of it appears to touch a metal plate at the top of the recess.

Hearing a soft hum coming from somewhere makes me smile because I finally found proof that the old civilizations—at least in Egypt—were far more advanced than we originally thought. I know the Sun of Ra is the first advent of battery power, but to see it actually work is breathtaking.

“Dad, if you could only see this,” I speak, and hope my words reach him wherever he might be.

I step through the far door and the beam of my flashlight reveals a stairway leading down. As I descend, I think for a fleeting moment that I might step into a tar trap. I feel lucky to come upon the hard surface of a small vestibule.

In front of me is another longer corridor—a quick automatic guess puts it about twelve or thirteen yards—but it isn’t just a hallway. It’s a trap, evidenced by—oh, God—Kameron’s crushed body. He lays rumpled at the mouth of it. My eyes begin to water with grief as I observe thick slick blood upon the walls and a distinctly sour stench that hangs heavy in the air.

I know he might have attacked me, but I’m still human. Despite the ability for people to betray, your feelings often stay—even if damaged. That’s what makes it so hard when someone destroys your trust in them. It’s because you care, and you can’t believe they’ve done what they did despite your feelings for them.

Avoiding looking at Kameron’s remains, a little deeper in the hallway I see piles of fragmented and powdered bones. I suspect that the walls had crashed together and smashed anything between them, which included not only Kameron but also the dry remains of ancient grave robbers.

It’s no secret the Egyptians used specific means to stop grave robbers from removing valuables. My father told me about grand mazes, deep pits, and even rumors about mechanical crossbows in the Qin Emperor’s tomb in China. However, I never thought I would come to find an elaborate trap like those only encountered by Indiana Jones, but here I am.

I swallow to keep the sickness down as the serpents swimming violently in my stomach become even more ferocious. My heart thumps in my ear, and I wonder for a moment if it’s safe to enter that hallway. There’s no sign of Regina, which means she made it through—at the cost of Kameron’s life—but I can’t be certain the hallway is harmless. I know the artifact powering the door to this place isn’t nearly strong enough to work this trap as well, which means that this must be mechanical—something I might be able to deactivate.

I see no pedestal on which to place a bag of sand, no grimy bug-infested hole with a rusted lever, and there’s no writing on the ground to indicate the correct tiles on which to stand. The tiles probably react to a certain weight, but how much is a mystery to me.

Would a rock do it, I wonder. Probably not.

I shine the light down the trapped corridor and wonder if I can jump far enough to avoid the trigger floor. Even if I had enough room to get a running start, my long jump record in P.E. was a mere fourteen feet, so I wouldn’t make it. Thankfully, Regina is hardly athletic and wouldn’t have made that jump, either, which means she had to have found another way around it.

After another long study of the hallway, I finish by examining the ceiling. It’s there I find several oblong rungs carved from stone that follow the length of it. While not obvious or visible without light, they’re brilliant. The slaves never actually had to deactivate the tiles; they went around them using one of the oldest means of traveling past danger: monkey bars. Some of them are broken or missing, and I realize the dry remains in the hallway aren’t from grave robbers but unlucky slaves who fell victim to their own invention.

I worry I’m running out of time and look for a way to reach the ancient rungs. They’re far too high, but there are small protuberances on a nearby wall that I can use to climb. I put the flashlight in my mouth, place my foot on one of the nubs, and shoot up toward the first hold.

My left hand snares the rung tight, but my right hand falls free. I unintentionally bite harder on the flashlight, which causes my jaw to burn with pain. I loosen my mouth to let out a small moan, and the light falls to the floor.

“Shit,” I utter as I hurry to grab the rung with my free hand. Though I lost my light, I sigh with relief, glad that I didn’t fall and that the flashlight didn’t activate the walls.

As I did with monkey bars when I was a little girl, I swing my body, reach with my strong arm, and grab the next rung. I did this six times, and I came upon one of the broken holds. The next one beyond isn’t too far but I have to let go of this one before I can grab the next. I swing and swing until my false confidence supersedes my sensibleness, and I let go. My fingers wrap around the next rung and I quickly grab onto it with my other hand to stabilize.

I take in a long deep breath of the now unsour but stale air, which is oddly satisfying. I made it halfway across with only eight more rungs to go. Well, seven, because there’s another broken one toward the end. So, I travel across, easing along making sure not to swing too greatly since I’m not sure how much abuse the holds can take. I reach the next missing one, and—as before—swing hard to reach the next to last one. I let go of the rung, soar through the air, and land a strong grip. Then the rung cracks and gives way. I fall to the ground.

I land hard, and a sharp pain screams from my left ankle. The deep sound of hollow thunder booms through the corridor. I scramble to my feet as I watch the sections of wall—starting from the entrance—slam shut. Bang. Bang. Bang. They close faster and faster, and I hobble toward the far exit. I feel the hairs on my neck stand straight, my skin pinching with gooseflesh, and when I reach the final foot of the hallway, I close my eyes and jump.

I hug myself to cushion the fall, and I expect—at the very least—for the walls to crush my legs. They thunder to a close with a sudden clap, and a spray of sand showers me. For a short while, I lay there in the fetal position counting my blessings as the walls rumble back to their original spots.

The hallway is dark now; the life of my flashlight snuffed out by those wicked but effective walls. I comically imagine the flashlight flattened paper-thin and let out an uncontrollable laugh. It really isn’t humorous, but I survived, so you can say my laughter was born from borderline hysteria.

When finally upright, my left ankle stings, but I can walk. Just beyond this new antechamber, there’s another hallway I recall seeing when I shined the light down here. At the end of it, there’s soft amber glow on the right. I walk to the end, limping on my left foot and using the narrow sandstone walls to steady myself. I peer around the corner. Inside a small chamber, I see Regina standing before a black pit.

I turn the corner and enter a room. There’s a ghostly whisper and a mysterious howl I can’t quite place—maybe wind. The room has a strange fuzzy feeling to it as if the air is thin and making me light headed.

Before I can say anything, Regina spins around. “I thought you’d die in that hallway.”

I merely stare at her, surprised with how cold she sounds. If we hadn’t worked closely and on good terms for the last six months, I might have guessed we were lifetime enemies. It’s as if she suddenly changed.

”Isn’t it beautiful?” She says as she turns back to the pit and looks into it.

The sight is beautiful. It’s a square pit with hand-carved stones around it. There are steps leading into it, and there’s some sort of liquid inside. The surface is choppy as if a creature swimming within disturbs it. The light from Regina’s halogen lamp glistens from the tiny waves, and gorgeous refractions dance upon the walls of the room. On the farthest wall, a cluster of hieroglyphs warns that the son of Ra lies within the murky fluid and that he shouldn’t be disturbed—at least I think that’s what it says.

“Was it worth it?” I ask her. “Was it worth smashing me over the head and getting—” tears choke me a bit, but I continue, “—getting Kameron killed?”

She looks back at me, her brown eyes icy and dark. “Don’t you dare. He knew the risks. Just like you and me.”

“No one should have to anticipate their friends turning on them. There isn’t even anything here. It was all for nothing!”

It’s true. All that effort flying from place to place looking for the treasure followed by the loss of Kameron’s life, and all I find is a pool and ultimate betrayal.

“Nothing here?” She softly chuffs, “God, open your eyes.”

Regina’s smile broadens into a dark grin, shadows from the light make her face appear sinister. I lean against the wall to take the weight off my ankle. The fuzzy feeling is still there, so I welcome the rest.

I say, “It’s nothing but superstition. Whatever you’re thinking, you’re wrong.”

“Liar! You know what this is; I know you can feel it. This pool is… is immortality.”

I can’t believe what I’m hearing. It’s pure madness. The enchanted look in her eyes is that same one you get when you’ve made up your mind about something and resolved to ignore all reason. This definitely isn’t the Regina I know.

She takes the first step down toward the pool. I step away from the wall, grimacing from the stab of pain in my ankle, and move to grab her. She hears me shuffle closer and hurries into the liquid.

The whispering in the room becomes louder, and Regina looks up at me. Her eyes turn wide and blur with tears. Her wild grin soon turns up and twists with terror. The whispering gets even louder, and then she screams. Bubbles appear in the pool and when they pop, sinuous threads of smoke snake into the air.

“Get out of there!” I call, but she stumbles back. The liquid splashes onto her face and her skin turns red. Boils appear and her eyes roll back. She begins to convulse as she submerges, and I turn away from the pool. The acrid smell twists my stomach, and I fall to the ground. My knees sting as I vomit. The whispers soon become softer, and that unknown howling returns.

Wiping my mouth with the back of my hand, I look at the glistening pool. The dazzling swells twinkle at each arc. The whispers beckon me, and so I crawl to the edge, unable to take my eyes off it.

It’s so beautiful.

Chasing Shadows

This is a story based on little known but true horrific events in the life of Henry Rathbone, Abraham Lincoln’s friend.

The study in the Rathbone home was small but suited Henry well. It served as a place not only for him to tend to the brutal scar left on his arm by John Wilkes Booth, but also to get away from his wife. They’d fought earlier that evening about her indiscretions with other men, and although she denied all of his accusations vehemently, he knew better. The way she acted around other men was proof of her betrayal, and he couldn’t listen to her lies anymore or he’d have killed her. He told her as much, too, before retiring to this small chamber.

As the flickering candle illuminated the room with its warm amber light, Henry uncapped the tin containing a therapeutic salve for his scar. He could see the bottom of the container, the last bit of it hugged the edges. After scooping some of it up with the tips of his fingers, he began to rub the cold cream into the damaged skin. He didn’t like looking at the wound, so he looked for something to keep his attention.

He started with the small painting on a nearby wall. The artist had painted a lonely tree amidst a golden field of tall grass. Rathbone thought about how nice it would be to sit under that tree. He could even smell the sweet warmth from the grass and hear the buzzing of bees floating from flower to flower. For a short while, he lost himself in that painting, but it didn’t last long because his wife appeared in that meadow as well. She wasn’t alone, either. A shadowy man laid her down into the grass, and as he bent down to kiss her, Rathbone looked away from the picture.

He wasn’t surprised his attention immediately landed on his service revolver. For some time now, he considered killing his wife. He hadn’t always wanted to because, after all, he’d married her out of love, but he was naïve to think it would last forever. Nothing lasted forever. If death didn’t take things away then the consequences of living life would. In his case, death was too sweet a reward for him, a man burdened by the deaths of countless men during the war, and so God seemed to think it a better idea to have him suffer atrocity after atrocity. First, a man murdered Lincoln, and during his struggle with the assailant in that theater, he received the scar. If that wasn’t enough, his wife turn adulterous whore a few short years later. He figured his wife would soon give him syphilis and then leave with the children.

He was thankful the scar didn’t hurt much, but he would have preferred physical pain over the constant debilitating memories associated with it. That was the worst part, because he had to relive it every moment. If not during the day, then it came to him as nightmares in his sleep. There was no known escape from those horrible images beyond death, and sometimes he wished he had died during the war. At least he could be at peace and his wife would be free to do whatever, or whomsoever, she wanted.

After finishing with the salve, he replaced the cap. When he pushed it back next to his quill, he glimpsed the small smudge of ink on the tin where his youngest son had touched it. That was the first time the boy had seen his scar, and Rathbone recalled the haunting conversation he had with George.

“What’s that, Father?”

“It’s a scar.”

“What happened?” The boy had moved closer to inspect the puffy flesh.

“I tried to capture a man who killed my friend.”

“Why would he do that?”

“I don’t know, son.” Rathbone had held the tin so George could dip his fingers into it. “Some men do evil things.”

The boy had cautiously dabbed his fingers into it, and then sniffed the cream. He had scrunched his tiny nose. “It feels strange.”

“That’s the mint,” he had said, and nodded. “Go ahead.”

The boy had gently applied the cream as if the surface of the wound was painful to touch. It may not have been painful for George, but Henry had felt it and had a hard time keeping his face from wincing.

When George had finished, he looked up at his father with curious but soulful eyes. “Have you done bad things?”

The question pulled Rathbone back to reality. He would have liked to have told his son that he didn’t do bad things, but he couldn’t lie to the boy. Sure, it was necessary to fight for the freedom of men, but that didn’t mean the death of all those soldiers wasn’t at least some kind of evil. Both sides fought for what they though was right, and many men had women and children waiting for their safe return. For every soldier he killed, he murdered a family.

Rathbone picked his revolver off the desk. Although the blood that stained the grains in the wood handle had dried long ago, the cold surface made it feel wet. He closed his eyes to free his mind of the memories of dead soldiers, and it worked. Soon, he saw smoke snaking sinuously into the air from the freshly fired gun. He looked passed it, and he saw his wife slowly falling backward as a spray of blood, brain, and bone fragments painted the wall. He saw himself standing over her, and she didn’t look surprised. No, she looked guilty because she knew why he did it.

Henry let out a sharp breath and opened his eyes when he heard the floorboard outside the study moan. He glanced at the hallway to see who was there, but because the candle wasn’t strong enough, black shadows curtained it from view.

“George? Junior?” His two boys always snuck around on Christmas Eve. No doubt, they headed for the gifts in the parlor under the tree. “You best get back to bed.”

Silence.

He stood and pulled on his shirt. Though the hall remained quiet, it didn’t mean someone wasn’t lurking out there. As he stared intently into that black abyss, he thought he saw a shadow move across the doorway.

“Clara?” he said, and then aimed the revolver at the hallway.

He grabbed the base of the candleholder with his left hand, and moved closer to the door. Cobwebs of black shadows hung in the corners as the furthest wall brightened a little. He stopped in the middle of the room, and furrowed his brow. He waited for a moment expecting a sound or another shadow to move.

Rathbone stepped closer to the hallway. The warm flittering flame cast away the darkness, and the shadows dissolved toward the ceiling to reveal more of the hallway. A lone spider skittered along the wall and disappeared into the blackness.

“I hate spiders,” he sighed as he looked down the hallway in both directions. The right led to the rooms in which the children slept. The boys were in the first room on the left and his daughter was at the end. He looked toward the parlor, and saw a shadow melt into the darkness.

“You best show yourself!” He aimed the gun, but no one answered or appeared. “There’ll be no more warnings.”

Another creak in the floorboards alerted him, and he nearly squeezed the trigger but stopped. Had it been his wife, he might have fired. However, he couldn’t be sure she was the one walking around. He couldn’t shoot his own children, unless of course they weren’t his. That thought had crossed his mind before, but he didn’t have proof, so he couldn’t just shoot wildly into the dark and risk killing the children.

He stepped into the hallway and moved toward the parlor. With each quiet step, the candle revealed more of the hallway. Though his eyes should have remained on the darkness ahead, two frames on the wall commanded his attention. The first was the only picture he had of his late friend Lincoln. The other was a photograph of Henry and his family.

As he passed the frames, he though he saw them move. He immediately turned to examine them, but they were never straighter. He narrowed his eyes and took a deep breath. He was almost certain he saw them tilt, but they sat there untouched as they always had.

When he reached the parlor, the shadows thinned and much of the room became visible. He swept left and right, checking as much of the room as possible before continuing further into it. In one corner was the stack of Christmas gifts for the following morning. He didn’t see anyone hiding under the tables or kneeling behind the couch. The front door appeared unmolested, and the locks on them looked secure. If there was an intruder in the house, then he must have entered some other way.

As he crossed the room to the hallway leading to the master bedroom, he saw a white dress fade into the shadows. He paused, heart hammering in his chest. “Clara? I swear if that’s you, woman…”

No response, but he didn’t think he’d get one. That wasn’t the most concerning thing, though. He recognized that dress. It was the same one she wore the night Booth shot Lincoln. He never understood why she kept the Godforsaken thing because his friend’s blood was all over it. He’d told her repeatedly to destroy it, but she never did. Now, she further disrespected Lincoln’s memory by wearing it and walking around their home.

How tasteless, he thought.

When he entered the hallway and reached the door to the master room, he peered into it. The light reflected from the green satin duvet, which look disheveled. The side in which his wife slept was open and revealed the sheets below. Her pillow appeared distressed in the middle as if a head had recently laid upon it. When he put his hand on the bed, it felt warm.

Heavy patters of feet erupted from behind him, and when he whipped around to face the intruder, a shadow disappeared into the hallway.

“Clara, come on out. I won’t hurt you,” he said as he readied his finger on the trigger.

He moved back into the hallway, and the patter of feet fled to the other side of the house. He pursued them as fast as possible, and when he was back in the hallway leading toward his study and the children’s rooms, he slowed. Whomever was back there trapped themselves, and he didn’t want them to take him by surprise.

As he approached the frames on the wall, |the one with Lincoln and Mary Todd moved. This time he was sure of it, and when he looked, it kept moving. Henry reared against the adjacent wall, and pointed the gun at the image. From behind the frame, a black sharp claw reached out and grasped the edge. Its thick claws tapped and cracked the glass as it moved the picture to the side. Henry’s heart thumped hard, threatening to explode from his chest. He wanted to run, but his legs were iron rods bolted to the ground. Further and further still the frame moved, and eventually it revealed the creature behind it. A man. No, not a man, it was the shadow of a man with bright white glowing teeth grinning in the darkness. It laughed and laughed, and he suddenly recognized that chortle because he recalled hearing it the night Booth took Lincoln’s life. That twisted laugh of macabre delight.

Henry fired a round.

The bullet shattered the glass and tore through the image of Lincoln. The powerful shot slammed into the wall, and both frames fell to the ground. He fully expected the shadow man to crawl through the wall and attack him, but to his surprise, the man was gone. The wall was flat, no longer did it contain a portal to some dark world from which the ghost of John Wilkes Booth tormented him.

He reluctantly pressed the muzzle of the gun against the wall, and it didn’t move. He’d hoped that it would, that maybe it would reveal a hatch or something to explain what he’d seen, but it didn’t.

Henry bent down to pick up the pictures, but stopped when he glanced at the one of his family. He saw black holes where their eyes and mouths should have been. Then, dozens of spindly-legged spiders began to crawl from those deep dark pits. They poured into the hallway, and he began to stomp, but no matter how hard he slammed his bare foot into the wood, he didn’t crush a single spider.

“Die! Die!” he screamed, his foot becoming sorer with each stomp.

When he finally stopped, the ball of his heel throbbed. His labored breathing was loud, but not loud enough to douse the soft creaking of an approaching assailant. He aimed the gun at the darkness and lifted the candle, which had nearly burned out during his rampage over the spiders. A swift patter of feet disappeared down the hallway again. This time it was more than one set. More than one intruder.

“You made a mistake breaking into my home!”

A door in the darkness slammed, but it wasn’t near. That meant it had to be one of the doors to his children’s rooms. He ran through the darkness, and stopped at his daughter’s room. The candle’s light flickered from the closed door as he placed it on the candleholder attached to the wall.

He knocked on the door and said, “Boys? Your mother and sister in there with you?”

He didn’t get an answer, but he did hear the soft whimper of children. He turned the knob and rushed into the room with the gun pushed out head of him. From his left, something shrieked and knocked the gun from his hand. It clattered against the floor, and Henry lunged at his attacker. The shadow monster dug its claws into his wrists as he pushed it against the wall. It called out in pain, and Rathbone ducked away from it to find the gun.

It proved difficult to find the revolver because the door had partially closed and blocked the light. He swore several times as his hands searched the thick darkness. The monster grabbed him from behind as his hand finally fell upon the cool metal. Rathbone twisted free of the attacker’s grip, flipped over, and opened fire. He pulled and pulled until there was no scream left in the gun, only hard, dry clicks.

He heard soft wet coughs in the darkness as if the monster’s lungs battled tuberculosis. He rushed into the hallway to grab the candle, and quickly returned.

Something loud banged against the front door in the living room. The flickering light revealed that the intruder had pulled the coverlet off his daughter’s bed as it fell, and it now draped over his body. He reached down, and pulled the sheer cloth up and away. He first saw the chin, and immediately began to remember the moment he lifted his wife’s veil at their wedding. When he’d completely unveiled the monster, he stared down in shock. Supine on the floor in a growing puddle of crimson blood was his wife. Three bullets had entered her chest, one in her abdomen, and one had torn through her cheek. She coughed her last breath, and died.

He dropped to his knees next to Clara’s body, and her warm blood wetted his knees. He was certain he had struggled with an intruder. It had made itself known in the shadows as spiders skittering along the wall, and the picture… it was behind it watching him! He knew what he’d seen; there was no doubt.

He could think of no reason why his wife attacked him other than she thought he was an intruder, too. It was obvious she had intended to attack someone because she had a knife tucked into the sash of her—

Gown? Wasn’t she wearing the white dress?

“What have you done?” he asked her as the children cried behind him.

He thought he wanted to kill her. After all, he dreamed about it every night the way every man surely dreams of revenge. Just then, however, a sudden feeling of grief, pain, and guilt burned within him. He couldn’t believe what he’d done. Despite his wife’s attempt to kill him and despite her adulterous proclivities, he couldn’t believe his wife was dead.

The banging in the living room continued, and he set down the candle. Tears welled in his eyes, and he grabbed the knife from her sash. As the front door crashed loudly through the hallway, he turned the knife on himself. Each stab felt like fire in his chest. The heavy footfalls of men echoed through the corridor as he stabbed and stabbed screaming wildly into the darkness.

After several more deep stabs, two men entered the room. He looked up, and the dying candlelight revealed them as his neighbor Rolf and an officer. Rolf quickly snatched the knife from his hand, and the officer grabbed Henry’s arms.

“My God,” Rolf whispered.

“There was someone in the house!” Henry screamed as Rolf attended to the crying children. The officer pulled Henry out of the room, dragged him down the hallway, and out into the frigid winter night.

Henry continued screaming. “There’s something in the house. Something’s in my house! I know it! Get my children out of there. They made me kill my wife! It must’ve been the people in the walls… the ones behind the pictures!”

“Quiet,” the officer said, and locked Henry in the back of the police wagon.

As the officer returned to the house, Henry shivered from the cold. He peered through the bars, and his gaze drifted to the front window. He thought he saw the drapes pull slightly to the left, and when he looked harder, he was certain of it. A shadow among shadows peered through that window and watched him.