The blinds in Lacey’s high school History class were drawn up and the windows open. The sun smiled through, bathing the class in its warmth. The first morning of Spring drifted a crisp breeze into the room and kissed Lacey’s cheek. Her eyes drifted over the walls painted with maps from around the world. She caught sight of a sparkling dust particle floating across the United States. From New York to Arizona, her gaze followed the sparkle till it merged into a thin cloud of dust amidst her classmates. Its twinkling enchanted the room with gentle mesmerizing movements.
Lacey’s attention was redirected to her classmates, who were struggling to repress their laughter. Ms. Hanley had missed part of her upper lip with her red lipstick this morning and, instead, colored three of her front teeth.
Amid all of the elation Lacey could make out a shrill and steady ringing from the hall outside the classroom. She quieted and strained her ears toward the direction of the door, toward the source of the familiar sound. But her classmates seemed unable to hear it.
The fire alarm.
At the same instant this thought ended, everyone faced her, their mouths cracked from grins and spilled tongues waggling in laughter. Ms. Hanley was the only one whose polite smile turned toward the door that concealed the wailing alarm. She showed no signs of concern; instead, the teacher seemed to be in a trance.
Lacey knew what came next, but frantic terror immobilized her.
Ms. Hanley’s dark irises faded to a milky white. Her red stained teeth spilled from her mouth and tumbled down her chin like Tic-Tacs from a scolded child. In their wake was a gaping maw of blackness. Tendrils crept from it, enveloping her face, then head and shoulders. Soon, her skin was nothing more than a black crawling, slithering mass.
The creature that had once been her teacher turned to Lacey and stared blindly at her with cloudy orbs. It pointed at the door, which had become framed in billows of smoke. The creature lifted its other limb toward the windows. They slammed shut, quivering. The room became thick with the smoke’s bitter taste. It crawled into Lacey’s throat and stung her eyes until she began coughing and blinking away tears.
The linoleum floor became like lava melting the soles of her shoes. Lacey lifted her now bare-bottomed feet after letting out an agonized shriek. The windows shattered from the intense heat as flames licked up the walls and devoured the desks. By this time, the fire alarm was totally inaudible, and the room resembled the inside of a furnace.
When the flames reached Lacey’s desk, she scrambled out of it, forgetting the molten floor. There was no escape from the resulting torture. She crumbled in helpless excruciation. She gasped deafening screams until her lungs filled with smoke and only hoarse whispers escaped her mouth. Her skin began to melt away like wax.
The last image Lacey saw was her classmates’ faces blistering and dripping to the floor as they continued to laugh at the creature at the front of the flame-engulfed classroom.
A thirty-three year old Lacey sprang upright in bed, a dull pain throbbed in her ears, temples, forehead. Each pulse sent shrill and shaky notes of the alarm and hungry roar of the fire deep into her cerebellum. She could feel the blisters forming on her skin and patted down her pajama-clad body in frenetic haste. Then the echoing orchestra of the nightmare was replaced by the sound of her own sputtering sobs.
She curled into a quivering slump silhouetted by the growing hue of periwinkle that spilled through her windows from the East. This image was identical to the mornings of the last two months. Gooseflesh rose on her arms, and a sliver of some suppressed memory scuttled across the floor of her mind.
It’s coming back. Little by little, the woman knew with horrific finality. It begins with these vivid gruesome dreams, same as when I was a young girl. Then it finds a way out to…to—
Lacey shook her head to derail the thought.
This parasite that had latched onto her in her childhood home must be eradicated. It had weaved past her pharmaceutical solutions, of which she’d discovered over the passage of time kept it leashed on a flimsy twine rope. Those tethers had worn and severed. Modern medicine was not the answer. The repeated nightmares that were tenaciously pervading her unconscious were evidence enough. She couldn’t procrastinate anymore, couldn’t simply wait for a new drug while the beasts ran unchained in her mind. So, she resolved to return to the house and perform the sealing ritual today.
As Lacey dressed, laced her boots, and retrieved a satchel from under her bed, she could feel milky deadfish eyes observing her from her closet. It was reentering her conscious mind as well. She ignored it, and left her studio apartment.
Lacey boarded the bus at the nearest station. She sat toward the front and clutched the satchel in her lap. The bulging, milky eyes floated somewhere in the seats behind her. She could feel them on her. In desperation to disregard them Lacey gazed at the blurring world outside her window and let the clawing memories release.
A young girl, not much older than seventeen, shut her bedroom door. She looked to the sheer curtains concealing her windows. She pulled the bench from her vanity to right below the pane and boosted herself onto it, tying back part of the curtain.
Rain began to strike the glass, slow and tentative then quick and eager. Its growing strength stole all of her attention. The wind grew to a gale that sent currents of rain pelting the ground. Soon the girl couldn’t make out anything beyond the pavement of the street on the other side of the yard’s rusted chain-link perimeter. Each drop shattered there like crystal marbles; sparkling splatters leaped and vanished into the air. She couldn’t help but wonder at the marvelous sting they’d leave on her face and neck. She drew her knees to her chest, enfolding them in her arms. The lone Maple in the corner of the backyard swayed back and forth in the weaving gusts. The girl closed her eyes and began mimicking its sways.
She thought of her mother somewhere on the other side of her bedroom door, the woman who used to lay on the roof to stargaze with her. They’d always talked about the pinpoints of lights that gleamed billions of miles away. The girl’s mother had explained that the stars were extinguished by now, probably orbiting in the atmosphere of another planet. They’re just so far away that their beams took hundreds of years to reach the human eye. The girl would relish at how lucky they were to behold the burning rocks’ afterglows on those nights.
She gathered her knees tighter to her chest and opened her eyes to look out the window.
Those moments on the roof seemed a lifetime ago. Now her mother would only scream at night because she believed the moon was alive and its light would come into the window to eat her soul. The sun’s affect was much worse. So the girl had boarded up her mother’s bedroom and was resigned to feeding and bathing her behind its closed door.
The rain on the window slid down her vision, leaving melted trails that blurred the outside world. They bent the branches on the Maple so that they seemed to be moving toward the girl.
The rain drove harder into the window. The noise plugged her ears, shimmied into her mind, and ricocheted off the walls of her skull. She felt like a fly trapped in a sealed jar, and the sound was millions of little fingers tapping, asking to come inside. Their constant rhythm began to lull the girl. She relaxed her muscles, and let out a sigh. Her eyelids fluttered with heaviness.
She closed her eyes and deepened her breathing. Hours passed by like minutes, their passage unnoticeable.
When she opened her eyes again, her bedroom was dense with blackness. She seemed to be held up and crushed by it all at once. Pounding rose in her ears as the pressure in the room increased. She realized she could barely lift her eyelids or the rest of her body.
Panic swelled in her chest.
Then a blade of light sliced into the darkness. Her closet door was opening.
She could feel the scream quiver in the back of her throat, ready to be released at the sight of whatever stood behind that door. But there was only a solid stretch of light, curved and pointed at her. This and eyes, barely visible but distinguishably thundercloud gray like her father’s had been. They were focused on the light’s edge as it nearly reached her foot, then stopped like it was teasing her, daring her to touch it.
“Dad?” she whispered through stiff lips.
The girl tried to reach out, but still couldn’t escape the thralls of the surrounding void. She began to feel tendrils wrapping around her neck and entwining in her hair.
And just then, the blade of light closed the gap between them. The weight drained from her legs. The further the illumination reached up her body, the more relaxed her muscles became. Then, the girl was floating on and among the beam. It was warm. It wrapped around her in an enveloping embrace reminiscent of those she remembered from her father.
Within this gentle cocoon of light, there was nothing else. No darkness remained; no loving eyes. Only the bed of white. It cradled her entire body. She felt like a newborn swaddled in clean linen, rocking back and forth, back and forth.
This is what the stars must feel like.
The girl drifted away.
The next moment, her mother was on her, shaking her awake, ululating wails and sputtering, “Not again! Not again! It can’t take you like your father! Not my baby!” A wadded pair of white fleece tights swayed from the rod in her closet. Its legs were tied into a noose.
Lacey recalled admitting herself and her mother into the nearest psychiatric ward the following morning. She had progressed to a rehabilitation center then to the local mission not long after. Her mother had never made it out, though. Lacey had received a call from the ward’s staff member three years later, verifying her as the sole surviving family member of her mother. She let it go to voicemail. She had never returned the call to confirm.
For years since, Lacey had attained and retained an illusion of escape from her past through chamomile chased with melatonin and prescription meds. Until recently, as the dense mirage shimmered out of focus and disappeared.
So, she had sought spiritual help and found the revelation in a Medicine Man named Solomon Fire Dancer. He’d given her the instruments of protection and combat within the satchel on her lap and instructions on their use.
The bus opened its doors to the stop five miles from her childhood home. She walked the remaining distance.
Lacey could feel the house’s looming residency before she saw it. Pressure filled her ears at the sight of its darkened, dusty windows. This is impossible, she thought. It’s too permanent. Its roots are deeper than I can reach.
She ignored the sensation of repulsion and advanced to the bottom of the front door’s entrance stairs. Lacey unzipped the satchel and bent to place its contents before them. From left to right: white sage, cinnamon sticks, tobacco, lavender, cedar shavings, and willow prayer sticks. She ignited the white sage with a match inside the Pall Malls from her pocket and, using a peacock feather, wafted its smoke over the other instruments then into the direction of the house. Then, she buried everything but the sage. The instructions from Solomon were to drench the upturned soil with water, but Lacey held a different idea.
She procured the canteen that used to be filled with the Medicine Man’s blessed water and poured its nose-tingling distilled contents onto the small dirt mound. Lacey splashed more onto the entire exterior of the front of the house and drank the last of it, her face contorting from its sudden rich burn. She dropped the rest of the smoldering sage then another lit match at the closed threshold of the door. Lacey ran down the stairs as the flame spread with the sound of a muffled exhale. Once she came to the buried instruments, Lacey turned around and slowly withdrew a cigarette. She lit it with her last match and took three long drags.
Then she dropped it cherry-first onto the drenched dirt.
Her back was illuminated by the glow of the flames and the full moon as Lacey walked back to the bus stop.