After school Alice walks to her grandmother’s house and finds a long black limo waiting out front. “Your grandmother’s in the hospital, Alice,” says a tall blonde in pearls. She’s leaning against the car, wrapped in a fur coat even though it’s a mild gray day. “She asked me to take you to her other house. Her real house.”
Alice thinks about this. Several things run through her head; how upset her mother would be if she knew Alice was speaking to a stranger, even though it’s her mother’s fault for getting divorced and going back to work and making her stay with her grandmother after school; how elegant and weird this lady is with her short blond hair in a ducktail and her ropes of pearls and her pale, colorless eyes that look like they’re screaming; but mostly she thinks about how her grandmother only has one house, this blue Victorian on the corner here at Maple Avenue and Wallace Road.
“What other house?” is what she says finally.
“Oh – her big house,” the blonde says. “The one with all the statues and animals. The one she inherited from her family.”
And now Alice is intrigued because it sounds mysterious and luxurious, this other house – a house that’s kind of her house too if it’s a family house.
But what she says is, “My mother is coming to get me soon.”
The blonde smiles. “No, honey, no. She called me. She’s at the hospital with your grandmother. I’m sorry, pumpkin.”
And because pumpkin is what her grandmother calls her, and it’s a suddenly raw day, Alice slides into the backseat. The car is warm and smells like cologne. As it moves through the quiet streets of her town, streets lined with leaf-mulched gutters and big Victorians and yards that Alice instinctively understands she may never see again, she settles into the upholstered seat.
Darkness falls like dinner time, a shroud of domesticity denied. That feeling that she should be inside, somewhere safe, when the world grows dark outside the car windows and the insistent rhythm of the engine (for how long now? a long time, it seems) is lulling her into sleep. And sleep she does.
Still Alice knows something is wrong when she awakens and it’s not just because the car is parked in front of a massive house in the country. The driver (who was the driver?) is gone and so is the blonde.
But what’s most wrong of all is that it’s the next day, an overcast afternoon. That can’t be right, Alice thinks. She gets out of the car.
The house looms up before her, a big stone house, a house for rich people, she can tell. But there are no other cars.
Stepping inside, she enters a cavernous castle of hanging chandeliers and arched porticoes, a painted fresco that gives way to a higher, towering ceiling that is – five stories up? Six?
But that’s impossible, it was a normal two-story house outside.
The tiled floor looks polished. The books held in a row by two silver kangaroo bookends aren't dusty. Someone lives here, cares for the house. And there’s a key on the foyer table, an old-fashioned key from a storybook.
She pockets it and goes exploring.
Bright daylight spills into the hall from a white room that proves to be a kitchen — a clean one with an old linoleum floor and an old-fashioned refrigerator and stove. She opens a side door to basement stairs that break off four steps down. Below the jagged wood is rough water. It looks as deep as a swimming pool and she's leaning over when a white big thing emerges, a manatee or a seal or just some lumpy misshapen thing that has a face.
"You can’t come down here,” it says. “This is for advanced people."
"Divers," she says, because it doesn’t seem polite to ask him what he is.
"Not a shipwreck, a housewreck," he explains, "but there’s no treasure here so there are no divers."
"Are you the guardian?"
He considers her words. "I’m just a visitor," he says. "I swim in from up the waterway to see what’s what. I like the memories."
"Look." His clumsy fin-paw gestures into the water and she can see it below: the glow of a television set coming up through the water, a blurry mother and two children watching from the armchair and loveseat.
"Do they know you?"
"No, they can’t see me. They’re just a recording. A memory, like I said."
Upstairs there’s a movie star bedroom with a swan bed draped in pale blue satin.
Taffeta prom dresses in the closet. Withered corsages. A round canister of power with a furry puff. The room smells stale, like old Hollywood magazines and moth-eaten curtains.
Quick, hide under the bed, it’s coming up the stairs –
Alice doesn’t know why those words jumped into her head. She goes cold with fear. The house stays silent. No footsteps on the stairs. She looks down at the satin bedspread covering the space underneath the bed and then she gets very afraid and backs out of the room.
Down the hall, where’s there no natural lighting and the last door is barely visible in the shadows, she goes cold again. Key in hand, she stands outside the door for a long time before opening it.
The smell of decomposing flesh floods her nostrils. Dead bodies are buried under the floorboards, fluids seeping up through the cracks. She quickly shuts the door and locks it. We won't live in that room, she tells herself. We'll just keep that door closed.
Down the hall she goes to the master bedroom, where the door is open and bright overcast daylight is pouring through the windows.
There’s a lot to look at. Toiletries on the dresser. A bed with a cushioned headboard. A clothing tree with hats hung on it. Another narrow walk-in closet. She squats down to look at the drawers at the bottom and then the bathroom door opens. A tall skinny bald person looks down at her, covered in blue eyeshadow and greasy rose-colored cheeks.
“You nosy little slut,” it says and slams the door.
Alice leaves the closet and sits on the bed. The house is still silent. She knows the bald person isn’t in the bathroom or maybe it’s always in there and can’t do more than play itself like a record, over and over.
It feels like it’s her house, like she owns it. Like no matter where she goes, the real part of her will always live here.
She goes to another bedroom, this one tan and bearing a mannequin in a military uniform, and looks outside. She thought the car would be gone, but it’s still there.
Carefully Alice walks downstairs and through a back door. Breathing the wet warm day reassures her. A square border of lilac bushes protects a black and white checkboard patio; she sits at one of the tables and waits. She’s afraid to look at the dark house windows.
But when she finally looks, she sees her: a woman pressed against the glass, her pale distorted face half-melted in a crooked captured scream, one eye higher than the other. Her skin-material is flattened against the window and slowly drooping.
She can’t come outside, Alice tells herself. So I just won’t go in again. I’ll stay out here forever.
Next time, when she walks around front to check, the car is gone.
Night doesn’t seem to exist here. Hours pass and then more hours. She walks around the back lawn, shoots rocks in the kai pond, returns to the patio table. At one point she goes into the garage but a man is laying facedown with blood pooling around his head. Another memory, she guesses. She goes back to the patio.
When she looks at the house, a giant stuffed bear is standing in the hallway window. It raises one paw and waves. She waves back.
“My mother’s going to be here soon,” she says aloud.
“No, Alice, we’re not coming,” says a bitter voice and she looks up, startled, to see her mother and grandmother sitting at the other table, blood running down their faces and clothes from the gashes in their heads. They vanish.
It’s the silence that gets her. The lack of birds in the trees, the absence of insects. The oppressive unbreaking silence that hangs over the grass and house and trees. She says the alphabet. She tells herself the story of the fox and the grapes. But her words die as soon as they leave her mouth, ashes on the unstirring air.
The house waits. Alice understands that no one is going to arrive. That there’s something waiting for her in the house, a secret, a history, a certain unrotting core. It’s going to be grotesque and it’s going to be the end of her as she is now. “Okay,” she says, “okay” and gets up and walks into the house.
Valerie Alexander has had a variety of short stories published in anthologies from publishers like Cleis Press, Samhain and Running Press, and magazines like Sanitarium and Dark Moon Digest.