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  Table of contents Issue Twenty-one INHERITANCE



he heard them as if in a dream, the deepest of slumbers, a tingling of consciousness not yet achieved, their voices a distant and intriguing murmur.

From some remote room in the house, laughter, like struck crystal, high-pitched and hopeful, filtered down to her and she dreamed a young girl. How old, whether beautiful or homely, she could not yet picture, and her dust stirred with the effort, shifted within the box like a breath; and then settled once more leaving her bones unclothed.

Yearning now entered her dream like a thirst, her first discomfort in ages, but she possessed no means by which to express it. She tried harder to imagine the laughing girl. But the effort only yielded images of her self before the box, stirring tiny dust devils that wandered within her musty space before collapsing once more into nothingness.

Whether for hours, days, or weeks, the thumps, scrapings, and the muffled shouts; voices both masculine and feminine continued to sift down, her sleep trammeled by the living commerce above her. Though she had no flesh, she began to be aware of what she remembered as her fingers, toes, face—a distant sensation of life like blood returning to a deadened limb.

Imagery, independent of her memories, began to form within her dark dreams, firing like distant stars, providing kaleidoscopic glimpses of the people in her home—the timbre of their voices, the weight of their treading on the floorboards, infusing the brightening canvas with their faces and expressions. She looked for the girl, found her.

“Dad,” the girl addressed a man entering the yellow kitchen. He held a box on which was scrawled, “Glasses and Mugs,” the muscles in his bare arms tensed and corded.

Setting it down onto a table, he replied, “Yeah, honey…” opening the box and removing the contents, sorting glass from mug, mug from cup.

The dust now knew their relationship, and her consciousness stretched toward the girl. “I was like her,” it thought. Then, “Is this me…am I only dreaming of myself?”

“Why’s that door locked?” the girl pointed at an interior door, its paint alligatored by decades of damp…cold…heat, revolving seasons of weather seeping into the room through the walls, the rattling window panes. A rusted metal clasp, secured by an ancient padlock was its only adornment.

“I don’t know,” the father answered. “It leads to the cellar, I was told. When I have time, I’ll go down and look.” Thinking, he added, “Maybe the stairs aren’t safe.”

“Can I go with you?”

The dust within its box rippled like a grey pond, filled with grey fish.

The father looked up at his daughter, just turned seven, studying her face framed by dark hair, her dark eyes beneath straight brows. “Let me check it out first, Anna,” he answered. “I want to make sure it’s safe. I might need to rig up some lighting. Who knows?”

“Do you have the key?” Anna persisted.

“No,” her father answered, glancing back from his chore of placing the glasses, cups, and mugs away in the dim cupboards. “No…the attorney said he could never find one after your granny died.” In fact, the attorney admitted to having been unaware of the existence of the property until Daniel showed him the deed found amongst his mother’s things. She had never mentioned it to Daniel either. As her only heir, it had devolved to him without benefit of a will.

“Do we have to stay here?” Anna switched topics.

Quieting itself, the dust strained to hear every word.

Stopping what he was doing altogether, but not turning around, Anna’s father replied, “Yeah, honey, you know we do.”


“This house is ours now…,” he answered, turning to face her, struggling to remain patient—this was a conversation they’d had many times now, “…which is a lucky thing, since I lost my job and our old house was foreclosed on. We needed a place to live, kiddo. Now we have one.”

Having had foreclosure explained to her before, Anna nodded in acknowledgment; then said, “But no one can come see us. How will they get here if they want to?”

“Sweetheart, it’s an island in a small river; not in the middle of the ocean. People can come by boat.” Holding up his cell phone and kneeling to her level, he added with a smile, “If they call—and they’re really someone we want to see—I’ll go pick them up in our launch. It’ll be fun.”

“Will mom be one of them?”

Standing once more, her father turned back to his chore at the cupboards. “Probably,” he answered. His wife had left them some months before, having taken up with a co-worker. When word reached her of his unexpected inheritance, the man felt sure she would put in an appearance. She would want to survey “their” new property. They had not yet divorced.

The dust in the box knew about mothers and their daughters; had once been one of them, but could not recall a husband, and little of a father.

“What do you think is down there?” Anna returned to the locked door.

Closing the glass-fronted cupboard, her father turned once more and, forcing a smile, said, “Once I’m able to get in, and it’s safe, we’ll find out together. Okay?”

Smiling a little in return, Anna answered, “Okay.”


Deep in the night, the dust stirred once more within the box, calling out to the plump, sleek animals that tunneled within the walls of the cellar. Wriggling out of the soft clay walls they plopped onto the damp packed dirt of the floor and approached her in short, furtive bursts, their tiny, red eyes bright with terror.

She set them to gnawing at a corner of the box, the dry wood giving way to their long, yellow teeth. Within, the dust could hear the desperate work and swirled like smoke round and round the arid bones of her former self, racing through the gaping jaw and out the empty sockets of her brown skull; weaving in and out of each rib like a long gray scarf. She had slept for so long, altered so much, that escape was now possible, the sad box containing her bones no longer a prison—the sacrifice of her flesh a liberation.

Having chewed a hole large enough, the biggest of the rats thrust his narrow, quivering snout within, anxious to gauge the quality of food the shell might contain. With a snort he reared back, coming up onto his hind legs and turning on the others, biting them in his disappointment. All of their efforts had been for nothing. Instead of the ripe odor of putrefying meat, he smelled only the dust of a dry decay that could provide no nourishment; appease no hunger. When he sensed movement within, he led a scampering exodus back into the holes that had disgorged them.

The cellar returned to silence but for a whisper of dust sifting out of the box like measured flour. It was not all of her, only enough to give her some form, some way of experiencing a semblance of life and sensation; all she could manage just then.

Slithering across the damp earth with the motion of a sidewinder, she reached the warped planks of the steps and crawled up them and beneath the ill-fitting door at the top. Rising now, she spun like a dervish within the kitchen, a long, slender column of gray sprinkled with moisture from her journey. She saw the father had finished his earlier task, and had even set colorful place mats out on the small, Formica-topped kitchen table.

Casting her thoughts out into the rambling, familiar structure of the house, she heard Anna’s breathing from the second floor. Agitated by the proximity of the girl, the dust ascended the stairs on a breeze from an opened window. In the near distance, she felt the river flooding round the island like a snake swallowing an egg, sluggish and deep.

Sweeping along the wide floorboards, she pushed her thoughts through each closed door searching for the girl…her Anna, as she thought of her now.

Finding the man in the bedroom nearest the landing, she hovered over him for a moment, studying his face as he lay on the bed, comprehending by the scent of his breath that they were of the same blood.

She watched as his handsome, bearded face puckered with discomfort; his dark brows knitting and unknitting. His thoughts, calm upon her approach, began to leap and scramble out of her way, seeking to hide.

Snatching up several before they could bolt down the rabbit holes of his subconscious, she smoothed them out and read them like scrolls of papyrus. She learned of him from him and left the room. “Daniel,” she whispered without sound.

Returning to the hallway, she glided toward the uncurtained window at its end and the silver light that shone through it, wishing to see once more the bright moon, the glittering river, the tumbled white markers of her family’s cemetery; then stopped as a mouse skittered past with a frightened squeak. She felt Anna turning in her bed behind the nearest door, her dreams spilling out into the corridor like a snare.

Forgetting the river, the moon, she collapsed the twisting ribbon of herself to slide beneath the door, rising up once more on the other side. Plaiting herself into Anna’s dreaming thoughts, she followed them like a spider along its web, the threads barely registering her approach.

Dark-haired Anna smiled in her sleep, and the dust could better see the child in her, the sadder little adult temporarily vanquished. “Anna,” her thoughts formed the word and pushed it out.

The girl rolled over as if to face her, eyes still closed.

Remembering now, the dust spoke without sound once more, quickly lest she forget again, “Rachel…I am Rachel.”

“Rachel,” Anna said aloud, the word a whisper.

The column of glistening dust rose higher above the bed, stretching upward in excitement. “I will take your sorrow,” she promised the sleeping girl as she picked through her thoughts and memories like a box of precious stones. “I will take the pain from your heart, your bones; your marrow.”


Daniel’s eyes came open, and he reached with both hands for the thing that lay across his chest, his breathing obstructed by its weight. Yet his desperate fingers found nothing.

With a gasp, he sat up; his heart galloping to escape the deadly pressure it still feared was there.

The door to the hallway stood open as he had left it to hear Anna if she called. Silence lay across the unfamiliar house. Still, he found himself straining to hear above the pounding of the blood in his ears.

Flooded with a cold light, the corridor revealed an empty doorway.

Rising, clothed only in his boxers, he walked on the balls of his feet toward the hall feeling sure that something waited for him there. Peering round the doorjamb, he looked toward his daughter’s room.

Seeing nothing, he continued, creeping down the corridor, his skin pebbled by the damp and glowing as whitely as something that lived in the deepest sea. A sliver of moon peeked in through the uppermost pane of the hallway window, the trees beyond shivering with the breeze off the blackened river, their leaves fluttering like roosting birds. Gripping the doorknob of Anna’s room, he listened once more.

Within, he heard the smallest of voices, a whisper; a barely audible word. It was Anna. He knew her voice, however faint. She was talking in her sleep. Relieved, he felt his chest expanding to take in more air.

Then he heard a faint susurration, the sound of something dryly sweeping across the floorboards within, and felt the chill on his limbs sink into his heart, his stomach, his liver, his blood thickening and slowing.

Barely able to turn the knob, he leaned his weight into the door, stumbling into the room as if in a nightmare, his actions clumsy and slow. Across the bare floorboards, he saw his daughter’s small bed, her figure wrapped in the sheets and blankets they had brought with them from home… their real home… her white face serene, her dark eyes shuttered. In the center of the room, captured within the silver light spilling in, something twisted and glittered, a writhing tendril of smoke, or dust, jeweled with droplets of moisture.

Staggering forward, Daniel saw the thing whip round, the top of it flaring outward like a cobra’s hood. He felt it was seeing him somehow, and terror slowed his steps even more. Then Anna moaned, and the column collapsed into nothingness.

Feeling something brushing over his bare feet, Daniel turned to see the grey thing sweep round the door frame and disappear from view.


Spinning back round, he found his daughter sitting up in bed, rubbing at her eyes as she studied him.

When he didn’t answer, she asked, “Where are your pajamas?”


Sitting at the kitchen table in a tee-shirt and sweatpants, Daniel stirred his oatmeal, waiting for it to cool a little; studying his daughter. She was busy spooning cold cereal sodden with milk into her small mouth. Her expression was open, untroubled, her face a little pale.

“You were talking in your sleep last night.” He watched for a reaction.

Looking up from her bowl, Anna appeared puzzled, then amused. “Was I? That’s funny. What did I say?”

“I’m not sure. You were whispering, and I couldn’t really make it out.” He was looking for some sign that she might have seen what he had seen or felt it in some way. In the bright morning, it seemed less and less likely that he had seen anything at all.

“I was dreaming,” Anna remembered. “I dreamed a girl named Rachel was talking to me.”

“Rachel,” her father repeated. “Do you know any Rachels back…” he caught himself, “…back where we used to live?”

Anna shook her head, her dark hair swinging back and forth beneath her chin, one lock skimming the surface of the milk in her bowl.

“Watch your hair,” Daniel warned.

“She looked like me,” Anna said. “We could be sisters.”

A few moments later she added, “I wish I had a sister.”


Several days later, while exploring the property that her father had not put off-limits, such as the river banks and the tottering wooden barn, Anna found herself near a capped well that had once served the farm house. Its stone walls rose several feet from the earth and were almost concealed beneath a profusion of honeysuckle and briars. Rachel stood next to it watching her approach.

It did not occur to Anna that there should be anything strange about a girl from her dream appearing beneath a warm yellow sun, a sky painted for Easter. Rachel beckoned with a raised hand, pale and indistinct.

Anna should have been able to discern the other girl apparently, but found instead that Rachel stood behind a curtain of gauze, a shadow in dappled daylight. Still, she recognized her, though this time she felt shy, her heart thumping like the hooves of a great, slow horse. There was a pressure within her head.

“I wish I were your sister,” she heard Rachel say, parroting Anna’s conversation with her father a few days before. “If I were, I would kiss you.” The voice was distant, as if Rachel was much farther away than she appeared.

Anna remembered her mother and aunt embracing and kissing at an airport long ago. The memory filled her with loneliness…and envy for the warmth her mother had shown her sister—a warmth Anna had not known.

Rachel waited…watching… and Anna took a step toward her… then another… then stopped. “Does my daddy know you’re here?” she asked.

“Yes, of course,” Rachel reassured her. “He told me where to find you; he wants us to spend time together. He knows you’re lonely here.”

Anna thought of that conversation at the breakfast table—her father hadn’t known Rachel then—only she had. This made her recall her dream more clearly, and she now felt uneasy that figures in dreams could walk in the daylight. Now it didn’t seem right. What if she’d had a nightmare instead?

“Don’t worry, Anna,” Rachel’s voice drifted like smoke into her sluggish thoughts, “I’m not a dream…not a nightmare. I only want to keep you company.”

The gauzy image wavered as if a breeze blew through it; then settled once more into the dark-haired Rachel. “Hurry,” she whispered across the dry, yellow wheat grass that separated them.

Anna resumed her journey with small, reluctant steps. It seemed that the sun had slipped behind a gray cloud, a cool wind risen from the river.

Rachel stretched an ashy hand out as if to assist Anna in her final few steps. “I forgot how intense the sun can be,” she said, her lips never moving. “It’s been so long. Let’s find some shade.”

Anna’s hand felt a caress, a gentle pressure tugging her along, the sensation of silk sliding through her palm, talcum powder sifting through her fingers. Stumbling after Rachel, she found she had grown tired and sleepy.

“Stop…” she managed to say, her tongue thick, her lips dry, “…tired.”

Rachel guided them to a forgotten peach tree in a forgotten and overgrown orchard. Halting beneath its shade, she answered, “Yes, here it’s cool and shady. We’ll be happy here.”

Anna lowered herself down into the tall grasses, heedless of the possibility of ants or wasps feeding on spoiled fruit. “Nap…” she whispered. “I want to sleep…”

“I’ll lie with you,” Rachel promised, coming apart like an old spider’s web to fall over Anna’s prone form as a pall of dust.


When Anna had not returned by lunchtime, Daniel grew worried and went in search of her. Entering the small, abandoned orchard, it appeared as he approached that a large, gray ant hill swarmed beneath a stunted peach tree, disturbed by something unseen. Upon drawing nearer, he comprehended in stages that he was mistaken, that the ants had not been disturbed, but feasted on a large carcass of some sort. This impression was superseded almost immediately by another—that his daughter lay beneath the ants, inert as death itself, that she was the mysterious carcass being fed upon.

“Anna,” he shouted, rushing forward.

At the sound of his voice everything began to change.

The “ants” slid from his daughter’s form like granular mercury, the substance re-shaping itself into a long, thick rope. Serpent-like it slithered into the undergrowth, the only sound the hiss of its passage across the grasses and long-dead leaves it traveled over. Then it was gone.

Anna lay uncovered before him, small and white as the scudding clouds above the lonely garden. She moaned, and with a strangled cry of his own he scooped her up before the thing could return. Her breathing was evident but rapid and shallow, and he fled to the house, terror swelling his heart.

Calling her name, he laid her upon the downstairs sofa and massaged her wrists. When this produced no change, he wrapped her in a blanket and picked her up once more. Minutes later he was ferrying them across the river, the small engine of their launch smoking and whining with effort.

His car was parked on the other side, and after tying off the boat, he laid her in the backseat and sped for town.

As there was no hospital close by, he pushed into the local doctor’s office carrying his daughter past the patients in the drowsy waiting room.

“She’s been bit!” he shouted at the startled receptionist. “She’s been bit by something!”

Daniel had no clear idea why he said this, as it hardly tallied with what he had witnessed, but even so, the grey, snake-like creature that had glided away at his approach was the only image that he could recognize as familiar and explicable.

Jumping to her feet, the middle-aged woman behind the desk led him and Anna to an empty examination room. Pointing at a padded metal table covered by a strip of white paper, she said, “Put her down there. I’ll bring Doctor Salton right in.

Moments later, a tall, older man with an obvious toupee came hurrying in, a stethoscope hanging from his long, thin neck. “She’s been bit, you say?” he asked Daniel even as he bent over Anna taking her pulse and lifting her eyelids.

“Yes…I think so…I’m not sure what I…”

Placing an ear close to Anna’s lips, the doctor held a finger up for silence. After a few beats, he dropped the veined, spotty hand and fastened a blood pressure cuff to the girl’s arm and began to pump it up with rapid compressions of a rubber bulb. “Was it a snake bite?” he asked, even as he placed the disk of the stethoscope against the bluish veins in the bend of Anna’s arm.

“Maybe…” Daniel began again, unsure of how to describe what he had seen. “I saw…something…”

“What kind, do you know?” Doctor Salton snapped.

He began to scrutinize Anna’s ankles and calves, pushing the legs of her jeans up with a rough motion. “Where’s she bit then?” he went on, not waiting for Daniel’s answer.

“I…I’m not sure,” he admitted. “Is she alright doctor?”

“Her breathing is shallow and rapid, her pulse thready. Blood pressure is what worries me. It’s too low; probably why she’s unconscious, but I can’t account for it. I can’t find any bite marks at all. Are you sure she was bit by a snake?”

“No…” Daniel admitted, his mouth dry and cottony, “…I’m not sure. I found her lying in the grass. It looked as if something was on her… something gray. Then it crawled away… you know, slithered… like a snake.”

Doctor Salton was looking at Daniel over his glasses as he tied some tubing around Anna’s bicep. “I see,” he said, finding a good vein and turning his attention to inserting a needle and drawing a blood sample. Finished, he set the sample tube aside and did the same with her other arm, this time inserting an intravenous tube for glucose. “Well, I can’t find any symptoms of snake poisoning, other than the drop in blood pressure—which is also why her breathing is shallow and her pulse uncertain. Is she diabetic?”

Daniel shook his head.

Stepping back from the table, Doctor Salton checked the flow of liquid. “Let’s give this a few minutes and see if it produces any results.” Pushing his glasses back up on his long, narrow nose, he added, “I think she’s simply fainted, Mister…”

“…Raleigh,” Daniel replied. “Daniel Raleigh. My daughter’s name is Anna. Fainted, you say…?”

“That’s what I’m thinking right now, though I haven’t a clue as to why. The glucose drip should get her back on her feet if that’s all it is. In the meantime, help me to undress her and let’s make sure we haven’t missed anything like a wasp sting, or a spider bite.”

By the time they had finished and found nothing, Anna was sitting up asking where she was and what had happened in a sleepy, frightened voice.

“Don’t you remember?” Daniel asked with a note of helplessness. “There was something on you, sweetheart—do you remember what it was?”

Anna regarded her father for several moments before shaking her head in denial. Daniel thought he saw something in her eyes…a moment… a choice.

“It’s not a snake’s bite,” the doctor interrupted. “I’ve treated a number of those over the years. There would, at the very least, be an area of reddish swelling and a sensation of nausea. She’s not been bit. We can rule that out.”

After an hour more of observation, Doctor Salton sent Daniel and Anna out to the reception room to complete the paperwork that would normally have been done before treatment.

The secretary looked it over. “Oh,” she chirped after giving Anna a green lollipop, “ya’ll are the Raleighs that live out on the island!”

“That’s us,” Daniel answered rubbing his face with both hands. He kept sneaking glances at Anna. He didn’t like the way she looked—her skin was white as unlined paper.

“I went to school with your mother.”

Daniel favored the older woman with a tired smile. “Did you now?”

“I most certainly did,” she answered. “We was all so sorry that she had to leave. But her heart was so broke nobody could blame her for giving up on living out there.”

Daniels’s strained smile vanished. “What do you mean?”

“What with her children and husband all dead she couldn’t go on there all alone. No one could expect that of any woman. I was so relieved and happy for her when she wrote to say that she had remarried and begun a new family.” She stopped to take a breath, beaming at Daniel. “And here I am all these years later talking to her boy and granddaughter. Lord, ain’t life somethin’?”

Rising from his chair, Daniel managed to ask, “My mother had another family?” Now he thought he might faint as Anna had done.

The receptionist went pale. “Oh my dear God,” she whispered, “you didn’t know?”

“How many children did she have and what happened to them?” Daniel demanded.

Leaning back in her office chair, the woman answered, “Two girls and a boy. They all died of influenza. It was way back in 1970 during what they called the London flu epidemic. I’m so sorry, Mister Raleigh; it just never occurred to me that Nancy would’ve kept all that to herself, though I reckon I can understand it now I come to think about it. I do apologize.”

Waving this off, Daniel persisted, a sudden suspicion dawning. “What were their names?”

“Um…let’s see…Adrian was the boy… then there was Serena…and, of course, Rachel, she was the oldest… she looked the image of your daughter. Ain’t that somethin’?”

“Rachel…you say?”

“Yes sir…she was the first to go. Are you alright, Mister Raleigh? You look like you might be…”

“Were they all buried out on the island?”

“Right there in the family cemetery, I suppose. Your mama didn’t have no public ceremony—just a priest and her brothers out to the house after the doctor pronounced.”

Scooping up a bewildered Anna, Daniel fled the office.


After having stopped at the local pharmacy to pick up some vitamins and an iron supplement that the doctor had recommended, Daniel drove back to the pier where his boat was tied off. Crossing the river, he felt the wind pick up, the sluggish water sprouting small whitecaps. The ride became bumpy, and he looked at Anna with concern. She leaned against the side of the craft, eyes closed; face still unnaturally white. She shivered as a cold tendril within the rising breeze found her.

“Wrap up in this,” Daniel commanded, flinging her his jacket while keeping one hand on the tiller.

Without a response she did as he bid. A few minutes later they were climbing ashore. Once inside the house, Daniel put some wood in the living room stove and set about lighting the kindling it rested upon. After a while he had a blazing fire going. Shoving a worn, gray beanbag chair in front of the stove, he guided Anna to it and covered her with a blanket; then went into the kitchen to make her some hot tea. Outside the day had grown leaden, the scudding clouds having coalesced into a molten ceiling.

When he returned with Anna’s tea and vitamins, he found she had fallen fast asleep. Leaning close in to ensure that she was breathing normally, Daniel noted that her cheeks had grown flushed and hectic. When he placed his hand near her face, he felt a heat pulsing within; while in his heart coldness settled like a mist.

He knew that something was wrong, and going more wrong with each minute, yet couldn’t grasp what it was he needed to address, or how it threatened his daughter, much less how to protect her from it. But the receptionist’s story, besides rocking him with its revelation of his mother’s previous, and secret, family, had also revealed that a real, and living, Rachel had once walked this island.

His thoughts went to the graveyard that lay less than a quarter mile from where he stood, lurking, as it seemed to him now, behind a screen of magnolia trees.

After locking the outside doors behind him, Daniel retrieved a shovel from the garden shed and made his way toward the eastern side of the little island. Until today, it had never occurred to him that people he was actually related to might be buried here. He had assumed that they were folks from a much earlier era; a family long vanished from these parts. In that much at least, he had been correct.

Following a tangled path that he had hacked out with a machete a few weeks prior, he stumbled into the cemetery. The sun, hidden behind the clouds, leaked through as a yellowish haze giving a sickly glow to the tall, waving saw grass, the patches of stunted cactus clinging to lichen-covered rocks. Here and there, drunken gravestones leaned out of the undergrowth to peek at him. Many more lay where they had fallen long, long ago, some broken in two as if by a hammer.

Off-center of this tumult stood a family crypt, a building too small to house many generations. The structure jutted up from the surrounding shrubs and vines like a skull erupting from the earth, unencumbered by clinging tendrils. Considering the expense of its granite walls and roof, he surmised that this building had been erected during a very prosperous period in the family’s history. Indeed, the house he and Anna had been left reflected little of that time. The name engraved above the doors read simply, “Carlyle”.

After checking the several dozen markers for the name of Rachel and finding nothing, Daniel turned to the crypt. Approaching the catacomb, he found the interior protected by only two wrought-iron gates closed with a simple latch. When he tried it, he found it unlocked. And why not, he thought—a family crypt on a desolate island.

Narrow windows with colored panes as thick as coke bottle glass were inset into the walls of the sepulcher, tinting the interior with shades of green, red, and gold. Within, he could make out four biers, a casket resting upon each. Birds nested atop shadowed cornices beneath the ceiling, decades of their whitened droppings staining the walls and floor. The gate came open with little effort, the squeal of its long disused hinges crying out across the lonely grounds. Several doves burst from their hidden perches at the sound, escaping the building in a furious flapping of wings.

Standing in the entrance, Daniel allowed his eyes to adjust to the dimness within. He had expected a nauseating stench but found his nostrils tickled only by a dry dust and the hint of something sweet, like overripe fruit, a trace memory of organic life. Stepping inside, he approached the tomb’s concealed tenants.

Each coffin bore a brass plaque on which the occupant’s name and dates of birth and death were engraved. Though the metal had gone green with verdigris, they were still legible. Rachel’s casket was the second he came to.

As he stretched out a hand, Daniel thought to remind himself of the horror that would lie within—a body that had lain there through every season for more than forty years. Taking a deep breath and holding it, he lifted the top with both hands.

The stained, dappled light revealed an empty coffin; a quilted, white interior gone damp and gray with mold. For just a moment Daniel felt relieved, then saw that the tiny satin pillow inside still bore the impression of a child’s head. He thought of the padlocked door in the kitchen, the cellar he had not yet visited. Something akin to real fear crept into him, and he allowed the lid to slip from his fingers to bang close once more; making a hollow ring within the granite walls.

Snatching up the shovel, he fled the crypt, leaving its doors ajar, as he hurried toward the farmhouse and Anna.


Anna was just as he had left her, asleep in front of the wood stove. Looking down on her slender form, he could hear her breath coming in short, rapid bursts, her narrow chest rising and falling with effort, as if she were being pursued in her dreams. Her cheeks wore patches of scarlet like a rag doll. When he touched her forehead with the back of his hand it burned.

His thoughts felt sluggish in spite of his growing alarm, and when he rose from bending over Anna he felt dizzy, the room darkening as if with the approach of dusk. It occurred to him to call for an ambulance; that Anna was worsening by the moment, but when he managed to pull his cell phone from his pocket, it slipped through his fingers to clatter onto the floor. Looking down at it for several moments, he was unable to comprehend what he should do about it, realizing he still clutched the shovel he had carried to the cemetery.

Then, as if he were sharing Anna’s turbulent dreamscape, he saw Rachel approaching the house from a distance, framed between the billowing afternoon curtains, her gray figure sailing across the wheatgrass like a dragging kite. He knew it to be her because he could see that she was no real girl at all, so it could be no one else. Daniel also surmised that the thing had grown much stronger since their previous encounters, was drawing sustenance from his daughter. Feeling his skin pebble and cool, he cried out a warning to Anna that carried no actual words. She stirred and moaned in helpless response.

Casting off her human semblance, Rachel poured herself through the open window to slide across the floorboards. Within moments, Daniel saw Anna subsumed beneath the glistening dust, the physical remnant of what had once been a young girl covering his daughter like a smothering blanket.

Struggling against the tremendous gravity that seemed to weigh his limbs, he managed to raise the shovel over his head, taking several steps toward the thing.

“Don’t,” Rachel’s voice entered his head; “you’ll hurt Anna.”

Daniel knew this to be true, it would be like striking sand, and by degrees lowered the spade, turning away from the horror that was being done to his daughter. With what seemed leaden weights on his legs, he staggered toward the kitchen dragging the tool along the floor behind him.

Reaching the yellow room, he felt his body lighten somewhat, his mind clear a little, and he surmised that physical distance lessened Rachel’s hold on him. Raising a much lighter shovel over his head once more, he struck the ancient padlock on the cellar door, snapping the bolt and sending it flying across the room.

“Come back,” he heard Rachel call, a faint note of alarm in her voice. “It’s dangerous down there.”

He felt for a light switch, and finding one, slapped at it. Two yellowish bulbs glowed into life faintly illuminating the bowed, wooden stairs, the packed clay floor at the bottom. Daniel stepped onto them, fearing any moment he might tumble down. Hanging on to the rickety banister, he stomped along to the bottom like a drunk, his heavy head swiveling this way and that for what he sought.

A jumble of rusting and cobwebbed tools leaned against the walls or lay strewn across a wooden bench that ran almost the length of the cellar. At the far end of the dim chamber lay a haphazard stack of lumber supported by two sawhorses. Beneath this, Daniel could just make out a long box almost hidden beneath its burden of planks.

Forcing himself on, he hooked the back edge of the spade against the top of the stack and pulled, starting an avalanche of clattering wood. The child-sized box lay exposed, padlocked and covered with decades of drifting filth. Again, he raised the shovel and struck, breaking the lock. His breath coming in gusts, Daniel threw open the lid.

Within lay the child, Rachel…or what she had been before…a collection of bones, some articulated, others having long ago fallen away into the dust that remained at the bottom.

“I have your bones!” he called out, his voice sounding faint and weak to his ears. “I’m taking them to the river…” he promised, weeping at the tremendous effort of thinking, acting, “…throwing them in!”

“You’d better not,” Rachel’s warning pulsed into his brain like hot mercury, coursing through his veins and heart. For a moment he feared that she could kill him in this way, but thinking of Anna, he closed the lid on the little skeleton and heaved the box up into his arms, cradling it like a baby.

Staggering up the stairs with his burden, he said in a soft voice knowing that Rachel could hear him, “You can’t cross water, can you? That’s why you never left this island when you could; why mom never intended for anyone to ever live here again. She was the last one left alive and had seen you wandering. She knew and locked your corpse into this box, but it didn’t do any good, did it?”

“You woke me,” Rachel accused him. “I was sleeping until you and Anna came. It’s your fault, you know. Put me back now. I must rest there.”

Stumbling out into the kitchen with his burden, Daniel managed to wheeze, “I’m gonna give you a new resting place unless you stop me first.”

From the corner of his eye he saw something large and gray sweep round the corner into the hallway separating the living room from the kitchen. Praying that Anna still lived, he tried to run, managing to shift the box to one arm long enough to throw open the outside door. The thing behind came on.

“Don’t!” Rachel demanded. “Don’t do that! I will suck the meat off your bones if you don’t stop…RIGHT…NOW!”

Running and stumbling Daniel hurried toward the river, its sluggish waters churning and twisting in the fading light. The dust, like a summer storm, rose up behind him and fell like a wave, stinging his exposed hands, the back of his neck, the stale particles sliding along his cheeks seeking his gasping mouth.

Reaching the riverbank, Daniel allowed his momentum to carry him forward and down into the current, his face glancing off the box as it landed with a splash. The gray swarm withdrew a safe distance from the moving water.

Standing knee-deep in the river, Daniel felt blood running in a warm trickle from his cheek. Throwing open the lid once more; he steadied the box of bones at the very edge of the shore. “If you don’t get in now,” he warned, “you’ll never get another chance.”

“You’ll drown me,” Rachel answered, her form a slowly swirling column of particles. “I know you will.”

“I don’t have a choice. You’ll kill Anna and me, just like you did your brother and sister; your father. I can’t allow that.”

“I didn’t want to,” she complained. “I got sick, and when I woke up…I was just so hungry…I didn’t want to…I don’t want to.”

“Maybe not,” Daniel answered, feeling the cold of the water climbing up his legs, numbing his feet. “I don’t know what you are Rachel…or what it is you became on this island, but you have to die…really die this time. That’s all there is.” He pushed the makeshift coffin onto the pebbly bank, keeping hold of its edge; ready to snatch it back.

“I won’t.”

“Then I will sink this box of bones and dust without you. You’ll never be whole again.”

“I’ll be dead,” she replied.

Daniel heard fear in her voice.

“Yes,” he agreed. “It’s what happens; is supposed to happen.” He took a breath and said in as kind a tone as he could muster, “Get in, Rachel. Everything will be alright. It’s the way it’s supposed to be. We all die.”

“I’m afraid,” she said, her form now that of a little girl.

Daniel noted that she evidenced some faint coloring—nourishment obtained from Anna. He prayed that his daughter still lived.

“Get in,” he said firmly. “It won’t hurt…I promise.”

Rachel brushed a finger along the edge of the box, the tip crumbling like dry sand into the interior. “It better not…” she warned Daniel, her hands, arms and torso flowing together, her face dissolving as she poured herself in.

To the sound of restless movement within, Daniel tugged the box away from the shore and into the current. Water began to find its way in through the joints and seams; the small rat-gnawed hole at the bottom corner.

“It’s cold,” Rachel said. “I’m cold.”

Looking down into the box, Daniel saw the dust at the bottom swirling and coalescing with the rising water, tiny eddies forming here there as the level rose over the sad, little skeleton within.

“Get me out…please,” Rachel’s voice sounded faint. “I’ve…changed…my…mind…”

Daniel released the sinking chest to the current.


The case sank beneath the dark, roiling water and vanished, leaving a film of grayish material being churned and separated by the current of the river. After a few moments, Daniel could no longer distinguish anything foreign on the water’s surface.

As he stumbled back to shore and began making his way to the house, he saw a small, white face watching for him out a window. When Anna raised a hand, he began to weep and run.




David Dean short stories have appeared regularly in ELLERY QUEEN MYSTERY MAGAZINE, as well as a number of anthologies, since 1990. His stories have been nominated for the Shamus, Barry, and Derringer Awards and Ibrahim’s Eyes won the EQMM Readers Award for 2007. His story, Tomorrow’s Dead, was a finalist for the Edgar for best short story of 2011. His horror novel, The Thirteenth Child, is available through Genius Books and Amazon.

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