A few days ago, I had a really weird nightmare. This in and of itself isn’t so uncommon. However, I posted about it on Facebook, and in the ensuing conversation, several people suggested it might be story fodder. And… it got stuck in my head. Those of you who are writers know exactly what this means… You have to write it out. Or else.
This is completely unedited, and I have no idea if I will actually do anything with it, but since I do have frequent nightmares, you just never know. In the mean time, Charlie Volnek, this one is for you!
The phone fell from my fingers and landed with a soft thud on the carpet. Dead? Not Mom…I bent down and picked it up. I wasn’t even sure if I’d said goodbye. The thick accent of the consulate minister still filled my ears. Something about an accident—I stopped hearing his words at some point in time. Dead. There was always a mission trip or disaster somewhere, it was hard for me to grasp that this time, she wasn’t coming back.
The rest of the afternoon was a blur of calls. More apologetic voices, and after the standard platitudes, wanting me to make decisions. Where to send her effects. Why didn’t they just say luggage? Tons of details to transport Mom’s body back to Nebraska. I had no idea there were so many regulations. Memorial services. Even though we hadn’t really talked about it, I knew she’d want her remains scattered in the ocean—or from the top of the Himalayas. That’s how she was.
So many questions I didn’t have answers for. I hadn’t been back home much since college, even though I only lived a couple hours away. It had nothing to do with my relationship with Mom, we were good, but honestly, I don’t know why she even kept a house, she traveled so much. In any event, I grabbed a change of clothes and headed out. Maybe I’d find something in her roll top desk to help me sort things out.
By the time I hit the city limits of Dover, dusk clung thick and heavy to the sky. The old streetlights did little to pierce the gloom. I turned down Fifth Street and for a brief moment, forgot the reason for my visit as I remembered learning to ride my bike along the well-tended sidewalks. The Honda sputtered a few times before surrendering as I turned off the ignition and headed up the walk. No cheery lights came from the windows, no soft sound of television or music, just an overwhelming sense of empty. I scrubbed the tears from my eyes and shoved the key I had for this kind of emergency into the lock.
It was hard to resist the urge to call out, even though I knew there was no point. A horrifying thought crossed my mind. I flipped the light switch, and breathed a sigh of relief when it worked. She’d been known to have the power turned off for longer travels. Everything was like I remembered it, right down to the ugly circa 1979 plaid tweed recliner in the corner. I tiptoed to the desk and rolled the hardwood cover up to reveal Mom’s belongings. Suddenly it seemed like I was four years old, and getting into things I wasn’t supposed to touch. I shook my head and steadied myself. I was a grown woman, and as Mom’s only child, the only one who could take care of the arrangements.
Everything was so neat, so organized. I smiled, imagining what Mom’s face would look like if she saw my cluttered desk. Or worse yet, my closet. Bills marked paid and a note from one of her church friends were the only things on the blotter. A quick flip through the neat file folders in the drawer revealed little more than tax returns and appliance warranty booklets. There had to be something. I needed a birth certificate, life insurance policy, and what seemed like a hundred other documents. She had to keep them somewhere. Lockbox?
The faint scent of Mom’s perfume came from the closet in her bedroom as I stood on tip-toe to reach the top shelves behind the pile of faded quilts. Aha. I pulled the aluminum box down and sat on the foot of the bed with it clutched to my chest. I didn’t have a key, but either it wasn’t locked, or the mechanism had worn away to the point it no longer held, because it opened easily.
What had to be hundreds of tattered photographs faded to soft pastels filled most of the box. I was in most of them. Fat cheeks, ruffled panties, and black patent leather Mary Jane’s and all. Dad bouncing me on his lap. He’d died in a car crash when I was five. Now they’re together. The finality of the thought hit me like a bus.
I was alone. Really alone.
I don’t know how long I laid there curled up in a ball crying before I fell asleep. But I do know what woke me up. Lightning flashed outside the yellowed lace curtains and the house shook with the subsequent crash of thunder. I didn’t remember there being rain in the forecast, but then again, this was Nebraska. A soft plop of something cold and wet hit my head and ran down my cheek. Great, the roof leaks. I made sure the lid on the strongbox was closed before I headed out to hunt for a bucket.
Not only did the roof leak, it leaked a lot. By the time I reached the door, my hair and clothes were wet, and my socks squished in the carpet. I caught sight of my reflection in the window and gasped. I looked like something straight out of a horror movie. The combination of rust and tar-water running down my face looked almost like blood. I had no idea what time it was, but staying at Mom’s the rest of the night was clearly out of the question.
I grabbed the strongbox and ran to the living room. The door slammed behind me a little louder than I would have liked, but thankfully, the roof here seemed fine. Where did I leave my purse and keys? I retraced my steps to the roll top desk as the sound of driving rain echoed through the empty house. I lifted the drapes and peered outside. As I expected, the maple tree in the drive swayed with each gust of wind. My little Honda sat unmolested under the carport. As I contemplated how much wetter I would get if I made a dash for it, something caught my eye.
Mom always stops the mail when she’s gone… Our mailbox was on the opposite side of the street, so the opening faced me. The door was open, and what appeared to be packages filled it. Why hadn’t I noticed this earlier? I glanced up at the sky, and back across the street at the manila-wrapped boxes that were surely going to get ruined. Dammit. I flung the door open, hurdled the raging river along the curb, and grabbed the boxes.
My teeth chattered as I ran back across the street. Surely there was a coat or umbrella somewhere inside, and why I hadn’t stopped to grab it was beyond me. I saw the hole right before I stepped in it. I grew up here, so I should have remembered where the storm drain was, and where the slope began. The packages flew out of my arms and landed somewhere in the grass ahead of me, but I hit the concrete hard enough to knock the wind out of me. If I wasn’t wet before, now I was soaked. Icy water flowed over the top of my head and made me cough. I couldn’t seem to get myself righted. Cold fingers of water surrounded me as my chin sunk below the surface and I fought to breath. I’m going to drown in six inches of storm runoff. It wouldn’t be all that bad would it? I wouldn’t be alone, I’d be with Mom and Dad.
“Get up.” Mom’s voice whispered somewhere inside of my head. “Now.”
Even in my imagination, her voice had that tone of voice you didn’t argue with. I managed to pull myself onto the grass and made it to my feet. As if to mock me, the flow of water reduced to a gentle ripple. I snatched the now wet packages from the grass and ran back to the house.
A pang of guilt washed over me as I peeled the wet paper from the first box, even though I knew with Mom gone, it would have to be me that opened them. Carefully sealed inside the bubble wrap was a thick leather book. No note or shipping invoice, just the book. It was so old I couldn’t even make out the title. Latin. Even though I’d taken two years in high school and another in college, I’d need a dictionary if I wanted to read the thing. I flipped through a few of the thick parchment pages before setting it aside.
If an anonymous Latin tome was odd, the contents of the second package only served to further confuse me. Two matching boxes. The first held a pendant. The medallion reminded me of a cameo, but instead of the usual woman’s profile, this lady held a dagger in a backdrop of flames. I opened the second box and my jaw dropped. Not just any dagger, this dagger. I almost didn’t want to take it from the velvet lined case. The ornate ivory handle fit perfectly in my grip as a flash of lightning from the window glinted from the blade. Words were etched along the metal surface. More Latin. Again, there was no note of any sort.
The final package was more like an overstuffed envelope. I slid the folded pages from the padded mailer and read the first page. “My dearest Charlene,” I drew in a ragged breath. Only two people in the world called me by my given name. Mom, and my grandmother—her mom. Everyone else knew me as Charlie. “If you are reading this letter, I must assume something horrible has happened…”
I dropped the pages to my lap and grabbed the packages. They were addressed to me. All of them. I turned the soggy wrappings in my hands. No return addresses—and even more odd, none bore any sign of a postal marking. How was this possible?
A rattle from across the room caught my attention. Seriously? Now what? I sat the papers aside and stood up. The plaid tweed recliner slid a few inches closer to me with a screech of legs against hardwood. I had to be asleep. The whole day was nothing more than a horrible nightmare. I pinched myself just to be sure. Hard enough to make me gasp. I was very awake, or everything I’d ever heard about pain and dreams was a big fat lie. I picked up the knife and stood up.
The bedroom door flew open and spray of thick red liquid blew everywhere in a torrential rain. I wiped a drop from my face. It wasn’t tar or rust, this was blood. Real blood. The chair shook to the point the legs came clear off the floor. Then it rose a few inches into the air and spun. Forget dreaming, maybe I’d gone crazy. The recliner hovered a few moments as I stared, frozen to the spot and my mouth gaping. Then it hurtled toward me. Without thinking, I threw my hands out in front of me and screamed, “Stop it!”
The recliner exploded in a brilliant flash of flames and the acrid heavy stench of sulfur filled my nostrils. Something screamed from the smoke. As bits of wood, foam stuffing, and singed, blood-soaked plaid tweed rained down around me, the smoke coalesced into a beast-like form. It writhed a moment, then fell from where it hovered near the ceiling into a heap near my feet.
I stared at my shaking hands in disbelief. The Latin script on the steel blade still held tight in my grip glowed a deep amber. I’d grown up hearing whispered tales from my grandmother, a frail wisp of a woman who could take down grown men with a single stare. She spent her twilight years traveling the country in a beat-up Winnebago, and stopped in a few times a year to visit. I used to listen as she told me fantastic stories of the Chosen Ones who wielded Hellfire against unearthly foes—in spite of Mom’s protests.
Surely they were the same type of legends and myths we’d all grown up hearing about, weren’t they? I crept closer to the still-smoking figure, kicked it with the toe of my shoe, and tried to remember what I could about the Chosen Ones.
All of a sudden the pieces slid together, and a sense of cold filled me from head to toe. It was a gift passed from mother to daughter—upon the death of the mother. Grandma’s Winnebago…Mom’s sudden interest in traveling after her death… it all made sense. Somewhere in the distance, a police siren sounded.
I had no idea what I was supposed to do next, but I did know two things. First, I was going to either need to get the hell out of here, or try to explain to the cops why I was in Mom’s house in the middle of the night with blood on the walls, fire marks on the ceiling, a blown-up recliner and a dead—whatever this thing was—in the middle of the living room floor. Secondly, from what I knew about Hellfire, this was only the beginning of my problems.