There’s this girl I used to know.
Not a friend, mind you. Just someone I used to run into on the endless circuit of small-town house parties back in the early 2000s. Vivacious and pretty. You know the type. She could sink cups in beer pong effortlessly and she could handle her liquor. You could always find her sitting on the kitchen counter at the end of the night, barefoot and laughing, with a spoon of peanut butter in her hand. All the rest of the party inevitably were in varying states of drunken stupor by that time, either passed out on the floor or shambling about like zombies. Not her, though. Drink couldn’t faze her, and I’ve seen her really throw ‘em back.
Nobody really knew where she was from. There were rumors. She used to date so-and-so, met him online, still came down from Maine to crash at his pad for the summer even though they’d broken up about six thousand times. She liked the party scene, liked the UMass Amherst-bound boys who jockeyed for her attention. All she had to do was look over her shoulder and bat those eyelashes, give them just a hint of a smirk, and they would fall over themselves offering everything they had.
I showed up extremely late one night. I was young and working in a restaurant, so if I wanted to make any money, I had to sacrifice my Friday and Saturday evenings. You know the deal if you’ve lived it. I wrapped up around 1AM and headed over to one of the local spots. At that point, though, it had mostly died down. A few girls were slumped over on the couch. I could see my friend Tony wrapped around the throne in the bathroom down the hall. There was a Busta Rhymes song playing on repeat for some reason. The friend who had texted me asking me to come by wasn’t even there anymore. I was considering leaving when I heard the clattering of pots and pans in the kitchen and went to investigate.
She had set a pan on the stove and had one slice of buttered bread in her hand when she turned around and smiled at me.
“Oh hey,” she said, warmly, blue eyes sweeping over me and my work uniform. “You just get off? Want a grilled cheese?”
I had no idea who she was at that point, and frankly, I was intimidated by her beauty. She wasn’t just pretty, she looked like she belonged on the cover of a magazine. But also, I was hungry, and a grilled cheese sounded just right.
“Yeah,” I said. “That’d be awesome. Thank you.”
“Comin’ right up,” she sang, and set to work putting together another sandwich. It hissed as she plopped it on the pan.
She made me the best damn grilled cheese sandwich I’d ever had at 1 in the morning, and we ended up having a ton in common. We both worked in restaurants and we both had a pervy cook. We both broke our jaws when we were eight. We both hated Radiohead and we both loved horror movies. She was a cool girl. We exchanged numbers, but we never ended up hanging out or texting or anything. I always heard about her, though, ran into her time and again. She had a brief fling with what’s-her-face’s brother, they broke up messily, and she chased him out of his own house with a beer bottle. She punched a guy who got a little too handsy with her and broke his nose. I heard she even stabbed a dude once, which of course was ridiculous nonsense. I never believed any of it. It was a small town, and if we weren’t all fucking each other we were spreading rumors about each other.
Somehow, it took an entire year for me to have a personal interaction with her again. The circumstances were practically identical. It’s weird to acknowledge that now, but it’s true. I was finishing up work late at night and headed to a house party. It was a different house from last time–my friend Alex’s dad’s house, on the edge of town by the woods. I felt optimistic as I pulled up to the driveway, because there were a bunch of cars parked everywhere. Cool! Not everyone had bailed. There was a chance I was going to have some fun tonight.
I entered the house and was immediately disappointed. I expected to walk into a room crammed full of people, with girls sitting in guys’ laps, couches with bodies squished together and the walls shaking with raucous, drunken laughter. I was very surprised to see that the living room was completely empty. There were a few beer bottles on the table, and some playing cards laid out in a forgotten Kings game…but there wasn’t anybody there.
Bewildered, I made my way through the living room and into the kitchen beyond. Again, there were the signs of a party–beer pong cups set up on the table, some more empty bottles and ash trays–but no people.
“Anybody home?” I called, incredulously. My voice fell flat into the big empty of the house. At this point, I would normally have just left, but I was curious. There were at least six cars parked outside, there had to be somebody here. What the hell was going on? I turned around, intending to head up the stairs in the living room…and there she was.
I almost didn’t recognize her at all. Her usually lustrous, pin-straight blonde hair was sloppily tied together in a greasy bun. She was wearing a UMass Dartmouth sweater which looked to be three sizes too large for her, and baggy men’s sweatpants. She was barefoot, and there were deep, dark circles under her wide, staring blue eyes. Angry splotches of red acne marred her cheeks and forehead.
Her cracked lips twisted into a crooked smile.
“Oh hey,” she said. “You just get off?”
The flat, monotone way she greeted me caught me off-guard. I cleared my throat, suddenly nervous.
“Hey, you,” I said. “Where is everybody?”
She tilted her head to the side and tapped her bare feet on the kitchen tiles. When she did so, I noticed that her toe polish was chipped and that she hadn’t trimmed her nails in quite some time. There were blisters on her pinkies. Small cuts on the tops of her feet either oozed blood or were clotting into ugly scabs.
“Went to the Taco Bell,” she muttered.
I narrowed my eyes. Forty-something people all went to Taco Bell at 1AM?
“How come you didn’t go?” I asked her.
She barked a laugh that sounded like sandpaper.
Her blueshot eyes darted from side to side, and then fixated upon mine in an intense, piercing stare.
“Got any cigarettes?” she whispered.
I did. I handed one to her wordlessly and made my way over to the sliding door. As I was reaching for the handle, something crunched under my nonslip shoes. Glass, I was surprised to see. The whole sliding door had been busted open… from the outside.
“Holy shit,” I remarked, as I carefully slid the broken frame to the side to give me access to the patio. I turned around to inspect it and whistled under my breath when I saw the jagged maw of the hole that had been blown through the glass. It was absolutely gigantic–nearly the size of the door itself. “What in the hell happened here?”
“Broke, I guess,” was her response… from right next to me. A few more coarse barks of her laughter startled me to jumping.
I hadn’t noticed her following me through the sliding door and slinking up next to me in the dark. I reached into my server apron to get her a lighter but saw that she already had one–a familiar one, in fact, a Zippo with the Patriots logo embellished on the front. Tony’s lighter, unmistakably. Frowning, I watched her dip her cigarette to the flame and pull so hard that her cheeks hollowed. Every line of her face was momentarily augmented in the light of that little flame, and I saw that she had a scab on the side of her jaw, near her chin. She inhaled a quarter inch of her smoke in one big, lung-busting pull, tilted her head up to the stars and the yellow-sickle moon, and expelled it dragonlike from her nostrils. A low hum rumbled from between her pursed lips.
I lit my own cigarette and wandered around the patio. There was a little light up by the door which was motion-activated, but it wasn’t bright enough to illuminate the entire area. The umbrella on the patio table was crooked, and two of the chairs were toppled over. Alex’s father was going to kill him for this. How do you even break something as strong as sliding glass doors?
“How long ago did they all leave?” I asked her, bending over to pick up a bottle of wine that had been abandoned over by the potted plants. A few dregs sloshed at the bottom like old blood. Tony’s wine, unmistakably. He had a penchant for bringing wine to parties and everyone always gave him shit for it. An uneasy feeling crept into my belly.
More of that bristly, unpleasant laughter alerted my attention back over to the patio table, where she had perched herself. She’d finished her cigarette, let it fall, and it rolled across the planks to rest against a chair leg. Her legs were folded to her chest, and she hunched over balefully like a vulture. It made me uneasy.
“I dunno,” she said, finally, in response to the question I’d nearly forgotten I’d asked. “Last night?” She chuckled.
“Come on, seriously.”
“I am being serious. Hey, how about a grilled cheese?”
She slid off the table, humming discordantly, and there was an ungainly sway to her gait as she ambled back through the sliding door and into the kitchen. I didn’t follow her. I took a few pulls of my smoke, thinking. There was something wrong with her, clearly. A few people had speculated that she was on drugs, that was part of the rumors circulating around, and seeing her behavior at that point, I was willing to entertain that possibility. I didn’t know anything about drugs back then, but I knew there were areas around that had a meth problem. Maybe wherever she came from did, too. No matter what, there was something wrong here, and I had to figure out what was going on. I was fishing my phone out of the detritus of my apron pockets when I heard the gurgle.
It felt like it lasted forever, and got higher and higher the longer it went on. Every increase in octave was like a needle jabbing at the animal part of my brain, and every jab sent shockwaves of blind, instinctual panic through each coherent thought that tried to form. Run. Hide. Run. Hide.
But I didn’t.
My animal ancestors probably fell out of the trees while they were sleeping.
I raised my cell phone and tilted the screen towards my feet. This was the early 2000s, remember, everyone didn’t have a flashlight in their phone back then. The awful gurgle sounded like it was coming from below the planks of the deck, but I was having trouble seeing. I followed the splatters of spilled wine until I reached the stairs. As I began my descent, I tilted the light down. I caught the eyeshine in its beam on the third step.
“Tony!” I exclaimed, as soon as I recognized the face tilting up at me. “Tony, what the hell are you doing down there?”
“Call the cops.”
He ducked, or moved, or something-and then his face was gone. I paid that no mind and ran down the rest of the stairs. It was one of those raised-deck deals, and it had a concrete foundation underneath it that was sheltered by the platform above–Alex’s parents used it to keep their gardening tools and lawnmowers and shit like that. It was also a lightless area, and my little phone wasn’t helping me to see anything. I could only see what was directly in front of me and nothing else. I was able to explore the area in that manner for about 30 seconds before my phone died and I was left in total darkness.
Above me, the planks groaned under someone’s weight. Furious, heavy footfalls. Back and forth. Back and forth. I froze like a rabbit, too frightened to even react.
“I told you. I told you, didn’t I tell you what it would be like? I was right, wasn’t I? I was right. It’s enough. It should be enough, dammit. I’m upholding my fucking end of the bargain.”
She couldn’t have been talking to anyone but herself. She went on and on in that vein, and as she did, pacing the whole while, I weighed my options. I could run out to the car–but that would trigger the motion lights and she’d see me immediately. I could stay down here, where inevitably I would be found. I could go back up and make nice with her until I could slip away…but Tony had told me to call the cops. There wasn’t just something wrong with her, there was clearly something really fucked up going on here.
“Hey. Did you go to the Taco Bell too?”
Panic slipped its cold fingers into my guts when she began to laugh. Her laughter slithered wetly out of the dark and I almost bolted out into the yard just to get the fuck away from it. But then I remembered–the basement. There was a basement door under the porch. That must have been where Tony went.
Moving as quietly as I could, I crept in the direction that I hoped the door was in. It was so dark that I had to walk with my arms out in front of me and my hands splayed apart. The last thing I needed was to step on a hoe Sideshow Bob style and alert crazybitch to my attention. Fortunately, I found it quickly. I fumbled for the knob, and it was so greasy with something that I couldn’t turn it. Disgusted, I wiped my hand on my apron and then used it to turn the knob. I nudged the door open and slipped into the cellar.
There was a light on in there, and I could see better.
Now, I’m going to just–before I tell the rest of this? I didn’t tell this part to the cops. My brother and sister, they’ve had their share of run-ins with the law, you know, and I’ve been taught to talk a certain way to the police since I was old enough to potentially get into trouble. So I did tell them most of it, but not this part.
I whispered for Tony. He didn’t answer me, so I started looking around trying to see where he could be hiding out.
Alex’s parents had this section of the basement where they were going to renovate it into a mini-apartment or something, but they never got around to doing it. There were these wooden planks all built up where I guess the walls would go, and there were doors in between where the rooms would be–it was partially set up, but you could see through it. Sawdust everywhere, tarps. The bathroom had a sink, and a tub, and from my vantage point when I stepped through the door, the very first thing that I saw was this black shit all over the tub. And it stank. I couldn’t help myself, I had to know what it was. So I walked over there, and when I did, I saw that whatever it was came up from out of the drain. The tub wasn’t full of it, or anything, but the bottom of the tub and the sides of it were coated with the shit, and here’s the fucked up part–it was leading away from the tub. There was a whole big trail of it across the floor. I followed it until it hit the wall, where it went up the wall, and gathered in a puddle on the ceiling. Get why I never told the cops this? Made no sense. It wasn’t dripping, but it looked wet, and it smelled terrible, like these old, rotted onions I found in the back of my pantry once.
“Tony?” I whispered again, hopefully.
“Oh god,” he answered.
From above. And he wasn’t the only one talking, either. I could hear other voices, too, all whispering and clamoring. Some of them I recognized. Some of them I didn’t.
“Oh god, please call the cops.”
His voice had definitely come from that splat on the ceiling, but for some reason, I decided that was fine. This is the stage of that night I like to call the ‘autopilot’ mode, where I just kind of did things without thinking. I immediately started looking for a phone, and found a landline. When I reached for the receiver, I had a look at my own hand, and saw that it was covered in blood. I remembered the greasy doorknob I had touched, but for some reason, this didn’t phase me too much, either. I was deep underwater, so far below the surface that things like fear swam past me peacefully without too much notice.
I picked up the phone and dialed 911. I spoke to the dispatcher as quietly as I could. I described the unusual behavior and circumstances, and the blood. I don’t remember much of the conversation. I wasn’t in the driver’s seat at that point anymore. I heard the cellar door opening behind me, and bolted up the basement steps as fast as I could. I locked the door as soon as I made it to the top.
I should have run for my car and locked the doors until the cops came. I don’t know why I didn’t. I guess I still wasn’t in the driver’s seat. In any case, I went upstairs.
Right across from the stairs was the bathroom, and there was a single bloody handprint on it. But the thing was, it looked more like an animal’s claw. I stood there frozen at the top of the staircase, hypnotized by it. That not-quite terror swam close to me again. Nonsense thoughts wafted in the water of my oblivion and floated away. Whose blood was that? Could someone’s fingers have dragged along to make it look like…like a claw?
That gurgle sounded out from behind the door, and somehow under. Wet. Profane.
The first responding officer found me standing there, screaming.
Her, they found in the basement. Dead. She’d opened her own throat with a knife she’d found in the kitchen. I saw them bring her out on the stretcher.
Of course, they had questions for me, and I answered them. They wanted to know what her name was, how I knew her, what had happened. She hadn’t saved her name in my phone, just a <3. I gave them the number she’d given me. I tried calling it not too long afterwards, morbid curiosity I suppose, and it was disconnected.
The rest of the partygoers never turned up.
There’s a lot of people around here who think I know more than I do. All I did was show up late to a house party, but now half the town thinks I’m some kind of a murderer. The girl I used to know who may have been from Maine, may have dated so-and-so, may have been into drugs or weird witchcraft–funnily, no one knew her name. No one knew who she was related to or where she’d come from. No one will, I suppose, either.
I still have nightmares. Nightmares where I look at the ceiling in that basement, and instead of that black slime, I see bodies writhing all over each other. Screaming.
Sometimes the nightmares happen when I’m still awake, too.
I’ll be brushing my teeth, and I’ll hear that gurgling sound from the drain, and when I hear it I get so scared I can’t even move. Sometimes I’ll hear Tony calling for me. Sometimes I’ll be laying in bed and I’ll hear her voice murmur from under the floorboards–”oh, hey.”
I don’t think it’s ever going to stop, you see, so I got this knife out of the rack in the kitchen and I’ve just been staring at it. Thinking about bargains and exchanges. I can hear every single one of them tonight. I’ve got a lot to consider, but I tell you, I’d do just about anything to make them shut up.
Anything at all.