Aphelion Issue 231, Volume 22
August 2018
 
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Dream House

by Steve Cuffari



Death is a cold wind tickling your skin, whispering in your ears.

- unattributed Incan proverb.

October, Winter, 1992, Vermont

Wednesday

Outside, the early winter wind whipped against the windows of the master bedroom. Michael was sitting cross-legged on the floor, painting the molding of the walls. He and his wife Amanda had hired contractors to build their enormous house and left the finishing touches for themselves.

Amanda was just about done applying sealant to the bedroom door, which was handcrafted from Sequoia wood from the redwood forests.

The rest of the house was similarly furnished with rare and expensive things; a chandelier from Paris for the main dining room, leather sofas from Milan for the living rooms, great art from New York, London and Berlin. It had taken them almost a year to build their dream house and they had spared no expense.

Of all the lavish items they procured for their frivolous mansion, their favorite by far was the bed for their master bedroom. It was handcrafted, and the wood came from a tree that they had hand-selected. The wood came from an ombú, an herb tree from the ancient pampas that had once been on the outskirts of the Incan empire. They had honeymooned in South America five years ago and thought it would be a fitting memento and centerpiece of the room. One year ago, they returned to South America to select the tree. They enlisted the help of local workers, "indigenous" men, who were reluctant to cut it down.

"We think you should select another tree," the leader of the team suggested.

"Don't be silly," Michael said. "It's perfect."

"Mmm, I don't think so," the man said. He looked around as if he were worried someone was listening. "This tree is huaca."

"I don't understand," said Amanda. "We'll pay you for the whole tree. We just want a bed built, like we talked about."

"There are many trees here. This one is no good. Please choose another."

As they bantered, the other workers became visibly uncomfortable. The more the man protested, the more Michael and Amanda became adamant about their decision.

"We'll pay you and your men triple for this tree," Michael bargained.

This forced the man to take his men aside and talk to them. He came back after a short moment filled with superstitious and worried glances at the tree and at the couple.

"We'll do it," the man said. "But be warned," he said dramatically, "This tree was once a sacred object. There's no telling what might happen if you put its wood in your home."

Michael and Amanda looked at each other and held back laughter at the silliness of the statement.

Michael smiled and simply said, "Deal," and shook the man's hand.

Michael and Amanda had waited six months for the tree to be processed and crafted into their bed. It had been delivered today, three days before their official housewarming party. It was the final piece of furniture they needed and with it, their dream house was complete.

Amanda sighed. "Finished!" she exclaimed and sat down next to Michael. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and neck and kissed his cheek.

He ignored the molding he was working on and kissed her lips.

"Mikey, let's test out our new bed ..." she said as she began kissing his neck. "You can finish that later."

Michael smiled and put down his brush.

He took her in his arms and they both stared lovingly at their new bed.

"It's beautiful," Amanda said, cuddling her head in his shoulder.

"I love it," Michael replied, moving them seductively toward it.

Amanda smiled and kissed her husband. "I love you."

After they made love, Michael finished the molding and they went downstairs to continue planning their party on Saturday. They had been planning it for weeks, even before they moved into their new house.

In the impossibly spacious kitchen which Amanda had designed, they sat together and silently went to work.

Michael was writing out his versions of the menu and the ingredients they'd need to get over the next few days.

Amanda was daydreaming as she often did and looked around her beautiful kitchen and out into the cavernous rooms of the rest of the house.

"Do you think it's too much?" she asked Michael.

"What?"

"Do you think it -- the house, the move? Do you think it's all too much?"

Michael paused and tried to figure out his wife's train of thought. "Do you mean too expensive?" he asked incredulously.

"No, Michael, of course not that." She waved it off as silly. "No, I mean, maybe the house is too big for us," she said with a frown. She hung her head slightly. "I mean, it's assuming a lot, no?"

Michael finally understood where she was coming from. "Honey." He approached her delicately. "Don't listen to what our parents say. We'll be ready when we're ready."

"I know, but ..."

"No. 'But' nothing. It's our life," he assured her.

Amanda smiled and touched his hand.

"Our life, honey," he said again.

"I love it when you say that," she said, giddily.

Michael smiled and they continued to work quietly by each other's side. Soon it was time to decide on the menu. They had both come up with ideas that they would share and choose from.

Amanda was a highly educated and trained chef and loved to cook and to plan parties. She had her own successful restaurants, but not because she needed them. She came from a very wealthy family. She did it for the love of it, and she was good at it.

Michael had a love for cooking as well, but not on a professional level like Amanda. He was good with numbers and money. That was his thing. He had been born into a family of wealthy investment bankers.

It had been cooking that brought the two of them together. They had met ten years ago through Amanda's cousin William, and fell in love. William had invited Michael to eat at Amanda's first restaurant. Five years later they got married. And now, five years after being married, they finally decided to find tenants for their apartments in Manhattan and live together in Vermont.

For their party, as with the house, no expense would be spared -- at least not on food. They didn't want to spend money on a caterer. Instead, they found the help of a young working class girl, Mary, who lived a few miles away.

The town that they lived in was sparsely populated and to get anywhere, you needed to drive. Finding her had been a stroke of luck. She was introduced to them by the agent who sold them the land on which they built their house. The couple had been paying her to help with odd jobs ever since. She had just started community college and was having trouble paying for it. Michael and Amanda needed the extra pair of hands for their party and on top of that, it made them feel good to help the unfortunate girl out.

"So Mary will be able to help us serve, but she can't come early enough to help cook," said Amanda.

"Doesn't she have class on Saturday?" Michael asked.

"She does, but she's free afterward."

"Oh, okay, that's perfect."

"She just can't come until 4 or 5."

"Okay."

"Okay, now about the entrees ... Sam is vegetarian."

"Again?"

"She's your cousin," said Amanda snidely.

"Speaking of my relatives, do we have Scotch for my uncle, Eddie?"

Eddie was Michael's favorite Uncle. He was the oddball of the family, but Michael loved him. Eddie's many travels around the world took him on trips mentally, spiritually and physically. He was a former soldier and had been only seventeen when he enlisted. War had had a strange effect on him. Generally a quiet man, he could be a little spooky at times.

Michael usually loved his creepy stories.

"Sure do," said Amanda. "I got a new bottle of Macallan today."

"Great, that's his favorite. All right then, we should be able finish this up tonight," said Michael, rubbing his hands together.

"But the foie gras and the truffles are worrying me," Amanda said, scrunching her lips.

"Oh, no ..."

"Carmichael's is out and they're the only supermarket that carries it. They said they might have some tomorrow afternoon."

"Ugh. The apps depend on those. This is getting stressful. I say we pop that South African Cab now."

"Agreed. You do that while I put on some Barry. We're going to finish this tonight!" said Amanda in her most peppy frat-girl voice.

They worked all night and actually went through three bottles of wine; the Cabernet, a nice vintage Merlot and a Chilean Zinfandel. By the time they were done, they were pretty sauced and couldn't keep their hands off each other.

They ended up in the bedroom and made love. At one point, Michael reached into their sex drawer and grabbed for a vibrator that should have been there. But instead of grabbing a vibrator, he pulled out a toothbrush. Amanda looked at it and then at him, surprised.

They both burst into laughter.

Afterward, Amanda was the first to go to the bathroom before going to sleep. Michael put on his underwear, turned on the TV and waited for her. She came back out with the vibrator they had misplaced.

"More sex?" said Michael, smiling wryly.

"No. I found it in the medicine cabinet," Amanda said, confused.

"That's weird," Michael said.

"Yeah. That is weird," she agreed.

The two dismissed the oddity as just that, and went to bed.

Thursday

The next morning, the pair went their separate ways doing various errands and chores.

Amanda went shopping, hoping to find truffles and foie gras at Carmichael's gourmet supermarket.

Michael was pruning rose bushes inside one of the ultra modern greenhouse gardens on the sizeable expanse of land surrounding the house. The gas-powered pruner he was using was loud and he was wearing protective gear over his ears and eyes. Over the muffled grinding of the motor and the whirring of the pruner's saw blades, he thought he heard Amanda calling to him. He stopped the pruner and looked around the spacious climate controlled greenhouse. He didn't see her anywhere. He lay down the pruner and went outside to look for her. He called out to her several times and then gave up. "Weird," he said to himself out loud. I could have sworn I heard Amanda, he thought. For a moment, he stood quietly in the cold outside the greenhouse. He gazed out into the vast empty field and just listened.

Silence.

He suddenly got the inkling that someone was out there with him. Watching. He stood there for a moment longer and then dismissed the silly idea. His breath froze as he chuckled at himself, and he went back inside the greenhouse.

A little later, Amanda came home and began to prepare their dinner. She ignited a burner on the stovetop and it came on with a powerful woop. She put a pot on to boil. She cut carrots, potatoes, celery, garlic and onions for soup and tomatoes, lettuce and avocado for the salad. She preheated the broiler for some fresh fillets of tenderloin and put another pot on to make pepper sauce.

Soon, the kitchen, although huge, was filled with heat and the aromas of fresh meat and vegetables. Amanda was slicing mushrooms for the salad and daydreaming when she felt Michael come up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. She closed her eyes and smiled. He massaged her and kissed her from behind. His breath tickled her neck as he caressed her. "Michael ..." she groaned, and spun around to face him.

But when she opened her eyes, Michael was not there. "Michael?" she called out in the large empty kitchen. It was like he just disappeared. It gave her the chills slightly. He's probably hiding, she realized. She took off her apron, threw it on the counter and began to muse about her playful husband's hiding spot. Slowly, she walked across the kitchen, playing along. She tried to be as quiet as possible so as to sneak up on him. But she only got as far as the dining room door. She let out a blood curdling scream as the door burst open.

"Michael!"

"What's the matter!?" Michael shouted back.

"You just scared the shit out of me!" Her face flushed red as she cursed.

"Sorry! I didn't know you were home. I was working outside," he said.

"Weren't you just massaging my neck?" she said in disbelief.

Michael looked confused. "I was just outside in the greenhouse, honey."

Amanda looked her husband in the eye skeptically and then shook her head. "I must be going crazy."

"It's all right, babe. Don't be stressed out, we're done planning the party. Everything's going to be great on Saturday."

"You're right. Ugh, I'm so hungry," she said rubbing her stomach.

"Did you get the truffles?"

"I did," she said with a smile.

"The foie?"

"I did," she said more proudly than before.

Michael smiled glowingly and kissed her. "It smells great in here," he said floating over to the stove, nose hooked on the aroma wafting through the kitchen. "What's for dinner?"

"Oh nothing, just soup, salad and steak."

The two enjoyed their dinner without incident. A couple of glasses of wine later led them to the bedroom where they made love passionately until they both fell asleep, out of energy.

That night, Amanda had a disturbing dream. In the dream, she was in a large field surrounded by trees in the darkness of the night. The moon was high overhead and the stars sparkled chaotically around it as if in worship. She lay upon an altar made from the stump of a large ombú. She wasn't tied, but she couldn't move.

People were gathered around her dressed in animal hides and horrific masks, chanting in a language she didn't understand.

She had never heard anything like it before.

A hooded man, to whom all the others were bowing reverently, approached her with a gold and jewel hilted silver knife.

She couldn't see his face, but could make out two faint points of blue light that seemed to be coming from where his eyes should be.

He stood over her chanting unintelligibly, the blue lights growing larger with each word. As he chanted, she struggled to escape, but to no avail. As his voice got louder, a wind and fog began to swirl around them.

She looked into the crowd surrounding her, pleading for someone to help her, to let her go. Soon she realized that in fact, the people in the crowd were not wearing animal hides and masks. They were actually strange, beastly creatures who only appeared to be human.

She screamed, unable to hear her own voice over the droning beasts. Then with a violent thrust, the hooded man plunged the blade into her chest, and she felt her life beginning to slip away. She lay her head down on the tree trunk as she died. To her horror, lying next to her on the ombú was Michael, bleeding profusely from his mouth, his dying face as contorted by fear as her own.

Amanda woke up screaming, still struggling against the invisible power.

Michael was startled to consciousness. "Honey! Honey, are you okay?" he shouted, grabbing her, trying to settle her down.

She kept screaming and thrashing.

"Honey!" Michael shouted and slapped his wife across the face as lightly as possible.

Amanda belched out one final scream and she came to her senses.

"Oh, my god! I just had the most horrifying dream!" she said, wincing and covering her face with her hands.

"Baby, it's okay." Michael caressed her head. "What happened?"

She described what she could remember to him. It was already becoming fuzzy, but she said that in the dream she felt a horror that she would have never imagined in her waking life.

"Oh Michael, I feel like something terrible has happened! Or that something is going to happen."

"It's okay honey," Michael said soothingly. "I think you're just stressed out. About the house, about dinner Saturday. Remember what Doctor White said. You need to get more sleep."

"I'm trying."

"I know you're stressed out about everything, but just trust me," he said pushing her hair behind her ears. "Everything will be fine."

"I know, but I just can't help but feel nervous."

"Take one of my alprazolam. They're in the medicine cabinet."

"I don't know ... Doctor Greene said that I shouldn't mix them with my diazepam."

"Let me get you some water then." Michael got up and returned with water from the bathroom.

"Are you sure you don't want one?"

"I don't think so ..." she said hesitantly.

"Well, I'll just leave them here." He placed them on the nightstand. "Come on, let's try to get some sleep." He took her into his arms and they cuddled until they both fell asleep.

Friday

The next morning, Amanda woke and Michael was not by her side. Something in the back of her mind told her to be worried, but she ignored it. She hadn't felt Michael get out of bed and wondered where he had gone. Telling herself that everything was fine, she went to the bathroom and washed her face. Her image in the mirror looked more tired than usual. The bottle of alprazolam was still on the nightstand and she contemplated taking one. Instead, she put on one of Michael's shirts, a bit of concealer and went downstairs for breakfast.

Michael was sitting at the table in the kitchen sipping coffee and reading the Wall Street Journal.

"Hey baby, when did you get up?" Amanda asked.

Michael put down the paper and coffee and rubbed his face. "I didn't. I didn't really go to sleep."

Amanda became worried again and rubbed his shoulders. "What's the matter?"

"I don't know. I had a dream. A nightmare, really. After you told me about the dream that you had, I guess I couldn't stop thinking about it. It was so bad."

"I'm sorry," she said.

"No, no. I'm just worried about you. I couldn't relax after you told me about it."

"Did you take a pill?" she asked.

"Yeah, but it hasn't helped. I can't get this feeling of dread out of my mind. That dream ..."

"What was it about?" she asked.

"You're not going to like it," he said, putting down the newspaper.

"Oh no ..." she said, hesitant to believe him.

"I'm serious."

"Are you joking with me?"

Michael looked into her eyes without flinching.

Amanda saw the seriousness in his expression and sat herself down. "Oh god, what is it? Wait!" she put out her hand and closed her eyes. "No, don't tell me."

"Okay, I ..."

"All right, fine ..." She paused. "I'm fine. I'm ready. Tell me about it, honey," she said, folding her hands on the table, composing herself.

Michael paused a moment, looked at his wife, decided that he thought she could handle it and calmly said, "I had the exact same dream that you described to me last night."

Amanda listened, saying nothing, holding back a knee-jerk reaction.

"I woke up, sweating, my heart beating a mile a minute."

"Why didn't you wake me up?"

"I didn't want to bother you. And I thought that I'd be able to go to sleep," he paused. "But I couldn't."

"Oh, honey ..." Amanda said stroking his back.

"I can't help but think…" he paused, "No. Never mind."

"Honey, what? Just tell me."

"Okay, I can't help but think that these dreams have something to do with ... with the ombú."

"Honey, don't be silly ..." she comforted him.

"What did they call it? Huaca? What does that even mean?" he asked, confounded.

"Calm down, honey," she said.

"I know, I know ... you asked ... I know, it's ridiculous," he said shaking his head.

"It's okay honey, we're both stressed out," she said, trying to comfort him again.

"It was awful. When I woke up, my ... my skin felt like it was coated in something sticky and thick ... like I was covered with blood. When I went to the bathroom, I was clean. But I took a shower anyway and scrubbed myself over and over. I just couldn't go back to sleep. I took a pill, went downstairs and tried to sleep on the black leather sofa, you know, the comfy one? Still, I couldn't close my eyes. So I started reading every newspaper in the house. That was four hours ago. I'll do anything to get my mind off of that horrible nightmare." Michael shivered slightly at the memory.

"Oh, honey. It was just a dream. Nothing else," she said rubbing his shoulders. She stared off into the cold winter outside the kitchen window. She wasn't so sure she believed her own words.

That day, they both felt an overwhelming sense of impending horror, but tried to ignore it. They barely spoke as they made the final preparations for the party tomorrow. When their eyes happened to meet during their errands around the house, they simply smiled at each other and looked away quickly. They struggled to repress the anxious feelings that they knew they shared.

That night, they stayed up late drinking wine and watching TV. Neither one of them wanted to go to sleep. When they finally decided that they couldn't stay up any longer, they slowly made their way to their bedroom. When they got there, they were very quiet, as if not to draw attention to themselves from whatever it was that was plaguing their dreams. They lay down and spooned, falling asleep shortly thereafter. For hours they lay without stirring an inch, sleeping a seemingly tranquil, dreamless sleep.

When the two woke up the next morning, they stirred, only half-conscious. They were worn out and tired, not at all ready to wake. When they finally opened their eyes, they found that instead of having woken up in their bed, they had woken up on the very same stump of ombú from their dreams. The only difference now was that they were alone and weren't being restrained. And they were together. The moon was high in the sky in its typical place, stars flickering in subservience.

"Where are we?" Amanda asked rhetorically.

"How much did we drink last night?" Michael darkly joked.

"This is impossible," Amanda whispered, still holding her head in pain. "Am I dreaming?"

"If you are, then I am too," Michael said.

"This place ..." Amanda began.

"Is from our dreams ..." Michael finished.

"Michael ..." Amanda started.

Before she could finish, they were horrified to realize that they were no longer alone. The horde of creatures from their dreams emerged from the darkness and surrounded them, almost appearing out of nowhere.

The man in the hooded robe walked swiftly toward them through the crowd as it parted the way for him.

The couple was paralyzed with fear.

As the man finally stood before them, he quickly removed his hood revealing the twisted face of an indescribable beast more horrible than anything they had ever witnessed in their worst nightmares.

The next moment, they woke up simultaneously, screaming. They were back in their bed.

"Did that really happen?" Michael whispered.

They both looked down at the bed, remembering what the indigenous men had said about the ombú. They quickly grabbed their pillows and blankets and left their bedroom to sleep in one of the guest rooms.

Saturday

They woke up late the next morning, feeling less than refreshed. Even so, the nightmares of last night were quickly becoming a distant memory.

"How do you feel, baby?" Michael asked as he spooned with his wife.

"Pretty good, oddly," she said. "I remember being so terrified last night."

"Like our lives were at stake," Michael said.

"Exactly," agreed Amanda. She turned around to face him.

"We're just falling for those stupid superstitions," Michael said.

They smiled wryly at each other acknowledging with a look how silly it would be to be scared in life of what happened in their dreams, no matter how bizarre and life-like they had been.

When they finished their showers and got dressed, they were ready to go downstairs and get things going.

"Happy housewarming baby," Michael said.

Amanda smiled and planted a big kiss on his lips. "I love you."

Michael kissed her back and held her close from behind.

Amanda laughed. "I'm so happy that I'm spending the rest of my life with you."

Michael said jokingly, "Let's get through tonight first."

They took each other's hands and went downstairs.

Sometime halfway during the preparations, the doorbell rang.

Michael looked at his watch. "It's early, I wonder who that is," he said.

"Let's go see," Amanda said cheerfully.

They answered the door together.

"Hi Mary!" they said in unison.

"You're early," finished Amanda melodically.

"Hi guys, yeah, I got out of class early! I hope that's okay."

"Sure, no problem," Amanda said.

"Is that your mom?" Michael asked. He waved at the woman waiting outside in the old run down car.

"Yes ..." Mary said, waving at her mother to leave. She was obviously embarrassed.

Michael and Amanda smiled at the typical teenage attitude.

Inside, they went to the kitchen.

"Are you ready?" Amanda asked Mary.

"I am," the young girl said exuberantly while looking at the spread in front of her. Her fresh face beamed with excitement at the sight of all the delectable gourmet food.

"Great!" Amanda handed a huge knife to Mary.

Mary took the knife and was surprised at its heaviness. It glinted, menacingly sharp in the light of the kitchen.

"Let's get started," Amanda said.

A few hours later the table was set and dinner was ready to be served.

Michael and Amanda went out to the front porch to await their guests.

Everyone showed up on time. Except for Uncle Eddie.

He showed up a half hour late, holding up the dinner.

But Michael didn't care. "Uncle Eddie!" he shouted, embracing his uncle in from the cold, taking his coat. "Great to see you, Unc."

"Hey, Neph," he said slightly laconically with a nod. He looked up at the high ceilings and around the huge house and entered slowly. "This place ..." he trailed off.

Michael waited for him to finish, but he never did and just paced into the dining room continuing to survey the house in his odd manner.

"Everything okay, Uncle?" Michael asked concerned.

Uncle Eddie just continued on marveling at the house's interior.

Now that the whole party had been gathered, mingling and drinking, Amanda called everybody to stand around the grand dining table. Young Mary was going around pouring champagne into everyone's glass.

Amanda stood up and raised a glass to toast. "Michael and I are so happy that all of you could make it to our housewarming. We love you all and hope that this is just the first of many family gatherings we'll have here."

Michael joined his wife in the toast and said, "And hopefully around this time next year ..." He paused to look at his wife and kissed her lightly. "We'll have a bigger family." He shot a slightly sarcastic look at his mother and raised his glass in her direction.

From the look on his mother's face, she didn't like it.

Amanda was embarrassed, but successfully did not show it.

"Cheers!" Michael shouted.

"Cheers!" everyone shouted back. They each drank from their glasses and sat back down.

Michael and Amanda served dinner themselves. They were trying to be humble and gracious hosts and attended to everyone's needs.

Somewhere between the appetizers and the main course, Uncle Eddie pulled Michael aside and whispered. "How's everything going, Neph?"

"It's going well, Unc. Everybody seems to be enjoying themselves."

"No, I mean, here in this house. Something is off."

"What are you talking about? You've been acting weird since you got here."

"You don't feel it? Has anything strange been happening? I don't like the feeling I'm getting ..."

Amanda waved for Michael to come over.

"Listen, Uncle, I've got to go ... let's talk about this later," Michael said, rushing to his wife.

Soon the party was over and everyone left, thanking the couple profusely for such a wonderful meal and company.

Only Uncle Eddie and Mary stayed behind.

Mary and Amanda were in the kitchen doing dishes.

Uncle Eddie and Michael were in the dining room clearing the table.

"So did you have a good time, Unc?" Michael asked, as he stacked a pile of plates.

"I did, Neph, but we need to talk," Uncle Eddie said nervously.

"Michael," called Amanda from the kitchen.

"Hold on, Unc. What is it honey?"

Uncle Eddie grabbed his nephew by the shoulders and looked him in the eye. "Something's not right here, boy," he said sternly.

"Hold on!" Michael answered sternly as well. "What is it, honey?" Without a response from Amanda, he left the plates and walked to the kitchen.

Uncle Eddie followed. "Michael, listen to me!"

Michael pushed open the kitchen door. "I said hold on, Uncle Eddie! Aman ..."

He was interrupted by the sight of Mary holding Amanda up above her head. Mary had transformed into a kind of arboreal version of herself.

"Amanda!" Michael shouted.

In the same instant, Mary put Amanda down with one hand, grasping her, and pointed at Michael and Uncle Eddie with the other.

Both men were frozen, restrained by the strange power of the thing that had once been Mary.

Dragging Amanda, the thing bolted out of the kitchen.

Uncle Eddie and Michael fought to free themselves to no avail, until without warning, they were suddenly free. The spell they were under had worn off. They ran out of the kitchen fast enough to see that the thing had gone up to the second floor and was headed toward the master bedroom.

Michael and Uncle Eddie ran as fast as they could up the long staircase to the second floor. By the time they got to the bedroom, the thing had restrained Amanda on the bed and was chanting furiously.

All of its attention was focused on restraining Amanda and chanting those verses. Amazingly, a rainy wind picked up inside the room.

Michael and Uncle Eddie inched forward, trying to sneak up on the thing. They got very close and then tackled it.

The thing turned its attention from Amanda and blue light that emanated from its hands. When the light fell on them, their bodies convulsed as if struck by lightning.

Amanda, now free, seized the opportunity and smashed a lamp over the thing's head.

It fell to the floor unconscious. Mary's former countenance returned immediately.

They all rushed to her aid.

"Mary," Amanda whispered, holding her head.

Michael and Uncle Eddie hovered in concern.

It was a while before she finally began to stir.

An ambulance came just as she woke up.

EMTs took her out on a stretcher.

Amanda held her hand.

"Honey, it's going to be okay, your parents are going to meet you at the hospital," Amanda said.

Mary moaned, eyes squinting. "It's horrible," she said. She jolted upright on the stretcher and grabbed Amanda's shirt with both hands. "It's you!" she shouted. And just as quickly as she jolted upright, she fell back down. "It you ... it's us ... it's all of us ..." she whispered. She closed her eyes and let the men take her away.

Michael and Amanda watched the ambulance drive off.

Uncle Eddie stood forlornly behind them.

They went back inside and sat in the living room.

"What happened here today?" asked Michael.

Uncle Eddie rubbed his neck. 'I don't know, but it's strong. I've seen many things in my day ..."

"Well, the important thing is that it's over. I'm sure there's some rational explanation for it," Michael said with certainty.

Uncle Eddie shook his head. "There's a rational explanation for everything, Neph. Unfortunately, the universe isn't rational ..."

Amanda came to her husband's aid. "I think we were pretty rational, all things considered."

"Don't get me wrong, darling," Uncle Eddie persuaded her. "I'm not talking about us ..."

"Uncle Eddie ..." Michael started, anticipating what was coming next.

"No, no hear me out," Uncle Eddie pleaded.

The room seemed to get darker as Uncle Eddie spoke. "There are things ... seen and ... unseen in this world. And just because you or I don't have an explanation for them ... doesn't mean that there isn't one. What happened here today is an example of that. Don't kid yourselves by thinking that this is can be explained by something familiar to you ..."

"Okay, Uncle ..." Michael was cut off again.

"I sensed it when I first walked in to this house," Uncle Eddie said.

"Okay ..." started Amanda now.

"I should have seen this coming," he said, shaking his head.

"Uncle Eddie ..." Michael was now getting frustrated.

"I used to be better at this," Uncle Eddie lamented.

"All right, all right," Amanda said.

The men kept bickering.

"Enough!" Amanda finally shouted, jumping out of her seat.

There was silence for a moment.

Amanda sat back down. "I ... I think I'm getting a headache ..."

"Sorry Amanda ... I ..." Uncle Eddie tried to finish.

"No, it's okay, it's just ... I'm tired," she said sitting back down.

"Sorry Uncle Eddie. Maybe it's just time to go home. We've all had a rough night," Michael said.

Michael and Amanda got up and walked Uncle Eddie to the door and handed him his coat.

"I'm sorry the night turned out this way," Michael said hugging his favorite uncle.

"I'll be fine," Uncle Eddie said. He gave one last look around the house. "I'm just worried about you." Uncle Eddie patted his nephew on the shoulder and walked out.

Michael and Amanda stood at the door watching Uncle Eddie drive away. The cold night air was still and silent. The sky was dark. And the moon was not alone. Stars flickered violently, crowding the sky.

Soon Uncle Eddie's car was out of sight.

"Everything's going to be okay," Michael said.

"What did happen here tonight, Michael? What happened to Mary?" Amanda asked with concern.

"We all had a bit too much wine, I think," he said, trying to be light.

Amanda looked at him doubtfully.

"We'll be fine," Michael assured her. "It was nothing that the doctors won't be able to figure out."

They went back inside and tried to relax and forget about what had happened.

Michael decided to brave the upstairs. "I'll be five seconds," he said and kissed Amanda on the head.

"Okay," she whispered and went into the kitchen. "I'm going to finish the dishes and open more wine."

Michael ran quickly up the stairs, steering clear of the master bedroom like one of Pavlov's dogs. There was no way he was going to use the bathroom in there. He instead headed for the guest bathroom, which was almost identical to his own.

In the bathroom, he opened the medicine cabinet and took out a bottle of pills. "Alprazolam," he whispered, "Please help me tonight." He tossed it up slightly and caught it, catching his reflection in the mirror simultaneously. He looked at himself, noticing how old his face seemed in the light of the bathroom. Then he realized that he had a grey streak in his hair. He tugged on the stripe as if to see that it was real. He must have gotten it that night during the incident. For sure, Amanda would have mentioned it if she had seen it earlier. He put the bottle down on the edge of the sink, shook his head in disbelief and turned on the cold water from the sink. He bent over and splashed his face once and looked in the mirror again. His face had gotten darker, more blemished.

Downstairs, Amanda was finishing up washing the dishes. She was a little nervous to be alone, but fought against superstitious thoughts. Still, she looked suspiciously behind herself to see what was there. She kept her ears perked, listening for the slightest sound.

There was a wind outside that whirred by the kitchen window.

Amanda looked behind herself again, listening hard.

Suddenly, the kitchen window flew open with a furious wind. She struggled to close it. When she finally did, she was sweaty and disheveled. Unbelievable, she thought. She straightened herself up and continued to wash the dishes.

Upstairs, Michael was still staring at his reflection in the mirror. His skin seemed softer, looser. He bent over and splashed his face again. He lifted his eyes slowly to see his reflection. To his horror, the skin on his face had begun to rot away. Parts of his skull were showing and bits of rotted flesh were just barely hanging on. He jumped back and shouted in fear, falling to the ground and taking the bottle of pills with him.

The pills bounced and scattered everywhere.

He touched his face while on the floor to see if it was really happening. He tore off bits of his flesh and they rotted to dust in his hands. He lay on the floor, squirming until he saw his reflection in the glass of the shower door. He looked into the empty eye sockets of a toothless skull. He scrambled back to his feet screaming and looked in the mirror again. His face was back and intact, looking normal again. His speeding heart slowed and he took a deep breath. He laughed at his reflection, challenging it with impertinence. When he was satisfied that he had displayed enough comic bravado, he bent down and began picking up the pills. While crouched, he stared at his reflection again in the shower door and smirked.

"Michael!" Amanda shouted.

"Jesus, Amanda, what are you doing!" he rasped.

"God you scared me, what are you doing up here?"

"I was just getting some pills."

"God you almost gave me a heart attack, I heard you screaming. What happened?"

Michael smiled and shirked it off. "Nothing, I was scaring myself. I'm ... I'm still a little freaked out. I'm not afraid to say it either. That was some weird ..."

"Michael, are you okay?" Amanda asked putting her hands on his chest.

He smiled lovingly. "I'm fine honey. Let's go," he said as he got up.

"Wait," she said and quickly grabbed the bottle of diazepam from the bathroom.

Once downstairs, they went into the kitchen for water to go with their pills. They continued to the living room where Amanda had opened a bottle of wine. They poured themselves some wine and turned on the television. They didn't speak or look at each other for some time. They just stared at the television. There was an old movie on, House of Usher, that they had both seen before. It had just started.

Finally, Amanda broke the silence. "I don't want to sleep upstairs tonight." She spoke quietly as if she thought someone were listening.

"Neither do I," Michael said expressionless.

They clinked glasses, and before long, they were taking their last sips of wine.

The movie was not even half over yet.

Amanda tried to refill her glass from the bottle. A solitary drop eked out. She looked at Michael through hazy eyes.

Michael raised an empty glass to his lips. He looked at it contemptuously. He met Amanda's drunken gaze.

Amanda put her head onto Michael's shoulder and closed her eyes.

Michael rested his head on hers and did the same.

Soon they were both asleep.

The moon was high in the air. And the air was still. Michael and Amanda drowsily lifted their heads, but couldn't move the rest of their bodies.

The stars shone above them like the eyes of dark angels, hailing their celestial god. It was only a moment before they were confronted by the cascading faces of beasts with impossibly human-like appearances as if they belonged to other humanoid species that had evolved from squids and serpents and cloven-hoofed animals.

The creatures chanted with devotion in anticipation of their leader. As they did, the air began to swirl and the blue light of the moon reflected on every surface, glowing with demonic intensity. A bolt of lightning cracked, splitting and setting on fire a tree nearby. The beasts chanted more furiously, and it began to rain.

Michael and Amanda were struck with fear, but not the kind that they had felt in their dreams. It is impossible to understand how they felt at that moment, knowing finally that their dreams were no longer dreams and they never really had been. This was real, and they already knew their fate. Soon, the hooded man would arrive.

The chanting reached an apex and the crowd started to writhe. Out from the mass of creatures, the hooded man emerged. He was chanting his own verses as well and steadily approached.

Michael and Amanda begged.

"Please wait ..." Michael said.

"Please ... please ..." said Amanda.

The hooded man stood over them. His voice bellowed in crescendo.

"No, please!" Michael said, trying in vain to struggle free.

The hooded man then reached into his robes and pulled out the all too familiar gold and jewel hilted silver knife.

"No, please, no!" Amanda shouted.

In one swift motion, without stopping his chant, the hooded man raised and plunged the blade into their chests with inhuman fervor and lust.

Their shrieks of protest became whimpers, and as their blood pumped out over their chests and onto the ombú altar, the hooded man gently took off his hood. His face was instantly recognizable and at the same time unidentifiable. His face was the face of humanity, the serpent, the trickster, the devil. It was the reflection of what humankind denied itself to be.

And it was the last thing that their eyes ever saw.

Sunday

The next afternoon, there was a knocking on Michael and Amanda's door. It was Uncle Eddie.

He had called their house earlier to apologize for upsetting them last night. When they didn't answer, he got a bad feeling, so he had decided to go apologize in person.

He immediately noticed that all three of their cars were parked in front of the house. He knocked. He rang the bell. He shouted their names. His worries became concerns.

Fearing the worst and knowing in a dark corner of his heart what he would find inside, he kicked open the front door and entered swiftly. He continued to shout their names and ran through the house. He paused before entering the living room.

Uncle Eddie hung his head in sorrow when he saw Michael and Amandasorrow when he saw the pale, dead faces of Michael and Amanda, curled up next to each other on their leather sofas from Milan..

The End


© 2011 Steve Cuffari

Bio: Steve Cuffari is a horror writer born in 1978 in New York City and graduated from Hunter College, CUNY with a degree in Creative Writing. He began writing short stories in multiple genres, but has since focused on horror as he believes that it has a special capacity to explore the human condition. To view Mr. Cuffari's blog, visit Steven Cuffari.

E-mail: Steve Cuffari

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