Alice sat up with a snort and looked towards the door. Sean nodded awake. He was almost used to it at this point.
“What’d you hear?” he asked, shifting next to her beneath their comforter.
She said nothing.
“Do you want me to go and check?”
“Yeah,” she whispered, in that voice that made his skin prickle.
Sean got up, relishing the cool air outside the covers. He grabbed his phone from the windowsill, knowing he wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep for at least a half hour, and figuring he could tire himself out looking at status updates on the can.
He navigated the shadowy house on his usual trajectory—bathroom, guest bedroom, living room, kitchen, check the front and back locks, and then a quick scan of the basement. The routine pleased him; unlike her, he liked the house after dark, the way it seemed icily outlined with light pouring in from the windows. He felt like a jungle cat at night, moving slowly through a world that only he understood.
But as he tugged at the backdoor, he felt a wave of worry crash against him. It was happening more and more since they’d moved—Alice’s sudden waking at any small noise, the requests that he check the house. Was it the beginning of severe anxiety, maybe even agoraphobia? Each suddenly jolt seemed exponential, her voice twice as dead- and primal-sounding as it was the previous time.
Sean got to the bottom of the basement stairs and enjoyed a little shudder as he stared into the pitch-black expanse. It made him think of the ocean, which always gave him a jolt of good old-fashioned animal fear. He flicked on the light, squinting as his eyes ached. Nothing moved around their stored furniture except for a big hobo spider along the far wall.
Back upstairs, halfway through the bathroom door, he froze. Alice was probably already asleep again—she usually was, by the time he returned—but he might as well check in, make sure, and, if she was awake, dissuade her fears. Some light chiding might even help break her pattern of late-night panics.
He went to the bedroom door and peered in.
The thing sat on her chest, hunched as it slammed the knife over and over into her throat. When he cried out at the sight of it, it looked over its shoulder at him with a grin of excitement that glowed out of the dark room.
He leapt on it, but the thing was fast, and met him as he landed. It was a child or ape or something in between, and giggled girlishly as he wrestled it to the floor. He tried to get a hold on its arms or throat, but its rough pelt was slick with her blood, and it seemed to be all muscle underneath that twisted and bulged like liquid made flesh.
Sean threw a hard knee to its midsection, and the creature’s morbid grin finally fell, replaced with a scowl of rage. It roared in his face, its breath smelling like flowers. In a flash, it sunk its teeth into his shoulder. Sean screamed and tensed, his hands releasing the beast.
The thing scrabbled off of him and into the hallway. He ran after it, but with its last leap into the air it spoke a garbled word, and when it hit the ground it sank into the carpet and disappeared.
Sean clawed at the damp spot on the shag, as though he might find a trapdoor leading to the creature. He dug his fingernails in and tore it up, revealing only hardwood floor.
Defeated, he leaned back in the dark house and panted, his eyes eventually creeping back to the dreadful outline of his bedroom door.
Three days later, Sean left the hospital. The police had interrogated him inside and out, but had let him off with a stern gaze and an admonition that he better not leave town. They couldn’t hold him, given how little they knew themselves.
For example, how had Sean managed to carve that knife out of solid bone? What animal had bones like that? How had he bruised those paw prints into Alice’s chest? Where was Sean’s soldering iron? When had Sean had the carpet torn up and relaid over the symbol he’d soldered into the floor?
He spent four more days half-catatonic on a couch belonging to Stephen, an old work friend and the only person Sean knew who wasn’t completely repulsed by the rumors of Alice’s death. Stephen plied him with vodka and made a big show of saying things like, “We should go find the fucker”, and, “He’ll pay for this.” Sean had tried to explain that Alice’s killer wasn’t human, but then had resigned himself to silently watching reality TV and sucking down whatever disgusting burger food Stephen plopped in front of him.
Then, one day, the cops showed up at Stephen’s place. A man and a woman; suit cops, not uniform cops. Stephen made a hasty exit, conspicuously grabbing “his hat”, meaning the huge bag of weed he kept under the sink. The officers patiently waited until he was gone, and then focused on Sean.
Wearing white latex gloves, they placed a wooden box on Stephen’s coffee table. On its lid was carved an eye, and at the eye’s center, a tree.
“Do you recognize this?” asked the woman.
“Should I?” asked Sean.
“We found it in your closet,” said the man, his voice hoarse with cigarettes. He was round-faced with chapped cheeks, in need of some lotion and two days’ sleep.
Sean waited. The man nodded towards the box. Carefully, Sean opened it. Inside was a bundle of white twigs tied together with bits of twine. One end of the bundle was burnt black. There were also three red candles, a few pieces of black chalk, and a small cardboard cross with the upper half of a mouse sewn to it.
At the bottom was a piece of canvas embroidered with a symbol, a sort of hook with many lines through it.
“What is all of this?” asked Sean, finally.
“We’re not sure,” said the woman, producing a glossy photo from her messenger bag and passing it to him. “But we found this one the floor under that spot your carpet you…mentioned.”
The blackened symbol burnt in the hardwood floor was a sloppier version of that sewn into the scrap of canvas, but they were essentially the same. The soldered symbol looked foul, moldy; in the grooves of the etching festered a white substance that reminded him of soft butter.
“You think I did this?” he asked, repulsed.
“We’re not sure,” said the woman. “Only Alice’s fingerprints are on the box, so even if you knew about it, we know you didn’t handle it.”
“What about on that?” he said, pointing to the photo. “Fingerprints.”
The officers exchanged a glance. “No prints at all,” said the man. “No tears in the carpet that suggest recent rennovation. Honestly, it almost looks like that, uh, sign, that it appeared there all by itself.”
The man kept talking. Sean didn’t listen. He stared from the box to the photo and back again.
“I hear you already,” said the voice in the back when Sean rang the bell a third time. The annoyed response made Sean tense with fury. He imagined leaping over the counter at this flowery-smelling new age shop, seizing the woman who’d just spoken to him by the neck, squeezing her until her tongue turned black.
But he stayed silent. He had been patient so far, in his journey from the professor of dead languages to the librarian to the herbalist to here. What was a few more mintues?
Finally, she appeared, a chubby girl in her thirties whose bored expression suggested she was aware that she’d outgrown her nose ring and halter top.
“What can I do for you?” she asked.
“Is Caroline here?” asked Sean, trying to sound tired and plaintive.
“Caroline’s very busy,” said the girl. “What are you looking for?”
“Please, I…I need to talk to Caroline.” Sean gulped, pathetically. “Alice sent me. She’s in real trouble, and figured Caroline could help her.”
The girl sighed, turned away, and retreated into the store. The minute he heard her muffled voice in the background, he rounded the counter and followed the sound into the back room.
Caroline sat at a glowing desktop computer amidst the drying plants and diaphanous wrapping materials cluttering the counter. She spoke up to the counter girl, and saw Sean first. The counter girl followed her surprised gaze and whirled, but she only got out, “Hey!” before Sean hammered his fist into her nose, which collapsed inwards with something between a crunch and a pop.
As the counter girl slumped to the floor, Sean seized Caroline by the collar. The woman was older than Alice, but not by much, and still had a practical beauty to her. She stared at Sean like he was a silverfish she’d found crawling up her wall.
He reached into his jacket and produced the photograph of the symbol from under the carpet, and shoved it in her face. Caroline’s contemptuous scowl fell.
“Oh no,” said Caroline.
“Tell me how to summon it,” he said.
“She wasn’t supposed to do it by herself,” whispered Caroline. “I’m so sorry–”
“I don’t give a shit,” he said, yanking her forward, their faces inches apart. Tears rolled down his cheeks. “Whatever Alice did, you know about it. You knew her. You taught her. Right?”
Caroline nodded slowly. “Yes.”
“I want you to call it back. The thing that killed her.”
The older woman heaved a sigh, looked unsure. For a moment, Sean felt the world fall out from under him. Maybe this was a dead end. Maybe he was hallucinating, putting pieces together that didn’t actually fit. Maybe Alice was just having spooky fun, and it was him, or some part of him, that he saw sitting on her chest, stabbing her.
“I can’t do it here,” said Caroline. “I need the rest of our coven to help me.”
Just like that, a breath on the ember of vengeance in him. “Take me to them,” he said.