For Halloween 2006…
Teresa handed her brothers an ever growing list of supplies for her Halloween party that night. Already the great room had been transformed into a colorful haunted house, replete with cobwebs and black bats hanging from the ceiling.
“Don’t think I’ll ever figure out why you gringos have to make something scary out of El Día de los Muertes,” Johnny said, shaking his head. “It’s a time to honor the dead… to celebrate their lives, not to fear them.”
“Oh, Johnny, it’s fun! You can still celebrate your way tomorrow,” she answered, laughing. “Maria and I have everything ready for you, even marigolds. I think you might be surprised, so let us have our fun tonight.”
She started to turn to go back into the kitchen but stopped and lifted a finger to warn them. “And remember,” she said, her eyes glowing with excitement. “I need these supplies before the party starts. That means you won’t have time for more than one beer at the saloon.”
Johnny grabbed the list, a wide smile crinkling his blue eyes. “Si, Querida. We’ll be back in plenty of time.”
Johnny slapped Scott on the shoulder and ushered him out of the house, followed by Teresa. He hoped she didn’t stop them again to add something to that infernal list. They’d never get on their way.
Scott raised an in inquisitive eyebrow and whispered, “You in that much of a hurry for a beer?”
Johnny grinned. “No Boston, I just don’t want to get roped into moving furniture again. Teresa’s moved that couch three times this morning.”
“Good thinking, Brother.” Scott pushed his hat back on his head and made for the buckboard. At least they would have a few hours respite from Teresa’s Halloween party.
“You two got slickers with ya?”
Scott pulled to a stop and stared at Jelly; then he looked at the sky overhead. It was blue and cloudless, all the way to the mountains. “What do we need slickers for?” he asked the old man.
“Cos my elbow’s tellin’ me there’s rain comin’, an’ it ain’t never b’n wrong yet,” Jelly told him firmly.
Johnny nudged Scott and winked at him. “His elbow,” he said, grinning and turning back to the old man. “Jelly, there ain’t a cloud in the sky.”
Jelly eyed Johnny like a patient father explaining something to a child. “An’ when did that ever make no difference? Tellin’ ya, this ache in my elbow says rain… an’ rain it will.”
“Jelly!” Teresa huffed from behind them. She thrust her hands on her hips and glared at him ferociously. “Don’t you dare wish rain on me, Jelly Hoskins! Do you realize how long I’ve been planning this party?”
The old hand had the grace to look sorry for her. “Well, it ain’t me that’s makin’ it rain, T’resa. I’m just tellin’ ya it’s comin’.” He scratched his chin and looked at the blue sky above them. “Might just be a cloudburst,” he added hopefully.
Johnny nudged his brother again and ambled over to Jelly. “So now it’s just a cloudburst, huh Jelly?” he asked, grinning widely. He walked around the old man, then leaned in closer. “Or a shower, maybe?”
Scott’s grin mirrored Johnny’s. “Come on, Johnny. Let’s get going before we drown in that downpour.” He watched Johnny laugh and walk over his way. Johnny climbed into the wagon, taking up the reins and rested his boot comfortably up against the footboard.
Scott climbed up beside him. He leaned back and pulled his hat down low over his eyes as Johnny released the brake and flicked the reins. The horses moved forward, jolting the buckboard into motion. As they passed Jelly, Scott smiled mischievously. His eyes sparkled. “We’ll bring you home some liniment for that bad elbow of yours, Jelly,” he said and joined in his brother’s laughter.
Johnny let the horses have their lead as they left the town behind them. He glanced back at the load of supplies for the party. "Teresa and her Halloween party – how come you guys have to make it all seem so evil?"
“So how do you celebrate it?” Scott asked with real interest.
“Oh, families usually clean and decorate the graves... bring them offrendas.” He glanced at his brother. "Offerings," he translated for him. "Rich families build altars in their homes to honor the dead. There’s pan de muerto and candied pumpkins and skulls. We honor the dead by enjoying life.”
"Sounds like fun," Scott said, glancing up at the sky and frowning. "But I think the matter might be out of our hands anyway. We're not going to beat that storm home."
Johnny studied the sky, dark broiling clouds drifting toward them, promising a heavy downpour. They were still an hour away from the hacienda, to far to reach home before the skies opened up.
He nodded even as the first large drops of rain hit his hat.
“Yeah, I know,” Johnny agreed miserably. He looked up and was blessed with a heavy drop on his forehead. They’d seen clouds forming as they’d finished loading the wagon in town, but they’d looked too far off to be a problem.
But the clouds had moved in with diabolical speed. Old Mother Nature sure seemed to be in a hurry this time.
“It’s not that I mind gettin’ wet,” Johnny continued and drew a deep breath. “I just hate it when Jelly turns out to be right.”
Scott pulled his coat closed tighter. The air had cooled off quickly and the droplets of rain were coming harder and faster. “He’s not going to let us forget this one.”
“There’ll be no livin’ with him, Scott,” Johnny told him mournfully, flicking the reins to try to get a little more speed out of the horses.
Then it started. The rain pounded their heads and shoulders, drenching them almost immediately. The horses snorted and huffed as they plowed through the downpour, the road ahead of them all but disappearing in a sheet of water.
"We'll never make it!" Johnny shouted.
"We should pull over somewhere." Scott had to raise his voice to match his brother's. The pelting downpour was overwhelming everything.
"There's that abandoned house a couple of miles from here," Johnny shouted back. "This shouldn't last long. At least we can keep dry for awhile."
"The Calienté place?" Scott asked doubtfully. But he shivered in the cold and decided that shelter was shelter. "Alright, the turnoff should be around here somewhere.”
It took them longer to find it than either brother had expected. When they did, they were practically on top of the turnoff. The rain kept coming down harder, if that were possible. Through the curtain of rain Johnny made out the house in the distance, butted up against the mountainside.
Johnny pulled on the reins and turned the buckboard slowly onto the side road. It was little more two ruts in the ground now, overgrown and hard to maneuver on a good day, let alone in this weather. The house had been abandoned for years and people tended to avoid it.
"There it is," Scott yelled over the rain.
Even in the best of weather, the house looked old and dilapidated. But in the gloom of the rain it seemed forbidding. A feeling of profound sadness seemed to hover around its darkened windows.
Johnny hauled on the reins and drew the wagon to a halt. Scott jumped down almost immediately, his feet landing with a soft thud and splashing mud and water all around him. Pulling on the brake and wrapping the reins around it, Johnny leapt down as well, joined Scott in quickly checking the tarp covering Teresa’s supplies in the buckboard then hurried up the stairs.
They hunched over against the pelting rain and wind, pulling jackets that were already soaked through tightly around them and grateful for the protection of the porch. The front door stood ajar...an invitation into the house that sent a shiver down Johnny's spine that had nothing to do with the cold weather.
"It'll be warmer inside, Johnny," Scott said, at the top of your voice. The rain drumming on the porch roof was even louder than it had been in the buckboard. He was wet through and through and shoved his hands under his armpits in an effort to stop shivering. "Maybe we can start a fire and dry off a bit."
Johnny hesitated. "Right about now I think I'd prefer the rain."
Scott grinned at Johnny's unease. "Worried about ghosts, Brother?" he asked with a laugh. "Go on in. I'm freezing out here."
Johnny gave his brother a withering look that would stop most men dead in their tracks, but he took a tentative step inside.
The room was darkened by more than the heavy clouds outside. Curtains were drawn across closed windows. Both men took a moment to let their eyes adjust to the subdued light, then ventured further into the room.
Despite the dampness outside, the room felt airless. A layer of dust coated both the floor and furniture. The musty smell of neglect hung in the air.
Scott pulled off his hat and placed it on an oak pedestal just inside the door, immediately regretting that he hadn’t wiped away the dust first. It clung to his sodden hat.
He looked around. A fireplace dominated the wall at the far end of the room to his left and Johnny had already headed for the woodpile sitting next to it.
Scott watched his brother tear away the shroud of cobwebs that hung over the fireplace and toss in the kindling and wood. "Have you got matches?" Scott asked him.
Johnny patted his jacket pockets and shook his head in dismay. He looked up and noticed a small tin box beneath a layer of dust on the mantel. “We’re in luck,” he declared, grinning as he opened the box. “Three of ‘em.”
While Johnny got down on one knee to light the fire, Scott’s attention was caught by the painting over the mantel. It was framed extravagantly in what looked like gold and pictured a man standing beside his seated wife. The man must have been in his thirties and was decidedly Spanish. He held one hand on his hip authoritatively and his head high. The clothes he wore were a much more expensive version of Johnny’s own – a frilled shirt instead of the embroidered ones Johnny favored, but with a tailored bolero jacket and pants that had silver conchos down the side.
‘Definitely a man to be reckoned with’, Scott thought. But the woman was different. Though dressed just as elegantly in green satin, exquisitely trimmed with white lace at collar and cuffs and five gleaming white buttons down the bodice, she seemed gentle… almost delicate. Her chestnut brown hair drawn up in a complicated but sophisticated coif crowned a truly beautiful face. Something about her eyes drew him closer and he walked over to see the painting better.
Those eyes had been painted in such a way that they almost seemed to be watching wherever you stood but, getting close enough to see them properly, his breath caught. They were blue – an intense sapphire color that he knew well. They were the color of Johnny’s eyes.
The seasoned wood had caught instantly, sending smoke billowing out into the room until the chimney began drawing properly. Johnny stepped back coughing as the smoke cleared. It was only then that he noticed Scott’s rapt expression as he stared up at the painting.
Scott blinked. He seemed to be totally engrossed in the painting. Johnny looked at him curiously.
"Something wrong, Brother?" Johnny asked. He looked at the painting that held his brother’s attention so completely.
Following his brother’s gaze he suddenly felt a chill run down his spine. Familiar eyes stared down at him... no right through him.
“That must be the Calientés,” Johnny said softy. He drew his eyes away from the woman’s and studied the man standing beside her. The irony wasn’t lost on him that he was looking at a reverse of his own mother and father. He wondered if they had had children, and whether they had their father’s dark skin and their mother’s blue eyes.
Scott pulled his eyes away from the painting and peeled off his wet jacket. “I wish we'd listened to Jelly and brought our rain slickers.”
"Just don't let him hear you say it," Johnny agreed. The painting continued to hold him. He couldn't keep from looking back at those eyes.
He forced himself to turn away. Still, he could almost feel her looking down on him.
He spread his jacket on the hearth and shivered at the feel of his wet shirt against his skin. He considered taking off the shirt as well and laying it out to dry, but decided against it.
"I don't know about you, Scott, but this place gives me the creeps. No wonder no one lives here. As soon as that rain lets up, I'm out of here"
“And I’ll be right behind you.” Scott laid his jacket down beside Johnny’s and began to look around.
At one time this house must have been a loving place. A woman’s touch was evident in the furnishings and the light floral wall paper that was beginning to curl away from the timber behind it here and there. A sofa and two chairs faced the fireplace with a beautifully carved coffee table centered between the chairs. It was topped with marble and must have been the pride and joy of its owners. Now, the texture in the marble could barely be made out beneath years of dirt and the carcasses of dead insects.
There were porcelain figurines and trinkets on the table and a carved humidor. Paintings, small and large – landscapes and ‘still-lifes’, even a beautifully framed mirror – hung from the walls everywhere. A sideboard laden with crystal glasses and decanters took up most of one end of the room. There was a large painted china vase at each end and, scattered around each one, the dried brittle remains of flower petals.
Where Lancer's great room boasted heavy furniture made for a man's lifestyle, this house was reminiscent of some of the parlors that Scott had grown up with in Boston
If he closed his eyes he could almost hear the strains of stringed instruments playing a fugue and a sitting room full of people.
All around the room were the decayed accouterments of wealth and elegance – all sadly neglected for years. Mrs. Calienté had obviously surrounded herself with the trappings of her life before coming out west.
Or had it been the aristocratic man he saw standing next to her? Had he come to this country a wealthy man...making a life for himself in a new land? Scott's imagination took him in every direction as his eyes feasted on the room that must have been the talk of three towns.
Johnny clapped his hands on his arms and rubbed furiously, trying to get them warm. He stomped his feet, as if that might help. It wasn't really that the room was cold. It was more that it held no warmth. What must once have been a welcoming room was now almost... forbidding.
“Well," Scott said, "If we’re going to be here awhile, we might as well make ourselves comfortable. I don't think they'll mind." Scott nodded toward the painting.
Scott walked over to one of the armchairs that faced the fireplace. If there was going to be any chance of warmth in here, that would be where they'd find it. He leaned over and dusted the seat with his hand, almost choking in the cloud that rose from it, before sitting down to try to get comfortable.
Johnny flopped onto the other chair next to his brother, sending up a cloud of dust. He pulled off his hat and dumped it unceremoniously on the marble topped coffee table. "How long do you think this place has been empty?” he asked.
"Must be years," Scott mused. "This much dust and dirt would take a long time to accumulate." He looked around him at the elegant furniture and the dirt stained paintings around the walls. "It seems a shame, too. A house like this should be looked after."
"Yeah. You ever hear what happened to the Calientés, Scott? I don't think I've ever heard Murdoch mention them."
Scott shook his head. "No, in fact I've only seen this place once since I've been at Lancer. You'd think someone would buy a ranch like this. Prime land... a good solid house.”
“It looks like they just picked up an’ left,” Johnny commented. “All of this…” he waved his hand around casually, pointing out the furnishings. “Why would they leave it all behind?”
Scott wondered the same thing. “I suppose they must have had their reasons,” he said hopefully. “We’ll ask Murdoch when we get home.”
Johnny nodded, then picked at a button on his shirt. "Scott," he said, almost warily. "Does anything strike you as...?" He hesitated, apparently searching for the right word. "As strange here?"
Scott could not deny the feeling he had, here in this room. He’d felt distinctly uncomfortable from the first moment he’d walked through the door. In fact, he could neither explain it nor accept it. He felt the hairs on the nape of his neck rise.
"I think it’s just an old house and our imaginations are getting the best of us," he answered firmly.
"Yeah, guess you're right," Johnny agreed, leaning his head back lazily on the back of the chair and easing his legs out in front of him.
Scott watched the flames curling and dancing in the fireplace and settled himself more comfortably in the chair. The heat from the fire was finally beginning to reach them and he sighed as his shivering began to ease off. He stretched out his long, lean legs and crossed them at the ankles.
“Sure I’m right,” Scott continued convincingly. “It’s just a house.” Yet he found his eyes being drawn back to the painting over the fireplace. The painter had brought life to the couple. The man looked stern and proud; the woman contented and pleasant. While his dark eyes stared out autocratically, hers held an appealing spark of merriment.
It occurred to Scott that he would have liked her. He might even have enjoyed the man’s company and conversation. He had the look of an educated man.
Sometime later, Scott realized that he had dozed off. Something had woken him and he opened his eyes to see Johnny heading for the fireplace. The flames had died down and needed stoking, even so, the room felt warmer now. He could still hear the rain beating down on the roof, but it sounded as though it had eased off a little.
He got to his feet and walked across the room to one of the windows. Drawing aside the heavy red velvet drape, he looked out into an overgrown garden that was sodden with rain. The storm still lingered but he was sure it would be over soon. He wondered what the road would be like. Would it be passable with the wagon?
It would be rough going down that rutted track back to the road, but they should have no trouble getting home. Perhaps Teresa’s Halloween party would survive the downpour after all.
"It looks like its easing up a little," Scott observed as he turned to look at Johnny. His brother was leaning in toward the waning fire, using a heavy iron poker.
"Good," Johnny replied, poking at the embers. "I'll be glad to get out of here."
Suddenly the fire roared to life; the flames exploding inside the hearth. Johnny yelped, whipping his hand away from the flames.
Scott watched in disbelief as his brother fell back to the floor. "Johnny!"
He raced to Johnny’s side, appalled. Johnny was lying on his back, clutching his right hand. "Johnny, are you alright?" Scott asked him anxiously, kneeling beside him.
"Johnny, let me look at it," Scott insisted and pulled Johnny's hand away to look at it. He could smell the odor of singed hair and watched the tell-tale red glow of the burn spread across his skin.
Johnny winced. "I don’t know. Must have been a pocket of air trapped in the wood."
"We need to get this under cold water, Johnny," Scott said quickly. The burn didn't look serious, but it wasn't something to leave unattended either.
"No," Johnny said firmly. He sat up and looked at his hand. "It's nothing..."
"It may be nothing now but it could get worse if you leave it. Let’s not take a chance. Come on." Scott hauled Johnny to his feet and led him toward the front door.
Scott saw Johnny look back at the fireplace, a scowl on his face. It hadn't been negligence on his brother's part, but it would be just like Johnny to be blaming himself. "Johnny, it was an accident," he told him determinedly.
"Yeah, I know," Johnny answered begrudgingly. "A damned stupid one."
Scott reached the door and grabbed the knob. Turning it quickly, he tugged the door open and shivered as the chill of the rain spilled into the room. Then, before he even had time to adjust his eyes to the light outside, he felt the doorknob suddenly ripped from his grasp. With a mighty jolt that shook the house to its very foundations, the front door slammed closed in front of him.
Scott saw his brother's face pale suddenly. He was staring at the painting and Scott found that he couldn't help but stare at it himself.
But his eyes were drawn back to the dead fire. Black ash filtered down through the grate to form a pile on the fireplace floor beneath, ash that should have taken hours to form. Another shiver went down his back. Even a gust of wind would not have done that. He looked at Johnny, reading in his face the same need to get out of the house.
"Scott, let's get out of here," Johnny whispered beside him.
"It's still raining," Scott said absently, then realized he didn’t care.
"Scott, I think I'd rather be wet than in here," Johnny told him. One look at his face convinced Scott that he meant it.
“I’m with you," he said quickly and reached for the doorknob. “Let’s get out of here.”
He turned it, just as he had before, but it didn't give. He shook it a little and tried again, but it wouldn't budge. The door was locked.
Cradling his singed hand, Johnny watched his brother rattling the doorknob, harder and more desperately each time. "What's wrong?"
"It can't be locked," Johnny snapped back at him. "It just opened. Maybe it's jammed."
"I'm telling you, it's locked. The doorknob won't budge," Scott growled. “What the hell is going on here?"
Johnny brushed past him. “Let me try,” he said impatiently and Scott stepped back to let him at the door.
But Scott was right. It didn’t move at all. He put his shoulder to the door and pushed hard against it, but no amount of trying was going to open that door. He stepped back and stood beside his brother, staring at the door. Then he glanced around the room.
"The window," Johnny said, pushing back the fear from his voice. He ran over to it, determined that he wasn’t staying in this house a minute longer.
Johnny gripped the bottom of the window, the burn on his hand forgotten. The window seemed to be stuck too. Johnny tugged at it again, giving it all he had, and he finally felt it give. A huge smile played across his face. It rose an inch, maybe more, before it stopped and slammed back down. He jumped back as it narrowly missed catching his fingers.
With a resounding thud, the outside shutters banged shut, blocking out the daylight and sending bars of light across the floor, barricading their escape
He stepped back and turned to find a look of disbelief on Scott’s face. "What the...?" But Johnny’s voice trailed off as the parlor was plunged into shadows. All around the room, shutters swung closed. Like dominos, the rest of the downstairs rooms battened down. Before he had time to react, the house shook as the shutters upstairs began to close as well.
Silence fell - eerier than ever after the violence of the last few moments. A haunting silence - that was the only way to describe it. A quiet that was so deep and all-encompassing that his senses heightened. He could hear himself breathing; feel his heart beating wildly.
Johnny looked across the room to the painting. Was it his imagination or had the smile on her face taken on a new meaning? Was that satisfaction that he could see there now? He swallowed back the lump of fear in his throat and turned away, forcing himself to get angry instead.
“There has to be a way out of here,” he said, disturbed at the hint of desperation that he heard in his voice.
“Let’s try the back door,” Scott suggested quickly.
Together, they ran toward the archway on the far side of the room and found themselves in a hallway with a staircase on their right, leading upstairs, and another archway ahead. It was even darker in here, gloomier... and the temperature had dropped. They both ignored the stairs and raced through the second archway.
The hall led them straight through to the kitchen. They hurried in, not even bothering to look around, and Johnny led the way to the back door. He grabbed the doorknob, his hand slipping on the dust that covered it before he got a good hold and tried to turn it. It was locked.
He rattled the knob, his mind raging. But it was no good, it wasn't going to open. He slapped his hand against the door in frustration. "Damn it! This one is locked too!"
He tried to steady his breathing. He knew not to let his emotions get the better of him even in bad situations, but this was something he’d never dealt with before. This was new territory. He tried to think, but his head was cluttered with unanswered questions. How could this happen? Why?
Physically shaking his head, he closed his eyes and collected himself. When he opened them again, he glanced towards the window above the sink. It was shuttered as well but he headed for it anyway. He had to lean forward to reach it properly and he gripped the bottom edge hard and tried to lift it. He heaved on it, but it didn’t give an inch.
Suddenly, a thought struck him. He pulled his gun from his holster and rammed the butt against the window. If he could smash the glass, perhaps he could do something about getting those shutters open. The glass held, so he hit it again – harder this time.
His reward was a crack that ran diagonally from the top left corner all the way to the bottom right. Another hit and the crack spider-webbed across the bottom corner and he smiled. It should be easy to push those shards of glass out of the frame and then try to get the shutter open.
Johnny smashed the butt against the weakened glass and stopped, aghast. It should have given way. The glass should have showered out of that window frame, but it held. It held when he hit it again… and again… until his frustration built to the point of fury.
“What the hell is going on here?” he yelled furiously.
He turned around and found Scott staring at the window.
"This is ridiculous!" Scott exclaimed angrily. “How can everything be locked?”
Taking a calming breath, Johnny walked over and tried the door once more. Then he realized that it was more than just locked. He slid his fingers along the doorjamb and felt no air coming in.
"Damn! It's not just locked. It's sealed shut, Scott."
He took a step back from the door, discouraged and angry. There was one way to get that door open. His gun was still in his hand. He drew, aimed, and fired it into the lock, the report exploding in the confined space of the kitchen.
The bullet hit the lock dead center and the wood splintered around it. But it ricocheted off the metal and whined past his head. He heard Scott gasp in surprise behind him and spun around.
"You alright?" he asked Scott quickly, a feeling of dread overwhelming him.
Scott’s face showed his annoyance. “Yes, I ducked,” he snapped back.
Johnny dropped his head and focused on calming his shattered nerves. “Sorry,” he said quietly and slowly turned around, holstering his gun. Satisfied, however, with the results of the bullet, he grabbed the doorknob and pulled.
Nothing happened. He scowled in frustration and studied the door. The bullet had shattered the wood around the lock. There was no way that door could still be locked. He tugged on it again, but the door refused to open.
In utter disappointment, he balled his fist and pounded it against the door. “Damn!” he swore loudly. “What’s going on?”
He stood there for a minute, his body shuddering with pent up rage. Slowly, deliberately, he fought his way back to calm. Then he realized that Scott had said nothing through it all.
Johnny looked back over his shoulder. "I think we're in trouble, Boston," he admitted nervously.
“I’d already guessed that,” Scott answered laconically.
Taking a deep breath, Johnny looked around the room and frowned. Suddenly, he began to see everything that he had missed in his haste to get to the door. The room was a shambles.
Pots stood on the cold stove, one with a lid slightly askew. He leaned over, carefully pulling the oven door open, and found the remains of what had once been a loaf of bread. Curious, he reached in and touched it, then drew back. Time had turned it as hard as stone.
A chair lay on its side where it had fallen, an upturned pot beside it. A cutting board still rested on the table, next to a bowl and spoon and the blackened, petrified remains of what might once have been vegetables. Everything was covered in the now familiar layers of dust and the ever-present cobwebs.
He opened the pantry and found bags labeled flour and sugar, their contents hardened with age just like the bread in the oven.
"Whatever happened here, it was sudden," he heard Scott say from behind him. “Everything’s been left just as it was.”
While Johnny took it all in, Scott had obviously been noticing the same things. Scott walked over to the chair and set it upright, then stooped over to pick up something else. It was a knife, a carving knife.
Scott absently ran his fingers through the dust on the knife and stopped, his face turning ashen. He wiped some more of the dust away.
"Scott, what is it?"
"Blood, Brother," he answered, with surprising calm.
Scott scuffed the dust at his feet with his boot, disturbing the dust where the knife had been. He crouched and dusted the floor with his hand. Slowly he uncovered a dark, ominous stain that stretched halfway from the table to the sink. "Lots of blood," he added, lifting his hands and dusting them off.
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” Johnny asked ironically.
Scott looked up at him and nodded. “Me either,” he commented. “This much blood can only mean one thing.”
Johnny knew it. Someone had died on that spot. He took an involuntary step backwards. Why did that bother him? He was no stranger to blood or to death but, somehow, it was different here in this house. Here, it seemed darker and more menacing.
“Let's get out of here,” Johnny told him. He turned back towards the hallway. “Maybe there’s a window we can open upstairs."
Leaving the kitchen behind, Johnny followed his brother as they headed for the stairs. He was literally following in Scott's footsteps, their boots leaving tracks on the dust covered floor.
Reaching the staircase, Johnny stopped and glanced up. Something told him this wasn’t a good idea, but he sighed and followed Scott just the same.
He counted the stairs, twelve steps that sagged beneath their weight. Cobwebs criss-crossed the stairwell and he had to push them aside as he made his way up the stairs. They stuck annoyingly to his hands and face.
They reached the landing, the hallway bathed in deep shadows. Johnny counted three doors, two on the right side and one on the left. At his first step, he found his foot cushioned against the polished floorboards and glanced down. A runner, finely woven but discolored with dust, went the full length of the hallway.
Johnny pushed the first door open. The room was sparsely furnished, a bed and dresser suggesting that it had been used as a guest room.
A chill went down Johnny's spine as he saw the window tightly shuttered.
Johnny glanced back over his shoulder and closed the door. Scott silently nodded for them to move on to the next room.
Johnny took a step and a board creaked beneath his foot. The sound cut through the eerie silence and Johnny's heart missed a beat. Then silence settled back over them - absolute and unnerving.
They stepped into the next room. A large, double bed with a quilt spread over it and an Indian blanket folded neatly at the foot of the bed was centered against the back wall. A Mexican style lariat hung on the wall next to a pair of silver inlaid Mexican spurs, all covered with a coating of dust. A blue printed shirt lay across the bed as if waiting for someone to slip it on.
Uneasy, Johnny walked across the room and tried the window. It didn’t move but, despite his hopes, he hadn’t really expected it to. On a small table by the window sat a half empty bottle of tequila and a shot glass, while a hat hung on the back of the chair beside it.
Johnny picked up the dusty bottle and then looked back towards Scott with a wry, awkward smile. “Shame,” he said ironically. “I coulda used a drink right now.”
He put it back on the table and walked across the room towards the door. The floor around the dresser was littered with brushes, combs and toiletries as if they had been swept off the dresser in a violent struggle or in a fit of rage. Johnny felt another shiver run down his spine. A feeling of anger permeated the room.
He felt Scott looking at him in confusion. "Ain't a good place," he said curtly and brushed past his brother to go back into the hallway.
Memories of an old bruja sitting around a campfire niggled their way into his mind. Fears and superstitions he thought long dead were painfully close to the surface. Stories of houses possessed, forever tainted by evil; the dead walking the earth looking for lost souls… stories told to a ten year old on a moonless night darkened his thoughts. The bright Dia de los Muertes holidays that he had described to Scott were, in truth, not his memories. They were the stories he had heard from other children, the happy ones whose lives were so far removed from the life of a poor mestizo kid, alone in the world.
Pushing the thoughts into that part of his mind where he kept them secret from even himself, he nodded toward the last door on the opposite side of the hallway. By elimination it had to be the Calientés master bedroom. As they walked down the hall he could feel the temperature plummet. Johnny felt an overwhelming need to turn and run the other way.
They reached the last door and Johnny reached out to turn the knob. His hand was almost on it when a crash downstairs once again shattered the silence in the house.
Forgetting the door, the brothers turned as one towards the sound. Johnny drew his gun, motioning Scott to stay silent. Scott nodded and they headed for the stairs, ears straining to hear another sound. They stood at the landing, looking down the stairs into the murky hallway between the parlor and the kitchen. Nothing moved.
Scott drew his own gun, taking the lead towards the stairs, with Johnny following two paces behind him.
He stood at the top of the stairs and looked down into the shadows below.
Scott put his hand on the railing and started down the stairs and Johnny saw him take a couple of cautious steps down as he reached the top of the stairs himself.
His right foot had just touched the first step when he felt the runner yanked from beneath his left foot, pitching him forward. He instinctively tried to break his fall, his arms flailing wildly in the air. His shoulder hit the step first, his momentum sending him head over heels half way down the stairs.
Vaguely, he heard Scott call out his name but he couldn't stop what he knew was coming. His head slammed into the railing. As the darkness came to claim him, he sighed heavily and felt Scott wrap his arms around him.
Scott heard his voice echo around the house. Before the echo had even stopped, his brother hung limply in his arms. He held him, careful to keep his own balance on the staircase, and lowered himself and Johnny till he was sitting on the stair. Confident enough to take one hand away, Scott slipped his gun back into his holster and tried to check over his brother.
He ran his fingers gently through Johnny’s hair, looking for any sign of injury. There was already a good sized lump on the left side of his temple, but no sign of blood.
Scott took that as the good news. The bad news was that he had to get his brother somewhere more secure than the middle of a staircase. Upstairs was closer. He took a firm hold of Johnny and pulled both himself and Johnny up. Very aware of his precarious position and careful not to overbalance, he dropped his shoulder low enough to let Johnny hang over his shoulder and stood up. Falling now would mean both of them could be seriously hurt.
His brother’s dead weight seemed even heavier as he negotiated the first step back up the staircase. For a moment, Scott’s mind drifted back to another time when he had carried Johnny the same way. They had barely known each other, yet the thought of not ever getting to know his new-found brother had hurt even then.
It would devastate him now. They had gotten to know each other but, so far, they had barely scratched the surface of two lives spent apart. There was so much more to learn.
But the thoughts were only fleeting. He climbed the few stairs to the landing, nearly tripping on the rumpled rug as he rushed down the hall, passing the closed guest room and making for the only open door.
Laying Johnny on the bed, he quickly ran his hands down his arms and legs checking for broken bones. He sighed with relief at finding no other apparent injures so he turned his attention back to the bump he'd found on Johnny's head and brushed his brother's hair aside to look at it. Even in the dim light he had to work with, he could make out an ugly bruise emerging.
“Johnny…can you hear me?” he asked quietly.
Johnny moaned softly and pulled his head away from Scott’s ministrations.
“Easy there, you just took a little tumble,” Scott reassured him.
Johnny's eyelids quivered and slowly lifted. He frowned heavily as though trying to focus or to remember. When he moved his head to the side, he winced and lifted his hand to his temple. "Little?" he asked sarcastically.
But his voice was slurred and his eyes dropped closed again.
“You gave your head quite a knock on that railing,” Scott told him. “Here, let me see,” he added, pushing his brother’s hand aside. Johnny let his hand fall limply to his side.
“You’re going to have a good healthy bruise, Brother,” Scott said, trying his best to sound unconcerned, but there was still the possibility of a concussion .
Johnny opened his eyes again and Scott watched him look around the room. The lively, vivid blue eyes were glazed and the pupils dilated.
“How do you feel?” Scott asked him gently.
“Hmmm?” Johnny murmured and turned back towards Scott’s voice. He was frowning.
“Johnny?” Scott quietly asked. “Look at me.”
But Johnny closed his eyes again.
Scott looked at the shuttered window and noticed the light from outside was fading fast. It would be night soon. He had to get Johnny settled before they lost all the light. If Johnny did have a concussion, it would mean sitting here with him all night. The thought of trying to look after him in pitch darkness… let alone in this house… wasn’t something he was prepared to consider.
He noticed a half filled lantern on the bedside table and remembered the box of matches downstairs. As much as he hated to leave Johnny in this condition, he had to do it now before all of the light was gone.
“Johnny, listen to me,” he said, touching his fingers to Johnny’s chin and trying to force him to look at him. “Johnny, I’m going downstairs to get some matches.” But all he got in reply was a sigh. “Can you understand me?” he asked anxiously, but Johnny's head slowly turned aside, sinking deeper into the pillow.
"Johnny?" Scott asked, and nudged his shoulder lightly. He got no response this time. Johnny had drifted off to sleep... or worse.
Scott stood up and stepped away from the bed. Strangely, he felt a slight twinge of fear at the prospect of walking downstairs alone.
He swallowed hard and straightened. “I’ll be right back,” he promised.
Scott took one last careful look at him and headed downstairs, reluctant to leave his brother alone but knowing they needed light.
But he didn’t see the bedroom door close silently behind him, or the runner smooth itself out. He didn’t feel the temperature drop or smell the putrid odor of decay mixed with rose petals. And he didn’t see the vaporous figure standing next to the door before drifting away on a non existent breeze.
God, what they really needed was a way out of here.
Scott walked out into the hallway. Light from the louvered shutters in the bedroom cast a feeble light through the door into the darkened hallway. Even now the sun was beginning to set. He didn’t want to spend the night in this house.
He turned and followed the runner to the top of the stairs, his gut telling him that something was wrong. And then it came to him.
The runner at his feet was no longer rumpled and folded up on itself as it had been when Johnny had fallen.
A chill went down his spine. He knew he hadn’t imagined seeing it. He’d distinctly noticed it and had been careful not to trip over it himself as he carried Johnny to the bedroom.
It made no sense. No one could have straightened it out – there was only Johnny and himself in the house. The uncomfortable feeling that was gnawing a hole in his stomach was now weighing heavy on his chest.
Too many things in this house demanded answers to questions that had no explanations. He took hold of the railing and walked slowly down the stairs trying to focus on seeing in the gloom rather than looking for those answers.
He reached the bottom of the stairs, the feeling that someone was watching him from the top of the stairs raising the hairs on the nape of his neck. Johnny was still up there, hurt and barely conscious. He set his mind on getting the lantern and getting back upstairs. He entered the parlor, grateful to find that some light still filtered in through the louvered shutters. It occurred to him that the rain had stopped outside. There was nothing keeping them from getting home… nothing except getting out of this house.
Walking immediately to the fireplace, he found that Johnny had not put the tin of matches back on the mantel and for one moment he panicked. The thought of being stuck in this house in the dark truly terrified him. Sucking in a breath he looked around and spotted the small box. It was so typical of his brother not to put things back in their place
He shoved the little box into his shirt pocket, making a point of not looking up at the portrait. He couldn’t stand to see those eyes looking down on him. Not now…not with the prospect of spending the night here.
Heading for the stairs he took two steps at a time, determined not to leave Johnny up there alone. What if Johnny were to wake up alone in the growing darkness? Scott had come to realize that there was a part of his brother that believed in the unexplainable, a side of life that Scott had never faced until today. He didn't understand it, couldn't believe that his normally logical mind was working along these lines, but he had the feeling that there was something malevolent here in this house.
He tried to ignore the runner when he got to the top of the staircase, but his thoughts turned again to the mystery of how it had straightened as he set his foot down on it. Then he forced the question out of his mind and hurried down the hall to the bedroom. He put his hand on the doorknob, about to turn it when, suddenly, he remembered. He hadn't closed it behind him.
He reached out for the doorknob and a sudden chill drifted up from beneath the door. Johnny! He grabbed the doorknob, snatching his hand back, the ice cold metal burning his hand. Staring at the red mark left in the center of his palm, he looked back at the knob. He swallowed hard and fought back the terror rising from the pit of his stomach. What if this room was sealed too? His brother was inside!
Horrified, he turned his shoulder to the door and threw all his weight against it, but the door held. He grabbed the handle again, refusing to submit to his panic and turned it. It gave. The door swung open as if nothing had ever been wrong.
Scott felt a rush of cold air wash over him as he hurried into the room. He searched the room, quickly seeing nothing out of place then he hurried over to the bed to check on Johnny. But his brother hadn’t moved a muscle since he’d left. He lifted the dust covered chimney and lit the oil lamp, feeling a moment of relief as the flame rose.
But his relief was short lived. As he looked down at Johnny in the flickering light, he noticed that his brother’s fingers and lips had turned blue as if he had nearly frozen to death. He felt his skin, finding it as cold as ice. Disregarding the layers of dust on the Indian blanket at the end of the bed, he quickly pulled it over Johnny and tucked him in tightly.
Strangely, the temperature wasn't cold here in the room now. The house was full of anomalies... things he didn't want to think about. But, first and foremost, he had to concern himself with Johnny.
He sat down on the edge of the bed and reached out to touch his brother's cheek. It was as cold as death.
Shocked, he rubbed Johnny's arms briskly - desperately trying to bring some warmth back into his brother's body.
With a sigh of relief he found his brother’s skin already coming back to normal temperature.
Reaching down, he brushed the hair from Johnny’s forehead, careful not to touch the angry bruise from the fall. What had happened? Worse, what might have happened if he had not returned when he did…? Scott refused to think of the consequences.
A slight moan, a small sigh and Johnny's eyelids lifted. There was a frown on his face for a minute and Scott watched his brother's eyes examine his surroundings and come to rest on him. Scott found immense comfort in the hint of a smile that played on Johnny's lips.
“Johnny, are you alright?” Scott asked, trying to keep the concern out of his voice.
“Yeah,” Johnny answered. Scott found himself waiting for the inevitable ‘I’m fine’, but it didn’t come. That worried him.
“You sure? You were out cold for a few minutes.”
“Yeah, I’m sure, but you… you look like you've seen a ghost." Johnny grinned, but there was no laughter in his eyes. Then suspicion darkened his face. "Something happened...what?”
"I'm not really sure if something happened or not," Scott stammered.
Scott sighed heavily. "I think I'm letting my imagination get the better of me. I came back and couldn't get the door open." He glanced over at the bedroom door, another shiver going down his spine. "I tried everything... threw everything at it. But then the doorknob just turned and it opened!” He stopped and puzzled over it. “Maybe it was just jammed."
Johnny pushed the unneeded blanket off him and tried to sit up. “It’s not your imagination, Boston. There is something going on in here, and I don’t like it. Let’s find a way out….”
Scott pushed him back down. "You try getting up right now and you're likely to just fall flat on your face," he told him firmly. "We'll sit here for a while, then we’ll go look around some more. That was quite a spill you took."
“I didn’t fall, something tripped me,” Johnny said, not liking the reaction he saw in Scott’s eyes. “Scott…?”
Scott looked decidedly uneasy.
“What is it?” Johnny persisted.
"I don’t know. A lot of things... and nothing," he tried to explain. "I saw the carpet runner outside all rumpled and figured you'd tripped over it, but then... well, it was straightened out when I saw it next. Then the door... and this room was like ice, Johnny. Freezing! Now it's not!" He shook his head. "I don't understand what's going on here and... and I'm not sure that I want to.”
"I don't think we have much choice. Scott..." Johnny nervously worked the edged of the blanket in his slim fingers, a gunfighter’s fingers; but useless here against an unknown enemy. "Scott have you noticed all the things that have happened have been directed at me? The fireplace - the rug - the stairs…”
The freezing room and the locked door... Yes, Scott had to admit that Johnny had taken the brunt of everything that had happened. "Yes," he said quietly. "But why? It doesn't make sense."
Johnny shook his head slowly, then waded into deeper waters. "Scott - you're gonna think I'm crazy, but I swear that lady in the painting downstairs was looking at me. And she didn't like what she saw."
"Paintings don't have feelings," Scott assured him. "They're oil on canvas. You can capture a likeness, but that's all."
Johnny shook his head, regretting the movement immediately. "Don’t give me that. I saw you looking at that painting, Boston. You saw something there, too. I know you don't believe in all the things I do. But you can't turn your back on something just because it doesn’t make sense to you."
Scott looked away. His thoughts were in turmoil but he found himself staring at the closed and shuttered window. Johnny was right. He couldn't deny what was happening just because he didn't understand it. It was happening. This room HAD been locked and freezing. Something about that painting downstairs DID unnerve him. He turned back to face Johnny. "I know..." he confessed quietly.
Johnny sighed heavily. "Then we’d better have a look around. I don't want to spend the night here. Especially not on Dia de Los Muertos."
"Oh God! I'd forgotten it was Halloween. Teresa will murder us for not getting those party supplies back." Scott groaned.
Johnny looked up at Scott, his eyes drooping despite his efforts to stay awake. "That's the least of our problems. Now let's get going before I fall asleep again. I don't want to be in this place for one more second."
"Maybe not," Scott told him and shoved him back on the mattress. "But you're staying right here until you're fit enough to help me ram that front door open."
Scott stopped and looked towards the door. He was sure he'd heard something.
He put a hand on Johnny's shoulder. "Stay here," he said firmly. "I'll be right back."
"What's wrong?" Johnny demanded.
"Nothing. I just want to check out the hall." Tipping a candle inside the chimney of the oil lamp he lit the wick and started for the door.
"Oh, no you won’t," Johnny insisted. He struggled to sit up. "You're not going out there on your own."
"In case you haven't noticed, Johnny, I'm a big boy now. I can take care of myself.” He stopped and found himself smiling in an effort to reassure Johnny. “At least I didn’t go headfirst down a flight of stairs. Now stay here. If I need you, I'll yell. And that, Little Brother, is a promise." Scott patted his knee and turned before his apprehensions really showed.
With a grunt of irritation, Johnny leaned back and let Scott pull the blanket over him again. Truth be told, his head was ringing from his attempt to sit up. Still, it went against the grain to just let Scott go out there alone.
Scott stepped out into the hall, his heart pounding. He tried to tell himself that it was ridiculous to be this nervous. It was only an abandoned house. That was all. Sure, a few isolated incidents had happened. Put together they just seemed worse than they really were.
He noticed a sconce on the wall and the remains of a candle which he hurriedly lit, creating a small pool of flickering light in the hall. Then he heard it again – a soft sobbing. He held his breath and listened,
It seemed to be coming from the closed room that he and Johnny hadn't checked out earlier. The sound was muffled, but so terribly sad that he felt compelled to help whoever was behind the door
He turned the knob and pushed it open. Taking a step inside, he froze. The darkened gloom that shrouded the rest of the house was absent. Instead, the room was softly lit by a lamp next to the bed and another on the dresser on the opposite side of the room.
And that wasn't all. The room was clean; not just less dusty but immaculately cared for. The lace curtains at the window were as white as the day they had been hung. There wasn't a cobweb to be seen. The dresser, table and rocker were all polished to a fine sheen as were the brass ends of the double bed.
And that was where he stopped.
The bed was made, with a patchwork quilt laying over it; the work of hundreds of hours of fine needlework. But lying on it, laid out as though she were sleeping, was a woman.
No, it was what was left of a woman. He noticed her clothes first. She wore an emerald green satin dress, identical to the one in the painting downstairs, with crisp white lace at the collar and cuffs and mother of pearl buttons down the bodice. Her hands were folded neatly over her bosom, one withered and leathery hand lightly clasping the other, and a gold wedding band shone brightly on the grotesquely distorted ring finger of her left hand.
His stomach roiled and protested as he came to her face. There, any similarity to the elegant lady in the portrait ended. Bile rose in his throat and he took slow, careful breaths to avoid throwing up.
Scott gasped and stood stock still. The body on the bed was nothing more than skin, bones and hair.
The flesh had dried and shriveled. Her eyes were closed and sunken in a face that looked like nothing more than skin stretched over the bones of her skull. Her long chestnut-colored hair was loosened and spilled across the pillow case as though it had been brushed lovingly into place. The tightening of the mummifying skin had pulled her mouth open just enough to see both rows of fine white teeth.
He looked away and closed his eyes in horror. How long had she lain there like that? She hadn’t just gone to sleep here on her own. Someone had taken time and a great deal of trouble to lay her out that way.
A sigh rippled across the room… audible on a breath of air that carried the light summery scent of roses. He opened his eyes and, gulping down the lump in his throat, he turned back to look at the body.
Slowly making his way closer, he put the candle into an empty holder next to the lamp. Now that he was closer, he could see a beautiful cameo locket lying atop her dress. With a trembling hand, he lifted it and the clasp snapped.
The cameo felt fragile in his palm as he opened it, bringing it down closer to the light so that he could see inside. Two miniature portraits looked back at him, one on each side. They were painted in exquisite detail; the work of a fine artist. One was that of a man - the man he saw in the portrait downstairs - and the other was of a young man, a face so very familiar that he caught his breath.
The broken chain dangled through his fingers like the broken threads of this woman's life. His heart pounded and his breath came short and fast. Those eyes - intensely blue and set in a face that could well have been Johnny's when he'd been in his teens. It shook him to the core.
"Johnny," he whispered, his eyes glued to the locket. His heart beat wildly in his chest as he stared at the picture. Without thinking, he stepped back and his hip knocked the nightstand behind him. A crash broke the silence and he turned to see the shattered remains of a vase on the floor, the lamp still teetering and settling uneasily back into place.
Suddenly, Scott heard Johnny's unsure footsteps as he staggered down the hall. He looked up and saw his brother’s face, already pale, turning white as he stood in the doorway.
Totally unexpectedly, Scott saw Johnny cross himself.
The simple gesture sent a shaft of fear coursing through Scott's body. He had never before seen his brother invoke the protection of the church. Johnny had never alluded to needing it, even when faced with the worst that life had thrown at him.
The fact that he needed it now scared Scott to death.
"Madre de Dios!" he heard Johnny whisper.
Scott took a calming breath. He strove to settle his rattled nerves and keep his voice from shaking as he said, holding out his hand, "Johnny, you have to see this."
"No..." he said, almost too soft to hear. "No...."
Scott held the locket out towards him. "The picture in here, Johnny... It's so like..."
Johnny reached for it and suddenly something knocked Scott’s hand and it flew across the room, hitting the oval mirror about the dresser. With the smallest tinkle of the chain it slid down to the dresser…still open
Scott looked blankly at the spot on the mirror where the locket had hit it. He hadn't thrown it. He looked back at his hand, still poised in the act of holding it.
He HADN'T thrown it!
He lifted his head and looked towards his brother, voicing the words as he finally found the ability to speak. "I didn't throw it..."
Scott turned towards the dresser, drawn by an inexplicable urge to retrieve the locket. Stunned but curious, he walked across the room to pick it up.
"Get out of here," Johnny said to him, only just loud enough to reach Scott's ears. But the words didn’t register. Scott was looking in the mirror at a ghastly reflection of himself. And he wasn’t alone.
A woman was looking at him - the woman he knew from the portrait downstairs - the woman whose distorted corpse lay on the bed in this very room.
Johnny saw the woman too, her face soft and caring as she looked at Scott. A mist began to swirl in the mirror, escaping the glass and reaching out for Scott. Johnny watched in horrified fascination as first a vaporous hand appeared; then a wrist… and on until an arm took shape. He could see right through it as the long ethereal fingers almost touched Scott's shoulder.
Johnny screamed, "Scott!"
The woman's head turned towards Johnny and her expression darkened from a kind of lingering sadness to fear. The temperature in the room plummeted and the hand lost its shape, drifting away in a light mist until it was gone.
But Scott wasn't aware of the cold... or even of his brother's voice. All he could see was his image in the mirror and the woman beside him. The moment Johnny had called out his warning; the sweet, caring look on her face had changed to fear - deep, appalling fear. As she looked toward Johnny, her eyes glowed with something more malevolent than fear and she shimmered and faded... then she was gone.
"Scott!" Johnny heard a hinge creak behind him and turned to see the door begin to close. They had to get out.
"Get outa here, Scott. Now!"
Suddenly, he heard Johnny gasp and turned to see his brother clutching as his throat, his eyes bulging as his face turned blue. Johnny was struggling for breath, his head thrown back and his hands tearing at something unseen... something that was choking him to death.
He was at Johnny's side in an instant and shoved him out into the hallway where they fell in a tangled heap. The door closed behind them with a hollow thud. From inside, he could hear sad whimpering sounds that sent shivers rippling down his spine, but out here there was only Johnny gasping and fighting for air.
Scott held him as they both looked at the closed door. Johnny heaved huge lungfuls of air into his trembling body. His hands were still clasped over his throat, but some of the color had come back into his face. Slowly, his breathing eased from gasping to an awful ragged sound as he fought for control.
Johnny!” Scott exclaimed, tightening his hold on his brother. Johnny’s face was ashen, his eyes closed now; but his forehead was beaded with sweat from his battle to breathe. “Are you all right?”
Johnny’s eyes opened. He nodded and swallowed hard. When he spoke, it was with a hoarse, rasping voice that Scott barely recognized. “Just give me a minute.”
Scott gave him that minute, sitting on the floor and staring at the closed door. What had just happened in there defied every belief he had in life and death.
Gently, Scott helped him to his knees, studying his pallid face anxiously. Then, when he was sure Johnny could stand, he half dragged, half carried Johnny back to the room they had used before. Johnny’s breath was still ragged and his steps unsteady but, at the doorway, he suddenly threw out his arms and clamped both hands on either side of the doorframe.
"No!" he yelled. "I’m not going back in there! We're not safe up here."
“Johnny, you need to rest," Scott insisted. "You can barely stand."
"I won’t rest up here, Scott; not with... with THAT down the hall."
"Alright, we’ll go downstairs. Wait here while I get the lamp." Scott rushed into the room grabbing the lamp then grabbed Johnny’s arm and headed for the stairs. Johnny stalled at the top of the staircase, his head-first fall still too fresh in his memory.
For a moment, he eyed the runner on the floor and then stared down the staircase. Instinctively, he stepped off the rug and planted his feet firmly on the polished wood floor instead. Downstairs... upstairs... would it make all that much difference? Was there a safe haven for him anywhere in this house?
He doubted it. He'd seen her face when she looked at him.
The only light in the parlor now was the dim glow of the lamp that Scott was carrying. His other hand was firmly under his brother's elbow as he guided him down the last couple of stairs. Johnny's other hand was wrapped around the railing, though whether for physical support or the feeling of confidence it provided, Scott wasn't sure.
Night had taken over in earnest as they walked down the hallway and into the parlor. Johnny’s steps were still a little unsteady as Scott guided him over to the sofa and sat him down. He looked at the cold fire and wondered… Should he try lighting it again?
After what had happened last time, Scott was loathe to do it. He looked around him, peering into the gloom. What he really needed was more light. He wanted to see how Johnny looked after the effort of coming downstairs.
Besides, though he hated to admit it, the lamplight didn't extend far enough into the room to dispel the uneasy feeling that pervaded the house. He put the lamp down on the small table next to the sofa and retrieved a candle from the tarnished silver candelabra on the sideboard. Pulling away the sticky cobwebs, he tilted the wick down inside the chimney and held it against the flame.
The wick flashed to life with a reassuring hiss and he turned back to light the remaining two candles in the candelabra. Then he lit the sconces on either side of the fireplace, the flickering shadows dancing across the painting hanging above the mantel. Those faces taunted him; reminding him that the woman lying upstairs was now a rotting corpse. He couldn’t stop his gaze from wandering up to her eyes, caught for a moment by their sadness. But sadness was not what he had seen in the room upstairs. It had been fear and anger.
Turning determinedly away from those eyes, Scott walked back to where Johnny was laying wearily on the sofa. His brother’s head listed toward his shoulder, eyes closed but his breathing seemed to have evened out. "How are you doing, Johnny?" he asked worriedly.
Johnny snorted; his usual cool acceptance of injury shaken. He was tired and his head throbbed. Nausea and dizziness were both barely under control and his nerves were shattered, leaving him with a feeling of vulnerability that he despised. And he was cranky. He opened his eyes and glared at his brother. "How do you think?”
Scott edged the lamp over to get a better look at his brother. The lump on his forehead had blackened and there were marks on his neck that were darkening into bruises. He hadn’t seen them before and he pushed Johnny’s collar aside to examine the marks more closely. He frowned at what he saw. They looked disconcertingly like finger marks.
“Johnny, just what happened up there?” he asked anxiously. “I could see you couldn’t breathe, but… those marks…”
Johnny’s hand moved to his throat instinctively. He couldn’t see the marks but he could still feel that icy grip on his neck, squeezing the life out of him. He could still feel the tight burning in his chest as his lungs fought for air.
“Somethin’ had me by the throat,” he finally said. His heart beat faster, reliving it. “Hands… fingers… Don’t know how, but I couldn’t get it off me… couldn’t even see what it was.” He leaned deeper into the dusty sofa. “But I know what it was, Scott. It was her.”
Johnny looked up at the painting. He could have sworn that her eyes changed to a malignant stare even as he watched.
He saw Scott follow his lead and look up at the picture. Johnny waited for him to deny it… to try to explain it all away. For once, he hoped that Scott would find a reasonable explanation for all of this. But Johnny knew that there wasn’t one, not after what he’d seen.
Not after what Scott had seen.
Scott tore his eyes away from the painting. Why did he feel drawn to her? Even after what happened upstairs. He tried to push the thought aside as he returned to what he had started - taking stock of his brother’s condition. He took Johnny’s hand and moved it closer to the lamp. The tell-tale red glow from the burn was still there, but there was no sign of blistering. That was something to be grateful for.
“The hand’s fine, Scott,” Johnny told him, pulling it back. But it wasn’t. It stung every time he tried to use it, but he wasn’t going to admit that. They had more important things to worry about.
“And your head?” Scott asked.
“My head is the least of our problems,” Johnny growled. “Damn it, Scott, what’s going on here?"
Scott shook his head. "I don’t know. I wish I could explain it all away with logic and science... anything," he said in frustration. "But I can't... "
"Upstairs, in that room... Scott, what was in that locket?"
"The locket..." Scott murmured in reply and his face paled still more. "There was a picture in it, Johnny. It was a young man, fifteen or sixteen maybe, and..." Scott stopped and looked into his brother's intensely blue eyes. "Johnny he could have been you at that age. I swear, his eyes were as blue as yours, his coloring, even his face... he could have been you."
Johnny felt a shiver run down his spine and the house seemed to sigh around them. All the candles flickered as a breath of air passed through the room. Both brothers looked up in surprise and then at each other.
Miraculously, the candles held their sway and stayed alight. Johnny’s relief was palpable. He looked at Scott and knew immediately that he felt the same. Johnny had to admit that the thought of being in the dark in this house terrified him.
He swallowed his rising fear and stared up at the self-satisfied expression on the face of that woman in the painting. The Señora Calienté, with eyes as blue as his. Those eyes stared back at him with pure ice in them.
“It was that much like me?” Johnny asked when he found his voice again.
Scott nodded. “The resemblance was uncanny. I realize I didn’t know you back then, but it was enough like you are now to have been you at that age.”
“Fifteen, huh?” Johnny pondered on it. “An’ all gussied up for a portrait.” He laughed mockingly. “At that age, I wasn’t gettin’ gussied up for anything except gunfights.”
Scott didn’t answer. He couldn’t find the words to respond to that. He knew that Johnny had already been building his reputation by that age.
“How do you figure that, Scott?” Johnny asked suddenly. “You think we’re related somehow?”
“I doubt it,” Scott told him. “They say everyone has a twin. His mother had eyes as blue as yours. It’s probably nothing more than coincidence.”
Johnny found his eyes drawn back to the painting. “Then, you think he was her son?”
Scott nodded again. “That’d be my guess. There was a miniature of her husband on one side of the locket, and him on the other.”
“Bound to be then,” Johnny agreed. “Wonder what happened to him?”
Scowling, Scott sighed. “Well, who knows? We know that she died…”
“Oh boy, we know that alright.”
Johnny’s eyes had closed, the lamplight casting flickering shadows over his pale face. Scott noticed him lick his lips and realized that Johnny needed water. Damn! He should have thought of that sooner.
He forced himself to turn his mind to the practicalities of their situation. He didn’t like that Johnny seemed to be getting sleepy again. It wasn’t a good sign.
Scott ran his hand through his hair, looking thoughtfully down at his brother. "You look like you could use some water," he said. "There's a pump in the kitchen."
Johnny's eyes flashed open and he grabbed Scott's arm fiercely. "No, we shouldn’t split up. Give me a minute and I’ll go with you."
Scott gently pried his arm loose. He hated to leave Johnny alone after what happened upstairs, but his brother needed water. "I won't be gone long, Johnny," he assured him. "You need water."
Johnny nodded reluctantly. "Okay, but be careful."
He settled back and closed his eyes. He was worried about the feeling of lethargy, and knew he had a concussion. How bad, he wasn’t sure. He knew the last thing he should do was sleep, but he couldn’t hold his eyes open. His last thought, as sleep overtook him, was of the woman looking down at him.
Scott headed toward the kitchen, cupping the candle with his free hand to keep the flame from going out. What had been unnerving in the filtered light from the closed shutters earlier was frightening now. The candle in his hand was nothing more than a token gesture in the darkness that pressed in around him.
Only the largest furniture stood out as darker shadows. He carefully negotiated around the pots and the chairs and cringed as his foot hit something on the floor. Holding his breath, he leaned the candle forward and realized he’d stepped on a ladle, lying abandoned on the floor. He breathed again.
Moving tentatively forward, he found the water pump and tried it, but it wouldn’t budge. Disgusted, he looked closer and saw that it was rusted and useless. Slamming his hand against the pump for good measure, he turned again to the door, noting the splintered wood around the lock. He couldn’t help but try it again, but it was no more use now than it had been earlier.
The feeling of being trapped grew stronger and old memories – thoughts he had tried for years to bury – began to surface. His heart quickened as he realized that he was caged again; that he might never again see the outside world… that he might die here.
He felt panic rising. He had to get out! They both had to get out of this house.
“Scott!” Scott heard Johnny’s voice coming from the hallway. Damn, why couldn’t that boy listen, just for once? He was supposed to be resting.
“Scott, I think I found a way out!”
All was forgiven as a wave of excitement rushed over Scott. Had Johnny actually found a way out of this nightmare? His heart raced.
Shielding the candle again, he ran out of the kitchen and into the hallway. Beneath the stairwell, a door stood open. He hadn’t noticed it before but, then again, they could easily have missed it in the heavy shadows.
He stopped at the door, cautiously peering inside. It was a room the size of a closet, with cobwebs hanging from the bottom of the risers.
There was no sign of his brother. “Johnny?”
“I found a window. It’s not locked,” Johnny called again. His voice was coming from further inside. Excited, Scott hunched over and stepped in to find a steep flight of steps that disappeared into a deep black void below.
“Johnny?” he called again, his voice echoing in the depths below and coming back to him threefold.
No answer came, but a faint light shifted and revealed a dirt floor at the bottom of the stairs. “What are you doing down there?”
“Come see, Scott!”
Scott took one step through the door.
Suddenly something shoved him in the back and he fell forward, fighting to keep his balance on the treacherous steps as the door slammed closed behind him.
Johnny jack-knifed forward, jolted awake by a loud crash. For a moment, he had no idea where he was, but the awful realization of his position soon came back to him. He looked around, wondering what the noise had been. Where was Scott?
He noticed the sconces lit on either side of the painting but made a conscious effort not to look at the portrait itself. Instead, he looked away, trying to see into the darkness beyond the oil lamp and the candles.
Johnny listened to the eerie silence. It was so still that he could hear every breath he took.
But something had startled him awake.
He stood up, wavering drunkenly for a moment. He was dizzy and more than a little nauseous. His hand went quickly to his temple and he tentatively rubbed the lump that was still there, but the dizziness subsided and his legs steadied.
He took a deep breath. This was not like him. He had spent most of his life schooling himself not to let his emotions or his imagination get the better of him. Yet, when he looked up at the portrait and saw the look of deep seated anger in those blue eyes - his eyes - they slipped beneath his defenses and stripped him of everything that was Johnny Madrid.
Suddenly another, stronger, fear took its place. Scott - where was he? Until now, all the rage had been targeted at himself. What if that had changed?
"Scott?" he called. His voice sounded harsh in the still of the house, shattering the ominous silence.
When no answer came, he straightened his back and defied the darkness. "Scott, are you there?"
Silence - as deafening as the loudest noise he had ever heard. He stood stone still waiting... nothing. He felt incredibly alone.
Scott had gone for water. Johnny remembered that much, though he’d been barely registering Scott’s words by then. His decision made, Johnny picked up the lamp and headed for the kitchen. Just maybe Scott could not hear him from there.
He got as far as the arched doorway and found himself faced with total darkness ahead. The feeble lamplight did little to lift the pall of gloom around him. He sucked in a breath and braced himself, then walked on.
The sound of his footsteps echoed macabrely through the house and the jangle of his spurs rattled his nerves. He held out the lamp in front of him. It displaced the darkness immediately around him, but the deeper darkness still hovered just beyond.
"Scott?" he called again, keeping his voice low this time. He fought the hysteria that was rising from the pit of his stomach and tried again. "Scott, where are you?"
Still there was no answer. Worry began to turn to panic and Johnny stopped as he reached the kitchen, feeling more alone then he had ever felt in his life. Scott might have been hurt while he slept. He could be dead. The fears grew with each second that he didn't see or hear his brother.
"Come on, Brother," he said quietly to himself. "This is no time for games." It had to be a game. The alternatives were too awful to consider. He stood in the hallway and peered ahead but there was no trace of Scott.
He lifted the lamp and moved it slowly in front of him. He stopped, his heart missing a beat, as the light revealed a dark stain on the floor. Then he remembered. That was the bloodstain that Scott had found earlier.
A thought came to him suddenly. Had Scott found a way out? Was it possible that Scott had escaped and gone for help? Would Scott have left him alone?
Part of him laughed at the idea, but a niggling fear – deep inside him – gave it some credence. He was alone, just as he had always been, but this kind of aloneness seemed so much worse.
He turned and went to the back door, rattled the doorknob to no avail and held the lamp up to see the window. Against all reason, the lacework of cracks still held their own. The window was still sealed just as tightly as the door.
If Scott had made it out, then the house had closed up behind him. Was that what had awoken him - the sound of the door slamming closed behind Scott as he’d gotten out?
No, Scott would never have left him. He had to be somewhere in this house. Johnny felt it deep inside him and his brother’s silence had to mean that he was in trouble. Whatever malevolent force was in this house, it had turned on Scott now.
He braced himself and turned around. If he had to search every room in this house, he’d find Scott.
Johnny started down the hall again with the lamp held out in front of him, his elongated shadow playing against the walls. He stopped halfway, noticing an open doorway to a room on his left. In their haste to get to the back door, they must have missed it. But a nagging feeling made him search his memory. If the door had been open, surely he would have noticed.
He stood in the doorway and shone the lamp into the room, its soft yellow light eaten up quickly in the darkness. It was a formal dining room. A table, surrounded by six chairs, dominated the room. He stepped inside, the lamplight banking off the walls and lending the room an even more unnatural feel. He looked around, taking in everything. A branched candelabra rested on a faded, dust-covered tablecloth, its six candles covered with cobwebs. Even amidst the dirt and cobwebs and after years of neglect, this struck him as a rich and elegant room.
Long velvet drapes extended across most of the far wall.
To his left stood a sideboard with a painted porcelain tureen resting on it and tarnished silver candlesticks gracing either end. Above it hung a landscape painting while, in the corner, was a cupboard. Through the filthy glass panes, he could still see rows of china cups and plates, cut crystal glasses and silver cutlery.
Johnny looked around the floor, hoping for some trace of his brother’s footprints. A fine oriental rug covered most of it but there was enough left bare to see that the dust on that floor had lain undisturbed for years.
It was then that he noticed a dull glow behind the curtain. A thin line of light leaked from under the hem.
He stood, rooted to the spot. His fingers were wrapped so tightly around the base of the lamp that they ached. His breath hitched for a moment as he considered what might be behind that curtain.
“Scott?” he called hopefully.
No answer came.
“Scott, is that you?” he asked, annoyed when he heard a vague quiver in his voice. It angered him and he pulled himself up straight. “Come on, Boston, no more games!”
Taking a step towards the light proved harder than he had expected. It was as if his feet were nailed to the floor. Determinedly, he lifted his foot and started towards it. It was only three paces, but he would sooner have a mile of badlands to cross.
He closed the gap to the end of the curtain and stopped there. Staring at it, he found himself whispering, “Scott?”
As if in answer, the glow behind the drape shimmered and flickered in the daunting silence. Johnny steeled himself and reached out.
The velvet was heavy with dust that came away on his hand.
He tensed and steadied his breathing and his nerves. In one swift motion, Johnny dragged the curtain aside.
Johnny caught his breath. A single candle glowed on a makeshift altar covered with a linen cloth. It cast a flickering orange glow over baskets and bowls laid out on the altar. But it looked out of place here. In the midst of all this opulence, it seemed temporary - like the tree they put in the Great Room every year.
Fascinated enough to forget his fears for the moment, Johnny walked over to look closer. In the baskets were the shriveled, blackened remains of what had probably been fruit. Spread across the top of the altar lay earrings and necklaces. An expensive black mantilla and a gentleman’s coat and pipe lay side by side in the center, covered in dust like everything else in the room; and a small portrait stood propped against the wall. It wasn’t the Calientés but there was enough resemblance between the man in this one and the Señor in the parlor to suggest that these had been his parents.
The bowls held dried and withered leaves and petals from long dead flowers. Johnny didn’t have to wonder what flowers those had been… cempazuchiles… marigolds.
This was an altar to the dead. He remembered the man in the portrait in the parlor. Señor Calienté had followed the traditions of his people. He had set up an altar for el Días de los Muertes and made offrendas to the spirits of his parents.
It had never been taken down. Like the shambles in the kitchen, this spoke of something sudden and unexpected happening in this house all those years ago.
But who had lit the candle? He looked down at the floor again and held the lamp so that he could see clearly. He looked behind him. His own steps stood out in the dust, tracing his path through the room. Scott hadn’t been in here; Johnny was convinced of that.
And it told him something else. Whatever had happened, it had happened during el Días de los Muertes.
In the flickering light, Johnny noticed something else. A book – aged and dusty – lay just in front of the candle. He put the lamp down on the altar, picked up the book and brushed his hand over the cover to remove some of the accumulated dust. It was a bible, bound in leather and richly embossed in gold.
Opening it and leafing over a page, Johnny confirmed what he had suspected. It was written in Spanish - this was a family bible. The births, deaths and marriages of generations of Calientes were recorded here. He leaned the bible closer to the lamp to read the names.
At the top of the last page was the name Enrique Miguel Jose Caliente, born in 1796, and beside it was a notation of his marriage. He had married Clara Johnson in 1821 – obviously the couple in the portrait. There was nothing to mark the death of either of them. But below their names was noted the birth of a child in 1836. The name was impossible to read. It had been crossed through and through… a scribbled denial of its birth.
He put his finger to the scratched out name, intrigued enough to look closer and try to make it out.
Suddenly, his chest exploded with pain. Something powerful struck him and sent him catapulting through the air. He was smashed against the far wall, the book wrenched from his hands and dropping to the floor beside him. The nauseating stench of decay and rose petals filled the room.
He gasped for air, but an excruciating pain seized his chest as he slid to the floor. He knew what it meant. At least one of his ribs was cracked.
Before he could completely regain his senses, he was picked up like a rag doll and flung out the door. Once again he was hurled against a wall and he crumbled to the floor, dazed. Looking back into the room he saw the lamp dim and go out; then the door slowly closed, creaking in the silent aftermath of the attack.
For the briefest of moments, he was aware of the darkness around him, then he seemed to embrace it… and blacked out.
As he came to, Johnny hoped that it had all been a nightmare. He opened his eyes slowly and lifted one hand to rub them, hoping that he would see the familiar ceiling of his own bedroom at Lancer.
He didn’t and the move set off a searing pain in his chest. He closed his eyes and lay still, riding it out.
When he opened them again, he found himself in darkness; bleak and frightening. The hard boards beneath him were not the soft bed he longed for. He sighed and winced at the pain that came with it. He hurt all over, battered and bruised from the assault in the dining room. He remembered it now.
He lay on the hallway floor and tried to make sense of it all. What had just happened to him was impossible. Everything that had happened to them since they had walked into this house was impossible, but the pounding in his head and the fire in his chest told him that it was all too real.
Did he truly believe in ghosts? Until now he hadn’t known for sure.
But, now he was certain - and this ghost had separated him from Scott. He slowly crawled to his feet, the hallway spinning sickeningly in the dark. The faint glow from the parlor drew him toward the safety of the candlelight.
Johnny staggered into the room, looking at the sofa longingly. How he wanted to lie down for just a minute - but he had to find Scott. He grabbed a candle and hesitantly approached the fireplace.
Looking at the sconces on the wall, Johnny tried to avoid making eye contact with the painting as he reached up and held the candle to the sconce to light it.
But, as he turned away, on an impulse so great that he could not ignore it, his eyes turned to the portrait and met hers. There was a disturbingly malicious pleasure in their blue depths.
The panic returned. He knew what she was capable of now. He knew that he couldn't fight her like he would any other enemy. Fists, bullets... all of them were useless in this war.
Then a kind of calm came over him. Johnny drew Madrid out, his eyes cold and sharp. Then he looked her in the eyes and a defiant half smile curled his lips.
"You play rough don't you, Senora?" he said coolly. "Well, you've got my brother here somewhere... an' I'm getting him back."
Suddenly the house lurched violently, nearly knocking him off his feet. He grabbed onto the back of the sofa, hissing as he pulled at his cracked rib. He held on, not taking his eyes off the picture. "Go on, Puta," he dared her. "Rattle your bones."
Then, with ice in his eyes, he said again, "I'm still gonna get my brother back."
The shaking stopped, just as suddenly as it had begun, and Johnny saw the smallest hint of hesitation in her eyes.
So, it was going to be a battle of wills, was it?
Well, so be it. The prize at the end of this battle was Scott.
And it was time to do something about finding him. He turned away determinedly, spotting another lamp. Johnny lifted the chimney and tipped the candle to the wick. The lamp flared into life and he breathed a sigh of relief.
Johnny picked it up and headed for the staircase. His head still pounded and the pain in his chest still burned with every step he took, but he steeled himself to not let her see it.
It was harder when he got to the staircase. The rooms up there had to be searched, but the memory of what lay up there stopped him cold. Fighting back a rising tide of fear, he reached out to grip the polished wood railing and clung to the support it offered. Then he tentatively put his foot on the bottom step and started up.
He held onto the railing as he climbed, aware that one small shove was all it would take for him to fall and break his neck. When he finally reached the landing, he carefully stepped to the side of the carpet runner.
Recalling that the first room was the guest room, he made his way to the door. It opened easily and he looked inside. There was no sign of his brother, but he knew he had to search it more thoroughly.
Resolutely, he took a step inside, then another, until he had walked all around the room. He pulled the door to the closet open and he looked under the bed, just to be sure. But Scott wasn't in here, nor was there anything to suggest that he had been.
Returning to the hallway, he walked to the next door. Pushing it open with the toe of his boot, he stepped inside.
This was the room that Scott had brought him to after his fall down the stairs. He saw the rumpled bed, the abandoned Indian blanket and the still burning candle on the nightstand. He turned the wick down in his own lamp, careful to conserve the oil.
As he walked through the room, he felt a pang of loneliness. Where was Scott? It was as if the house swallowed him up. The thought that he had escaped intruded once again. Was Scott, even now, coming back with help?
But, somehow, Johnny didn’t believe that. The house was closed up tight. Scott was here somewhere, perhaps hurt.
Johnny looked at the disheveled bed and wished he could lie down. Nausea had once again joined the throbbing in his head and the pain in his ribs added to his woes. He felt so tired and sore; and he knew that he would have to rest soon.
But not before he had checked every room in this damned house. His eyes roamed the room and he saw the lariat and spurs – Mexican and good quality. Senor Caliente had not strayed far from his roots.
He opened the closet door and his heart jumped. He could have been looking into his own closet at Lancer.
A cropped Mexican-style jacket hung there, shirts embroidered with brightly colored thread... and trousers, vaquero-style with a row of silver conches down the sides. He pulled back in shock, paling as he remembered what Scott had told him about that locket - that the resemblance to him was startling. Apparently, it extended to their choice of clothing as well. A cold shiver went down his spine.
He suddenly had the overwhelming urge to be out of this room. He turned on his heels and rushed out into the hallway and stood there for a moment, struggling to regain his composure.
Looking toward the last door, he felt a chill travel down his back at the thought of opening it.
Knowing what lay inside tore at his resolve, but Scott was more important than his fears. Straightening, he walked determinedly up the hall and stood in front of the door. He swallowed hard, gritting his teeth though a tremor ran through him as he turned the knob.
A putrid smell assaulted him, forcing him backwards. This was not the odor he had smelled when he had been here with Scott. This was the smell of death.
Covering his nose with his hand he stepped inside. There was the bed. The soft glow from the candles in the room bathed the corpse as if caressing it. It was almost obscenely beautiful and he had to force himself not to shrink back from it.
And there was the mirror. This time he did cringe at the memory. He closed his eyes against the image of that skeletal hand reaching out to touch Scott.
Knowing he had to search the room thoroughly, he tried to avert his eyes from the bed and its ghastly occupant. It was like trying to ignore a stampeding herd coming at him. It was there and his eyes kept straying back to it... to her.
Johnny knew that his show of defiance downstairs had been pure bravado. This 'thing' had powers that he was defenseless against and he knew it. Vulnerability, insecurity… all the things he feared most in his life were coalesced into one here.
He stood in the room and looked around. The idea of opening the closet door appalled him. Every nerve in his body was screaming at him to cut and run, but he held his ground, fighting just to keep breathing. His heart pounded like a hammer in his chest.
Finally pulling himself together, he walked across to the closet. As he jerked the door open he felt a draft of cold air that chilled him to the bone...no, to the soul. It surrounded him and sucked the energy from his body. It felt like hell itself lurked in that closet. Putting his shoulder to the door, he pushed it closed and slid to the floor, panting.
She was here with him. He knew it. She was here in this room, watching him and smirking with that malevolent smile he'd seen in the portrait. No longer a 'thing' or a 'force' or even a 'ghost'; she was the Senora. Not 'it' any longer, but ‘she’. He knew who his tormentor was. What he didn’t understand was why she loathed him.
Climbing to his feet, something caught Johnny’s eye. A silk scarf lying on the dresser moved, just enough to cover a book beneath it.
Curiosity overrode his fear and he walked across to the dresser and lifted the scarf. If this was her attempt to hide it from him, then he was determined to see what it was.
It was a leather-bound book, embossed with roses. Johnny opened it carefully. The name Clara Johnson Caliente was written at the top of the first leaf. The handwriting was elegant and educated... beautiful.
He turned a page and read the first lines, confirming what he'd suspected. It was her diary... a private, personal thing. Flicking pages, he wondered if it held any answers to the mystery of this house. What had these people been like? What had happened to them? What was it about him that angered her to the point of trying to kill him?
There were dates on the pages. She hadn't written daily, but seemed to have written when the mood took her. The book covered a lot of years.
He found a page that was more tattered than the rest. It must have been important enough that she had gone back to it over and over. When he read it, he understood why. After many years of marriage she had finally found herself carrying a child.
'I can't believe it,' she had written. 'God has finally blessed us with this wondrous gift. Enrique is beside himself with pride.'
He turned pages and found the notation for the child's birth. It had been a son, Antonio Enrique Jose Caliente. Was that the name that had been scratched out of the bible? But Johnny read of a perfect baby with his mother's eyes, proud and doting parents...
‘A boy! A son to carry on Enrique’s name! God has been truly good to us.’
What had happened to change that?
The lamp dimmed a little and he looked up. The scent of roses filtered into the room, suddenly turning sour. His stomach rebelled, but he wasn't leaving now. He held the book closer to the lamp and turned more pages.
There were notes of birthdays and Christmases. Enrique's pride in his son shone through every entry. He had doted on the boy.
‘My beloved Enrique adores his son,’ she wrote. ‘He is so proud. He had a fine lariat made for Antonio for his birthday, though my beautiful boy is far too young to use it at five years old.’
‘To think that, after all those barren years, we are blessed with a son,’ another entry said. ‘He is a treasure.’
But Johnny began to feel something different in her feelings as the boy began to change from child to man. She mentioned the teenager's temper, his laziness. ‘Antonio was still abed at 10 o’clock this morning. Enrique excused him from his chores, saying he was unwell, but I fear his illness is merely shiftlessness. I pray that he will grow out of it.’
Reading on, Johnny found that her son had preferred visiting the cantina to working on the ranch or his studies. Johnny sensed that she was becoming disillusioned with her son, Antonio.
Johnny had known boys like this one himself. He'd seen the spoiled sons of rich men, particularly in Mexico. They strutted rather than walked. The boy he was reading about was just like them - lazy and inconsiderate, sometimes even cruel. He remembered them well. They had had no time for someone like himself, except to taunt him or to flaunt their wealth and power in front of a poor mestizo kid.
He turned some more pages. The diary was nearing its end and the boy had become a man. She wrote her grief openly, apparently expressing it in the diary since her husband still persisted in his doting and excusing of Antonio so much that she hadn't felt able to talk to him about it.
‘He wears his gun like a pistolero,’ she had written bitterly. ‘He spends more time practicing with that pistol than he does helping his father. He has been in fights in Green River and I fear he will kill someone soon.’ The handwriting had lost some of its elegance as she expressed her anger.
Johnny stopped there for a moment, seeing what she might conceive as another resemblance. He glanced down at his own holster, tied low on his right hip. Frowning, he realized that it was empty. Funny that he hadn’t noticed it before.
The lamp flared suddenly and he stepped back in shock. Looking around the room, there was nothing else to indicate that she was here, but he knew she was. He could feel her eyes on him. The hairs on the back of his neck shifted, sending a shiver down his spine.
He tried to ignore the warning signs and read on, flicking to the last entry. The boy had taken to gambling, but wasn’t good at it. He was constantly demanding money from them. On the last page there was one final note.
It was dated October 30th, 1855. Johnny made a quick calculation and realized that it was almost exactly sixteen years ago to the day.
‘Twice this week, Antonio has come to me for money. I swear I will not give him more. Perhaps it will force him to give up his evil ways and become the man his papa and I want so much for him to be.’
The entries ended there. He closed the diary, thinking about her sad disappointment in her son. After the excitement of his birth, it must have been terrible to watch the child grow into such a man.
Johnny put it back on the dresser and noticed the locket lying beside the lamp. Picking it up, he pried it open and gasped. The resemblance was startling.
The room went cold around him. The smell of roses and decay grew heavier and Johnny's heart pounded. The locket was ripped from his hands and flew across the room.
His eyes widened in shock. Memories of what had happened when Scott had held that locket flooded his mind and, instinctively, his hand went to the bruises on his neck.
The drapes billowed out in a furious gust of wind. They rose so high in the air that he could see the closed and shuttered windows behind them.
Wind swirled and howled around him, tearing at his jacket and blowing his hair into his eyes. He reached out and grabbed the dresser as he found himself fighting to stay on his feet in the rising gale.
He ducked as a brush and hand mirror spun around him then smashed against the wall. A jewelry box tipped over and scattered its contents over the floor.
The dresser rocked violently and his ribs seared from the effort to keep hold of it.
"I’m not him," he shouted, enraged. "I'm not your son!"
The diary flew open and the pages riffled in the wind. Then it lifted and was hurled across the room. Johnny's grip on the dresser gave way and he found himself caught in a maelstrom.
"I'm not Antonio!" he cried out over the noise. "I'm Johnny Lancer... not your son!"
As if in answer, the wind blew harder. A whirlwind rose around him and he found himself unable to stand against it. He was forced to take one step backwards, then another; pushed towards the doorway.
Suddenly, the hairbrush lifted off the floor and hurled itself at him, clipping his head with enough force to wrench a gasp from him. Then a cut crystal vase rose from the top of the dresser and hurtled towards him. He ducked, but it hit his shoulder.
"Where is Scott?" Johnny yelled over the cacophony of noise around him. "What have you done with my brother?"
The lamp rose from the dresser. He saw it coming for him and crouched low, wrapping his arms around his head in a desperate attempt to protect himself.
It missed him but he was lifted off his feet and propelled backwards out the door. He hit the hallway wall with enough force to knock the wind out of his lungs and slid to the floor. Propped against the wall, he watched the door slam closed, plunging him back into darkness. Dazed and alone he struggled to draw air back into his lungs.
"Damn you," he whispered. Scott was somewhere in this house, in God only knew what condition. Johnny was convinced that his brother needed him, but he felt powerless to help.
With one last grasp at his ribs, he tried to push himself off the floor, only to fall back in defeat.
He couldn't hold on any longer. The darkness closed around him and he lost consciousness.
He looked around his "prison" and shuddered. It was little more than a dank hole in the ground, cold and musty… and so quiet. The silence was unnerving, broken only by the occasional hiss and spit of the candle’s flame.
The candle was still burning; a miracle that bewildered him. Scott had light enough to see the steps he'd fallen down and that had been another miracle.
He'd somehow grabbed the handrail on his way down, breaking his fall. Still, he had hit the ground hard, turning his ankle beneath him. He knew the ankle wasn't broken, just sprained, but it would limit his movement. Only after he had a chance to look around did he realize that the last six steps were missing.
Not that there was far that he could go. The candle's light didn't extend far enough to light the whole room, but he was able to work out that it was small. The floor was dirt and he was leaning against an earthen wall that held no warmth or comfort at all.
The cloying smell of damp earth filled his nostrils. He figured that, at one time, this must have been a thriving root cellar.
His thoughts turned to his brother. He worried about him. Until now, all of the attacks had been focused on him. The thought of Johnny up there, alone with whatever was behind all this, left Scott desperate and frustrated. He lifted the candle off the ground and held it out to see if there was another way out.
The flame flickered as he carefully moved it in front of him, searching the darkened shadows of the cellar. He spotted something in the corner.
Scott frowned. Peering into the dim outer reaches of the light, he tried to make out what it was. Still shrouded in deep shadows he held the candle carefully and began sliding his way across the floor, grimacing from the pain in his ankle.
He shifted the candle until it illuminated the darkened corner. Tangled roots, long dead, reached down like gnarled fingers from shelving above. To his horror, he saw two human skeletons slumped against the wall. He studied them in macabre fascination.
Catching his breath, he saw that one of them was wearing a pair of familiar concho pants, nearly identical to the pair Johnny wore. A filthy white shirt with faded embroidery hung from the skeletal shoulders. For one ghastly second, his mind reeled. But it could not be Johnny. Johnny was alive upstairs. His mind went to the miniature of the son. Here was the Calientes' son.
The second skeleton, head slumped forward with a bullet hole in his skull, was clad in a tailored Mexican suit. A gun lay on the floor at its hand, the bones of one finger still resting against the trigger. Scott leaned in closer, transfixed by the sight. The shirt of the 'son's' skeleton still bore a bloodstain across the chest. Had he been shot, here where he lay?
Scott felt sick. What had happened here? He edged back across the room until he had himself as far away from the ghoulish remains as he could get. He pulled the candle in close and the far corner slipped back into darkness.
Knowing it was there was bad enough. He didn’t want to see it as well.
He looked up at the door, far out of his reach. There were no windows, no other exit. He was stuck here like a rat in a trap… like a prisoner in a cell.
No, he didn’t want to go there. That thinking was the way to memories and images that he didn’t want to dredge up - memories of a dank, dark hole in another time… of the smell of disease and death.
No! He turned his mind, instead, to his room at Lancer; to a room with a window that looked out over open spaces and freedom. He seldom closed that window, treasuring the light breezes when they came. He sighed and wondered if Johnny would ever close his window again after this.
Once they got home… not much chance of that at the moment. He put the candle down very carefully and rubbed his arms to warm them. He thanked God for the light. Darkness would have been so much harder to bear.
Scott looked around him again. The room seemed smaller every time he’d examined it. The walls felt as though they were closing in on him. He pulled himself to his feet, keeping the weight off his injured ankle as much as he could, and limped over to the stairs. Reaching up as high as his arm could go, he growled in frustration. That last step was just out of reach… only inches away. But it might just as well have been a mile.
Furious, he dropped to the ground and crawled back to his corner.
What was happening upstairs? A chill went down his spine. Johnny - that voice had sounded so much like his. He hadn't even thought twice about following it.
So, was Johnny still in the parlor resting? Probably not; not if he knew his brother. Once Johnny became aware that he was missing, he was bound to go looking for him. He hoped nothing worse happened to him.
Suddenly, he heard a thunderous crash. It shook the house above him and dust sifted down from the stairs. Followed by a terrifying silence
He dared not think what it had been, but his thoughts turned immediately to his brother. “Stay out of trouble, Johnny,” he whispered towards the darkened staircase. “Just this once.”
A heartbreaking sob filled the room. Never had he heard such a heart-wrenching cry. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end; misery wrapped around him like a shroud.
The candle’s flame flickered and he smelled the scent of roses fill the room. He waited, not daring to breathe, as a soft mist formed in the far corner. Slowly it manifested itself into the form of a woman looking down on the skeletons.
It turned to look at him and Scott saw the vaporous, ethereal figure solidify into the woman he had seen in the painting – the same woman he’d seen in the mirror. Even though he could still see through her, he could make out her features.
Horror turned enigmatically to sympathy as he watched her agony.
“Senora?” he whispered tentatively.
She looked over towards him. “What is your name?” she asked, her voice hushed but clear.
It took him by surprise. Even though he had spoken to her, he hadn’t expected to get an answer. His heart raced.
“Scott… Scott Lancer,” he answered hesitantly. “You’re Senora Caliente, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” she replied, nodding her head sadly. “You shouldn’t have come here.”
He was inclined to agree with her, but he didn’t comment.
Scott looked from her to the two skeletons. He was sure he knew, but he asked softly, "Who are they?"
"My son, Antonio... and my beloved Enrique..." she whispered. There was immense sorrow in her words.
"I'm sorry,” he told her and meant it. “What happened?"
He saw her face harden. She turned slowly to scowl at him. "He was no good. I should have sent him away."
Scott pulled back in surprise. "He...?"
"Now he's back," she hissed furiously, all trace of sorrow gone in a startling flash of rage. "He dares to walk into this house after what he did." She shook her head and turned towards Scott, her features softening a little. "But you are safe here. I will not let him harm you as well."
“He’s back?” Scott asked, confused. “Is he the one hurting Johnny?”
She continued as though she hadn’t heard him. “He has no right to be in this house,” she told him harshly. “I will not let him near you again.”
The miniature in the locket came to his mind and his heart skipped a beat. Suddenly, he understood who she meant. "No, he’s not your son. He's Johnny Lancer, my brother. He only looks like your son."
She shook her head sadly. "He has charmed you, just as he did so many; just as he did his father. Enrique never saw what he was... not until it was too late. But I saw it. I should have done something about it sooner, but I will stop him now."
"No!” Scott tried to climb to his feet but he felt her eyes on him and he couldn't move. "He is not your son. I know he bears an uncanny resemblance to your son, but it’s only coincidence. His mother was Mexican and he got his blue eyes from our father’s family.”
"They are bewitching eyes," she said forlornly. "They are cursed, but I will make amends. You will be safe."
Scott panicked. "I am not in danger... not from Johnny. Please, Johnny is my brother."
"But the soul he carries is Antonio's," she told him patiently. "Antonio is alive in him and he will do you harm just as he did before. You cannot trust him."
Panic turned to helplessness. "He is not Antonio. He won't hurt me. He will be worried about me."
"No, he only ever cared about himself," she spat. "His pleasures... his life. He will never change. It's too late." Her eyes turned soft suddenly as she drifted closer to him. The scent of rose petals hung over her. "Rest easy, Boy. When it is safe, I will release you. You can live your life without fear of him."
As she reached him, her translucent skirt skimmed through his leg and he felt a blistering cold.
"Please, don't go," he pleaded. "You can't leave me down here."
She reached out her hand, her willowy, claw-like fingers brushing his cheek. Her touch was as cold as ice and it chilled him to his very soul. He tried to pull back, but found himself looking into her eyes instead.
“Don’t hurt him!”
"You're safe here," she said reassuringly. With that she dissolved before his eyes... gone, and only the roses left behind to convince him he hadn't imagined it all.
“Johnny!” he shouted to the four walls around him in a vain attempt to warn his brother. There was no answer.
Scott sagged against the dirt wall. What would she do to Johnny? Why hadn’t he listened to his own misgivings and not entered this house in the first place. He’d known that something was not right.
Now he might lose Johnny.
Johnny came around to a daunting darkness, all the more oppressive in knowing that he was facing it alone.
He groaned with the realization that he had now broken his cracked rib. With each breath, bone grated against bone.
Breathing as lightly as he could, he pushed himself to his hands and knees and waited for the dizziness to pass.
Even that small movement left him exhausted and he had to take a moment to catch his breath before he started groping in the blackness. His hand hit the wall and he slumped back against it. Closing his eyes he felt himself starting to drift off almost immediately.
“Damn!” he thought, his head jerking up. He couldn’t do that. He couldn’t let his guard down. Blinking his eyes against the darkness, he tried to focus his thoughts. Too much had happened. The razor sharp instincts of Johnny Madrid were dulled by pain and confusion and he was only vaguely aware of the sweet scent of roses floating in the air.
He should be making his way downstairs. That was where the light was. But all he could think of was how utterly tired he was... how every part of him seemed to hurt. And the roses were hypnotizing…
A warm comforting feeling enveloped him and, mercifully, the pain in his chest began to ease. He pushed back against the wall, holding his breath and his ribs, but he got to his feet without the wave of agony he had expected. Glancing down the hall, he noticed a thin bar of light coming from under the door of one of the rooms. Odd that he had not seen it before.
Light! How he longed to be out of this claustrophobic darkness. He was drawn to it as surely as the proverbial moth to the flame. He took a step and a part of him was surprised that it didn’t hurt, but he cast the thought aside. The soft scent of roses embraced him and he felt lightheaded… folded in the comfort of a love he hadn’t known since his earliest childhood.
His gut told him this was wrong, but the scent was overpowering, suspending all his fears. An invisible presence led him down the darkened hallway and the door leading to the son’s room silently opened. A candle flickered on a nightstand next to the bed. The covers were folded back, awaiting him. He allowed himself to be led to the bed and laid down, exhausted. He sank deep into the soft and inviting mattress.
As he closed his eyes he felt a whisper of air touch his forehead. It felt so much like the goodnight kiss of his mother that he found himself calling for her.
"Mama," he murmured as he felt himself drifting towards the sleep he craved.
But the life he had led and the things he had done since he said his last goodbye to her would not let him sleep. "Por favor, Mama, I have done so many things wrong. Forgive me.”
"Hush..." The words were little more than a whisper on a breeze, light and comforting.
"I went back to him, Mama... back to my father," he found himself telling her. "I know you never wanted that. Lo siento... I did it for the money... I…"
He didn't have a chance to finish. A bone numbing chill descended on the room, nearly gutting the candle. Suddenly, the sweet scent of roses turned to rot and decay. The door slammed shut, rattling the window and shaking the walls and trapping him inside.
Johnny was overcome by a fear so strong that he could barely breathe as the floor beneath his bed began to shake, undulating like the ripples on a pond. He had to hold onto the mattress to keep from being tossed off.
Something massive pounded on the walls, the thunderous sound deafening. The walls bulged inward, rammed again and again by the angry presence. Strong, unseen hands pulled him out of the bed and shoved him against the wall.
A wave of pain surged through his chest and the vile stench threatened to choke him. One word repeated in his head, again and again…”Murderer…Murderer...”
Scott heard the floorboards above him shift and shutter and dirt rained down on him.
Suddenly the house moved again, the floorboards twisting and screeching in protest. Scott ducked and covered his head, waiting for the whole root cellar to cave in around him. The house moaned as if it was being tortured and his heart leapt in his chest. Was Johnny the cause of all the violence above him?
A coldness invaded the cellar, bone chilling and oppressive. The soft sweet smell of roses was swept away by the vile odor of death.
The air seemed to ripple around him as the familiar wraithlike mist began to swirl into form in front of him.
But this time it was dark, its anger tangible. He watched silently as the ghost hovered over the two skeletons.
Scott cleared his throat, his voice shaking despite himself. "My brother..." He couldn't finish the sentence. He didn't know if he could stand the answer.
The apparition turned on him.
"No...Johnny is my brother."
"You lied to me..." she hissed back at him. “He's evil."
“Listen to me. Johnny is my brother, not your son,” Scott insisted, his patience gone. “Your son has been dead for years.”
She pulled back from him in horror.
“Look, he’s there on the floor. They both are. Johnny is not your son.”
She looked down at the bones on the floor. “He’s no good,” she moaned quietly. “I did everything I could. I loved him and held him and tried to teach him right from wrong… but he was no good.”
She stopped and hovered over the skeletons, one ghostly hand reaching out to touch them. “But my poor Enrique never saw it. He loved Antonio so completely that he made excuses for everything the boy did.”
Shaking her head sadly, she added, “If only he’d seen Antonio for what he was.”
“And what was he?” Scott asked.
“He was a gambler… a killer….He killed a man in Green River once… in a gunfight.” Her eyes narrowed angrily. “And he enjoyed it. He bragged of it.”
“Is that why you hate him?”
She looked stunned. “Hate him?”
“What happened, Senora? What happened to them; to you?”
Frowning, she seemed to think back. “It was El Dia de los muertos. Our cook had gone with her family to decorate the graves of her loved ones and I was in the kitchen, preparing dinner. Antonio knew I would be alone and he came to me for more money,” she said. Her vaporous form wavered with the memories. “He had lost at poker again. Always, it was more, more, and more. I refused him. I told him I wouldn’t give him any more.”
A heavy sigh seemed to whisper around the room. “I turned my back on him… and he drove a knife into my back… into my heart…”
She looked up at Scott, a plea for answers on her face. “He was my son… the baby I’d held and nursed; the child I had nurtured and loved. How could he do that to me?”
Scott couldn’t answer her. He couldn’t even begin to imagine what would drive a son to kill his own mother.
“What about them?” he asked, nodding towards the skeletons on the floor. “Do you know what happened to them?”
She nodded. “Yes, I know. I saw it all, but I could do nothing to stop it. I was there, but I wasn’t. It was all so strange.”
“Enrique came home and found Antonio leaning over me with the knife still in his hand. His poor heart broke. It was too much for him.” She faced Scott, her face contorted with pain. “My brave son dropped the knife and ran. He ran and hid, while Enrique gathered me in his arms and carried me upstairs.” Her face was achingly sad. “He dressed me in the gown he loved so much and laid me out. He kissed me one last time and begged my forgiveness. Then he took his gun from the dresser…”
“Yes. Enrique was such a quiet, patient man. I had never seen him in such a rage. He searched the house from top to bottom for Antonio. I followed him, but he never knew I was with him. The more he looked, the more his rage took hold of him. I watched as he took his bible and scratched out Antonio’s name. Then we heard a sound… a whimper.” She lifted her head up proudly. “He found our son here, hiding in the dark… like the murdering coward that he was. And my husband shot him.”
Scott had guessed as much, but it still shook him. He glanced down at the man and his son.
“Enrique couldn’t go on. His poor heart was broken. Everything… everyone he held dear was gone. He drew our boy into his arms and watched him take his last breath… and then he turned the gun on himself.”
She lowered her head in despair. “My poor love… “
“Senora,” Scott said gently. “You just said it yourself. Your son, Antonio… he’s dead. The man upstairs is Johnny Lancer. He’s my brother, not your son. He’s not a murderer.”
She looked up and narrowed her eyes at him. They were as cold as the air around him. “I’ve seen it in his eyes. He’s killed. He’ll turn on you when you least expect it. I can’t let him kill again. I should have stopped him when I saw what he was becoming, but I couldn’t do it.” She drew herself up determinedly. “I will this time. Don’t worry, you’re safe from him here.”
“I’m not worried,” Scott told her firmly. “He doesn’t frighten me. Johnny would never hurt me” He pointed to the bones on the floor. “That’s your son! He’s dead!”
Scott looked at her, desperate to find a way to reach her. "Think about it. It’s been years since he died. How could he still be alive?"
"He followed the candle," she whispered. "I lit it to bring my beloved Enrique to me, but it was Antonio who came."
Scott thought about the superstitions Johnny had spoken of. This was the night that those who believed lit a candle to bring their loved ones back for that one night.
"But Johnny isn’t your son," he insisted, trying to maintain a calm he didn't feel. "He's not some spirit that's here only for El Dia de los muertos. He's flesh and blood, like me."
"No," she cried, the walls shaking with her sobs. "It is him. He called me Mama...I tried to help him...but he only came for the money."
The thought of what condition Johnny might be in after the chaos he heard upstairs terrified him.
"What did you do to him?" he demanded coldly.
The dark apparition lightened as the room lost its bone numbing coldness. "He will not hurt you. Not ever again. I will see to that. I could not protect my Enrique, but I can help you. I promise."
Scott grabbed onto her words. I will see to that – It meant that Johnny was still alive. "The only way to help me is to let me out of here," Scott told her. "Let me go to my brother."
The vaporous form began to fade. "It will all be over soon. Then I can rest."
"NO!” Scott called out as she slipped away. He fell to his knees in defeat. "Oh God, Johnny..."
The candle gutted then came back to life as the room settled back into the damnable silence. He wrapped his arms around his chest, hugging himself in a desperate attempt to keep out the cold. No, it couldn't end like this - not with all the years apart that they still had to make up for. There had to be a way out. There had to be a way to get to Johnny.
He stood up, once again studying the last step, just out of his reach. He looked around for something to stand on, anything that he may have overlooked, but there was nothing. He was stuck down here until Johnny came to get him or… He slid back down the wall, collecting dirt as he went. The only thing he could do now was wait.
The foul stench was gone for now, leaving only the musty smell of age and dust in the room. Johnny leaned back against the wall panting heavily, his arms wrapped around his chest to fend off the pain of his broken rib.
With a resignation that bordered on defeat, he knew there was no way out of this house now. He was trapped with someone... something… that wanted him dead and he didn’t know how to fight it. And he was hurt. Badly. One wrong move and his broken rib could puncture his lung.
The lone candle on the nightstand had burned down to a nub, the wick dancing and hissing in a pool of candle wax, leaving the rest of the room in deep shadows.
"Where the hell are you, Boston?" he whispered into the darkness.
The thought of Scott, alone somewhere in this house, possibly hurt, angered him. He didn’t have the right to give up. Hurt or not, he had to get back downstairs and continue his search.
He didn't know how much time he had before ‘She’ came after him again. Her attacks were coming more frequently, and more violently. It was only a matter of time before she killed him. And what about Scott? Would she hurt him? Or had she killed him? Or was her anger only directed at himself? He had to get back down to the parlor. That was where he had last seen Scott.
As much as the prospect of climbing down those stairs appalled him, he knew it had to be done. "Ain’t getting’ done sittin’ here," he said to himself and gritted his teeth, setting his jaw hard against the pain that he knew was coming.
Holding his breath, and pressing his arm against his side to stabilize his ribs, he pushed against the wall and got to his feet. Johnny froze there for a moment, a wave of nausea rising up from his gut, and then staggered toward the doorway praying that the door would open.
The doorknob turned and he felt a moment of elation at the simple turn of the knob. He swung the door open and hugged the hallway as he headed for the stairs.
The light from the wall sconce behind him faded before it reached the stairway, and the faint light coming from the parlor below ended just outside the door, leaving the stairs in darkness.
Loath to descend into that black void, and remembering the fall he had already taken, he took one tentative step down. He just hurt too badly to do this. But he would not give up until he found Scott. He took another painful step and that’s when he heard it. It was faint, rising up from below, but it was Scott's voice, calling his name.
Scott was alive!
Cinching his arm tighter against his side and fixing his mind on his brother, Johnny grabbed the railing. Throwing caution and his fear aside, he hurried down the stairs.
He hit the bottom step and stopped, his breaths coming in loud gasps. Perspiration dripped from his face and stung his eyes. Leaning against the newel for support, he called out, “Scott? Can you hear me? Scott?"
And there it was again. He hadn't imagined it. Though it sounded as if it was coming from miles away, Scott's voice answered him.
Searching the darkened foyer with his eyes, he called. "Scott?"
"Down here!" the voice answered, still muffled, but louder. Johnny's heart beat faster. For the first time in hours, he wasn't alone in this nightmare.
He tried to still his breathing, to listen for Scott's voice. It sounded like it had come from the left, toward the kitchen. Wiping the sweat from his eyes with his sleeve, he started in the direction of his brother’s voice.
"In here," Scott called, but this time it was from behind him, in the parlor. Johnny stopped dead in his tracks. No, that couldn’t be. He was certain that he was going in the right direction. Scott couldn't be in the parlor.
“Over here,” he heard Scott call from the parlor again. He turned back to look, frowning.
Suddenly, he heard his brother’s voice– loud… clear… “This way!” He spun around toward the kitchen, peering into the darkness.
“Scott, where are you?”
“Here!” he heard from the parlor and, looking back over his shoulder, he heard from the kitchen, “In here.”
“I’m here!” That came from upstairs. Johnny’s head was spinning in confusion. The voices, all of them… they all sounded like his brother, but it wasn’t possible.
His head hurt. He couldn’t think.
"Scott, tell me where you are!" he yelled, then waited, not even daring to breathe.
"Below the house!" came Scott's voice and Johnny turned his head towards it, scowling. Was that Scott, or was it her again? No that was Scott. He could hear the panic in his brother’s voice. The other voices were flat, as dead as the house.
"How?" Johnny yelled. He felt his fear rising.
“Johnny,” the voice answered. That was Scott. He was sure of it now. That voice had called him by name and Johnny felt a wave of relief wash over him.
"I think it’s a root cellar. There's a door!" the voice continued. "In the hallway! And be careful, Johnny. She's mad!”
‘She’s mad!’ The words almost drove an ironic laugh from Johnny. He didn’t need anyone to tell him how crazed she was. Every step he took was fraught with pain that shouted her madness. He peered into the darkened hallway and swallowed hard. Then he drew a deep breath. Nothing… nothing but that smell of dust and age; she wasn’t there waiting for him.
At least, not yet.
Scott jumped to his feet. Even muffled through the door above, he could hear the pain and fatigue in Johnny’s voce. And something else, something he rarely heard; fear.
His movements fanned the air and the candle flickered and dimmed. Scott held his breath. That candle had been the only thing keeping him sane since he’d fallen down here.
“Johnny, I’m down here, in the root cellar,” he called back. “There’s a door under the stairs.”
“Scott…you all right?” he heard Johnny’s voice answer.
“I will be, as soon as you get me out of here,” Scott called back.
Scott listened, his heart pounding heavily in his chest.. Would their calls alert ‘her’? He sniffed the air. No smell of roses or decay. Where was she?
Johnny squinted into the darkness. He kept close to the staircase, feeling for a door. And he found it.
“Over here,” he heard Scott call from the kitchen. But he wasn’t going to be fooled. He ignored it and slid his hand along the wood until he felt the doorknob.
“Johnny. Down here!”
He turned the doorknob. Was it a trap?
“Johnny, hurry, before she gets back.”
He didn’t know. He couldn’t think. His rib felt like a stake was stabbing him from the inside. His head hurt. The nausea was getting worse.
“No, not in there!” Scott’s voice came from the parlor again.
“Hurry up!” came the voice from below.
Whispering a prayer he pulled and the door swung open. It was a closet, stale and musty. He could see down a flight of stairs, the dirt floor dimly lit by a candle. He cinched his arm against his rib and took a step down.
“No!” Scott was at the bottom looking up, his face shrouded in shadow. “The stairs don’t come all the way down.”
Johnny stepped back. “Can you get up?”
“No, the last step is too high. Can you lift me?”
There was no way Johnny could reach down and haul Scott up with his rib broken. He’d pass out from pain if he didn’t puncture a lung first.
“Johnny, are you alright?” Scott asked, his voice filled with concern. “All that noise before… did she hurt you?”
“No,” Johnny answered quickly. This wasn’t the time for explanations. “But I can’t reach you. I need something…” He desperately ran his mind over the house, searching his memory for something he could use to reach Scott.
The thick braided draw cord on the parlor drapes.
But he would need something to cut the cord. The kitchen – the knife Scott found on the floor.
“Wait here. I’ll be right back.”
“Johnny! No, Johnny. Where are you going?”
Johnny ignored his brother’s calls. He made his way out of the cramped closet and back into the darkened hallway. There was no smell in the air - no roses or decay. Whatever she was doing now, she seemed to be occupied. This might be their only chance.
With one hand lightly tracing the wall for guidance, Johnny walked through the darkness down the hallway towards the kitchen. Once there, he edged over to the table and felt around the top of it. Vaguely, he remembered seeing Scott put the knife down there.
His fingers caught the sharp edge of the blade and he carefully slid his fingers over it till he found the hilt and wrapped his hand around it.
Instinctively holding the knife like a weapon, Johnny turned and walked toward the archway that led to the parlor. The soft light from the candelabra should have eased his nerves, but his heart beating painfully against his broken rib was a grim reminder of what had happened upstairs.
Stepping into the parlor, his eyes strayed to the portrait over the fireplace. He half expected to see the woman missing from the painting - an insane idea, but was anything that had happened in this house sane?
Pulling his attention back to the drapes, he moved quickly across the room. Cursing the limited reach his rib allowed, he cut a length of cord from the drape. It would have to be enough.
Suddenly the air chilled around him and he froze. The now familiar odor of decay and roses descended on the room and filled his senses.
“How dare you enter my house,” a voice hissed, coming from every corner of the room. He remembered the mirror upstairs and waited for the apparition to appear.
“I should have thrown you out before you had a chance to betray us,” the voice continued, harsh and cold.
He remembered the locket, the miniature that looked so like him. He called out, trying to keep the fear from his voice. “I’m not who you think I am,” he told her, standing his ground.
“I know who you are,” she answered and, unbelievably, the voice caught. “You broke your papa’s heart,” she continued plaintively. “And you broke my heart.”
“Enough!” she screamed. “No more lies. You have one last chance. Get out now and never come back. Otherwise I will kill you, Antonio.”
And then, incredibly, the front door creaked and moved. It opened slowly and he found himself looking out into the starlit night. The rain had stopped long ago and he could see the trees outside waving lightly in a gentle breeze.
Johnny stood staring at the open door, the rope dangling from his hand. His escape, his freedom a few steps away. His way out of this hell…
“Leave! Now!” she urged him coldly.
He could go for help. With Murdoch’s help he could get Scott out of the root cellar.
If they could get back in…
No, he couldn’t leave Scott. There was no telling what she might do to him.
“No,” he told her. “You must be loco to think that I’d leave my brother.”
“Get out!” she shrieked. “I won’t let you harm him.”
“I’m not going to hurt him,” he yelled back at her. “An’ I’m not leaving him here with you.”
“You were always a fool!” she screamed at him. The door closed with a slam that shook the house. “You had your chance.”
With that, the odor dispersed and the oppressive cold lifted from the room. But he didn’t feel any sense of relief. He had only succeeded in putting off what he was beginning to feel was inevitable.
Johnny found the closet door was still open when he got back with the cord. He cursed his inability to raise his arms over his head and cut a length of cord that would have reached Scott. Now he could only hope there was enough for Scott to grab on to.
"Scott, I've got a rope," he called into the dimly lit room below. He could see his brother's face turned up towards him and could just make out a smile greeting him.
"Toss it down and pull me up, then," Scott called back, a sense of urgency in his voice. "She could be back anytime."
Johnny put the knife down beside him, then quickly tied a slip knot in the cord and slid it over his wrist. Kneeling down on the floor at the top of the steps, he tossed the other end of the cord down the stairwell. He leaned as far over the stairs as he could and winced at the pain in his chest.
“I can’t reach it,” Scott yelled up to him.
“Damn!” Johnny cursed. “Scott, I'm coming down. You grab it when you can."
As his boot touched the top step, Johnny felt a disquieting tremor in the timber. He stopped for an instant and looked around him warily, then moved on. The railing under his other hand began to tremble and dust sifted down over his head.
Johnny stopped and waited for the dreaded smell to come, but it didn't. She was making herself known, but she wasn't here yet. He reached the fourth step and leaned forward, the rope still tied to his wrist while he clung to the railing with the other hand. "Try it now."
Johnny felt the slack in the rope suddenly pull taut and he gasped at the pain as he wrapped his left arm around the railing to keep from being pulled down with his brother.
"I've got it, Johnny. Pull me up," Scott yelled.
"I can't. You'll have to climb. And be quick about it, Brother."
Johnny's eyes were squeezed almost shut, riding out the terrible pain in his ribs, but he could see Scott reaching one hand over the other slowly pulling himself up the cord.
He dug his boots into the step below him and leaned back until he was lying against the stairs. His eyes were watering now and he could barely breathe, but he held on. The tremor in the steps was getting stronger, the vibration running through his chest till it was almost unbearable.
Suddenly, the cord tugged and bounced. For one dreadful moment, Johnny thought that Scott had fallen, but the pressure returned and he forced his eyes open to look down.
Scott clung grimly to his lifeline. He wasn't sure why Johnny wasn't able to help him, but he knew that his brother had to be hurt badly to force him to admit that he couldn't pull him up. When he was finally within reach of the stairs, he grabbed the railing with one hand and tried to haul himself the rest of the way up.
The room chilled, the faint scent of roses drifting up from the cellar ... oh God...
He hung on, his legs hanging in the air, and he felt the ice cold bite of her hand as it invisibly wrapped itself around his ankle
Then her touch was gone. He heard a garbled gasp from Johnny and looked up in alarm. Scott could see the malevolent dark cloud rise up and over him, claw-like appendages reaching out for his brother.
He felt himself start to slide back as Johnny's arm went limp, his weight pulling Johnny down the stairs. Holding the railing desperately, he swung his leg up to hook it over the bottom step and, with a Herculean effort, he pulled himself the rest of the way up.
He stood on the bottom step, clutching the railing. His ankle throbbed but he forced it aside and turned his attention to his brother.
She hovered close to Johnny – too close. “Get away from him!” he growled as he climbed the steps.
Johnny was in trouble. He was leaning back against the railing, drenched in sweat with his eyes closed. Scott wondered if they were closed from exhaustion or if he was unconscious. It didn’t matter. He had to get him out of here and away from her.
Scott snatched at his brother’s shirt and dragged him halfway to his feet, then wrapped one arm around his waist. A groan wrenched from his brother and Johnny’s head lifted to look around him. “Come on, Johnny, we’re getting out of here,” Scott reassured him.
He held tight to the railing with the other hand and climbed one step after another. She held off, hovering in a shapeless mist behind him as he reached the top of the stairs and eased his brother to the floor.
The roses turned to that sickening smell he dreaded and her icy hands touched his chest, pushing him back towards the stairs.
“NO!” Johnny suddenly yelled. He was sitting up, clutching his ribs and grimacing with pain. “Leave him alone! It’s me you want!”
She turned on him then. Scott watched as she glided over to stand in front of Johnny. Using the wall for leverage, Johnny hauled himself to his feet and glared at her. “Puta!” he seethed at her. “Get away from him!”
“Johnny, no!” Scott pleaded.
“You vile excuse for a son!” she screamed at Johnny. “You had your chance to get out and you threw it back in my face.”
Scott gasped. Could it possibly be true? Had she offered Johnny a chance to escape and he hadn’t taken it?
The house suddenly shuddered violently and Scott clung to the handrail, glancing over his shoulder at the steps behind him.
The air in the room turned icy cold and Scott looked back towards his brother. The swirling mist of hate had taken on a vague shape and loomed before Johnny, black with rage.
Johnny stood defiantly in front of her, his eyes narrowed coldly. "I told you I won't leave him."
"Then you'll die. You sold your soul to the devil, Antonio!”
“He’s not Antonio!” Scott yelled. “He’s my brother. Your son is dead in the cellar!”
Suddenly the house lurched. Scott saw her pick something up off the floor, the metal catching the dim light from the cellar below. He stared at the blood stained knife he had found in the kitchen. No!
"You drove this knife
into my back..." Her voice echoed from every direction in the house. And
suddenly, the knife was in her hand, raking through the air... straight for
Scott saw the rope, still tied to Johnny's wrist, and snapped it back. Johnny was pulled off his feet and fell towards him.
But not before she had driven the knife so close that it sliced across Johnny’s breast and arm. Scott gasped in horror as she turned to him, a smile of triumph on her lips. Then he heard a terrible hiss of pain as Johnny fell at his feet.
"NO!" Scott cried out. The sound echoed around the tiny closet space and she turned back to him with a satisfied smile.
Then she faded and vanished, leaving behind only the putrid smell... and Johnny bleeding on the floor.
Dropping to his knees, Scott edged closer to his brother. In this awful darkness, it was hard to see whether Johnny was even breathing. He kneeled next to him, his hand shaking as he reached out to feel for a pulse.
He took Johnny’s wrist and held his breath while his fingers searched for a heartbeat. It was there, surprisingly strong but far too fast.
'He's alive!' Scott thought and almost shouted the words in relief.
“Get outa here, Scott,” Johnny whispered, then stopped to catch his breath before adding, “While you can.”
"Shut up, Johnny. We’re getting out of this together," Scott told him, more harshly than he’d intended. Straining to see in the darkness, he realized that the knife had caught Johnny just to the left of his heart and torn a path across his chest, slicing his upper arm open. Even without light, he could see blood already flowing freely from the wounds and a chill ran through him as he realized how close he had come to losing his brother this time. “I can’t see the damage properly in here,” he said quickly.
Johnny only hitched his breath against the pain.
"I've got to get you out of here, into some light," Scott told him. "It's going to hurt like hell, but I have to get you to your feet. We can't stay in here."
“I know. Help me up,” Johnny said weakly, panting heavily.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure,” Johnny answered, more firmly. “That loco puta hasn’t put me outa this yet. Get me up.”
He couldn't stifle a grunt of pain as Scott reached under him and raised his shoulders off the floor but, with more than a little of Scott’s help, he made it to his feet.
“There’s bound to be something in that parlor that I can use as bandages,” Scott suggested. “We have to stop that bleeding.”
"Why? You don't think she's gonna let us out of here, do you?"
Scott saw him sway unsteadily and threw his arm around Johnny's waist. "I don't give a damn what she thinks. We're getting out of here. You ready?"
Johnny put his arm around Scott’s neck and nodded. "I'm ready," he told him. "Let's go."
The darkness was overwhelming in that tiny space and they had to edge to the doorway carefully so as not to bump Johnny against the wall.
Scott stood in the hallway holding his brother and looking towards the dim glow of the lamps in the parlor.
He took a step and stopped. A deep and disturbing groan seemed to rise up from below the house, vibrating the floor beneath his feet.
The groan grew to a rumbling torrent of noise and the walls trembled on either side of him. Scott clung to his brother, but it was hard to keep his balance as the floor began to sway. “What the hell…?”
Johnny’s feet were spread apart as he tried to ride out the shaking. “She’s good at this game,” he said cryptically and quickly grabbed Scott’s sleeve to steady himself. “Watch out, she plays rough.”
Scott wrapped his arm tighter around Johnny and started him forward. Dust rained down on them and the floor rolled and bucked. Suddenly, the whole house seemed to buck and the two brothers were thrown against the wall.
The fall wrenched a grunt from Scott as the wind was knocked out of him, but the cry of anguish that burst forth from Johnny was heartbreaking. Scott still hadn’t been able to look Johnny over properly in the darkness, but he suspected that cry came from a lot more than the knife wound.
With his arm still holding his brother’s waist, Scott felt Johnny’s body go limp for just a moment. Scott tightened his grip and held him up, but Johnny surprised him by putting a hand on his shoulder and straightening.
“I’m alright, Scott,” he said determinedly. “Let’s go.”
“I don’t believe you for a minute,” Scott told him firmly. “But you’re right. We have to find somewhere safer than this.”
Johnny choked back a laugh. “Safe where?”
As if in answer, another tremor shook the house. The railing of the staircase beside them rattled and creaked; pieces of plaster dropped from the ceiling above them and the two of them struggled to stay on their feet as they staggered drunkenly down the hall and into the dim light of the parlor.
Even with the house shaking to its very foundations, the glimmer of light brought a measure of relief. But it was fleeting; gone the moment Scott glanced at his brother. Johnny’s face was ashen, covered in a sheen of sweat. His shirt was covered in blood – far too much blood – and his head drooped almost to his chest.
Scott pulled his arm more firmly around Johnny, hearing a moan of pain but forcing himself to ignore it. They had to get out before the entire house came crashing down around them.
But how? How to get out of the house? The windows and the front door were still closed tight.
A jagged tear appeared in the wall beside them, ripping it from floor to ceiling. Scott heard a loud cracking sound and looked down. The boards beneath their feet began to splinter and wrench apart. He dragged Johnny forward just as the floor opened up where they had been standing.
Johnny suddenly stopped, forcing Scott to a halt with him. Johnny’s gaze was riveted to the wall above the fireplace. Scott followed his gaze to find that he was looking at the portrait. There was overt anger on her face, as if she had just realized that Johnny was not dead. The floor sank beneath them, floorboards cracking and splintering, and the ceiling above them cracked and parted.
Furniture rocked and anything that wasn’t fixed down clattered noisily. The noise was almost deafening now. It seemed as though the house was going to break apart and swallow them whole.
“Scott! Look out!”
He heard the shout even as he felt Johnny thrust him aside. Falling to the floor, he watched as a beam from the ceiling above them crashed to the floor with a mighty roar. It landed between him and Johnny, bouncing once before stopping to lie like a stricken titan.
“You okay, Johnny?” he demanded quickly and jumped to his feet when he heard no answer. “JOHNNY?”
“Yeah, I’m just fine,” Johnny replied ironically, pulling himself to his knees.
Scott barely had time to breathe a sigh of relief when a huge piece of the ceiling followed the beam to the floor, fracturing into smaller pieces that flew in all directions. He ducked as one went past him; then peered through the plaster dust to look for his brother.
Johnny was on his hands and knees, trying to get up. The floor was bucking and jolting beneath them and Scott climbed over the beam to get to Johnny’s side. Gripping his brother’s waist, he helped him to his feet and the two stood there, their eyes searching the room for shelter.
Shelter! Where, in this maelstrom, would they find somewhere safe? Johnny swayed against him and Scott held him tightly. He looked towards the sofa. It had bounced out of position, but he thought it might offer them sanctuary if he were to pull it over top of them.
As if she had guessed what he was thinking, another huge beam fell from the ceiling and landed on the back of the sofa, breaking the chair almost in half. There was nowhere to hide…
“We have to find somewhere to ride this out!” He had to shout the words, even though Johnny was in his arms. The noise around them was thunderous… appalling. It was as if Hell itself was reaching out to take them.
“The archway…” Johnny managed to shout back. “Behind us…”
Scott turned, easing his brother around with him. Creaking, protesting timber sounded all around them, but one sound suddenly caught Scott’s attention – the high-pitched shriek of metal straining. He looked around and suddenly realized that the shutters on the window had opened a crack. The hinges were giving way. It might have offered hope if it hadn’t been for the fact that, in all this ruin and destruction, the glass in the window still held.
It made no sense, but nothing in this house did either. Even in the throes of madness, the Senora was determined to hold her grip on them. Fear turned to devastating rage and surged through Scott’s body like a physical wave.
“Why?” he stormed at the portrait. “He’s not your son! Your son has been dead for years… just like you!”
But her answer was to shake the house so hard that the wall behind them split in two and the ceiling sagged over their heads. Scott lost his footing and fell to the floor, still clutching Johnny in his arm.
The floor undulated nauseatingly under their bellies as if huge waves were surging beneath the house. There was the horrible sound of wood ripping away from wood and the stairway tore away from the second floor, collapsing in a deafening crash. It spewed a cloud of dust and hurled debris all the way to the parlor.
Johnny pulled away from his brother’s protecting arm and began struggling to climb to his feet. “Stop!” he yelled. “It’s me you want! Let Scott go.”
“No! Johnny!” Scott tried to drag Johnny back down, but his brother had found strength in his fury.
But, far from stopping, Johnny’s words seemed to urge her to even more devastating power. A rumbling rose from beneath their feet, growing louder and louder as it grew in strength. Suddenly, an explosion of noise broke and shook the room with such might that Scott was sure the house would break apart.
He wasn’t far from wrong. Vases and trinkets fell to the floor and shattered and a sideboard jolted and toppled over. One of the wall sconces broke away and tilted at an angle, its flame flashing and dying.
And, finally, the portrait above the fireplace lost its fight to stay on the wall and fell.
“Is this what he would have wanted, Senora?” Johnny shouted, pointing to the painting. “Would your husband want you to murder an innocent man? Scott has nothing to do with any of this. Let him go. His death will only disgrace your husband’s good name.”
The stench of rotten rose petals and death swept through the room.
Scott climbed to his feet, bracing himself against the ruined sofa and fighting back a grimace of pain when he put his injured foot to the floor. He reached out for Johnny, wrapping his arm around his brother’s waist to steady him.
“Or maybe you hate your husband too?” Scott yelled, following up on Johnny’s train of thought. “He took Antonio’s side all those years, even when you told him he was dangerous. He didn’t believe you. Maybe your husband cared more for your son than for you.”
A shrill scream pierced their ears.
The house shuddered as if it too were in agony. Scott gasped in horror as the floorboards in front of him parted and splintered, leaving a gaping hole a foot wide. Instinctively, he dragged Johnny back.
Around him, the house groaned and strained in its death throws. The front wall leaned inwards; then writhed back in the other direction and almost broke away. Even over the noise, Scott could hear the sound of straining metal.
He looked towards the front door and his heart stopped. With a last grinding protest of metal, the hinges bent and gave. The door sagged backwards and fell away.
It was open.
In a breathtaking moment of overwhelming relief, Scott caught a glimpse of darkness outside… trees and stars.
Scott tightened his grip around Johnny’s waist and shouted in his ear, “Johnny – look! The door!”
Johnny heard him and turned his head. The expression of relief on his face rivaled Scott’s own feelings, but Johnny seemed to sag against him suddenly.
Scott glanced down at his brother’s wound and realized that his efforts to stay on his feet had opened the gash wider. He was losing blood at a frightening rate.
“Come on, Johnny, don’t give up on me now,” Scott urged him. “We’re getting out of here.”
Turning his brother with him, Scott felt Johnny try valiantly to straighten. Johnny’s feet dragged but, with Scott’s arm to support him, he was moving.
Another beam fell, smashing inches from Scott’s feet. He jerked to a stop, flinging Johnny backwards to keep him from being hit. Warm, nauseating blood coated his hands. Even if they could get to the front door, Johnny would bleed to death if they didn’t make it outside soon.
“Leave me,” Johnny panted, trying to pry Scott’s hands loose.
The house shuddered and the front of the house sagged, the outside wall starting to fall away. The ceiling groaned and dropped under the weight of the rooms above it. In the dim glow of the one remaining sconce, Scott saw the beams over their heads giving up their hold on the ceiling.
Scott hitched his arm around Johnny and pulled his good arm over his shoulder, then practically dragged him across the floor. Plaster dust fell around them like talc, coating his brother’s black hair white.
Ahead of them, the door hung open, taunting them with escape. But every step they took was harder than the last. Johnny was becoming noticeably weaker in Scott’s arms and sagged forward.
“You gotta leave me, Scott,” Johnny gasped. “You can get out… leave me and go.”
Scott gritted his teeth angrily and held on to his brother. “No!” was all the answer he gave and he took another unsteady step towards the freedom that loomed through that doorway.
“I don’t want your death on my conscience, Brother,” Johnny told him determinedly. “Get out while you can.”
Scott didn’t even answer. Instead he ducked and sidestepped, shoving his brother aside as a large piece of plaster fell from the ceiling.
But Johnny’s strength was almost gone. He was almost dead weight on Scott’s arm and Scott could feel himself losing the battle to keep him on his feet. In bitter acceptance, Scott let go enough for Johnny to slide gently to the floor. There was just enough light to see the sweat on Johnny’s face and the appalling amount of blood on his shirt.
Scott leaned over and slipped his hands under his brother’s armpits and began dragging him the rest of the way. They were only a few feet from the door now… so close.
Suddenly, Scott heard a crash, louder than any of the rest. It came from high above them, the next floor. The floor shook and the whole house shuddered violently.
It was caving in. Scott heard the terrible moan of straining beams and pulled Johnny with all his might, even as chunks of plaster rained down around them. He didn’t dare look behind him to see how far he was from the doorway. He knew he was close… but were they close enough?
And there it was. Scott felt a cool breeze touch his back and he knew he had reached the doorway. He didn’t stop. There was no time.
He dragged his brother over the step and onto the porch to freedom.
But not to safety… not yet. The house was falling in on itself and the porch would be no safer than inside.
The clean, fresh air and the taste of freedom seemed to rouse Johnny. He lifted his head and looked around him and Scott heard him catch his breath at what he saw.
Johnny pulled one leg up closer and pushed back against Scott’s chest until he made it unsteadily to his feet.
Scott quickly draped Johnny’s good arm around his shoulders and plunged down the step and into the open. They made it only a matter of yards before a final explosion of noise behind them threw them both off their feet and rocked the ground beneath them.
The house fell in on itself like a deck of cards. The roof seemed to sag and sink, then crashed onto the next floor and then the next, leveling the once proud building to the ground.
As the dust cleared, Scott found himself staring at the debris, entranced. A shudder ran through him as he realized what their fate would have been if that door hadn’t swung open. Then a movement and a short gasp of pain dragged him back to his senses.
He reached over for Johnny; now face down in the soft mud that was left behind by the storm that had started this nightmare. He rolled him over.
Incongruously, ridiculously, Johnny smiled at him.
“We made it, huh?” Johnny said, raising himself on one elbow.
“Yes, Little Brother, WE made it.”
Johnny looked towards the ruined house. “You think it’s over?” he asked. “You think she went with the house?”
Scott looked at the house too. Had she? “I don’t know, Johnny. You want to go over and ask?”
Johnny chortled and shook his head. “Nope.” Then he fell back, exhausted.
“Let’s get a look at you,” Scott said quickly. He looked around and was amazed to see the wagon still standing where they had left it. “We’d better get you home.”
Johnny pulled the palomino to a halt and stopped for a moment to catch his breath. Sam Jenkins was going to have his hide for this. The good doctor’s dire warnings about broken ribs and blood loss hadn’t really gone unheeded. Johnny’s arm and chest were still tightly bound and the arm was nestled in a sling.
After only one week of resting up, it wasn’t that he wanted out of his room or any need to be alone for awhile. It was something else… something that he couldn’t explain, even to Scott.
It had been easy to slip away. Everyone was caught up in Teresa’s postponed Halloween party preparations. Neighbors and friends had been invited again and Teresa was engrossed in putting up decorations. Even Scott, now hobbling around with the aid of a walking stick, had been dragged into the preparations. He’d rolled his eyes at Johnny when he was sure Teresa wasn’t looking, then followed her to his allotted chores.
A small smile gently curved Johnny’s lips when he thought of his brother at that party tonight. Scott’s dependence on that walking stick had all but gone, but he’d gotten into a habit of twirling it around his fingers that Teresa seemed to find enchanting. If she was anything to judge by, Scott would have the ladies fluttering around him like moths to a flame.
Johnny planned on missing that party. He had a good excuse and no one was expecting him to do more than perhaps put in an appearance, but the idea of ghosts and goblins was a little too stark just yet.
He took a breath and dismounted awkwardly, leaning against Barranca and bracing his ribcage with his good arm. He stood there long enough for the pain to subside, then he dropped the reins and patted the horse’s neck before turning away.
There wasn’t much left of the house. The chimney stood like a sentinel in the middle of the ruins. Only one wall remained in place, at the far end of what had been the parlor. There was no second floor, no attic – just a pile of rubble. Here and there he could pick out the remnants of furniture that had been pulverized when the house had fallen in on itself.
Johnny felt drawn to it. He walked slowly towards the wreckage and stopped close to the doorway, staring at it. He was close enough to see the portrait lying broken amid the dust and splintered wood. The blue eyes that had looked into his with so much hatred were dulled and fading already in the sun and weather.
It had been so unbelievable, like some distorted nightmare that he and Scott had shared. But it hadn’t been a nightmare. The jumbled pile of debris where the house had once stood was testament to the awful reality of that night as were the sling on his arm and the bandages around his chest.
Turning away, he walked slowly around to the back of the house and found what he had been looking for. Three white crosses stood side by side at the heads of three freshly made graves. Scott had arranged the burials right down to where each would rest, in the hope that he was laying the ghost to rest as well. The middle cross was marked with the name of Enrique Caliente. His wife lay at one side of him and his son on the other, leaving him to come forever between mother and son.
The sun glinted on something shining in the grass beside the house and Johnny bent down to pick it up. It was the locket.
He closed his hand over it and walked over to stand beside the Senora’s cross. He stared at the cross for a moment then sighed. Opening the locket, he looked at the image that could almost have been his own and shook his head.
“Looks a lot like me,” he admitted aloud. “But you got it wrong, Senora. I’m not like him at all.” He glanced away from the locket and back to the cross. “I’m like you.”
He drew a deep breath, wincing against the pain in his ribs. “Scott told me what your son did to you,” he told her. “Guess your boy did more than just kill you. He betrayed you, didn’t he? I know what that’s like, you know… bein’ betrayed by someone you love more than anything else in the world.”
Johnny closed his eyes tightly against a different sort of pain, the pain of memories that just wouldn’t go away.
“She said she loved me… an’ lied to me. Over and over, she lied to me,” he said angrily, his fists clenched hard. “She took me away from the life I should have had, and she kept me from it with her lies. I lost my father, my brother… and she set me on the path to… to who I became. Senora, my mother betrayed me just as surely as your son betrayed you.”
Then he opened his eyes and stared at the cross once again. “You don’t fool me,” he continued. “All that anger and hate you threw at me… none of it can cover up the truth. You hate Antonio for what he did, but that doesn’t stop you lovin’ him, does it?”
Johnny shook his head. “Dios, it’s hard. I tried bein’ angry, but we both know that don’t work. Tried to figure out why she did it, but that just gives me a headache.”
Suddenly, his shoulders slumped a little and he relaxed. Closing the locket with a firm click, he leaned forward and looped the broken chain around the Senora’s cross to hang as if around her neck. “But I was luckier than you, I guess. I got some of it back. The years I lost are gone, but I have Scott an’ Murdoch now. I’ve got the family I should have always had.”
He stepped back and sighed, then he whispered, “If you ever figure out how to forgive that betrayal, Senora, you let me know.”
Then he stood back. A gentle wisp of a breeze ruffled his hair and caressed his cheek as it passed.
It left behind the scent of roses… soft, sweet roses.