Authors: Maria Dahvana Headley,Kat Howard
Tags: #mythology, #fantasy, #fairytale, #ghosts, #horror, #literary horror
The End of the Sentence
Copyright © 2014 by Maria Dahvana Headley and Kat Howard. All rights reserved.
Dust jacket illustration Copyright © 2014 by Briony Morrow-Cribbs. All rights reserved.
Print interior design Copyright © 2014
by Desert Isle Design, LLC. All rights reserved.
PO Box 190106
Burton, MI 48519
For the horned & the hooved, the detailed devils,
& the unphotographable
For the monsters.
There used to be a woman who lived at my house. She’s gone now. When I got here, nobody’d lived here in years.
They’d given me the key to the padlock and so I took the Greyhound. There was a little town, but it wasn’t much, a mile of paved road in the middle of dirt. A hardware store, a diner, a gas station. I walked five miles in the heat, because there weren’t any taxis and nobody I wanted to ask to drive me from the drop off. People were already acting like they were noticing me, and I felt nervous. I could see them in the window of the diner, and in the hardware store, looking out.
I’d bought the house in an online auction, sight unseen, repossessed due to negligence, city selling it. The house cost $3000. It came with a bone-silver paintless Chevy that didn’t run.
It was what I could afford, almost nothing, but this was the kind of nothing you might do something with. The place, in the picture I saw online, reminded me of my grandparents’ house in Louisiana. It had shutters, hanging crooked, and a little porch.
When I saw my house for the first time it was the beginning of October and still up near ninety degrees. High grass all up around the walkway, and I made a note to cut that down so it wouldn’t catch fire. I felt good about that, like I’d learned some things. I pictured a fence, some green grass, some flowers and then a swingset and a little boy swinging, but I didn’t have a little boy. I didn’t have much but the backpack I was carrying, and the jeans I was wearing. I’d lost some things along the way. I was thirty-eight when I got to that house. I’d had a whole life before this one.
Wooden, weather-stripped paint, and a flap in the front door for the mail. I looked at the house and felt sad for it. It’d been yellow. There was a tree stump from a tree that had been big. A bathtub in the front yard. Nothing growing. Too long with nobody watching over it. Somebody next door’d had a meth lab which had burned up. It was still a black rectangle. The place looked country, and it was, but it was the kind of country that could kill you.
I unlocked the padlock, unfastened the chain, and pushed at the door. It stuck, like something was behind it, pushing back, and I hesitated for a second. What if someone really was in there, living there? A squatter?
“Hello?” I called out, feeling stupid. I thought I’d know if there was someone there.
I shoved one more time, hard, and the door sighed and budged. Mail, that was all. A pile of it, all over the rucked up floorboards, stretching down the entry hall in an overflow. Hundreds of envelopes. Some yellowing, some newer.
At first I thought it was going to be collection notices, junk, used cars and cable TV, but they were all the same, long white envelopes with handwritten addresses in slanted handwriting. They were all addressed to the same person:
57 Snakebite Road
Ione, OR 97843
The return address was for the Federal Prison two hundred miles away in Salem, and the pre-printing on the envelope said,
Correspondence From an Inmate
. Each letter was red-stamped
I held one in my hand for a minute, and then put it down in the same spot I’d picked it up from. None of my business, I thought. I’d heard some people had a fetish for corresponding with prisoners. Maybe that’d been Olivia, whoever she was. I had a packet of hotdogs in my backpack. I picked my way over the envelopes, went into the kitchen, turned the knobs, established no electricity. I slung my bag down on the ground, squatted on my heels, took the hotdogs out, and ate one raw. I needed to eat them or cook them, and there was no cooking, though for a second I thought about a bonfire, all those letters. Too hot. Too dry. It’d be a stupid move.
The house was still full of furniture, if furniture was what you’d call it. Mouse-raddled upholstery, wooden chairs with splitting seats. Broken cups in the kitchen. A plate rail. A table with a boomerang Formica top, like my grandparents’ place again. There were bad stains on the floorboards, things that’d need scrubbing and sanding. I thought about pouring shiny varnish over the wood until it shone. I’d once seen a squirrel preserved that way.
I climbed the stairs carefully. One, two, delicate half weight, like that would help me if they all fell down. Dust on them so thick that each of my footprints was clearly visible. There was graffiti on the wall in the bedroom, and it stopped me for a second. Red paint, a diagram of some kind, arrows and lines tagged there by a kid, probably. Wallpaper peeling on the other walls.
It’d need work, I’d known that much, but it was mine. On the nightstand, there was a Mason jar, and in it, flowers, yellow and red twists of velvet. Cockscomb. I always thought they looked like brains. I looked at them for a moment, pleased, before I realized they shouldn’t be there. The place had been locked up for months.
The water in the jar was unclouded. Maybe the neighbor, I thought, or the auctioneer, but everything else was dusty.
I thought about the letters filling the hall.
I thought about them some more. They made me uneasy, and I couldn’t say why, except that there were way too many of them. A thousand, I thought. I was just at the point of going down and shoving them into a garbage of some kind, when I heard the door rattle.
The sound of the flap being lifted. Another letter fell through the slot. The slap of the flap closing. Nothing else. No footsteps. No car. I looked out the window. No one.
I went downstairs. Only one set of footprints on the treads, mine going up, and now down again. Whoever had left the flowers upstairs hadn’t left any marks going up. I felt queasy, then corrected myself. Maybe the conditions in the room were so dry that the flowers only seemed fresh. I was tired. I’d been traveling a while.
I walked over the letters until I got to the door. I bent over, and then jolted back. The newest letter on the floor had my name on it.
57 Snakebite Road
Ione, OR 97843
I flipped the letter, my neck prickling, and saw one word, carefully inscribed on the back of the envelope in a kind of calligraphy, embossed with little creatures, leaves and branches:
My Dear Malcolm,
I trust you’re settling into the old homestead. There will be a plate set out for you in the icebox, and flowers beside the bed. In the absence of the homeowner, things have been put in place. It is harder these days than it once was, to tend to these matters from afar. The homeowner is only absent, you must understand. Not gone. The end of the sentence approaches, Malcolm, and when it comes, I will return.
Of course, you can’t know who addresses you, and with such familiarity. No one will have told you of my plight, nor of the years spent in this lonely place. Olivia will not have mentioned it.
No, I have lost time.
Olivia will not be there. When you arrive there’ll be no such thing as the lovely Olivia, not any longer. Nor any of the rest of them. Never mind. Never mind the inheritance, the family, the promises. No one will have passed it to you in whispers, no one will have given you your choices.
What is gone is gone, and you are what remains. You’re left to me and I to you.
My name is Dusha Chuchonnyhoof, and you will not have heard of me. I’m forgotten everywhere but the hallway where you stand, and the prison from which I write this. It’s been years since I’ve seen the sun, and years since I’ve tasted the rain. They guard me. I hear their feet, and smell their sweat, but I don’t see them. They keep me to myself.
I walked to the window and looked out over the dusty yard. Tumbleweed and a stump of a tree that had already been old when it was cut down, and now was much older, the dead wood splitting and silver. I could see the rings in the stump from here. It was twice as wide round as my arms held in a hoop.
It’s been years since I sat in the shade of the old fruit tree that stands outside the windows you look out now.
Sweat dropped onto the letter, blurring the ink. Yellow legal pad. I wanted to crumple it, but it seemed crazy to think I could be scared by paper. Was I scared? My heart was beating faster, but it wasn’t fear. It felt like something else. Like, I realized with some surprise, love. This felt like a love letter in my hands, almost a pulse in it. I was dizzy.
I went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. The kind with curved metal handles and the freezer on top. Pink with copper shelves. Frost hung in the air as I held the door open.
There was a plate of food. More than a plate. A roasted turkey, sliced partially into sandwich-sized cuts. A loaf of homemade bread, still in its metal baking pan. A jar of fancy French mustard, which was clearly out of my price range. A head of red-edged lettuce, the kind I’d never even look at in a grocery store. A dish of tomatoes. A shaker of salt. A pitcher of what seemed to be lemonade. A fruit salad with slices of citrus and strawberries. A whole coconut cake. There was a bottle of wine there too, with a handwritten label, illegible. A shaky, but elegant handwriting. I shut the door, trembling.
This was supposed to be my house. No one had said anything about an owner. I’d just spent nearly every cent I had on it. This was all I owned, and what if I didn’t own it?
I thought about calling the police, but I didn’t want police around, not after what I’d come from, and what could I tell them? That someone had said, in a letter, that they owned my house? That there was food in my refrigerator?
I looked to the side of the fridge, and there was the cord, frayed, and not plugged into any outlet. I opened the door again. Cold.
I didn’t feel alone. The house felt occupied, but I spun, and no one. Paranoid, Malcolm, no sleep since Kansas.
I stepped again into the entryway. I thought about taking my pack and running back down the road to town, the bus, but I didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket, and I had nowhere to go. Everything in my life was gone. I opened my hand and uncrumpled the letter.
Here I stay, one hundred and seventeen years after my capture, waiting for release. My sentence was two lifetimes and a day, for the lives they say I took, but I didn’t commit that crime.
And your crime? Did you commit a crime, Malcolm? Are you running from something? I can help you. Your son is not gone. There is hope.
I rely on you now, Malcolm. You’re my own, as has been everyone who has lived in my house.
I held my knees and pressed my back against the wall, feeling the house shake with me. There was a sound in the kitchen. The opening of the refrigerator door. The opening of a cupboard. Haunted. My house was haunted. I didn’t look up. I didn’t move. I shut my eyes and listened to liquid pouring into glass.
When I opened my eyes again, some time later, there was a glass of pale, yellow wine beside me, and a note in that same shaky hand.
The wine was cold, crisp with an edge that razored along my tongue, a faint breath of slate-grey stone in the glass. It soothed the roughness in my throat. I drank again, deeper this time, and there was the warmth of honey beneath the mineral brightness of the wine.
Dusha Chuchonnyhoof. Neither were names I recognized. They hadn’t appeared on any of the forms I’d signed to make this house mine. It was mine, no matter what the letter had said.
(You’re my own, as has been everyone who has lived in my house.)
I drank a third time, draining the glass, and felt the house exhale around me. I blew out a breath, too. I did not want a haunted house, but I felt weary of panic, weary of pain. If there were ghosts, I would let them move about in peace for now.
The letters, though, that immense crumbling heap of them. They’d come from a prison. Dusha Chuchonnyhoof, whoever he or she was, was in jail, and clearly—I looked again at the ink on the yellow paper—insane. No one could survive one hundred and seventeen years. Someone was playing a joke. Or if they really did come from the prison, I shouldn’t be bothered by it. You could write to whomever you wanted to write to, or so I thought. I’d never gotten a letter from a prison before, but I’d seen it on TV, people writing their way out of their cells, scavenging names and addresses from phone books. My name was a matter of property record. Someone could have it. It was possible.
The letter was unnerving, but mostly because of the manner of its arrival. If I hadn’t been here when it slid through the flap, I probably wouldn’t ever have noticed it. Perhaps they were all the same, ramblings of the mad person who had nothing but time and a supply of prison paper.
I’d read one. I closed my eyes as I reached into the pile and plucked out an envelope.
Back in the kitchen, an entire meal had been set out for me: a turkey sandwich, sliced on the diagonal and set on a plate, next to a bowl heaped with fruit salad.
“Hello?” I said to the air, but no one responded. “Whoever you are. It’s fine if you’re a ghost. I’ve been through some things, and ghosts don’t bother me.”
The glass that stood next to the plate was full of lemonade, not wine, but that was fine. The card, next to the napkin, that read
was somewhat less fine, but not my concern at the moment. I was made of every kind of worry, every kind of unknown, and it came to me that I’d gotten too hot walking from town. I drank a sip of lemonade. Yes. I was thirsty. And the lemonade was real. As was the food. As was the way the house seemed to be providing me with all I needed.
I opened the letter.
You may keep silence, and punish me for whatever wrong you think I have done, whatever hurt you believe you’ve suffered. That is, of course, your prerogative, and I cannot alter your thoughts.
But the time is coming, Olivia, and steps must be taken. You must be the one to take them.
You need not write for me to know that you are ill. The house tells me you suffer. But your end does not end the responsibility of the house and those who live in it. The end of the sentence is almost here, Olivia, and when it arrives, I must return.
Tomato dropped from my forgotten sandwich to stain the paper. I wiped the seeds with the edge of my palm, smearing the ink.
I can do nothing else. You know this. I belong to the land, as once I belonged to other land. This land is my claim, and I am vowed to it, and to the family.
Do not neglect your duty, Olivia.
I will not neglect mine.
Not, then, a collection of near-identical ramblings. Not that at all.
I choked down the rest of the sandwich. It was better food than I had eaten in weeks, but I could barely make myself swallow. The fruit salad I scraped back into the bowl in the refrigerator, and I stacked my dishes in the sink.
I gathered some of the piled letters from the front hallway, and climbed the stairs with them heaped in my arms. The dust gritted under my feet, and the third step from the top sighed loudly as my weight rested on it.
There were linens on the bed. Smooth white cotton, ironed crisp, and scented with lavender. I shook my head. The sheets must have been on the bed before. I’d need to paint over that graffiti on the wall as soon as I could get paint to do it. The design pulled the eye and then didn’t let it go, like some sort of gate. No wonder I hadn’t noticed white sheets. I didn’t picture what I wanted to picture, an invisible someone shaking the sheets out, tucking them in. I’d told the ghost, or whatever it was, that I didn’t mind it. I didn’t. There were worse things in the world. Never mind that I’d never seen a ghost before, or felt one in my presence. I was at a point of exhaustion where I didn’t care about what was real and what was not.
I heard the sound of the mail flap being lifted and closed, and an envelope falling to the floor below.
I would not look.