“It’s time to feed her,” Mama said.
I lifted my head from my place in my book and tried not to quiver in my seat. “Now?” I asked.
Mama only nodded.
The sudden chill the room took on couldn’t have been from the nuclear winter taking place outside. Nearly twenty-below and with ash falling down, all that could be made of the outside world was the faint grey light streaming through the thick overhead clouds, those of which had come years ago and never left, but it did little to settle my frayed nerves. Nothing did—not anymore, not when I was the only girl who could get close to the one who had become clinically insane.
Mama’s eyes followed me through the living room as I made my way into the kitchen and grabbed the bowl of creamed corn that she made for Vanessa every day, her accusatory stare that of the predator that wanted food but was far too afraid to go after it. I, as usual, could only stare back, but with the cream corn slowly cooling, I knew I couldn’t wait long.
There were three things about Vanessa that you could never forget: she didn’t like her food cold, she couldn’t eat solids, and if she even thought you’d done something wrong, she would make sure you’d regret it.
“Go, Anna,” my mother said. “Go.”
She watched me make my way down the hall toward the room she stayed in. Snared with bolts and snarled with chains, it seemed an unnecessary procedure in captivity when the only person behind there was a sixteen-year-old girl. But Vanessa was different. People underestimated that. She was strong. And if you didn’t remember that, you would die.
At the door, I set the bowl of creamed corn on an end table home to a long-dead series of flowers and reached forward to unlock the door.
The minute the chain at the top of the door slid out of place, Vanessa was awake.
Please, I thought, tears burning in my eyes. Please don’t do it.
It didn’t start—not at first, thankfully. It kept me from crying too much as I orchestrated my mother’s grand and malicious desire, which was essential considering that any time I cried Vanessa liked to lick the tears off my face. Just that tongue… sliding over my face…
The movement ceased inside the room.
“Hurry up,” my mother said.
A single slap of a hand against the door ground my situation to reality.
It was there that it came—the thing that made grown men cry.
Na, she said. Na.
It wasn’t the voice of a sixteen-year-old girl. It was too dry, too hollow, like wind in a cage where the canary had died had never been taken out.
“It’s me,” I replied, struggling to undo the locks. “It’s me. Na.”
And by the Lord Christ almighty, a friend had once said. Why do you let her live like that?
People still weren’t sure what happened to Vanessa. Some say she was hit by the radiation, others that the time she’d come home with blood on her legs that she’d been raped and had gone insane. But I knew better. Vanessa hadn’t gotten raped. Back then, she would’ve told me, and even now she would’ve told me. No. The reason I was so afraid was because I knew something more had happened. I just didn’t know what.
When the final chain came undone and the only thing that remained was the deadbolt, I pulled the key from its hook beside the door and took a deep breath. “Vanessa,” I said. “Food. Go bed.”
The telltale reply of the creaking mattress was sign enough.
Pushing the key into the door was like sacrificing a bit of my soul.
As the lock came undone, I lifted the bowl of creamed corn, closed my eyes, and braced myself as much as I could.
I opened the door, then stepped inside, and closed it behind me.
I turned to face my destiny.
Vanessa’s room had been purged of light three years ago when what Dr. Murcutio had called ‘the Madness’ had taken over her mind. Given the light was grey, it was an almost-perfect scenario, but even the curtains that covered the windows did little to hide what really lived in here. The walls were thin. There was no more paper; it’d all been tore off. The bedding was strewn along the floor in a mishmash of guts and the patches of denim it had once been made up of, and the toys—most were gone, and by gone I don’t mean torn apart. She couldn’t be watched. She’d pulled all their beady little eyes out and had thrown them under the bed.
I couldn’t see her, such was the light in the room. I knew she was on the bed—poised in the dark corner—but she was a shadow now. Nothing like her normal self.
Carefully, I set the bowl of corn on the floor and stepped back to the door.
I reached for the doorknob.
The bedsprings began to creak. “Na,” she said.
I nodded. It was her sign to wait. For me to see.
She appeared from the darkness on all fours, her visage guarded by hair in knots and tatters that dangled around her face like dreads along a fine queen’s head. Twitching, wheezing, stumbling, her body the spider who had lost half its legs—she didn’t lift her head to look at me. I think she was too ashamed. But her presence was salvation. Most who got this close were dead.
“Na,” she said. “Soft.”
“Corn,” I replied. “Your favorite.”
A bony, gnarled hand whose nails had long since blackened shot out and grabbed the bowl. Even after all this time I couldn’t help but jump.
I waited. Time was a place in which I knew was Hell was trapped in a room with the girl who had gone to the hill and had only barely come back. She hated clothing—detested it to the point where even if I tried to put her in a sweater when it was cold she fought and screamed—and because of that her condition was made plain. The spirals of dirt around her shoulders were enunciated only by the emaciated hollows of her ribcage. She was far too thin. We couldn’t get her to eat. She’d only eat the soft foods.
And candy, I thought. The sweet, sweet candy.
Her slur of words I could only barely hear under her slurping.
Tree tree tree, she chanted. Tree tree tree.
“Vanessa,” I said. “Can I… can I ask about the tree?”
Her head shot up.
The bowl dropped.
Though she was not facing me, the look on her face was one I had seen time and time again. “Na,” she said. “Na. NA!”
“Ok,” I said. “It’s ok, it’s ok. I’ll leave. I—“
She spun so quickly I shrieked.
She launched herself forward.
I stumbled toward the door, desperate, the panic drumming like the sickly noises that sometimes came from the city, but I knew it was useless. She would touch me. She’d eat my fear, lick my tears, consume my hunger, and she’d do it all because she could not understand.
Something caught my ankle.
I didn’t even have time to shriek as I fell. I hit the ground so hard the breath went from my lungs.
The sound of her moving somewhere in front of me was enough to silence my ragged breaths.
Please, I thought. Please…
The languid sound of breathing entered my ears as she crawled over my body.
Her breaths fell over my face.
It was times like these that I couldn’t help but wonder if Hell was real.
I didn’t know what to do. The way she acted was never the same. Her schizophrenic behavior was like a starving dog in the barrens chasing after the piece of rotten meat the boys dragged behind their jeeps on supply runs. It’d bark, it’s growl, it’d whimper, walk, then run away. In the end, everyone knew it wanted to be fed, but how it would go about doing it was what really made it unpredictable.
When I realized the only way I would get out of this room was to answer her demands, I knew what I had to do.
Slowly, and with pain I had felt far too many times in my life, I opened my eyes.
My sister’s face came into view—sunken, gaunt, and with her protruding jaw hovering right over me.
“It’s ok,” I said, unsure whether the confused look in her nearly-pupil-less eyes was for me or for what she felt she had to do. “It’s me. Na.”
Vanessa drew back.
I pushed myself upright and looked into her eyes, trying not to trace the contours of her misshapen face but unable to do so anyway. Her cheeks were broadened far beyond any normal scope and her eyesockets appeared to have been pushed in. Doctor Murston had claimed assault. From what could never be answered. She’d never complained of pain, and there’d never been any broken bones or blood. But Vanessa… she’d come back looking like this. And she hadn’t changed since.
“Are you still hungry?” I asked. “Is that why you stopped? Because you—“
The wheeze of air escaping her throat stopped me before I could continue.
I waited. “Vanessa?” I asked.
“Man,” she said.
“Man?” I asked.
“Man in blue,” she said. “By the tree.”
A flicker of unease passed through my ribcage. “Vanessa,” I said, swallowing a lump in my throat. “Did someone hurt you?”
My sister reared back her head and screamed.
I took all I could muster to get out the door.
“Mama,” I said, lifting my eyes from my own bowl of creamed corn. “I think someone hurt Vanessa.”
My mother narrowed her eyes. “Nonsense,” she said, scraping at her own bowl.
“I mean it,” I replied. “I… she… she said something about—“
“Vanessa says a lot of things, Anna.”
With sadness I resigned myself to my meal. Given Vanessa’s revelation, it would make sense that I was on edge, but Mama’s words didn’t have to be so harsh. She was her mother too—not just mine.
“I’ll be going over to Mr. Patterson’s tonight,” Mama said, lifting her bowl and carrying it to the sink. “I’ll be working late. Listen for the door.”
“Are you sure you should be going out again?” I frowned. “Last time—“
“Men are dogs, Anna. The sooner you learn that, the sooner you’ll know what they want. We need the pennies. We’re running out of food.” The frown that crossed my face made my mother smile. It seemed pain was her only form of happiness these days. “Take care of your sister,” she said as she grabbed her coat and started for the door. “Make sure to give her some water before you go to bed.”
I could only nod as she walked out the door.
As always, I locked the door behind her.
She wouldn’t be coming home tonight.
Man, Vanessa had said, in blue. By the tree.
I lay awake watching the ceiling. The perpetual twilight of the outside world—a long-sought gift from the Fallout of the old world’s destruction—was enough to offer just the slightest winks of light, but it did nothing to reveal anything about the situation I had been so horribly thrust in.
No matter how hard I wanted to believe it, I could not deny what Vanessa had said.
Something had happened. Someone had hurt her. And he’d hurt her in the one place we were told never to go.
Even from here I could see it if I wanted to rise and walk to the window. Tall, stoic, stripped of all its leaves and resembling something of a wirework mannequin the seamstresses put dresses on—on days windy and cold it would shift as if it were a man drunk upon the great moonshine and stood atop the only hill within the facility’s limits, as if it were a testament to the place the world once was. They’d try to fence it off a few years ago, after Vanessa’s accident, but after the first few attempts, they’d stopped.
They said the place was haunted.
Somehow, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were right.
If only you were here, I thought. If only.
But what would Mama do? She wouldn’t say anything. Even when I’d tried to tell her earlier she’d shaken me off. She’s crazy, she’d said. You can’t believe anything she says. And while it was true that Vanessa was crazy, I was the only one she would let get close to her. That had to count for something, didn’t it?
Knowing I wouldn’t be able to sleep, I rolled out of bed and paced toward the doorway.
A flash of the outside world stopped me midstride.
Outside, the tree stood in all its lost glory—watching, waiting, persisting.
Never go there, Anna, my mother had once said. Never, ever, ever go there.
“She whispers she whispers the king in the night,” I sang, walking toward the window, “as one the world ended and turned out the lights.”
I wrapped my hands around the windowsill and peered out.
“And He who said God would punish us all,” I continued, “would turn us to evil, the Devil his Thrall.”
A flash of lightning lit the sky.
The wind brought in the clouds.
Drawing away, I turned, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath.
It wasn’t unusual for me to feel watched.
Everyone said they felt that way after looking at the tree.
“Na,” Vanessa said.
I nodded and watched her eat her oatmeal.
The weather had taken a turn for the worse. The corrosive acid rain that was not powerful enough to damage buildings but dangerous enough to burn human flesh heralded the earth like some great king and bore against the windows like the dead trying to break in. Considering our position, I couldn’t help but sympathize with that idea, but I tried not to think about it and instead focused on Vanessa—who, for the time being, wasn’t screaming or launching herself at me.
You know she’s not going to hurt you, the little voice in my head said. Why are you worried?
I didn’t know if she was going to hurt me. That was the whole thing. Her unpredictable behavior lent to anyone around her the excellent scapegoat that I was. She’d never hurt me, they said, because I was the one who found her, who brought her back. Yet the few times Vanessa had slammed me into the wall hard enough to bruise my back were enough for me to realize that, regardless of how frail she was, she was still stronger than me.
She ate the oatmeal meticulously, like it always did. The oats within had to be saturated with just enough to where she couldn’t detect the crunch within them. She’d spit if she found any, mostly at me because I was convenient, but so far I seemed to have made the oatmeal right.
Mama still had not returned. It had only dawned on me when Vanessa started screaming and I’d checked the old pocketwatch to see that it was past breakfast time. She was the one who always made breakfast. I couldn’t cook. The most I could do was sew, and even then, I couldn’t follow patterns. The fact that I’d managed this was something of a miracle.
“Vanessa,” I said. Even though I’d become accustomed to her erratic behavior, I still couldn’t help but flinch when she jerked her head up. “Did I make the meal right?”
“Na,” she said. She ate the last of the oatmeal and set the bowl on the floor, then slid it across to me—gently, a surprising feat considering her normally-aggressive behavior.
When I took the bowl in hand and rose to make my way toward the door, the shuffle of her footsteps stopped me.
Vanessa, standing bow-legged from a developed posture, looked down at me. “Na,” she said.
“Are you still hungry?” I asked, swallowing when I realized Mama would slap me for offering extra servings we didn’t have. “Do you need something.”
She crouched back down and placed both hands on the floor to hold herself in place. I, willingly, followed.
“Who is the Blue Man?” I asked, frowning when Vanessa bowed her head and began to sniffle. “Vanessa?”
“Na,” she said, trembling.
Something landed on my hand.
I looked down.
A lone tear, glistening in the light shimmering through the windows, lit my wrist.
She was crying. Not screaming, raging or shrieking—crying.
As she continued to sniffle, shivering as if she were far colder than it actually was, a storm began within me—so deep, in fact, that I could never recall ever feeling this way.
My sister—whom Doctor Murston had said was incapable of emotion—was crying.
“Vanessa,” I said, reaching toward her. “Did he hurt you by the tree?”
I touched her shoulder.
Her head shot up.
I had but one moment to look into her cloudy eyes before she screamed.
I threw myself away from her.
It was only when I was out and had locked the door that I realized she wasn’t going to attack me.
She was screaming because she was in pain.
She was trying to hug me.
I couldn’t do it anymore.
I couldn’t wait for Mama to crack.
I had to find answers myself.
After I slid my bowl of oatmeal into Vanessa’s room, along with a bottle of water, I washed up, changed into new clothes, then donned a hooded cloak to help stave off the cold before grabbing my market basket and the single key off the rack. While I debated leaving the door unlocked if only so Mama could get in, I couldn’t risk anyone sneaking inside and trying to steal something. So after locking the door and checking to make sure the knob would not budge, I knocked on our neighbor’s door.
Abatha, one of the oldest people in the facility at the ripe age of seventy, answered in kind, her cane in hand. “Annabella?” she asked, narrowing her eyes. “Is everything all right, dear?”
“Everything’s fine,” I replied. “Vanessa’s fine. I’m ok. Don’t worry. Could you… do me a favor? Keep this key, give it to my Mama if she comes around?”
“Oh dear,” Abatha said. “Don’t tell me she went out last night.”
My silence was enough. The old lady sighed and took the key from my hand.
“I’ll make sure she gets in when she comes back,” she said, reaching up to wipe a stray hair from my face. “I should ask, though—where might you be going?”
“I need to see Father Mercutio. It’s about Vanessa. She… she—“
Do I tell her?
Abatha frowned. “Annabelle?”
“She’s not acting like herself,” I said, and while I wasn’t exactly lying, I wasn’t telling the complete truth either. “I want to ask him a few questions.”
“All right. I’ll let her know where you are if she comes back before you do. Just be careful, all right? You know what kind of people are down that way.”
“I know, Abatha. Thank you.”
The old woman’s sad eyes glimmered with unease as she closed and then locked her door.
Sighing, I turned and started down the hallway, already regretting that I had not brought anything to protect myself.
Never go where the red lights are, my mother had once said. That’s where the bad men are. The ones who’ll do anything to get a piece of a girl like you.
I shook my head.
Mama once said girls who went down that hallway never came back.
The sad part was: Doctor Murston lived in the sector beyond that.
I’d have to go straight through to get to him.
When we were little girls—Vanessa just eleven, I just eight—Mama used to tell us that there were three things you were to never do within the facility: You were to never approach strangers, no matter how kind or friendly they seemed, without a trusted adult nearby; you were to never to venture beyond the limits of what the doctors considered the ‘safe zone,’ that of which ended at the tree on the hill; and you were to never walk through the red light district, no matter what.
All those years I’d obeyed my mother.
Now, here I was—walking the red light district as if I were a girl in a forest.
They spit and they drool, Mama used to say, they bark and they growl.
“They hiss and they stutter,” I whispered. “The men from the gutters.”
Regardless of how well-dressed I was for a typical day, the biting cold in this part of the facility was always bone-deep. It was something that could never be solved, even when more people were added to the heating mines in the basement. Some said that the draft came from the outside, despite the fact that we’d been told the building was air-tight, and that we were slowly being poisoned to death. That was why the old people weren’t living as long anymore, and why the babies kept getting sick. In the end, I always wondered what their point was. We were bound to this place anyway. We wouldn’t last forever. Our resources would eventually fail. Then, we’d die.
Until then, I would do my best to take care of my sister, whether people liked it or not.
My progress through the district was slow, marked by the sound of yells and the occasional guttural cry. The metal framework that surrounded me on all sides turned the sounds into monsters—of wolves and banshees frolicking in the night. The blood on their lips, their fingertips, the snarls on their mouths and the looks in their eyes—Mama once showed me a picture of what an artist once said lived in the red light district, and when I asked why there were wolves and women who looked like corpses in them doing things that she said were ‘very bad things,’ she merely said that this was an artistic representation. When I’d asked what that meant, she merely said I didn’t want to know—that I never wanted to go there.
What sounded like footsteps echoed behind me.
I spun, basket for market in hand.
There was no one there.
I knew I was being paranoid. That was more than obvious, because no matter how hard I looked at it, it was just a fourteen-year-old girl in a place she’d been told never to go. I was the fair maiden and here, in this dark and forsaken place, there lurked a monster, yet where they would ask was my knight in shining armor, his helm trunked and hanging and his gun armed and ready, for lying in the middle of the hallway was a little girl, torn and eaten by the wolves.
Trembling, I turned.
Something passed before my vision.
I slapped my hand to my mouth before I could cry out.
There was nothing there—nothing at all.
“Don’t be scared,” I whispered. “Don’t be scared, please, don’t be scared, don’t be scared.”
I took steps up the hallway—one, two, one two. I started slow and then increased my pace. What started as a fast walk turned to a brisk jog, then a full-out run as I swore I heard voices behind me.
Annabelle, Annabelle, the voices said. Run away, run away. The wolves are coming to play.
The urge to scream was stronger than anything I’d felt in my entire life. My heart beat like a horn come time for danger and burned so hard it felt I would turn to ash. My flight was staccato—breath breath pant pant. Soon I wondered if I would even be able to stand, but I kept running, as fast as the wind, the air no longer cold and my breath no longer visible.
At the end of the hallway I saw like a gleaming beacon of hope Doctor Murston’s office.
I cried out.
I fell to the ground.
The basket went tumbling and I only just barely caught myself with my hands.
I gasped, desperate to breathe air.
Something from behind reached forward and brushed the hair from my cheek.
Hello Annabelle, the voice said. I fucked your sister, ate her heart and stole her brain. Now I’m gonna do it to you.
The door opened.
I jerked my head back and would’ve cried out had I the breath to do so.
Doctor Murston looked down at me, a frown painting the corners of his shapely lips down. “Annabelle?” he frowned. “Annabelle Ross? What’re you doing here, girl? You know what this place is like.”
“My sister,” I gasped. “Something’s happened. She’s… changed.”
“She’s talking. And I think someone might have hurt her.”
Murston said nothing. Instead, he reached down and offered his hand. “Come,” he said. “It’s not safe out here.”
“I want you to tell me about the Man in Blue,” I said.
Doctor Murston paused. From his place in the kitchen, where he prepared tea he said would shake my nerves, his face lay painted in an expression completely unlike his character. As a child I’d used to watch him from my place in the corner as he checked Mama and Vanessa’s radiation levels, customary to those born before the Fall. As he’d do this, I awe as he seamlessly maneuvered his fingers through row upon row of needles filled with fluids and couldn’t help but admire the way his skin glowed, a great shimmering bronze that reminded me of molten gold as he stepped under the fluorescent lights. He’d been the whole reason I wanted to be a doctor when I was young. Now that dream was dead. Vanessa was all that mattered.
My fog of memory was cleared as the telltale sign of glass being set on a plate entered my ears. Murston settled down in the armchair across from me, hands on his knees, before sighing and saying, “Why do you want to know about him?”
“I just do.”
“You know he’s just a legend.”
“Vanessa was talking about him.”
Murston frowned. “What?” he asked.
“It was the day before Mama went out,” I said. “I brought her creamed corn and she was… chanting something, under her breath. Tree.”
“She was chanting about the tree on Blue Hill?” Murston frowned, then waited for me to nod. “Keep going.”
“Then she said… well… she just said man in blue, by the tree.”
“And this triggered… what, exactly?”
Murston’s eyes softened. Their green depths were like pictures—of a world where people were allowed to be vulnerable without having to worry about getting killed.
“Doctor Murston?” I asked, the fear in my heart flickering like a broken light switch. “Is there a man who lives on Blue Hill?”
“Go home,” Murston said. “Now.”
“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll stay away from that damned Blue Hill and the tree on top of it.”
“He hurt my sister!” I cried. “He did something to her! Why won’t you tell me?”
“Because it’s better not to know some things,” the doctor said. “Because sometimes if you know them, the things they’re about will come looking for you.”
I didn’t say anything.
Rather than argue, I turned, walked to the door, then stepped into the hall.
Outside, I couldn’t help but close my eyes.
It was too late.
I already knew.
It all made sense now.
I hadn’t just been imagining the thing in the hallway.
It was real.
I decided to take the long way home rather than risk going back through the red light district. My nerves shattered, I could hardly keep my hands from shaking or my jaw from quivering, even though I’d tightened my hood and had pulled my hair around my face. It was like the monsters kept following me—which, in this instance, I couldn’t help but feel they had.
Although I knew things would be fine, I couldn’t help but wonder.
I rounded the district the infirmary lay within and considered stopping for groceries as I passed the warehouse district, but realized it would be worthless, as Mama would not want me spending her money for food she might not find appropriate. A second pass over my change pocket proved to be empty, which gave me no reason to go.
With the basket in hand, I started down the hall that would lead to the district me, Mama and Vanessa lived in. Along the way, I would pass the last iconic view of the city, forlorn in the wastelands and slowly falling apart.
I adjusted my hold on my basket—empty, sadly, but the most excellent scapegoat—and lifted my eyes as I rounded the corner.
Before the panorama of windows—which, before the Fall, had been used for scenic purposes, but were now used to watch the gates—a crowd of people had developed: some crying, others in shock, others merely shaking their heads.
A breath caught in my throat.
What could be going on?
I drew forward, trying to part through the crowd but unable to make my way.
Then, it dawned on me.
I realized I was not supposed to make my way. I was supposed to bear witness.
I turned, heart singing the songs that all children hear in childhood.
Yet when I looked out that window, those songs stopped.
The choir no longer preached.
Before my eyes lay a nightmare come alive.
Suspended, by the ankles, from a cable where electricity powered the floodlights, was Mama—throat slashed, breasts exposed, and legs marked with lacerations. Upon her chest were but two words: Babylon Falls.
Sometimes, they say when you see something horrible for the first time, you don’t believe it’s real. Then, a moment later, you scream.
I couldn’t hear what happened next.
All I knew was that everyone turned toward me.
They demanded someone stay with me. No father, no mother, no family, friends or relatives. Even little old Abatha asked if she could stay, but I said no, that it was fine, that someone else in the house would only upset my sister and that would only make it worse.
Before I went to bed, Doctor Murston came by and gave me a sedative.
The needle was like Heaven. The liquid within paradise.
After he left, and after I locked the door behind him with the thought that Mama would never return, I checked on Vanessa one last time before I went to bed.
For a while, I simply lay there, staring at the ceiling fan that no longer ran.
Soon, I drifted to sleep.
I stood at the foot of the hill where once in a life long before mine a school had been built. Only barely hit with the results of the fallout and still bearing its skeletal structure, it resembled something of a monster who’d washed up on shore and had been eaten by birds—long, tall, broken here and there, as if savagely ripped and then torn in some points. It was a pinnacle of destruction both in the physical and metaphorical sense—not only because it was a part of the old world lost, but also because it was the last place she had been seen.
Her name had been Julianna Romero.
She’d been the first one who’d gone missing—the first one who’d been killed by the devil.
I stepped away from the broken remnants of the school grounds and toward the hill. Like most who approached, my natural inclination was to lift my head to look at the tree—which, stark in its portrayal against a perpetually-grey world, was a sight unto itself. But today was different. Today the clouds had gathered—and above appeared the eye: a vortex that never touched the ground but always lingered close.
It was stupid to near the hill. It was stupid to even be outside during a storm, especially in the post-fallen world. But as dreams often dictate, I wasn’t allowed a choice.
Today, the dream would show me a vision.
Julianna Romero stood at the top of the hill. Though I couldn’t see her face, I knew the stars were in her eyes.
I didn’t see him. I don’t think anyone does. He takes shaped based upon what people believe Him to be. But that didn’t matter. One moment Julianna was alive. The next she was on the ground, and like we were face-to-face I could see into her eyes.
At first, all I saw was glass—the pale fog they say comes when a soul no longer inhabits a body.
The next thing I knew, I saw a person.
His face was horrible.
I could not scream.
I could only laugh.
They say you smile before you die.
The grin on Julianna’s face was maniacal.
I didn’t jerk from sleep. I didn’t scream, I didn’t jump—I didn’t even gasp. Instead, I opened my eyes, expecting Julianna Romero to look back at me. But instead, I saw nothing—nothing but the wall, the darkness, and the faint luminescence of the new world weeping through the window, its grey hue my only light.
Blinking, I pushed myself up with one arm and rubbed my eyes with my other hand as I tried to make sense of my situation. The doctor said it was supposed to keep me asleep all night, but here I was awake in the middle of it.
Was it because of the dream?
Was Vanessa all right?
When my feet touched the floor, I expected to feel grounded—like the world was back to normal. Instead, everything came back.
Mama was gone. Vanessa was sick. I was alone and no one would tell me the truth about anything—not about Blue Hill, not about the legend behind it, and not about the girls who had gone missing or even the one girl who had come back.
I think the doctor expected me to break down. That was why he’d asked if I wanted him to stay. But Mama always told me never to let strange men in the house, no matter how well I thought I knew them.
A thumping noise entered my ears.
It had come from the living room.
“It’s nothing,” I whispered. “It—“
It came again—once, then a second time.
Three times followed.
Had Vanessa gotten out?
No. It couldn’t be. I’d made sure to lock the door. There was no way she could’ve gotten out unless she’d broken the door, and even then, I would’ve heard such a loud noise.
I swallowed a lump in my throat.
The doctor said the sedative would make me sleep through the night.
What if it had only made me sleep through Vanessa’s escape?
The thumping noises only continued to escalate
It took me less than a moment to figure out what to do.
As carefully as I could, I pushed myself to my feet and reached out to steady myself on the footrest as I started toward the door. My world an ocean, my body a fish, I floundered through my room on uneasy currents and stumbled into the wall just before I could reach the door. I crashed into an end table that held a piece of ornate pottery and watched in horror as it went crashing to the floor, its dozens of white pieces glimmering like moonlight that I rarely was blessed to see.
The thumping stopped.
My breath caught in my throat.
Had they heard me?
“Vanessa?” I asked. “Is that you?”
The thumping did not continue.
Swallowing, I twisted the doorknob and threw it open.
It only took one look down the hall to see a vision of hell.
The walls were smeared with blood. So black it looked to not have even been human, it painted the wallpaper in grisly caricatures of human suffering that came in the form of hands. Clawing, pawing, slapping, scraping at the walls—they extended from one side of the hall to the other, from where Vanessa’s door lay toppled like a fallen monument with its many chains and bolts strewn across the floor all the way into the living room I could only just barely see. Its premonition was worry enough, and the moment I stepped into the hall a chill so horrible it ate at my very bones swept through the threshold and slammed into my body.
Something was here.
I was being watched.
In the back of my mind, something told me it wasn’t Vanessa, no matter how much I wanted to believe it.
“Vanessa?” I asked, gingerly stepping forward, around the chains snarled across the floor. “Did you get out?”
Something shifted, groaned, then crashed in the kitchen. The sound of snapping wood was evidence enough that something had fallen onto the dining room table.
The single lamp flickered to life, then died out.
Slowly, I stepped toward the end of the hallway, prepared for the worst.
Some say Hell is a place on Earth. If that were the case, I’d just stepped into the very heart of it.
She’d painted the walls with a single bloodied finger. The marks erratic, the lines not in the least bit consistent, it began near the edge of the hallway that led to the bedrooms as a series of handprints that, like before, appeared to have been clawing away. Eventually, they tapered out into simpler shapes—mere fingers dragged along the walls, then twisted to create spirals and other nonsensical images. It seemed too much to process—too much to take in.
It was only when my eyes were drawn to the series of windows before the kitchen that I saw the true masterpiece of torture.
The wall, where the pictures of me and Vanessa as children had once hung, now lay derelict, like a house that was not a home, and in its place a painting that started at the ground rose all the way to the ceiling.
“No,” I whispered, tears burning from my eyes. “No.”
Upon the wall there was a hill, atop the hill a tree. And just beneath the tree there was a girl, just like in my dream.
The moment I looked at that painting, I knew what I was about to see next.
It was like the branches were meant to lead me toward the truth.
And the truth it led me to.
Dangling from the rafters, a rope around her neck and a glassless look on her misshapen face, was my sister.
I should’ve cried. I should’ve screamed. I should’ve ran for help as fast as I could because there was a chance she could still be alive, that it hadn’t broken her neck and that she was merely suffocating, passed out from shock and slowly dying from lack of air. But I knew she was dead. I knew because she wasn’t moving, and even though her shoulders were bumping against the rafters, making the thumping noise I’d heard before, I knew this had been murder.
In death, one arm lay extended, a finger pointing out the window.
I didn’t have to look to see what it was.
She was pointing at the tree.
I don’t know how I did it. How I got through the halls unnoticed, how I got past the guards, how I passed beneath the floodlights that normally reveal anyone trespassing. All I know is that I got outside, and like some great machine that had no other purpose, I made my way toward the tree.
A storm was beginning to brew. Like in my dream the great eye that has often foretold of omens to come spiraled in the sky to offer a wind that many would have considered evil. Don’t go, the people would have said, don’t look, don’t breathe, don’t even think, but they knew nothing. I was the one who knew of the true evil that lived on that hill. It had taken my mother, my sister, my innocence, my future, my past and present. Now I would take from it the dignity it so thought it had.
At the base of the hill, I craned my head up to look at the tree.
Like a dream come alive, I saw a girl before my eyes.
That girl wasn’t Vanessa.
That girl was me.
The image shifted, flickered, like a dull television set that no longer worked displaying images from an old VHS tape whose film had been scratched. I saw before my eyes my body. Then I saw nothing before all was gone.
I climbed its surface like the last mountain I was to climb. Its size small, its heights enormous, I pushed myself with determination fueled by madness and fought the current that continued to mount in power. It whipped my hair about my face, snapped my shirt across my back, made my eyes water and my cheeks burn. But no matter how hard it tried to keep me away, I would find it. And I would see it for myself.
At the top of the hill—just beneath the tree and where without looking up I could see the eye—I stood testament to its power.
It appeared like a cloud. Descending, slowly, its body wrapped in a tattered shawl that covered shoulders that led to bony mechanical arms and a torso that bore no lower half, it lifted its head to reveal in its skeletal face a blue lightning that lit its eyes and the tiny fibers beneath its only mortal clothing.
Instantly, images flashed before my mind—of lights, of deaths, of men and women being lured to this place. My mother, bled out; my sister, hanged from the ceiling; and Julianna, who’d died so frightened she couldn’t help but smile, taken to a place beyond the stars—where Heaven could no longer exist for the distance was far too great and Hell could not be seen. He was the Android of our destruction. The Devil of Blue Hill.
He said nothing as he neared. Hovering in midair, the wind about him lessening, he drifted forward and regarded me with a gaze so alien I could not help but feel insignificant until he was no more than three feet away.
Slowly, he extended his arm.
I closed my eyes.
“I’m not afraid of you,” I whispered.
He brushed my hair away from my face.
Everyone’s afraid, Annabelle, he whispered.
I opened my eyes.
I felt him behind me.
He took my cheek in one hand and the back of my skull in the other before he leaned forward.
A flash of white light appeared before my eyes.
There swung before my vision a great tableau.
Then there was nothing.