“Bitterness and Black Mold” by Frankie Kavakich
Mara Brown arrived a week before the school season started in a tiny lime-colored car with a trunk full of mundanity: t-shirts, pants, flowy things she thought were pretty. She pulled into the driveway, still overgrown with roots and brown needles and mud, stepped out of that little car, and stared up at the sagging edifice of 356 Upper Mountain Road. That house, a two-story Victorian which had remained dormant for the past thirty years, stared back with all the interest of a decaying corpse. Standing on a hill along a busy but affluent suburban street, 356 was made of gray wood and stone and it leaned heavily to one side.
Three weeks ago, Mara had seen it while driving to her senior orientation at Montclair University. A “For Rent” sign reclined against one of the pine trees on the front lawn. A week after that initial discovery, she contacted the owner and then called her mother to help with the financial side of things. Another week and she stood there, on the front lawn, surrounded by grass grown high enough to swallow her feet and trees so heavy with age they hung down to caress the top of her head. She thought of those small touches as enthusiastic hellos from the old house– greetings– like that of a new roommate. It’s so nice to meet you. I hope we can get along.
When thinking of haunted houses one should consider the actual house. Ghosts can be different, with backstories of pain and rage and sadness and murder and love. Houses, though. The houses are usually repetitive in their construction, in their own backstories. They are built on graveyards or cursed lands, constructed with awful angles and horrendous hidden rooms that welcome creeping darkness akin to a living, breathing beast. 356 was nothing like those haunted houses. 356 was built in the 70s, lived in by happy families, and then left alone to rot until the landowner accepted the first call she received from a renter. No ghosts haunted 356. Not a soul had been in its gaping halls longer than an hour until Mara showed up with her dreadfully childish suitcase and her colorful furniture. When she entered through the front door she felt no chill, no eyes on her back, heard no scratches from the basement or attic. There were no strange smells, no odd angles, nothing but empty, stagnant air and sunlight streaming through the windows. She failed to notice the house groggily awaken, failed to hear its first thoughts in four decades, failed to find anything besides what was left behind. What haunts a house if nothing has died there, nothing has come and gone there for years? What haunts a house if not a ghost? Well, one should consider the house.
Mara’s best friend Samantha Lee arrived in the middle of September, bearing snacks, wine, and a chest full of complaints from William Paterson University. The two had met nearly ten years ago now. In their brown brick apartment building that smelled of patchouli, little thirteen-year-old Mara, with her poker-straight black hair and idealistic smile, met and befriended the foul-mouthed girl from across the hall, and the two had thought they would be inseparable. Things change, of course. Once Sam was denied by Montclair University she shuffled off to William Paterson, putting a damper on their weekly visits for the past three years; therefore, the little moments they had together, like now, truly meant the world. In actuality, they lived only thirty minutes from each other, but that is thirty minutes more than they are used to.
Today, though, the two stood face to face, Mara with her olive complexion tinted pink with happiness and Sam’s owl-like face curled into a prepared scowl of displeasure for her own circumstances.
“You would not believe my new RA, Mars,” Sam said as she pushed herself over the threshold into the foyer. “She’s a total narc. Completely straight-laced. Ah damn, this place is sick.” Sam stopped in the archway before the living room, her tiny face alight with joy. Over the few weeks Mara had lived in 356, she had managed to liven up some of its faded innards; the living room, with its arched entryways that led from the foyer to the kitchen, was brightened from its muted grays by a mustard yellow couch, orange drapes, and a warm, red carpet. The kitchen had been turned into a beautiful teal warzone with some old appliances Mara found at a garage sale down the street.
“I’m still working on it, but it’s been fun just buying stuff,” Mara said, tugging on Sam’s pink ponytail as she passed by to throw herself down onto the couch. If she let her fingers linger on Sam’s hair, or kept her eyes on Sam’s bare, tanned shoulder, Mara gave no indication. She kept her expression as straight as possible, even as Sam jumped over the back of the couch and collapsed on her with a soft oof! Sam smelled like lavender and sunlight. The bag of chips crinkled and the wine smacked against the wooden arm of the couch.
“Quiet house, huh?” Sam said with a smile as she stretched over Mara to place her treats and wine on the short glass coffee table, “Is it haunted? Looks old enough to be haunted.”
“No way. It might even be too quiet in here,” Mara said and reached over to the bottle of wine and twisted the cap open, taking a swig. “It’s emptier than my love life.”
Sam laughed, bright and musical. Mara felt a spell come over her then, watching her friend giggle and snatch the wine bottle from her hands. She had loved Sam for the past six years, ever since high school. Every time she heard Sam laugh, watched her twirl and dance in Newark clubs, listened to all her woes and worries, her heart ached feebly. Sam had no idea. For now, Mara was fine to keep it that way. She cleared her throat as Sam took the bottle from her wanting fingers, swallowed down some of her feelings, and leaned in to listen to her friend’s gossip.
The house understood this infatuation. It felt the heat of yearning through the soles of Mara’s feet, heard the chirping of her tell-tale heart. The house listened, a perverse eavesdropper right under their noses.
Life continued on at 356 as Mara spent most of September and early October fixing up the house and working on classwork. The house listened and watched her throughout this time. Mara, unaware of this fact, was more interested in figuring out how to get her crazy director Nathan Pines off her back during the fall student-run play rehearsals.
“Come on, come on, this isn’t The Odd Couple, folks. I wanna feel the deceit, girls,” he said, clapping his massive, meaty hands like some sort of deranged seal. In the stark light, Mara was forced to watch his wide-set pale eyes behind his huge, circular glasses slink over each woman on stage. The cast of Montclair Uni’s student-run production of The Crucible winced and readjusted the scene to the initial blocking. They were all packed into the Uni’s black box, a room completely drenched in darkness by the recently redone paint job. Boxes, all black, littered the center of the room that was just a step above the five rows of chairs that Nathan watched from. His straight across black bangs stopped just in time to frame his eyes, which watched everyone flounder about. Mara, who was tasked with playing the weak-willed Mary Warren, plucked at the frayed fabric of her sweater and cleared her throat.
“Got something to say, Brown?” Nathan called, pointing his pen.
Mara straightened her shoulders and said, “No, no. Nothing. Just got a sore throat.”
“Well, get over it. C’mon, start with Abigail’s line.” Mara stepped off stage for the beginning of the scene. Cindy McKinnley, one of the many pretty blonde girls in the drama department, glanced down at her script and started forward, monologuing about why they must keep their secret over the lounging, red-headed, fish-lipped Nancy Pelmont who was supposed to be playing a comatose Betty Parris. At her cue, Mara ran on stage and wheezed out her lines. Another loud clap stopped the scene dead.
“Again,” Nathan demanded. His pale-faced nonchalance drove pins into Mara’s patience. The scene restarted, all robust female angst and panic-driven lies, but every time Mara ran up to deliver her line Nathan called, “Again, again, again!”
“He’s trying to break us, you know,” Nancy muttered as Mara passed by for the seventh time.
“He’s certainly trying something. He should start pulling out pyres; that’ll give us some incentive,” Mara said. She feigned levity and Betty smiled bashfully.
Rehearsals came to a close with five awful words from Nathan: “You guys suck. Try harder.” He stood and glowered at Mara for a second longer than necessary, and said, “I want you to send me a write up about why you think Mary Warren is so hysterical by Friday, Brown. Rehearsal tomorrow at the same time. We’ll be running this scene up until the end of act one. Have a good evening.”
Mara drove home and pulled up the long driveway of 356 to park under the strange and unkempt archway that was attached to the side of the house. Irritation pricked at her skin like bee stings. The house awoke from its slumber as she stepped onto the pavement and headed for the front door. Unbeknownst to Mara as she pulled her phone out to respond to Sam, who had inquired about her day, a root from one of the ancient pine trees on the front lawn had crept up under the pavement many years ago. The curve of the barky tendril was the perfect shape for catching, wrapping, breaking, and as Mara walked up the pathway her foot slid beneath the root, and she fell, sprawling against the concrete. Something shattered beneath her.
“Fuck,” Mara said, muffled against her forearm, “Jesus fuck, goddammit.” She pulled her foot free, flexed her toes and found, thankfully, that nothing had broken. The real victim of the fall laid just a few inches away from her atop some chipped-off black glass, her cellphone. Every tree on the property was suddenly alive and rustling and the house creaked with laughter. A gust of wind encompassed Upper Mountain Road.
“Shit,” she said and snatched up her phone to assess the damage. The top right corner of her screen was gone, and spider-web cracks shot out across the screen. Sam’s selfie still looked nice and pretty below the damage. The phone was mostly intact, that was all that mattered. Mara stood up with a strained sigh and hobbled the rest of the way inside, making a mental note to cut the hell out of that stupid root the next time she had the chance. The foyer seemed to lean towards Mara with silent judgment. The entire house was dead quiet. Mara considered the idea of getting a cat as she threw her things aside, grabbed the laptop from her bag, and settled down in her living room to bang out her assignments and text Sam about her horrible, devastating, world-ending phone accident.
Mara woke up from an unexpected nap four hours later. She coughed wetly into her hand and looked around the living room with half-lidded eyes, the only light coming from the foot tall lamp next to the couch, which cast long shadows across her lap and the cushions. The windows offered nothing but pitch black after-images of the trees and foliage outside. Glancing towards the kitchen, Mara saw the flat surface of her kitchenette table, the pile of mail she had yet to sift through, and the broad shoulders of a featureless man leaning against the arched wall.
The house wheezed. Something smelled of rot. Mara stood up quick enough to knock her laptop and phone to the carpet and reached for the lamp, her blood thick and cold in her veins and her breath echoing in short, staccato bursts. Fight or flight or freeze, right, Psych 101. She was rubbed raw and mute and motionless by just the sight of the unmoving figure standing a mere nine feet from her. He did not even seem to regard her, and that fact gave her enough courage to attack and run. The shadow did not react as she pulled the little lamp free from the plug and lifted it like a bat. He didn’t move, even as she threw it forward and watched it smash right into his chest. The house then creaked loud enough to shock Mara’s legs into motion. She bolted for her phone and grabbed it off the ground, ignoring the way her knees scraped hard against the floor, ignoring the awful smell that wafted up from the carpet, ignoring the opening of a door somewhere, deep within the house. Mara ran for the front door and threw herself outside in a heap, shakily tapping out 9-1-1 and screaming for help.
Between her escape and the officers arriving, Mara thought to run to a neighbor’s house, but she only got to the end of her driveway before her legs gave out. She was shaking too hard to move, her muscles tight, restricting. She was caught at the edge of the driveway, still desperately babbling to the operator on the phone. Nothing came out of the house.
The police came fifteen minutes later and hauled her up into their car for safekeeping as they swept the house and neighborhood. The house watched Mara’s tiny form in the back seat of that cruiser, her face pale as paper, but the bags under her eyes were dark enough to fall into. The officers, two traffic cops with too much time on their hands, came back to drive her to the station and report the incident. She pressed her forehead to the cool window and tried to control her spasming throat and lungs as Mara watched the dark storefronts and houses of Montclair pass her by from the backseat. By the time they reached the station, which was a strangely octangular building pressed behind some thick oak trees and surrounded by an oceanic parking lot, she had enough sense to fill the officers in on what happened. They placed her in an uncomfortable metal chair in front of a paper-covered desk in the front lobby and let her babble.
“You’re saying he just appeared?” asked the older officer, a grey-bearded man with intense eyes.
“Yes, yeah. I just woke up and, and he was there?” Mara whimpered. She chewed on her fingernails as the officer turned to his colleague, an older woman with a head full of outrageous orange curls.
“Well, for the time being, Ms. Brown, you should find someone to stay with. Any friends or family nearby?” said the woman.
Mara nodded, much too tired to complain.
She called Sam and then sat in the station, huddled in one of the scratchy chairs. The police officers, though friendly and helpful in calming her nerves, offered nothing but flippancy when she asked what they would investigate at the house. Their uninterested expressions curled into her subconscious, implanting in Mara doubt she couldn’t comprehend.
Twenty minutes after she called Sam came to pick her up. With a soft groan, Mara collapsed in the backseat of Sam’s Subaru. They were the only civilian vehicle in the entire lot. The radio clock told her the time: 3:47 A.M.
“What the hell, Mars?” Sam asked, turning around, keeping the car parked. There was someone else in the car, a man about their age with a cliff-like nose and a head full of thick brown hair. He was heart-attack-pretty.
“There, Jesus, Sammy, there was a guy in the house!” Mara clutched her shoulders and coughed out a cry.
“Jesus Christ, Mara, it’s okay. The police’ll do something, just calm down, yeah? It’s okay,” She reached back and dragged her fingers through Mara’s hair. Mara leaned into it. The man watched with a pitying expression, and Sam caught Mara’s glance, “This is Connor. He’s my, uh, friend.”
“Boyfriend.” Connor laughed, “Sorry we had to meet under these circumstances.”
“Boyfriend?” Mara blurted out. She sat up and felt her lips open and close like a dying fish. Her throat spasmed hard and she cleared it loudly. “Sammy?”
“It kinda just happened tonight.”
“Jesus Christ. What a night,” Mara dug her hands into the leather seat and grimaced, “What a night.”
“Let’s get some food in you, Mars, yeah?” Sam offered helpfully and Mara nodded. She did not return to 356 for three whole nights.
Her time spent at Sam’s passed in a blur of talking, milky coffee, sore throats, and bad dreams. Being thirty minutes from Montclair did much to help her nerves, but sleeping on the couch did eventually start to kill her back. Most of her nightmares, for some reason, revolved around Connor being the one in her house, and then him being the one in Sam’s wedding photos, smiling the same in both scenarios. Her cough got worse. The police reported that there had been no sign of forced entry nor any evidence of anyone actually being in the house. All they found was the broken lamp.
“You said your whole day had been pretty bad, right? Maybe you just had, like, a stress dream?” Sam tried to reason on the fourth day. Mara could feel her best friend trying to get her couch back.
“Yeah, maybe,” Mara mumbled. Three hours later she and Sam stood in front of 356 with bags of junk food and extra locks for the outside doors, which Sam, whose father was quite the locksmith, stuck around to help Mara install. Mara almost wished she was alone. Whatever stress kept her from feeling the sudden punch to the gut of Sam getting a boyfriend had begun to wane and she didn’t want to have to dwell in her sick feelings of jealousy which spurred whenever she even glanced at the two of them together. In an attempt to distract herself, Mara let her eyes wander down to Sam’s hands and wrists.
“Ya know, maybe you should throw, like, a kickback?” Sam suggested as they tested the lock on the front door.
“I mean, if you throw a party or something maybe it’ll kinda replace that bad feeling you have with a good one.”
“It isn’t a bad feeling; it really happened.” Mara frowned.
“Yeah, but the party might keep away whoever it was then. What’re you doing tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow is what, Friday? Friday– shit, I have to send my director something. Sammy, could you go?” Mara stood straight up and smiled belligerently.
Sam’s lips quirked up in confusion.“Oh… Uh, yeah. Yeah! Text me when you’re done. I think the party is a good idea.”
“I’ll think about it, bud, no worries.” Mara reached out to squeeze Sam’s hand tight. “See you?”
“See you.” Sam seemed to relax as she left. Mara sighed and shut the front door behind her. The house, as always, felt funeral-home quiet. She walked through every room twice just to ensure the police were right and found, with growing dread, that nothing was amiss. In her wandering, she failed to notice the basement door, which was just an inch or two ajar, but she did discover her living room carpet was full of mold and that her bedroom window had apparently been cracked by the windstorm that hit two days ago.
Despite the feeling of being watched remaining, she still rolled up her carpet and threw it outside for trash day and taped over the window to keep it from shattering. Then, she turned on every light in the house and sat in the living room to begin her character assignment for Nathan.
Two hours of frantic typing and a disregard for her own script reading later she emailed him a file titled “maryboring.pdf” and put her computer aside with a harumph.
She texted Sam, “Party on saturday??”
To which Sam replied: “Deal. Text your lil actor friends. Can I bring Connor???”
The stab to the heart shouldn’t have felt so real, but Mara still bent over forward with a gasp of pain or anger; she didn’t know which.
“Yeah, sure. The more the merrier. Bring booze.” Mara shut her phone off and dragged herself upstairs. She left the lights on as she slid through the upper hallway which seemed to tilt and turn beneath her feet until she hit the bedroom threshold. She fell into bed and turned over to stare at the ceiling. The ceiling leered back. Mara felt sleep creeping up on her like a slug, but just as her thoughts turned to Sam and Connor again a coughing fit forced her to sit up.
“Got something in your throat, dear?” something said.
Mara’s stomach lurched and she glanced around with wild abandon, her attention drawn to her bedroom door, and in the space between the door and the door jam she saw it: the eye. The eye of some being. It watched, a huge pupil dwarfing the iris, and tears dripping from the reddened sclera like jam. The walls around her inhaled and the window suddenly burst as if shattered by some great foreign object. Mara turned in time to see a branch from one of the ancient trees had been blown through. It was reaching for her, moving like a human limb, bark and needles curling out. She jumped off from her bed and pinned herself against the wall and screamed. When she turned back to the door, she found it open, and beyond the threshold were stairs leading down into a void.
Mara woke up with a gasp and found her ceiling above her. Her bedroom door stood open and her window was intact, though the crack she had found the day before seemed bigger, darker. Somehow, she was back in bed, as if she had never even gotten up. Her mind felt fuzzy with sleep, but she hadn’t been asleep, had she? The sickly sweet smell of trash permeated the room and there was a wet patch on the ceiling, huge and black. Something was wrong with this house, and when Mara moved to stand up and felt her chest ache and her breath wheezing, she knew something was wrong with her too.
She turned her phone on to find an email from Nathan saying he wanted to meet up that day. Twenty minutes from now. Mara kicked off her comforter and stepped right in a puddle of water as she rushed to get ready. The puddle was about as mysterious as everything else. Mara mentally added leaky ceiling to her list of growing issues with the house right under “nightmarishly quiet” and “probably literally haunted”. With no time to even think about her dream or herself, Mara threw on a russet sweater and jeans, grabbed her script, and drove all the way to the university diner just in time to catch Nathan leaving. She stopped him outside the swinging, art-deco doors.
“Oh,” he said, smarmy and cruel, “and here I thought you wouldn’t turn up. You’re twenty minutes late you know.”
“Sorry, I overslept.” And I didn’t know we were meeting, you ass, was left unsaid. Mara motioned to the diner doors, out of breath and crumpled. “Shall we?”
“No need anymore. I’ll make this brief: you are probably not able to give me what I want for this show,” Nathan pressed his shoulder against the nearby wall and eyed Mara like some half-baked critic, “Your character analysis was distracted and held no regard for Mary Warren as a character. She is a troubled thing, literally a broken toy, and you seemed to think of her as a realist? You have to break something to see the insides, Brown, that’s what your character is. You do know my dad is a Julliard trained actor, right? I know what I want, and I know what you need to do. I want you off book for the court scene by Monday and I want to feel your trauma, or else you’re off this play, understand?”
Mara stared at him, mouth agape, ears burning hot. She babbled out an apology and nodded; that was all she could do; and Nathan pushed past her, trailing behind him the scent of confidence: black coffee and marijuana and mold.
She turned on her heels and stomped back through the parking lot to her car, where she threw herself in like a petulant child and prepared for a drive home alone with her thoughts. Out of habit, she opened her phone to find an Instagram notification telling her to look at some selfie of Sam and Connor. The image revealed a long caption of first loves and best friends from the start and so many heart emojis that Mara’s phone beat like an organ. Her fingers dug into the shattered glass of her phone screen, leaving behind sharp indentations. Mara choked on her feelings for Sam, and then actually choked on the tickle in her throat and coughed into her arm.
She sent a text to Sam that read “gotta reschedule. no party tomorrow, sorry” and considered just wandering the town until nightfall, but the script on her passenger side seat was burning a hole through the upholstery and her insides felt like writhing, hungry, agonized worms, and God, is this what little Mary Warren felt like when her friends screamed lies and slander to her face? Mara drove like a panic attack all the way home and nearly tipped her car over pulling into the driveway of 356.
Mara spent her day reciting her lines to her reflection in the mirror, then mopping up the puddle upstairs to the sound of her own cursing, and when night began to fall and that house grew quiet as it always did at dusk she played obnoxious pop music and began to methodically open and close every door in the house, looking for something. The only door she hesitated to enter, though, was the basement door.
Beneath the foyer stairs, hidden behind a jutting wall that turned the left side of the foyer into a little hallway, it was always visible from the living room, and almost framed by the archway connecting the space to the foyer. The door itself was old, older than anything else in the house, and the only light floated down at the bottom of the stairs, hanging from a precarious wire, a pendant light. The landlord said she had no use going down there, that it was just some musty storage room, and so Mara let it be, but now, with her troubling experiences, Mara saw it as a trap, a predator, an open mouth.
She opened the door slowly and stared down the wooden stairs and waited. Cold air peeled against her bare feet and flushed face. The scent of ash and dust and rotting paper assaulted her. When she moved to step down, the entire house awoke and shuddered. Mara froze, pulled back, glanced around, and only when the house subsided its weeping creaks did she rush down the stairs and turn on the light. The basement was smaller than it should’ve been. It was a box made of concrete and wood. Dusty cardboard, wet and forgotten, sat piled high in all corners.
The pendant light swayed as Mara clung to the cord and sought something, anything– a spirit or a rat or even just a scary portrait, anything. In the corners of the room, she did notice thick, gray, shadowy lumps. They looked as though they lead somewhere else as if the basement was somehow deeper than it was. There was something there, her brain supplied, something deeper, something hiding. The illusion of another space beyond the wall filled her with white-hot dread, but when she reached up the cord to shine the bulb directly on them they flattened out. Somehow, it seemed as though the spots shied away from the light, even, as if they were alive and afraid, but she blinked and everything seemed fine again. Mara assumed it was mold, swallowed her fear, and flicked off the lights. As soon as she did, her hands and feet carried her up the stairs like a child running away from the darkness.
Mara didn’t notice her time had gone on without her. She didn’t even realize the sun was up until she came upstairs and found that it was suddenly the next day. She could have sworn only ten, maybe fifteen minutes had passed. How long had she stared at the walls? Exhaustion caught up with her the moment she stepped into the living room, and finally, Mara decided it was time to sleep.
Mara drifted over to the couch and collapsed onto it just in time for Sam to start blowing up her phone with texts: “Hey, I’m outside. Maaaraaaa let me in. Mara. Mara. Mara. You asleep? It’s noon! Mara!”
Mara got up, rubbed her face, and walked over to open the front door. Sam stood outside, holding a crate full of booze and juice.
“Good afternoon, pretty lady,” Sam purred. Mara couldn’t hide her warm cheeks. “Ready for that party?”
“What?” Mara scowled. “I said no party, I texted you yesterday.”
“Oh, what? I didn’t get a text. Connor and I already bought all of this too…” Mara glanced behind Sam and saw Connor approaching the front door from Sam’s car, hands full of Xanax-yellow plastic bags.
“Hey, Mara. Hope you’re feeling better.” He smiled vaguely. The sky behind him was gray and swirling.
“I’m fine. Just come in and start setting up. I have to go over some lines,” Mara opened the door completely and Sam rushed up to kiss her cheek before skipping through the foyer into the kitchen. Such an action felt like a declaration of war. Her heart groaned and she wanted to turn and catch her lips in a real kiss. She stamped down the urge and coughed.
“It’ll be fun, don’t worry,” Connor promised as he passed by, and Mara hummed some form of agreement as she let the door drift close. Connor walked off towards the kitchen with his loud bags, and Sam took Mara by the wrist and pulled her toward the couch.
“You look beat, sugar,” Sam said, and now Mara could see her pretty smile was laced with concern. Mara tilted her head to the side and sneered.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m a bit beat. I’ve had a week from hell– and this director I have is driving me crazy and,” Mara threw her hands up, esasoerated and ashamed, “and you have a boyfriend and this house is fucking haunted.” Mara’s head dipped, she caught it in her hand and combed her fingers through her slick hair.
Sam watched, her shoulders tight, and then she smiled wide enough to show her pink, puffy gums and said, “Oh, Mars. Houses aren’t haunted, people are.”
“What?” Mara’s lips peeled back, her anger flared with confusion, “What the hell, Sammy?”
“I said, what about me getting a boyfriend? Why is that stressing you out?” Sam reached out, fingers curled around Mara’s forearm, “Are you worried we’re going to change? Mara, a boy isn’t going to split us up.”
“I, Jesus, Sam. You don’t get it,” Mara said. She pulled away and closed off her heart and turned just enough to see Connor watching them from behind the dining room table. Something within her rotted away, and all that was left was a feeling of inadequacy, of envy, of being unknown. Being abandoned. The tickle in her throat felt nearly gone, as if it were somehow connected to her breaking heart. As if talking to Sam about anything she truly felt might be the balm to cool the burn of her sore throat.
She turned back to Sam and saw her quivering lip and red-tipped ears, a sign that she was about to cry. Mara sighed and reached out to pull on her pink ponytail, teasing, familiar. No matter what, Sam couldn’t know, Mara had already decided on that once Connor came into the picture. There was no hope.
“I don’t get it,” Mara whispered, “Sorry, Sammy, don’t cry. Let’s just get ready, for the party yeah?” Her fingers curled in Sam’s artificial hair, watching the light catch in the deep, saturated pink. A sunset through rose-tinted glasses. Sam took her hand then, a soft, apologetic smile clear on her face, and put it back on Mara’s lap.
“I’m sorry, Mara,” she said and Mara knew it was rejection, “Let’s get ready– Connor? Do you need help with anything?” And Sam stood and left Mara behind on the couch to stare out the window, and the window, gleeful, stared back. She coughed hard into her hand.
By eight, people were showing up in droves. Cindy and Nancy and the rest of the cast caught wind from Sam, who also invited many of her William Paterson friends, who also invited their William Paterson friends. By the time the driveway, which could fit a shocking six cars, was full, Mara was two drinks in and unable to hide in her room any longer. She came downstairs to a smattering of cheers and “thank yous” for hosting.
Another drink appeared in her hands by a passing Cindy, who winked and said, “Sick place, Brown! Drink up!”
And Mara, already tipsy, did as she was told. The party became a blur of bodies and body odor and alcohol. Someone brought a speaker the size of a small dog and was blasting some sort of trance noise. The lights were dim and the air watery. Ten o’clock melted away, and Mara sat on the couch with a Blue Moon in one hand and a bottle of aspirin in the other. Two pills down and her head was still boiling. The boys were talking about sports. Mara was too busy trying not to hack up her lungs to even listen and was in fact so focused on doing so that she failed to notice Connor standing in front of her until he cleared his throat.
“Leprosy,” he said.
Mara stared at him and realized it wasn’t Connor, but Nathan. “What?”
“Did you know they thought houses could get leprosy,” said Nathan, no, Connor.
Mara rubbed her eyes and tried to focus on the man in front of her, but found her eyesight, too, was melting. “What the fuck does that mean?” she slurred, words heavy as oil.
“Leprosy. The House is sick. They could see beyond the walls, they thought,” Nathan or Connor or the Man with the Eye said. Nathan’s horrid bangs, Connor’s aquiline nose, and the Man’s eyes blended. Her nightmares were real. “They would call a priest, who would find the heart of the sickness. He’d dismantle the House, find the secrets. Leprosy, you know. Sickness. Heartache. Death.”
Mara stood up, wobbled. The music seemed to coalesce into white noise, and the Man in front of her tilted his head and smiled. “You should’ve taken care of the sickness. You should’ve seen the symptoms. Houses get lonely too,” Said three voices in unison.
Mara pushed past them and threw herself into the crowd of dancing, chattering bodies. They didn’t seem to see The Men following her, and in fact, all the bodies moved enough that he could follow unhindered.
“Houses get sad. Houses get rejected. Houses get hungry. You should take care of the House, you know,”
“Leave me alone,” Mara gasped. Thick, heavy tears slid down her cheek, warm and yellow. Somewhere, she could smell a fire. She passed a woman in a slinky silver dress smoking a joint and she focused intently on the glowing cherry at the tip, the acrid smell. Her lungs heaved.
“Where is there safety? Under the covers? In your bedroom? In the House? But what if the House isn’t safe. What if you’re already in the belly of the beast?” The Men said, right in her ear. Mara was shoved against the archway leading out of the living room and into the foyer. Her throat spasmed and she coughed hard into her hand: she pulled it away to witness splinters and pine needles and bits of thick, black mold.
“Mara?” Sam said.
Mara flinched back and saw her friend, dressed in a shiny tube top, holding a bottle of vodka and a lit cigarette, “You okay, doll?” Connor was behind her, covered in lipstick, looking relatively bored. Some nasally-voiced pop singer was wailing from the speakers. Mara swallowed the wood in her throat. Her eyes caught on Sam’s cigarette and she considered ways to kill a house.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost, Mara,” Connor said. She contemplated shoving them both out of the way, but the cigarette burned, and so did she, inside. Like a fire. Like an inferno. The cigarette burned and reeked and burned.
“Gimme your lighter.” She snatched the vodka from Sam’s hands, ignoring the shock on her face.
“What?” Sam said.
“Lighter, Sammy, now,” Mara snapped. Beneath her feet, the floorboards trembled. Sam relinquished the lighter with a scowl and Mara shoved past them, shoved through the crowd, and made her way to the basement door. When she pulled it open she found not a dark, hollow room, but a throat, fleshy and engorged, covered in black mold and wrinkles. It fluttered as she watched it. Mara screamed, then laughed, and no one could tell the difference. She took a step down into it, into the throat, into the belly of the beast, armed only with alcohol and fire, and the door drifted shut behind her.
Biographical Note: Frankie Kavakich is a fiction and nonfiction writer from New Jersey. When they are not dwelling in the dark hole that is their crippling addiction to horror stories, they are plotting out novels or delving deep into the lore of obscure religious practices and drama shows from the 90s. They are a recent alumni of Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. Frankie hopes their stories manage to reach the heart and minds of people who are often left unrepresented in written media.