We Are Also Familiar With This House
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Vegas"
Originally featured on 08-13-2008
As part of our series "The Ancient Trappings of Humanity’s Endless Summer (Age-Old Traps)"

 

Flory went missing on Tuesday. It was on Saturday morning that Claire was woken up by her three-year-old, Nathan, touting optimistic reports of Flory attempting contact.

Claire rolled over on her pillow with a groan that started in her sticky eyelids and went flat before it reached her lips. “Hon, go back to bed, peas? I’ll pour you some Pirate Mud Puffs in a few half hours. Promise.”

‘Peas,’ as Claire meant it, was short-form for ‘capice.’ Nathan always understood ‘peas’ to be a silly pronunciation of ‘please.’ It worked for both their purposes.

Nathan was bobbing up and down in his pajamas, making them ruffle around his arms. “No, but mom, I really heard him, he was in the walls, you have to help me find him.”

Claire scooted up on her elbows and squeezed her forehead until her eyes consented to open a little. “Are you sure it was Flory?”

“He was scratching.”

“Did you hear a meow?”

Nathan shook his head.

“How about a…snarl? Did you hear any kitty snarls?”

Nathan started to open his mouth to ask what a snarl was, then stopped and pondered on his own. Claire was not sure where he had picked up the notion that it was a sign of strength to refrain from asking questions, and she hoped it was a phase he would grow out of very quickly.

He was still bobbing, shifting his weight between his heels and the balls of his feet. Somewhere in his muscle memory, he was practicing treading water. Although Claire admired his eagerness to learn to swim, she disliked watching him in the water; he did not yet have the confidence to attempt to go where she could not see him, but she could tell that he wanted to. She disliked the way he stood anxiously before her now.

She gave Nathan a quizzical play-detective look. “So you heard him scratch. Did it sound like how he scratches at the door when he’s hungry? What did it sound like? Show me how he scratched.”

“Moooommmm, you have to get up and help me-”

Claire pried the mass of nightgown out of Nathan’s hands and plopped back down on her cheek. “Go color Potato-Saurus Rex, you can show me him when you’re finished.”

“I don’t want to-”

“Hey.” Her mouth snapped right side up; the word carried a surge of electricity.

Nathan sunk at the shoulders and made a poo-poo face. Claire kissed him on the forehead and said, “Captain Walrus’ magic words.”

They recited in unison, “Chlarmudghie bloo fludgie whassawhussa whooza kharma kweep kweep basaluskawassamantungahowa khrrrrrrrrrriiiiiiiiiinnnnngggggga pooeey!”

Nathan ran out the room and down the hall with his fists raised in a superhero aspect.

Claire sighed and smiled at the same time as she poured the weight of the past three months onto her pillow. Meandering back into a light sleep, she thought to herself, I wonder if magic words will work when he’s a teenager.

That was when Claire began to hear the scratching.

What sleep she got was raked through a cheese grater of sounds: Nathan padding all around the house, Nathan’s consistent chant of “Here kitty kitty, carmummy buh fuddy, magic words make you come here kitty kitty, here kitty kitty,” and something else.

The third thing she heard was the constant digging of sharp paws against wood. She did not identify the sound until well into the daytime hours of Sunday when she was driving home from Egan’s Groceries and suddenly realized what she had been hearing all night without registering that she was hearing it. It was Flory.

Although it came to Claire as a surprise when Nathan went missing the next Wednesday, there were moments at night when it made perfect sense. Those moments had no continuation with other moments, and so she went through the ensuing days in a state of panic. She stopped hearing the scratching at the same time that she really started listening. While the police searched the town, Claire lay in bed and listened.

She listened very closely.

Until the phone rang at Five Fifteen on Friday, she had all but forgotten that Nathan was supposed to be dropped off at his father’s house for the weekend. She never started a conversation with ‘hello’ if she knew who was on the other end. Meaningless greetings left too much empty space. Claire did not sacrifice empty space.

 

She began speaking a split second before lifting the receiver, so that it would not be possible for Richard to have the first word. “Have you watched the news?”

She could hear Richard’s breath over the line before he responded. Ice pricked the inside of her earlobes and sucked a body’s worth of heat from her lower intestine up through a zig-zag highway that ran the length of her spine and ended somewhere between her throat and her crown, causing a moment of dizziness. Richard began speaking a split second before Claire stopped feeling dizzy. “When were you planning on telling me?”

“Richard, I can’t apologize right now. I just can’t do that. Do you understand?”

“Yes, I saw the news. I was wondering if you’d call to tell me you’d be late with Nathan today. Good thing I watched the news.”

“Richard, I can’t have you be angry right now. Do you-”

“Of the two of us, I think I’m being incredibly calm and rational. So if you would just answer my one question, please. When were you going to call and tell me that you lost our-”

“I didn’t l- Richard, I can’t do this right now. I can’t talk to you.”

“Well, I guess we’ll be talking about it eventually, agree? I promise you, whenever eventually is, I won’t be anywhere close to as calm and rational as this, so maybe we- you and I, right now, should talk about the fact that you lost my son.”

“Stop saying that.” Claire shifted the receiver between her chin and her hairline. She could not contain it in one spot. She thought of the way Nathan looked standing in his pajamas. Her eyes broke like egg yokes. Her knees dripped to the floor.

“Claire. CLAIRE.” Richard’s voice was twenty-three country miles away.

Claire was not sure whether or not she was speaking into the telephone when she said, “Don’t come here.”

Richard did not come. Later in the evening there was a knock on the door, but it was nobody familiar. Two men, one considerably older than the other, stood on her porch wearing plain gray sweaters and slacks. The older man carried a black leather briefcase.

“I’m glad to meet you, Miss Hallowe.” The older man extended his hand. “My name is Melvin Schoffrey, and this is my associate Roman Glen.”

“Actually, I’m just an intern,” the younger man said as he shook her hand.

Melvin shot Roman a concealed not-now look. Claire liked these men, and found that she was slowly walking backwards, into the house, and that they were following.

Melvin took a short power breath through his nose, preparing to deliver his rehearsed introduction. Roman stepped forward and interrupted to say, “We’re from a paranormal consulting agency, and we would like to assist you free of charge.”

Claire’s hand jumped in front of her mouth, but no laugh jumped up to meet it.

Melvin cleared his throat. “We are familiar with your…situation. We are also familiar with this house.”

Claire looked around, feeling suddenly embarrassed for her clutter. A pot of cold chicken stew had been sitting on the stove since the previous day. “I just signed the lease last August, it seemed like a good…well, I guess I don’t need to tell you any of that. Um…can I offer you some chicken stew and wine?”

Melvin closed the door behind them, looking relieved. When he walked, his black briefcase was always an inch ahead of his feet.

 

“So you’re a…what exactly did you say you gentlemen are part of?” Claire could not stop glancing at the black briefcase leaning on the table leg. “Occult something or other? Are you like those New-Age scientists who bum around third-world countries looking for poltergeists and, like, toddlers who start babbling in ancient prayer languages?”

Melvin smiled. The smile looked more formal on his face than his sweater did on his torso. “In actuality, we take our occupation far less seriously than you pretend to.”

Claire saw Melvin catch her looking at the briefcase and said, “So what’s in there?”

Outside a passing car or hay-wagon could be heard every five or six minutes. The squawking of birds was a more regular sound than anything human, except for the occasional voices of the Harvey’s who lived in the cabin up the road. The Harvey kids were a few years older than Nathan, but they played well together. She could hear them now, probably running with flashlights in the woods, pretending they were someplace mythic. She disliked the fact that Miss Harvey let them cavort unsupervised at dusk.

Melvin and Roman exchanged a glance before Melvin produced from the briefcase a wooden disk and placed it on the table. It was roughly the size of a Frisbee, and it had twelve metal spikes placed evenly along the outside like the hours on a clock.

Melvin reached into his briefcase again and pulled out three containers of dental floss, one white, one minty green, and one red. He then clasped his hands and said, “Can you guess what this is?”

Roman slouched back in his chair and took a gulp of red wine, looking bored.

Claire looked at it, pretending to study it more intently than she actually was. "I’d guess it’s a divining device, like a pendulum or, I don’t know, something you put on an altar-" She placed a hand on Melvin’s shoulder. For an instant, Roman failed to hide the jealousy in his face. "Please, excuse my ignorance. I moved here from Detroit, Nate’s teachers thought it would be good for him to get away from-" She stopped herself and took a few full breaths with her head down, focusing her eyes heavily on nothing.

"Are you alright?" said Roman.

Melvin shot him the not-now look again.

Claire looked back at them, trying not to make eye contact with one before the other. "I hate saying it like that. People always say they moved to get away from the city, get away from whatever, and I- I don’t mean to be typical, I mean I- I’m not…I’m not in my head today, I’m sorry, I’m normally…we just needed to slow down. So we moved here last summer. Not that coming from the city is an excuse- what am I even- I’m intelligent, believe me, I really am an intelligent person, and I don’t mean to sound like this. I don’t read my horoscope, I don’t meditate, I’ve never been to a psychic, if they even still call them psychics, I don’t practice Yoga, and I have no idea what your tool is, I’m not savvy on- what I’m trying to say is, I’m open to- I’m open. If you tell me to rearrange my couch and draw a pentagram with mayonnaise on the wall, done. If you tell me I was a cat in a past life, I'll believe you. It’s just- One day my son was right here where you're sitting, and now- I don’t understand what is happening. The police have nothing. My ex husband…I need to understand this, and I’m…open-"

Claire left the room to compose herself and returned, composed. They did not look at her in the bashful way that most men look at a woman who has just cried. They sat patiently twirling dental floss around their fingers. Dental floss right then looked more delicious than anything she had seen on that table since August.

Claire said in a soft but cheerful way, "I have no idea what that thing is."

Melvin said, "I’m not convinced. What was the first thing that came to your head?"

Claire shrugged. “Some kind of classic children’s game."

"See?" said Melvin, exchanging a this-is-going-well look with Roman. "You don’t have to tell us that you're smart." He passed her the red dental floss. "Care to play? It’s easy to learn, takes seven lifetimes to master." He winked an am-I-kidding? wink.

Melvin patted Roman on the back, cueing him to give the explanation. Roman obliged. Melvin made occasional interjections to point out mathematical details, such as the fact that the pegs are spaced two inches from each other, resulting in a circle just under seven and three quarter inches in diameter, but mostly let Roman do the talking.

Each player—two or more—needs a spool of thread, distinguished by color. In preparation, each player ties one end of string to the same starting point: the midnight peg. A player progresses by wrapping their string around another peg, circling it once tightly, and then onto the next peg, creating traceable paths.

Melvin made sure to mention that sixty-six distinct moves are possible.

In a single turn, a player can make one, two or three moves. The rule is that a path between two pegs can not be repeated; as Roman put it, “Your line can’t follow mine; if I’ve already made tracks from A to B and you’re at A, you’ve got to find yourself somewhere else to go. Playing with dental floss makes it easy to remember; if you got food in your teeth, you can’t pick the same splinter of beef twice. Know what I mean?”

Claire looked at the wooden board. A bubble of excitement rose up her throat as she imagined it tangled in competing threads. “What if you’re at a peg and all the paths to it are taken?”

“That’s called trapped,” said Melvin. “Avoiding being trapped is a matter of technique. Trapping your opponent is a matter of advanced technique.”

“Oh, I get it. That’s how you lose.”

Both men shook their heads.

“Once you’re stuck,” said Melvin, “the unstuck players go on without you until they exhaust the board and get trapped themselves. It’s a game of points. Every time you cross my string in a move, I get a point. When the game is over, we cut our string, unwrap everything and measure how much total string we each used. You get a point for every two inches.”

Claire took their empty plates into the kitchen and said over her shoulder, “That sounds like way too much thinking for a night like tonight. Maybe another time.”

She heard the Harvey’s again faintly from the kitchen window. Their flashlight game seemed to have turned bitter, involving tears and impassioned name-calling. Claire peered outside for an instant, and then returned to her guests.

 

After a few glasses of wine, things became funny.

“V. E. gas,” Melvin kept on insisting. "That’s what we used to call it.”

“What?” asked Claire.

“When someone farted a real gut-buster with tailwinds. I’m talking corn chowder and baked bean casserole on a hot day. There are some farts that just…they’re in a class of their own. That’s why we decided that they should have a special word for especially noxious farts. So we called it V. E. gas, for vomit inducing gas.”

“That’s spelled wrong, dipshit,” said Roman. All three of them were laughing to the point of internal bruising. “It’s V. I.”

“No.” Melvin’s fist was already on the table. “It has to be an E, because that way it also says Vegas, like Las Vegas, see?”

“Um, negative,” said Claire. “Las Vegas is a city. What does a city have to do with a fart?”

“Nothing, I guess,” Roman said in a sarcastic, drunken voice. “Except, you don’t win any money when you fart, and you don’t usually win in Vegas neither. So they’re kind of similar like that. Yeah, that’s about it. It would be like me calling Stan estrogen.”

“Why would you call him that?” said Melvin.

“Rogan, his first initial, the T- no, I mean, that’s my point; I wouldn’t.”

“Estrogen… That’s pretty good. I wonder if he’ll get it.”

“Who the hell is Stan?” said Claire. Silence bounced between the three points around the table and, finding itself trapped at Claire, gave way to another surge of laughter.

Human voices could still be heard outside. It was getting darker.

“You’re right about the E, though,” said Melvin. “It should be a different word. Perhaps exorcism.”

Roman raised his eyebrows till they almost hit the ceiling.

“It’s relevant,” said Melvin. “If you have to get devils pumped out of you, they probably come out your butt. If you stop and consider it, where else’d they go? After they’re licked, I mean; they’ve got a one way ticket, and it ain’t to heaven, so if they’re catching a southerly wind, that rules out the mouth, nose and ears, leaving what? If you ask me, the anus seems it’d be the natural exit choice for a demon. Now, I know what you’re thinking: does that mean every time someone rips one, they’re actually chucking out an evil spirit their soul just conquered? Or is it that sometimes a fart is just a fart?”

“Hey, pal.” Roman aimed a finger at Melvin. “Don’t ever say you know what I’m thinking.”

Claire wondered for a moment if the two men in her house really were from a paranormal consulting agency, and if the term ‘paranormal consulting agency’ had any meaning, or if they were just a couple of con artists after her chicken stew.

Melvin’s eye caught her wondering. He said, “I’ll bet you didn’t know this, but most major corporations employ full-time clowns to roam the cubicles and promote levity in the office culture. A psychology study last year showed that an employee who laughs every thirty minutes is ten percent more productive than their humorless twin.”

Roman shook his head helplessly and said to Claire, “See what I have to put up with?”

“I mention that for a reason,” said Melvin, reaching for his glass of wine.

Roman snatched the glass from Melvin, drank from it and said, “Looks like your reason just went down my throat.”

“It’s physiological,” said Melvin. “Humor dilates the blood vessels, especially the ones closest to the brain. The question then is who can define what humor is?”

“I can tell you what it’s not,” said Roman.

“Miss Hallowe, would you define it for us? Humor me, I beg.”

Claire shrugged. “It’s trust. If someone makes me laugh, then I know they’re alright. It’s your body’s way of telling you who you trust.” Both men looked to her. “What?”

“I think it’s a way to say the truth,” said Roman. “When you flirt with someone, you make jokes. You exaggerate how you feel so that it don’t sound like you’re telling them how you feel, but you are, and that way they know. People talk to each other in undertones when they’re being funny.”

“Are you flirting with me right now?” Claire wiggled her eyebrows coquettishly.

“No, ma’am, this is strictly professional.” Roman downed the rest of his glass.

“Care to hear mine?” Melvin folded his hands.

“No,” said Roman.

“It’s a sacred language.” Roman and Claire both inched their chairs away from him at the same moment, unaware that the other did so. “When it comes to that nether category of human experience we dub the supernatural, the appointed experts, shamans, priests…ourselves…use special language to transcend the mundane, in the performance of a ritual. Given the secular background of our practice, we do not communicate with the trans-haunted in Latin or Sanskrit or Hebrew, but in absurdity. That is-”

“Hey dickweed,” Roman interrupted. “Want to keep throwing jargon around to confuse our client?”

“Oh, yes, pardon me,” said Melvin. “Trans-haunted is a general umbrella term-”

Claire flapped her hand in a gesture that begged them to proceed without pausing for explanations. “No, I got that.”

Melvin stood up and paced. “Laughter is a craving of the flesh, but also of the mind. As you’ve both illustrated, a joke has pragmatic application, as a vessel for emotional expression, and as a feedback-”

“Hey prof, I think the recess bell just rang.” Roman clapped Melvin on the back. “Might want to wrap up that lecture and give us our homework.”

“No, I’m intrigued,” said Claire.

“Irony, whatever you like to call it, vastly outweighs the predictable.” Melvin sat back down in his chair. “There is structure in nature, just enough of it to fill a thousand libraries, but everything we know about our world is merely a distraction from the inane. A joke is designed to isolate a specific absurdity and present it for ridicule, thus inoculating its audience from disorder, which is why jokes have a beginning, a middle and an end, and they happen quickly. My humor inspires discomfort, because it does not start nor end, and even if it did, it would not do so quickly.

“As you have recently experienced, Miss Hallowe, our environment sometimes confronts us with things that are difficult to understand. That is why I said we take our vocation less seriously than you do: dealing with the paranormal does not by any means require one to abandon rationality, but it does require one to embrace absurdity. Try and think of everything around you as purely ridiculous. My face is ridiculous. My clothing is ridiculous. This conversation is ridiculous. If you look at the table long enough, it will appear ridiculous.” Melvin closed his eyes and inhaled slowly. “The disappearance of your child may not seem ridiculous. If, at any point, it becomes funny…”

The children’s voices were louder now. The noise was never coming from outside, and it was never the Harvey children. It was the sound of numerous voices overlaid, but it was the voice of a single person.

 

Nathan was in the walls. It was unintelligible. It was Nathan, or multiple Nathan’s.

 

There was more in the briefcase than a wooden game and dental floss; Claire had thought it looked as though Melvin were carrying something heavy and trying to make it look as though he were carrying something light. Her suspicion was confirmed when she saw the two of them fast at work hammering glinty aluminum stakes into the grass in her backyard.

Twelve of them, around the house’s perimeter.

Nathan was yelling louder, but no words or specific emotions were discernible. The voice was coming as much from the stairway as it was from the basement. She could not listen. She sat in the back seat of Melvin’s Buick, wrapped in a blanket.

The moon hung above the shingled roof like a drooping portrait that salivated.

"Talk to him." Roman stood outside the driver side window. His posture was unapologetic for having startled her. He opened the back door and sat. "Miss Hallowe, I could explain to you in very technical terms what is actually happening and what we predict will happen over the course of tonight, but I’m not going to do that."

She looked at him, unsure of what question — or questions — to ask, but certain that she did not need to ask it in order for him to respond to it.

Roman motioned toward his mentor who was studiously bent over a patch of grass. “The old dude knows what he’s doing, that’s all I can say.”

“Did he tell you to come over here and comfort me?”

“We’re not witch doctors, Miss Hallowe. We don’t run around with heat-sensing gadgets and talismans, zap the ghosts and send you a bill, it’s not like that. We- you are as much involved in this process as us. I don’t know what you were reacting to at the table when you kept looking to your left, but I do know that you were the only one of us who heard it.” He looked toward Melvin again. Claire found it adorable how hard he was trying to act like Melvin in Melvin’s absense. “You have a relationship with this house, and you’re the one who will talk to it, when we get to that point.”

Claire noticed a triangular shaped bead of sweat on the bridge of Roman’s nose. She felt an itching desire to wipe it off his face with her sleeve. “So my house was evil before I moved in? Would have been nice of the realtor to’ve mentioned that.”

“I’m sorry?”

“On the porch, you guys said that you knew about my situation, and that you also have past experience with this house. I’ve been wanting to ask about that all night, but I didn’t really want to hear Melvin’s answer, if you know what I mean.”

The corners of Roman’s lips jogged up and down. “He wouldn’t tell you if you asked him. I’m not supposed to either. I, um- it wouldn’t be productive to-”

“But you’re telling me right now, and in English.”

“We don’t want to scare you, Miss Hallowe, we just want to help you get your son back.”

Claire wiped the sweat from Roman’s nose with her bare hand and pressed her fingers to the bone of his shoulder. “Tell me.”

Roman took another nervous glance at Melvin.

Claire dug her fingers in harder. “Tell me.”

Roman lowered his voice. “Have you ever done any kind of guided meditation?”

Claire relaxed her hand and let Roman take her wrist and gently place it on her lap. “Are you trying to seduce me?” she said in a flat voice.

“Nobody’s murdered their entire family in their sleep in this house, or anything like that. And no, I am not trying to seduce-”

She grabbed his belt buckle and yanked him closer. “Are you sure?”

He opened the car door and turned to step out. “Maybe Melvin should-”

“No, don’t leave.” She grabbed hold of his arm. “I was just, um, testing-”

“And I just, um, passed. Now onto the guided meditation, if you don’t mind.”

“How does this work? Do I close my eyes?"

Roman closed his.

 

Nathan crouched down to examine the faint scratches of needle-thin white sparkle on the glass. It had to be Flory’s claw marks. He heard Flory’s scratching intermittently, and he understood now why he was unable to hear any other cat noises. It was the glass. He could not tell how far it extended. He was standing on the floor of a glass hallway and there was glass above him, but not the kind one could see through perfectly. Shapes on the other side were puffy and blended with each other in different colors, like the prism Lisa Harvey got for her birthday that she kept on her bedroom windowsill because it made pretty shapes on the wall when the sun rose, and she got really angry if anybody moved it an inch from its position she had laboriously configured. Her brothers always threatened to move it when their agendas conflicted. Nathan thought that was mean.

For the first several hours, he had walked and continued to walk faster and faster and yell louder and louder until he had to pee. He was scared that he might get yelled at if he made peepee on the glass, but there was no toilet around, and he remembered the story Tim Harvey had told about the friend of a friend who had held in his pee too long and his stomach burst open and it got all over him and he had to go to the doctor and get stuck with a really big needle and get sewed back together.

Nathan relieved his bladder on the glass and then ran away until he could not see the pool of urine. Once it vanished from sight, he thought about the logic of running; it seemed as if he was in the same place every moment. Maybe this was like being lost in the dinosaur museum, when they told you to stay put and wait, and they spoke into a metal thing on their chest, kind of like what Commando Platterbush wore on television, and then after a couple minutes Mom came, swept him up and kissed him and then chided him for running off, saying “This is what happens.”

Except, Dad always said that if he got lost, only a coward would stay in one place. But Dad was probably talking about the woods.

He didn’t know.

 

"Imagine your anguish and confusion as a circle sketched in pencil on a white sheet of paper. There are points along this circle. There may be twelve, six, five, there may only be two. Only you can see them, and only you know how many are there. Focus your mind’s eye in the center, and—although it may be tempting to stare—do not look at the points. The points are hot and they will burn your eyes.”

Listening to Roman, she was out of the car and standing in the backyard facing the sky, unsure of when she had gotten out of the car.

“The white space offers healing and protection. The center is where you want to be." The voice speaking was Melvin’s, and she was not sure when it had ceased to be Roman’s. "At the center is a private place. When you look at it, you see only a pencil point, but it will become visible as you get closer to it. It’s a place you’ve been to before: a place that is more comfortable and inviting than any other place on Earth.”

The grass felt wet. The aluminum stakes had magnetic poles that seemed to draw air into the house.

"Now don’t be frightened, but be aware that the harsh points are forming connecting lines, and these lines are fifty times sharper than a razor blade. It’s starting to look a lot like our favorite game. Now I’m going to tell you a secret."

She could not hear Nathan anymore.

"You may see lines crossing through the center. These cannot harm you. Lines that come close to the center are lethal, but the ones that actually touch the center are defused, even though the lines all look the same. Now I’m going to give you a challenge, and that is to find and delineate your safety circle. Your safety circle is a circle drawn on the inside of where all the hot lines cross, a circle that no lines can chop up.”

She was inside the house, standing by the stairwell. This setting did not surprise her.

“Once you’ve drawn this circle, know that you are safe so long as you stay inside it. This is your sanctuary. Visualize yourself inside of it. Run your hands along the wall of the circle and feel the heat of passing rays on your palm, knowing that they cannot touch you. Breathe deeply and feel the air tickle your skin and penetrate deep into your tissue with its swirling mist of healing. Notice that this circle’s size is relative to how many points you began with, the more points the smaller. Now let me tell you another secret.”

Flory was clawing loudly at a wall. Claire felt Flory’s violence in her stomach.

“The distance between two consecutive points on the outer wall is exactly the diameter of your sanctuary, if the points are even in number. If odd, simply double the-”

 

“Cool it with the math, doofus,” said Roman. “Looks like she’s already crossed, and since she’s in a trance and I’m not paying attention, you’re talking to yourself, buddy.”

Melvin smiled. “It usually takes longer than that to put the client to sleep. I didn’t even pontificate on the complexities of the donut-enclosed latticework-”

“Yeah, well, you put me to sleep at circle.” He looked around. “Now what?”

Melvin sat down at the table where his briefcase was open and a manila folder brimmed with loose-leaf pages of handwritten text and diagrams. He sifted through it with a sigh. “Now we review our notes.”

“What notes?”

“The last time I was here-”

“Three years ago?”

Melvin gave a dismissive nod. “I had Stan draw a meta floor plan for our archives-”

“A what-a-what?”

“This house is…rather unique. You’ll learn a lot of new terminology if you make it through tonight. You’re lucky Stan bailed — this will be a rare learning opportunity.”

“Wait, Stan chickened out? That’s why you called me last minute?”

Melvin held up a yellowed sheet of graph paper with a detailed pencil-drawn figure resembling an oblong spiral, with certain areas disproportionately thickened. “Here’s a good example.” He handed it to Roman. “If you call an electrician, they’ll want to look at schematics. A meta floor plan is the equivalent of schematics for a medium. I hate that analogy, but it’s efficient. Except, unlike architectural prints, the pattern is not relative to walls and concrete. It has more to do with what kind of rocks lie a mile beneath the foundation, if and where there’s water in the ground, etcetera. The only way to really explain it is to have you draw one yourself, but unfortunately we don’t have time for that. Essentially, you would start by finding a spade in the shed or basement and digging a trench all the way around the house, as deep as your fist is wide-”

“Why would we go rummage through their basement? Can’t we bring our own?”

“Rule number one: all tools must be native to the house, in order for the process to work, especially when it comes to digging utensils; the soil must recognize its touch. To any rational person, that would sound ludicrous. If anything I’m saying sounds strange to you, you might want to consider a different career, and for your own mental health, you should consider splitting from this site immediately if it gets too intense. I’ll submit to payroll a full day’s wages either way. Traditional work ethics do not apply in this profession. Do not attempt any acts of heroism. Understand?”

Roman looked at Claire standing in the wedge of shadow between the closet door and the staircase. She was still wrapped in the blanket, staring at the wall as if engaged in a tense conversation, but her lips were not moving. A steady trickle of drool saturated the blanket. Her head was tilted nearly horizontal, and her forehead knocked against the wall about once per minute in a slow, repetitive rocking motion that started in her hips. Her legs, hidden under folds of blanket, seemed to be gyrating at unnatural angles.

Roman looked back at Melvin, who was waiting for nonverbal acknowledgement. He nodded severely and slid his gaze back down to the drawing on the graph paper.

“After digging the trench,” Melvin resumed, “you would proceed to put on a blindfold — again, provided from the client’s wardrobe — and re-walk the circle with a pot of water, pouring a continuous stream onto the exposed dirt. If you don’t get it exact, you have to refill the pot and do it again until you get it right. In stage three, you remove your shoes and walk in the moistened trench you’ve dug, still blindfolded, and keep walking until you have lost all spatial conception of where you stand in relation to the house. After a couple cycles, you will feel a compulsion to go to a certain spot that may be inside the house, may be on the roof, maybe anywhere, but is very specific. The feeling will become stronger as you walk the circle, gaining centripetal force in your legs, until you will have no ability to resist it, and you will feel as though unseen forces are dragging you, like gravity when you’re running down a hill. When you reach the spot, the meta meridian, as we call it, that is when the drawing process begins. When it is complete, you will have no recollection of making the drawing, and it is very important that you never look at what you’ve drawn, ever. A single glance can cause severe psychoses.”

Roman looked at the drawing again. The pencil strokes looked different, hazier somehow. A boulder of digestive juices rolled into his stomach from outer space, making him slouch. His chest felt too heavy for his legs to support.

Melvin jotted some notes on a fresh sheet of paper. “To reiterate my caution, if at any time you feel overwhelmed-”

Roman saw the blood pour down the Claire’s chin instants before both men heard it.

 

The glass was breaking. Not just breaking, but bursting, like puffs of water from a garden sprinkler. The faster she ran, the more frequent the bursts, until she began to feel tiny particles of glass sprinkle onto her bare back in hot splashes of pain.

The glass hallway curved, like one of those spirals that wound around a giant tank at the aquarium. Behind her, where the glass had exploded, she could see nothing.

She was running up the incline, and was not sure how much farther her stamina could hold up. Still, her speed continued to increase. She was no longer in control.

 

Claire was screaming at volumes sufficient to afflict hearing damage on anybody standing nearby. The scream was continuous, interrupted only by choppy gulps of air. Her voice quickly grew hoarse, and became louder as its pitch declined. Her body remained in its angled position between the closet door and the stairwell, forehead still pressed against the wall. Blood was streaming from her face at two locations, her mouth and her left nostril, and smattering the blanket. As the scream progressed, her facial expression made a gradual arc from one of helpless pain to a snarl of murderous intent.

She stopped screaming abruptly and folded to the floor.

Roman, having sprung to his feet, turned snappily to Melvin. “What do we do?”

Melvin spoke as if addressing his Army squadron with battle instructions (Roman had heard rumors about Melvin’s military career, but never inquired). “Absolutely nothing.”

Claire lay in a tangle on top of the pile of blood-soaked blanket, breathing rapidly.

Roman moved surreptitiously closer to Claire without lifting his feet. “What would happen if we didn’t do absolutely nothing?”

Melvin did not answer.

Both men were startled by a loud knock at the door and a gruff voice yelling Claire’s name. Moments later, Richard stood in the center of the triangle that was Roman, Melvin and Claire, looked at them in bewilderment and then burst out laughing. He was wearing a flannel jacket and a pen behind his ear, held in place by his greasy black, curly hair.

Richard rolled up his sleeves. “I ought to beat the piss out of you punks.”

Roman took a step between Richard and Claire. “Sir, can I ask why you laughed?”

Richard shrugged. “This don’t make any sense. None of it.”

“Richard.” Claire spoke softly, as though the syllable were a sigh and not a name.

Richard bent down. “Mind telling me what these gentlemen are doing here?”

“I told you not to come,” she said drowsily.

“I peed myself.”

Everyone turned to the front door where Nathan stood quivering, his eyes downcast.

“Where were you?” Richard snapped.

“This is what happens,” Nathan said to the floor.

When Roman extracted the twelve aluminum spikes from the grass, he did not look at the fresh human blood on the tips of each of them save for one: the midnight peg.

 

Richard demanded to know why three containers of dental floss lay on the table.

Nathan demanded to know how the circle string game was played.

Roman and Melvin drove back to the office in tense silence.

 

Claire began to hear Flory clawing at the wall every morning.

Magic words were, from then on, ineffectual.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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Portland Fiction Project

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