A lone cry echoed through the corridors and jarred Claire from the pleasant escape of her dreams. As she fought the pull of slumber, confusion set in, followed by a mounting sense of dread. Her heartbeat hitched and Claire felt the security of her false world slip away bit by bit, like tiny grains of sand sifting through an hourglass. Before her eyes even opened, she wanted to run, to hide—to disappear forever. The bloodcurdling wail increased in intensity, bringing one terrifying word to mind.
The mere thought made her blood run cold. Fear trickled down her spine and guilt rose in the pit of her stomach. Claire knew, without opening her eyes that he was watching, waiting, gauging her every reaction. His unmistakable scent infiltrated the room. It carried on the spring breeze wafting through the window. Still, she chanced a peek into the darkness, only to wince and draw deeper into the comforter. Two eyes stared back at her. Wide, accusing, and so pale they appear to glow; they watched, unblinking from the shadows.
The sweet, earthy aroma of sandalwood and smoke grew stronger as Aldric approached the bed. Her ears prickled, filling with the soft rustle of his clothing. He closed the distance between them in long, graceful strides, his feet soundless on the wooden planks. Slender, cool fingers brushed her cheek in a deceptively tender gesture. There was no place to go, no method of escape, and she stared up at him, conveying a silent plea with her eyes, hoping he would understand.
His voice was velvet and seductive, a compelling baritone. It could lead angels from heaven and lure them straight into the depths of hell. After all, she had followed, unaware of what fate held in store—unaware or uncaring. She couldn’t resist Aldric’s tragic beauty any more than an art collector could resist an original Monet. Now, it was too late to make amends.
His generous lips curved into a smile, as if he sensed her thoughts. She watched as an ebony lock slipped out of place to rest against the pale satin of his cheek. Aldric’s eyes mesmerized, but the mock concern glimmering in those shamrock pools didn’t fool her. Not anymore.
Claire averted her gaze to watch the sheer curtains dance in the breeze. They moved beneath invisible fingers, plied by a grace and beauty she no longer understood. The scent of warm lilac teased her senses and, for a moment, she let it wrap her in comfort. It chased away the damp odor of mildew lurking beneath the sandalwood and smoke, the smell of rot that encased the walls of her prison.
Outside, the clouds shifted and a thin sliver of light spilled through. The pale glint of the moon eased the dark shadows, and for one blissful second, all was forgotten until another keening wail sliced the silence.
Hungry and demanding, the sound set her nerves on edge. Claire swallowed against the acidic bile lodged in her throat. Her breath came in shallow snorts; her nostrils flared.
A sigh of strained patience escaped her lover. Aldric took her hand in his, holding it against his breast. She thought she could feel a rhythmic thud beneath her palm, but words skittered through her brain like roaches scuttling for shadow: deception, trickery . . . until she realized it was only the violent hammer of her own heart that she felt.
Claire’s lips pressed together in a grim line to keep the screams from coming. Madness swelled within, and she prayed that the burgeoning weight would become too much. That like rain, the terror would break free and fall to the earth in driving sheets. Perhaps it would cleanse her and wash away all that she had done.
Aldric drew her against him and cut her thoughts short. His fingers speared through the damp tangles of her hair making her tense on instinct. Without warning, his arms wrapped around her and squeezed like a snake constricting its prey. Claire whimpered, terrified he’d somehow found out about her secret—her dirty, shameful secret.
She hated them.
Philomena’s cries grew louder still. Wetness trickled down Claire’s bosom. It seeped through the thin nightie in blossoming stains, stains that threatened to purge her soul. Hot crimson flooded her cheeks, bringing a hint of warmth not found in the air. It wasn’t enough to chase away the cold that settled into her whenever those bloodcurdling wails pierced her ears. The fires of Hell itself couldn’t banish those chills.
Aldric tipped her chin, forcing her gaze to meet his. Claire trembled beneath his touch, fear and revulsion wreaking havoc on her frazzled system. Her breath caught with a hitch and she prayed he couldn’t see through her thin disguise. His eyes gave nothing away, but something sinister rose in their depths.
A scream bubbled against Claire’s lips.
“The baby needs you.”
For a moment, confusion obscured her thoughts. Baby? What baby? Then, realization sank in, dropping like weighted lead through her heart.
With rubbery legs, Claire stood. She forced a smile for Aldric’s benefit though every fiber in her being tingled with nervous tension, screaming at her to run; run as far, and as fast, as she could. Each step made her feel as though she were falling forever downward into an eternal abyss. The urge to flee tore through her in ragged bolts, errant surges of electricity and impulse. Yet, she couldn’t break free. Her body, weak and pathetic, betrayed her. It answered the call of the soulless and damned.
She inched into the hall, flipping the switch on her way past. Soft, welcoming light flooded the corridor, but the shadows still remained. They always remained. Claire shuffled forward, one foot at a time. The movements stiff and robotic, disassociated from her own body, as if she were sleepwalking or moving in a trance. She wished that was the case: that she could somehow wake from the nightmare . . . that Aldric and Philomena would somehow disappear and let her gather the few shards of sanity that remained.
Why had she not listened to that screaming voice of conscience? She had known since day one that something was wrong . . . terribly wrong. Aldric had been too good to be true. Yet, like a fool, she kept coming back for more. She had believed his lies, his seductive coos, and promises of love. One icy touch had sent all sense of reason into permanent hibernation. His pale, penetrating eyes had hypnotized, immobilized, and now she was trapped in a nightmare from which she would never awake.
Claire’s eyes drifted shut when another heinous wail lanced the silence. Her blood turned frigid as if glaciers crept through her veins. She shook, the aftershock rippling through her body in an uneasy tide. Beneath the demanding scream, something else rose. A whimper echoed in her ears, the soft, pleading noise similar to a frightened animal. It took Claire a moment to realize the sound emanated from her own throat. Ashamed at her cowardice, and terrified Aldric would speed her progress along, she crept forward.
The antique doorknob rattled in her grasp. She hated the old, rundown house almost as much as she hated its occupants. The brass chilled her palm, sending another frigid stab of fear straight through her heart. Her nightgown clung to her flesh, saturated with a mixture of milk and stinking sweat as Philomena’s shrieks grew more savage, and with the last bit of latent courage that remained, Claire pushed the door open.
An arctic blast assailed her, driving the breath from her body in frosty plumes. Low bursts of fog rose above the crib in the center of the room, growing with each lofty scream. Claire stared in horror through the thin, wooden rails, watching Philomena’s pale fists pump in the air. Her heart seized in her chest as that monstrous head turned at the intrusion and the baby fixated her with an accusing glare. Silvery blue eyes, so light they were almost clear, shone with anger and hatred.
It took every ounce of strength she had not to turn tail and run.
Claire edged forward, one hand held out in uncertainty, as if she could somehow placate the beast. Her heart jack hammered against her chest and cinched with pain. Tears stung her eyes, but she was certain they looked nothing like the watery graves her daughter boasted. A muffled sob vibrated in the hollow of her throat, and Claire fought the familiar mixture of dread and horror that consumed her whenever she dared too close to the room. She ached to offer a reassuring coo, to pick the child up and nurse her with all the love and care of a normal mother, but she couldn’t. She hated the caterwauling beast confined in its crib. The mere thought of touching it made Claire’s skin crawl as if infected by maggots.
Fighting a wave of rising gorge, she pressed forward. Philomena stared up at her, her colorless eyes brimming with resentment. Gaunt, pinched features twisted with fury as she screamed. Claire’s hands twitched at her sides. The urge to suffocate the monster surged through her veins. Somehow, she had to rid the world of the miscreation sprawled before her, undo the damage she had done. There had to be a way . . .
Those eyes, those soulless eyes, bore into her with fevered intensity. She felt a disturbing sense of calm settle into her core, and Claire knew, as she lifted the creature to her bosom, that Philomena had worked her demon’s spell once again. It was no more than a glimmer of a thought, and as soon as the notion came, it passed. She shuffled toward the old rocking chair in the corner, no longer mindful of the room’s unsettling chill or the revulsion wrenching her soul. All that mattered was feeding the precious bundle in her arms.
Loud suckling noises filled the air. Tiny lips quested against Claire’s exposed flesh, smacking with zeal until they found what they sought. She let her eyes drift shut, though her body stiffened with pain. The baby feasted, and she remained motionless, staring at the wall as it attempted to quench its endless hunger. The pain grew more intense and a low, rumbling growl snapped Claire to full attention. Cursing, she wrenched Philomena away, her own brow drawing in furious reprimand.
“Ouch! You hideous little—”
Philomena let loose a scream that slaughtered the words in Claire’s throat. It was unearthly and raw, a forceful protest wrought with loathing. She watched in wide-eyed horror as the screams seemed to multiply, growing to a cacophony of voices rising from a single being, none of them human, but all of them emitting from a mouth smeared with blood.
Two rows of tiny, razor-sharp teeth jutted in ragged intervals from the baby’s gums, none of them wider than a sewing needle. Claire blinked in disbelief—once, twice, but the gruesome image still remained. Philomena flailed, her crimson-smeared mouth opening wider with each furious scream. Without thinking, Claire flung the swaddled infant to the floor and sprang to her feet. Hands splayed in front of her, she staggered away from the abomination; a series of high-pitched mewls squeaked past her throat as she inched toward the door. She could feel the insidious mixture of blood and milk trickling down her skin. Each sinister kiss against her flesh made Claire shudder. She had to get out.
Philomena lifted her head, and even from where Claire stood, she could see the thick blue-grey veins throbbing beneath the surface of the bulbous monstrosity. She could smell the sickly-sweet stench radiating from the creature she was forced to call a daughter. Her hand fumbled for the doorknob behind her, her fingers scrabbling against coarse wood. A sharp yelp pushed past her throat, and she pulled back to find a splinter lodged beneath her nail.
The aberration on the floor sensed her weakness, however fleeting. It pushed itself up, its tiny arms quivering beneath the strain. Claire screamed, but even the shrill, jarring sound could not drown out the voice in her head—the quiet, pleading voice that kept insisting this just wasn’t possible. The baby, if she could be called such, was only a couple weeks old, yet here she was, pushing herself up on her hands, her body trembling as she attempted to get her knees beneath her.
Nothing in the parenting books Claire had read prepared her for such a thing.
Philomena crept across the floor, her gown trailing behind her and dragging against the wooden planks with a slithering, raspy sound. She grunted and growled with exertion, but she did not slow. Silvery eyes locked on her mother and the leathered strips of her mouth stretched back into a feral leer. Needle-like teeth glinted in the moonlight, teeth still stained with Claire’s blood.
Terror kept her rooted in place. Claire’s heart performed tricks in her chest. It hammered then stopped, hammered then stopped, until she grew dizzy beneath the spell. Loud roaring droned in her ears, like the roar of the ocean fading in and out in nauseating surges.
Why had she been so weak? Why had she let loneliness get the best of her? Why had she played with that damn Ouija board? Was this her punishment? The house had been so empty before, so quiet and still. Now–now she would give anything for that peace once again.
Frigid fingers bit into her ankle, snapping Claire from her thoughts with a scream. Without thinking, she booted the creature away. She felt a hint of satisfaction as she watched it fly through the air before landing across the room with a loud thud. Her sense of accomplishment died as soon as the first pitiful wail pierced her ears. Filled with pain and mourning, it broke Claire’s heart. It was as if all of the heartbreak and suffering in the world poured forth from her daughter’s lips.
Her hands twisted with panic. Sweat beaded against her flesh, amplifying the chill in the room. Fear-laden icicles draped around her heart.
She didn’t have to turn to see the displeasure etched into Aldrics’s features. It weighed in his voice, sending ripples of unease darting down her spine. Fear constricted her heart to a screeching halt.
“What have you done?”
Answers eluded her. She remained rooted in place as he brushed past her and strode across the room to his beloved daughter. The cries had since quieted to mere whimpers, and even those died as Aldric cradled Philomena in his arms. Her hands and legs dangled limply, performing a lifeless dance as he clutched her against his chest.
Claire held her breath until her lungs ached. Agonizing moments ticked by as she waited to see what would happen next. She didn’t dare breathe as the deep reverberation of Aldric’s voice filled the room. It vibrated off the walls and as she listened, a strange energy tingled around her. The hairs on her arms lifted in response. Even the fine down covering the back of her neck stood on end as Aldric whispered and murmured in foreign tongues, his body bowed over his daughter in a protective arch.
There was a time when his secret language had stirred excitement and arousal; when those strange words and sounds had been exotic and exciting. Now they sounded sinister. The illusions surrounding her life fell away bit by bit, each sloughing off like rotted layers of skin to reveal the ugly, raw seepage beneath. What remained was a glimmer of something so unspeakable it induced madness.
The atmosphere grew heavy, weighted down, and charged with static–like the calm before a storm. Aldric glanced over his shoulder, his pale green eyes full of accusation. Claire withered beneath the hatred, her knees trembling as she struggled to draw air into her aching lungs.
“How does it feel to die, Claire, to feel your life slip helplessly through your hands while others look on with disinterest?”
She clutched at her throat, her fingers clawing in desperation against the invisible chokehold. As she did, she watched the heinous bundle in Aldric’s arms begin to stir. The long, gangly fingers twitched and curled and Philomena’s chest heaved in a lofty cry.
Claire hit the floor, hands and knees splayed against the rough wooden planks as darkness closed in. She wanted to clasp her hands over her ears to drown out the shrill, monstrous noise. Never in her life had she heard anything like it. It was as if every legion in hell had been unleashed and now resided in the single, solitary scream emitting from her daughter.
As much as she hated that hideous beast, Claire never imagined that would be the last thought, the last thing to flitter through her mind. But as her body jerked on the floor, ensnared in death’s final throes, Philomena’s name echoed with haunting clarity inside her head.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
A lone cry pierced the night, pulling Claire from the pleasant shroud of her dreams. She stirred against her pillow, resisting the urge to sink deeper into the comforter and give in to the sweet promise of slumber. Her eyes drifted open and she listened, for a moment, to the rhythmic breathing of her lover as he slept beside her. Another wail lanced the silence and Aldric rolled over, a mumbling protest falling from his lips.
She stared at him, admiring the beauty of his features and the smooth scape of his skin beneath the kiss of the moon. Bathed in an alabaster glow, he was almost too beautiful to resist. Not wanting Philomena to disturb him, Claire slid from bed, grabbed her robe from the rocking chair, and padded out of the room on quiet feet.
Hungry, demanding screams grew in intensity and pitch. Her heart sunk in response. Philomena was waiting and obviously not pleased at the inconvenience. Claire made her way down the corridor leading to the baby’s room, the smell of death and decay heavy in her nostrils. She wrinkled her nose, trying to locate the source as she made her way down the hall.
Nudging the door open, she stood for a moment and observed the crib situated in the middle of the room. A low, dense fog hung above the wooden rails, growing larger with each fervent cry. Taking a deep breath, she braced herself and pushed forward.
There, inside the crib, lay a swaddled bundle with ashen skin. One side of the baby’s face had fallen away and a dark, empty hollow sat where an eye had once been. The other stared up, a single watery grave, as Philomena regarded her mother with hatred.
Claire felt an overwhelming surge of guilt wash over her as she plucked her daughter into her arms. She cradled Philomena against her breast and issued a mumbled apology. She had been a bad mother as of late, a very bad mother. Tears welled in her eyes, each one stinging like fire. What had she done to her beautiful, beautiful baby girl?
She pressed her lips against the straggly patch of coarse hair covering Philomena’s scalp. Rotting flesh clung to her mouth as she pulled away to offer a nipple and settle in the chair. She had been so tired lately; even the slightest movements left her feeling drained and exerted. Gentle moonlight fell through the lone window centered in the room. It fell across her skin, revealing mottled blots and leathery patches. She swore it grew worse as the baby fed, yet Philomena, her precious, beautiful child grew more radiant with each ardent suckle. Two watery blue eyes now stared up at her, unblinking in the darkness.
“That’s right, baby. Eat,” Claire urged, her voice coming in a grated whisper. A single tooth fell from her mouth and skittered across the floor. “Everything is going to be okay now. Momma’s here.”
© Adriana Noir – 2010