The unearthly moaning was coming from the basement. The sound was barely human and, maybe, she realized with a shudder, not human at all! She’d never been allowed in the basement. Her mother had told her there were things in this world that children should never see. But now her mother was dead. Now she was alone.
Fifteen-year-old Natalie Jennings, her legs folded beneath her on the couch, stared at the screen on her laptop and frowned. She read the words again, then, with a sigh of disgust, highlighted the whole thing, deleted it, and started over.
It was coming from the attic! Her mother had warned her never to go up there, but what could she do? A voice was crying for help, a voice she hadn’t heard since she was a child. She had to climb up that ladder, even though it was insane. Even though the person that voice belonged to had been dead for over ten years.
Another sigh, another highlight, another deletion.
The sun was setting. She knew if she didn’t find her way out of these woods pretty soon, she’d die. The temperature was dropping; it would be near zero by nighttime. Her frosty breath caught in her throat as she heard twigs snap. The awful crunching and growling sounds were getting closer. The thing somehow knew she was nearby. It was all she could do not to scream.
She gasped, jolted back to the moment. Her mother had, once again, snuck up on her. It was uncanny. Natalie shut the laptop, but she knew it was too late.
“Trying to write a horror story, are we?”
How long had she been standing there? Natalie cursed herself for thinking she could do this out here in the living room.
Angela Jennings was an imposing woman of nearly five-foot-ten, and she loomed over the couch as Natalie blinked up at her. Her mother always seemed to be looming.
“I’d rather catch you watching porn,” Angela said with an upward twitch of her lip. “Horror stories are cheap. Any no-talent hack can write a horror story.”
Natalie knew it wasn’t just any no-talent hack her mother was talking about, it was her father. More than five years had passed since the divorce, but her parents’ hatred of each other had, if anything, intensified.
Writing wasn’t their only battlefield, but it was a major one for her mother, since she was a best-selling author and her father wasn’t. No matter how many prestigious awards he’d won in advertising, no matter how many years he’d tried, publishers and agents relentlessly passed on Paul Jennings’ writing. Writing that happened to be horror stories.
“Don’t you have homework to do?” Angela said.
“Yeah, actually, thanks for reminding me.” Natalie grabbed the laptop and jumped up off the couch. “I think I’ll do it in my room.”
She plodded down the hallway, then paused at the door. “Anytime you want to sneak up on me and crap all over my work, just feel free.”
She stepped into her room and slammed the door.
“I swear, Estelle, she’s doing this to punish me.”
Estelle Lewis took a sip of her Cosmopolitan and frowned across the table at Angela. “So ignore it; don’t let it get to you.”
They were having their usual Tuesday lunch at Newbury’s on Lexington Avenue. Estelle had been Angela’s editor for over a decade, enduring the early struggles and now sharing in the unbridled success of her “Nadia Jensen” series.
“I can’t ignore it.” Angela sipped at her own Cosmo. “Natalie has such potential, and it kills me to see her wasting her time on this garbage.”
“Horror is a perfectly legitimate genre, you know. Many fine writers have come out of it, Edgar Allan Poe, Steven King, H. P. Lovecraft…”
Angela waved a dismissive hand. “They may be fine writers, but they’re polishing a turd. It’s easy to dream up something gross and disgusting. All you have to do is put it on paper and, voilá, you’re a horror writer! You don’t even have to explain why anything happens, because it’s all supernatural.”
“Well, not always…”
“My books are about real things, real feelings, real people. And you’d think, since she’s the inspiration for my heroine, that she’d appreciate it.”
Estelle thought that having to be the “real life” Nadia Jensen couldn’t be easy for Natalie, or anyone. It would be impossible to live up to that beautiful, vivacious young girl, wise beyond her years. To Natalie, it probably seemed like rejection, like her mother preferred a fictional daughter to her real one. But, of course, Estelle always kept such opinions to herself.
“I know her father’s behind this,” Angela said.
“You really think so?”
“I have no doubt about it.”
She took another sip, a longer one this time. Angela usually nursed a single drink during their lunches together. The food hadn’t yet arrived, and her glass was almost empty. Estelle didn’t like that.
“Paul can lord it over all his flunkies at the ad agency,” Angela muttered, “but he’s not going to be Natalie’s ‘creative director,’ not as long as I’m alive.”
“Uh huh,” Estelle said, allowing her client to vent.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do about this, but I’ll think of something.”
“Well, don’t think too hard, okay? You don’t want to get sidetracked when we’re making such good progress. How’s Chapter Thirteen coming along, any problems?”
“No…no problems.” Angela gazed off into the distance.
Estelle didn’t like that either.
Paul Jennings held the phone to his ear and stared numbly at the spectacular midtown view outside his office window. It could have been a brick wall for all he noticed it. His brow furrowed as he listened to the diatribe pouring out of the phone at him.
“That’s not true, Angela,” he said for the third time, when she finally paused for breath. “Listen, I’m in a meeting. I’ll call you back.” With that, he clicked her off.
Jim Haskins, his chief copywriter, sat in the visitor’s chair. He gave Paul an embarrassed half-smile.
“Don’t worry, it’s nothing you haven’t already heard me complain about,” Paul said. “Just another paranoid chapter in my ex-wife’s saga of insanity. Now she thinks I’m corrupting my daughter by turning her into a horror writer. If I know Angela, it’s because her latest piece of treacly, sentimental crap didn’t sell as many copies as her other idiotic trash, and she’s upset.”
He adjusted himself in the chair, a more modest one than the usual executive’s throne. Paul believed that big chairs only made him look smaller. At one time, he’d considered becoming a jockey, until he realized that he didn’t like horses.
“Personally,” Jim Haskins offered, “I think your horror stories are some of the finest I’ve ever read.” He was a young man in his early thirties with wavy blond hair and a perpetual one-day growth of stubble on his face. He’d only recently become Paul’s head copywriter, after his blockbuster Machismo Pale Ale—We Bring The Male campaign. “I still don’t understand why you could never find an agent or a publisher.”
“Whatever the reason, it probably had Angela’s grimy fingerprints all over it,” Paul sighed. “So Natalie’s writing horror stories, eh? Good for her.” He looked over at the storyboard Jim Haskins had set up across the room. “All right, Jim, blow me away. Show me how we’re gonna win the Founding Fathers Mutual Insurance Company account.”
“I thought you’d never ask.” Jim Haskins sprang from the chair and moved over to the storyboard. He proceeded to outline his TV campaign, featuring cartoon versions of Washington and Jefferson. In the first one, they’ve totaled their cars in front of the Capitol Building (which wasn’t completed back then, but they’re cartoons driving cars, so who cares?), and they realize they’re both insured with the same company, Founding Fathers Mutual.
“Whew, that’s a relief,” says Jefferson. “Let’s give ’em a call, and then we’re e pluribus unum.”
“What’s that mean?” says Washington.
“It means we’re both taking the bus.”
Paul was finding it hard to pay attention. He couldn’t get over the notion of Natalie writing horror stories. She’d never been interested in his work before. Ever. In fact, for the last couple of years she’d been nothing but a withdrawn, sulky teenager who barely seemed to tolerate his presence. What an interesting surprise. What a revelation.
He felt his creative juices, hopelessly frozen for so long, begin a slow trickle. For the first time in a long time, he wanted to write. And tonight, by God, he would. He had the glimmering of an idea, and the unmistakable feeling it was going to turn into the best story he’d ever written. A tale filled with excruciatingly delicious horror.
The silence in the room brought him back. Jim Haskins had stopped speaking and was looking at him, awaiting his reaction. Paul’s mind was a complete blank.
“Terrific,” he mumbled, “I love it.”
Natalie wheezed as tendrils of smoke crept from her nostrils. “I wish the two of them would die!” she sputtered. Her friend Peter laughed.
“Don’t talk,” he said. “You’re wasting some good weed.” They were supposed to be in Political Science, but were instead sharing a joint under the empty stands by the football field.
“I don’t care, I really hate them!” Natalie expelled the rest of the smoke in a pungent cloud. “I hope they die horrible deaths!”
Peter looked around nervously. “Don’t talk so loud, okay?” He passed her the joint again. “Here, have another toke and hold it in this time. It’ll calm you down.”
She tried to do it, as her face turned red with the effort; not only to hold in the smoke, but to hold in the vitriol that wanted to pour out of her. Finally, she exhaled. “God, I hate them,” she said, more softly.
Peter leaned back against a supporting beam and stretched out his legs. “Hey, I know how you feel about parents.”
“Do you? Do you know what it’s like to be bounced around between a domineering, egocentric bitch and a talentless asshole who thinks he’s a genius?”
“I know what it’s like to be a skinny nerd with terminal acne and two parents that drink,” he said. “I know what it’s like to carry around a name like Peter Dorkley. We’ve all got problems, Natalie.”
She scoffed. “You don’t have mine. Did you ever write a horror story?”
Peter smiled. “Every day of my life.”
“No, seriously. I’m writing one, and my mother can’t stand it. She threw a shit fit last night.”
He leaned in closer. “A horror story? What’s it about?”
“I don’t know.” She shook her head in exasperation. “Anyway, that’s not the point!”
“Shh,” he warned her, “keep your voice down. I want to show you something.” He reached into his pants pocket and took out a package of cigarette-rolling papers. There was no brand name on it. The packet’s rectangular shape was slightly crooked, and its color was jet black.
“If you’re into the supernatural,” Peter whispered, “how about this? I found these papers in the back of my desk drawer last night, and I don’t know how they got there. I definitely didn’t buy them.”
“So? Maybe the maid stashed them in your drawer, or one of your parents did.”
“No maid, and no way. My parents are juice heads and they hate pot; they always have. But there’s another explanation. Do you remember the Moroccan family that owned the furniture store downtown, the Yasamins? You remember their son Hassan?”
“Boy, do I. He was in my Algebra class last year. Creepy to the max. Everyone was afraid to talk to him because he always looked so angry. We voted him most likely to come to school some day with an assault rifle.”
“That’s him. And do you also remember how the furniture store burned down one night, and the family disappeared?”
Natalie made a disgusted face. “Didn’t they find lots of animal remains in the basement? Some of them with their heads cut off?”
“That’s right. Well, just a week before the store burned down, my parents bought my desk there. I think the rolling papers were in the back of the drawer all along. I think they belonged to Hassan.”
Natalie made an even more disgusted face. “Ick,” she said.
“And that makes this next part even weirder. I didn’t think anything of it last night when I found the papers, so I rolled a joint with one of them and smoked it while I was studying for my first-period history exam.”
“I’ll bet that helped,” she said sarcastically.
“Turns out it might have, but not how I thought. While I was toking up, I distinctly remember wishing real hard that the test would somehow be cancelled.”
“And you’re going to tell me it was.”
“That’s what I’m going to tell you.” Peter looked down at his sneakers. “When we got to class this morning, we found out our history teacher, Mr. Briggs, had a massive heart attack last night. He’s in the hospital right now, in critical condition.”
Her jaw dropped. “Oh, man. But you can’t think your wish had anything to do with it.”
“I don’t know.”
“Let me see those papers.”
Peter handed her the packet and she examined it. She held it gingerly by the sides, trying to touch as little of it as possible. Up close, the color wasn’t just black; it had textures to it, wavy shadows of even deeper black. As she stared at them they seemed to form the outline of a skull. A terrible thought occurred to her.
“Was that joint we just smoked rolled with one of these papers?”
“Uh, actually, yeah,” said Peter.
A chill went through her. “Oh, God,” she cried, “I just wished my parents would die horrible deaths!”
Peter gave her a feeble grin. “Oops.”
Angela, despite what she’d told Estelle, was indeed having problems with Chapter Thirteen of the latest Nadia Jensen novel. In fact, “problems” was a mild euphemism for it.
First of all, she’d almost gotten killed driving back to Scarsdale this afternoon. Okay, maybe she shouldn’t have had that second Cosmo, but she’d driven under the influence before and never even come close to an accident. Not today. Today, she’d almost slammed head-on into an SUV at sixty miles an hour.
She couldn’t stop thinking about it. True, he was driving very close to the double yellow line, but she was the one who’d gone over it. She didn’t even know why. Her mind must have wandered for just that moment.
She’d yanked the steering wheel at the last possible instant and brought the car swerving back into the left lane, almost sideswiping the car next to her.
Then after she got home, her nerves jangling, she overheard Natalie leaving a message on the phone for her father and couldn’t help wondering what that was about. Yelling at Paul today had made her feel good for awhile, but hearing Natalie’s voice as she was leaving the message disturbed her. It sounded anxious, like Natalie was worried about him.
And the way Natalie looked at her when she walked in the door, like seeing her was an incredible relief. She even asked Angela if she was all right, something she’d never done in her life. Angela was just on the verge of telling her about the near collision, but something made her stop. Instead, she murmured, “Of course I’m all right, dear,” or something like that.
Now, she sat in her office staring at the computer, trying to write Chapter Thirteen, the scene where Nadia is at her girlfriend Renee’s house. They’re hatching a scheme to make Renee’s parents approve of her new boyfriend. Nadia suggests that while the parents are vacationing in Aruba, the boyfriend should come over and build a fancy wet bar in the basement for Renee’s dad.
“They always wanted to do something with the basement, didn’t they? Well, here’s your chance to do something,” Nadia said, and Angela wrote. Or so she thought.
She looked up at the screen and gasped.
Instead of the words she’d written, it said:
“The unearthly moaning was coming from the basement. The sound was barely human and, maybe, she realized with a shudder, not human at all!”
Paul Jennings was having no such problems. In fact, he was on a roll. He looked up from the computer screen and gazed out his penthouse window, past his terrace, at the twinkling city beyond. God it felt good to be writing again!
“Creative License” was the title of his story. It was about a bitchy, middle-aged female fiction novelist (modeled after Guess Who), who’s experiencing severe writer’s block. In her desperation, she goes to a gypsy fortuneteller, who gives her a magic potion that she’s supposed to drink just before she sits down to write.
She does, and an idea pops into her head, an incredible idea. No sooner do her fingers touch the keyboard, when another idea occurs to her, an even better one than the first. She tries to write it down, but then another idea occurs to her. Then another, and another.
She sits paralyzed, her hands above the keyboard. The ideas are coming faster and faster now, blurring together like drops of water in a swirling torrent. They inundate her mind, and she can’t grab on to any of them. They’re here and gone, here and gone.
Her head begins to ache from the effort, and then it gets worse. Much worse. In fact, it’s unbearable. A scream bursts from her throat.
Paul sat back and admired what he’d done so far. Yes, it really was good to be writing again. He glanced at his answering machine, which had several messages. They could wait.
Okay, how could he torture his main character now? Maybe he’d have her finally get clear of the headaches and begin to write, only to find that the words she was typing were someone else’s. And even better, they were the words to a horror story. Yes, yes!
He hastened to do just that, his fingers flying over the keys. He’d never been in such a zone. It was almost as if the story were writing itself. His focus was so great that it took several minutes before he realized he couldn’t feel his hands. He looked down and his breath caught.
His hands had no flesh. From the wrist down, they were the hands of a skeleton.
A scream burst from his throat, just like his character’s scream. He pulled his hands away from the keyboard and, instantly, they became normal again.
He carefully examined his fingers and flexed them. They seemed to be okay. A trick of the light? It must have been, but what a weird thing! He took several deep breaths to steady himself, then carefully placed his hands back on the keyboard.
They became skeleton hands.
With an even louder scream, he leaped from the chair. What was happening?
He saw that his hands had become normal again, but it was cold comfort. Was he losing his mind? Did he dare sit back down at that keyboard?
He realized he needed a drink, badly. He stumbled over to the liquor cabinet, poured himself a double scotch, and took it with him out to the terrace.
Two big gulps and five deep breaths later, the hum of traffic forty stories below began to reach his ears and soothe him, as it always did. The city at night was as beautiful as ever. He leaned against the rail and looked out.
Several explanations occurred to him, now that he was calmer. He’d been working too hard, for one. For another, he’d been letting Angela get to him, to the point where he’d been distracted this afternoon during an important presentation. From now on, he decided, he’d take no more calls from her at the office.
“Bullshit, Paul. I’ll call you anytime I damn well please.”
The voice came from behind him. He whirled around, and there she was.
“Angela,” he stammered, “how did you get here?”
She gave that cruel laugh that always set his teeth on edge.
“I don’t have to explain it. You never explain anything that happens in your tasteless, gruesome stories, do you?”
She moved toward him. He pressed his back against the rail.
“You were always such a pathetic little man.” She moved closer. “And now you’re going insane, aren’t you.”
She was a powerful woman, five inches taller than he was and strong. When they’d first met he’d loved that about her.
“So insane that you’re about to tragically and inexplicably end your life.” She reached out and picked him up by the armpits.
He was too shocked to do anything. She was strong, but not this strong. This can’t be real.
She lifted him onto the railing. His head was spinning. This had to be a nightmare; he’d wake up any second now.
“Horror stories!” she spat, as her hands slid down to his ankles.
With a chuckle, she flipped him off the terrace.
At that very moment, the flesh-and-blood Angela was thirty miles away, sitting in front of her computer screen and trying to deal with the strange words that had appeared on it. She vaguely remembered seeing them the night before, as one of Natalie’s pitiable attempts at a story. She must have internalized them somehow.
Shaking her head, she highlighted them, hit the Delete key, and they disappeared. Slowly and carefully she retyped the first six words of Nadia’s dialogue.
“They always wanted to do something…”
The room seemed to tilt beneath her. She thought she was going to faint. On the screen were the words:
“It was coming from the attic!”
“Natalie!” she screamed. “What the hell are you doing!”
She got up from her desk and pounded down the hall toward Natalie’s room, cursing under her breath. Natalie heard her coming and opened the door. She peered out cautiously.
“What’s wrong, Mom?”
“Are you sending some kind of signal to my computer?” Angela wanted to know.
“No, of course not. How could I even do that?” Natalie had the same expression of concern on her face that Angela had seen earlier, when she got home. It was disturbing.
“Are you all right?” Natalie asked again.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Angela said distractedly. She turned away and began to walk back toward her office. Her subconscious must be playing tricks, she decided. Maybe she needed a break. Maybe it was time for a nice, hot, luxurious bath.
Boy, did that sound good! And it had worked many times before. Lying in the tub always seemed to melt away the negativity and free her mind for the task at hand. That’s what she’d do.
She lit a few candles in the bathroom, ran the water as hot as she could stand it, added her favorite bath oil, and climbed in. The effect was immediate. Angela closed her eyes and let herself drift away.
She was just about to reach that calm, familiar state of tranquility when a voice barged its way into her awareness.
“Do you find that things are getting a little strange for you, Angela?”
Her eyes snapped open. Incredibly, there was Paul, sitting on the toilet seat and gazing bemusedly at her.
“Wha…? How…?” was all she could muster.
“I actually don’t look like this anymore,” he said. “Not since you killed me.”
Her mouth hung open. She was speechless.
“Do you want to see how I look now? Please don’t say no, Angela; I really want to show you.”
He smiled and his face seemed to melt. His features became a crimson mass of twitching muscles and tendons. Gray and white brain matter oozed from his shattered skull. His entire body was covered in blood. It dripped off him and pooled on the bathroom floor.
“This is what you look like after you fall off a penthouse terrace,” he said. “But you’re going to be luckier. They’ll have an open coffin at your funeral, which is more than you can say for me.” The blood on the floor disappeared, his features re-formed, and he was once again Paul Jennings.
He stood up and moved over to the tub, where Angela, her eyes shut tight, was moaning softly. “You can look now, Angela. I’m presentable again.”
She opened her eyes but still couldn’t speak. Paul gave her another smile.
“You shouldn’t have taken so much valium before you got in the bath. Lots of famous people have died that way.”
She finally found her voice. “What the hell are you talking about? I didn’t take any more valium than usual.”
“But you must have, because that’s what they’re going to find at your autopsy.” He shrugged. “I guess you weren’t paying attention to what you were doing.”
He reached out, grabbed hold of her head, and shoved her under the water.
She flailed about in panic, trying to breathe, trying to pull his hands off her. But they were like steel clamps. They would not yield. She clawed at them, ever more desperate, feeling herself grow weaker and weaker.
Just before her body went slack and the blackness engulfed her, the last words she ever heard were, “Some horror story, Angela, wouldn’t you say?”
An overflow crowd attended the double funeral at the Riverside Memorial Chapel. Nearly every luminary of the literary and advertising worlds was there, filling the place to the rafters.
The arrangements had been made by Angela’s younger sister Dorothy, who’d immediately flown up from Palm Beach as soon as she heard. Natalie would eventually be moving down there to live with her when everything was settled.
As for Natalie herself, she was a basket case. From the moment she’d discovered her mother’s body in the tub, and her frantic 911 call had been interrupted by the police calling to inform her of her father’s suicide, she’d been nearly catatonic.
She sat now in a corner of the reception lounge, lost in a private hell. Some funeral guests had paid their perfunctory respects and quickly moved on, not knowing what to say to her. Others hadn’t even done that.
A voice penetrated her gloom. “Hey, Natalie?”
She looked up and it was Peter. It almost made her laugh to see how ridiculous he looked in his wrinkled, ill-fitting suit, but laughing was something she’d never do again.
“I just wanted to tell you that it wasn’t your fault,” he said.
“Yeah, right!” She began to weep.
“No, no, really. What happened to your parents was because of them, not you.” He reached down and gently put his hand on her shoulder. “Your wish didn’t have anything to do with it. I made all that stuff up.”
She blinked. She looked up at him with a desperate hope. “You did?”
“Yes. My parents never bought my desk at that furniture store; the desk has been in our family for years. Those rolling papers may have looked weird, but I’ve got a dozen packs of them at home. Their brand name is Skull and Bones rolling papers; they’re a subsidiary of Zig-Zag. Mr. Briggs may have had a heart attack, but I never wished my history exam would be cancelled. It was only a stupid story I made up because you were talking about your horror story. I was just riffing. I never meant to put you through any of this.”
Natalie tried to process what he was saying.
“You made it up.”
“I made it up.”
“You made it all up.”
“I made it all up, I swear.”
She jumped out of the chair and threw her arms around him.
“Oh, Peter! Thank you, thank you. You just gave me back my life!”
He blushed as he held her close. “Hey, that’s okay.”
They stayed like that for a moment. Then Peter looked into her eyes. “You’re making me jealous by moving to Florida, you know. I want to see lots of Facebook posts from you. And don’t stop writing. You know you’re good at it.”
She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. “Maybe,” she sniffled, “but I guess I won’t write horror stories.”
He leaned over and kissed her cheek. “That’s probably a good idea.”
Peter paused on the sidewalk in front of the funeral home for a moment and stood with his eyes closed. To any passersby, he might have been a mourner who was overcome by emotion, but that wasn’t the case. He was having a silent conversation in his head with the angry face behind his eyelids, a face that had appeared to him the night before and utterly destroyed his sleep.
“Okay, Hassan, I did it,” he said silently. “She believed me. You were there, so you saw it.”
The face was impassive.
“Please, Hassan, like I told you a hundred times; I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have used those papers. I shouldn’t have told her about them. So now I’ve made up for it and she’ll never know. Please, I’m begging you. Go away like you promised.”
A guttural voice that dripped with venom answered him.
“We’ll see about that, Geek Face. Meanwhile, it’s time for lunch. There’s a diner across the street, so move your nerdy ass. I’m hungry.”