Alice squinted ahead as the car crawled forward. Her gloved hands tightened on the steering wheel. Did I miss the driveway? Since the sun had set, the unfamiliar rural roads had become impossible to navigate. No other vehicles were around. Along this desolate stretch, her only guide was the full moon in the starless sky. She had no choice but to continue: her tuition payment was past due, and she needed this respite care position.
There. There it is. She swerved onto an unmarked dirt path, hidden amidst a thick tangle of trees. Her little junker car shuddered at the violent ride, jarring her in her seat. As she wound along the narrow route, skeletal branches tapped against the windows and scraped against the doors.
After a sharp bend, a solitary house appeared in the white light of her headlamps. Alice shifted the car into park. The place looked like a ruin: stones had toppled from its walls, shingles from its mossy roof. Deadwood and debris overwhelmed the small clearing. The night was silent, but for the steady stammering of her engine.
Is this right? She checked the rough map that she had scrawled onto a scrap of paper. Her sudden exhalation of breath puffed out, the warm vapor visible in the frigid air. Shit. Yes, it is.
Alice shrank back into her seat. She was in the middle of nowhere, many miles away from home. At least her roommate knew where she was. Her fingers fidgeted with the release button of her fastened safety belt but didn’t yet depress it.
The house seemed abandoned. Its windows were dark squares. Did the man change his mind? Her back straightened. Maybe she wasn’t required, after all.
But it was only yesterday that Alice had found the handwritten notice tacked onto the bulletin board at the student union. When she called the number, the man said the job involved one evening watching over his elderly, comatose father. No medical expertise was required.
The easy money was welcome. Her student loans and work-study at the library weren’t enough to cover the cost of college. Her stepfather had already refused to give her any financial assistance, not for a social work degree. But Alice hadn’t asked for his blood money. She would rather die than take another cent from him.
A lamp in the house snapped on. The man was home. His silhouette passed by the front window.
Leave, leave, leave. An insistent voice with the high pitch of the little girl she had once been echoed in her mind. It’s cold and dark, and I don’t like it.
Alice shook her head and ignored the counsel. Darkness no longer scared her. Real monsters lived in sunlight: men like her stepfather, with his cold beer in one hand, his coiled belt in the other. A lit cigarette dangling from his lips, glowing redder as he neared.
Go home, the child-voice pleaded. But, with Mama dead, home was just the cramped dorm room that she shared with Megan. Without this job, she wouldn’t even have that.
It’ll be fine.
Alice locked the car and knocked on the front door.
“You’re late,” the man said. His gruff voice had lost the undertone of anxious desperation that Alice had heard over the phone. He stepped back to pull the front door wider, enough for her to slip into the house.
“Sorry,” she squeaked toward his chest. “I got lost. There was no one around to ask for directions.”
The man grunted his response, and Alice craned her neck upward. His obsidian eyes glowered at her. Under his trucker’s hat, his heavily-lined face was set in a scowl. He wore a peacoat and dirt-encrusted boots that thudded against the rough-hewn floor.
Alice drew her mouth into a bright smile; always be nice, just like her mama had taught her. “It’s really great you’re taking care of your father like this. Not every son would.” She swallowed hard. “I know how draining it is to care for a sick relative.” Her own mother had taken ill, tending to Grandma Thompson before the old woman’s passing. Mama never recovered, and it wasn’t long before she joined Daddy and Grandma in the family plot. “I’m happy I can help you out with some respite care. Getting anyone to come this far must be hard.”
He gestured with his chin toward the back of the house. “He’s over there.”
Alice followed the man through the barren room. Moonglow filtered through the grimy windows. A lantern burned from the sole table, and shadows danced over the featureless walls. The space tasted of mildew, smelled of decay. She shivered in her down jacket.
“Is the power out?” Alice asked. The man had enough money for his electric bill, she hoped. Enough for her hourly fee, too.
Another grunt. “This is it.” The man stopped in front of a metal door at the end of a dark corridor. “His room.”
Bright light bled from behind the door. “I’ll be back at midnight.” His hand twisted the doorknob. “For his feeding.”
Alice entered the bedroom. “Wait.” She pivoted back to the man. “What’s your father’s name?”
He didn’t answer. The door closed with a clang. Then, silence.
Alice spun around.
The windowless room was filled with blazing firelight that couldn’t defeat the darkness. An unforgiving cold tore through her jacket. The subtle stench of sulfur fouled the still air.
At the sight of the man’s father, her mouth opened to shriek out in horror, but nothing came out.
The father lay motionless, his head propped against a pile of pillows, his large husk of a body covered by a deep maroon bedspread. His ancient face was a disfigured wreck, his flesh melted from his skull like crayons in the microwave. A single glass eye stared forward into oblivion, its pupil a pool of black against a field of white.
Alice was seven years old again, on that endless night her stepfather had trapped her in Grandma Thompson’s dank basement. Mama. The monsters in her head had whispered to her as she huddled in the cold darkness. Mama. She closed her eyes, and their teeth and claws scraped against her exposed skin. Mama! But her mama didn’t dare rescue her, and her grandma was too unwell to try.
“You’ve been stupid again, Alice,” her stepfather had told her before he locked the basement door. “You have to be taught another lesson, Stupid-head.”
Her panicked heart raced. Alice shouldn’t have come to this faraway place in the woods. She should have left.
No. The father is in a coma, Stupid-Head. The words were in her stepfather’s voice. Alice may have run away from his house at age seventeen, but she couldn’t expunge him from her memories.
He can’t hurt me. He can’t.
Next to the bed was a simple, wooden chair. Alice sat down. She stuffed her gloves into her pockets and unzipped her jacket.
“Hello, sir,” she said to the father, “I’m Alice.” The fake smile found her face again. She injected cheer into her voice, but she sounded like that timid little girl trembling in her grandmother’s basement. No, that’s not me. Not anymore. This time, Alice wouldn’t shut her eyes. Clearing her throat, she tried again. “I’m here to help you tonight.” There, that was better. Stronger.
My God. The father didn’t even appear human. A burn victim, she guessed. Alice couldn’t imagine how he must have suffered. No, that’s not true. The scars on her back whimpered a reminder of a past that she had failed to forget.
Her smile faded. Alice had to look away from the piteous devastation of the father. Her gaze ricocheted around the room until it was captured by the flickering flames from the fireplace. A panoply of incongruous colors joined the fiery oranges and yellows, mesmerizing her with their soporific gyrations. A new odor, a sweet odor, wafted toward her. The room warmed, then tilted. Her lids grew heavy, her thoughts leaden.
The fire cracked with a hiss-snap. Her head jerked up at the noise. I fell asleep? Alice didn’t know for how long: her flip phone had died during the drive over. Is it almost midnight? At least the man hadn’t caught her napping; she had to get paid.
And snatched it away.
The bedspread was sticky.
Her hand was imprinted with dark red. Blood. Not mine.
Not his blood.
The father’s marred maw gaped open. Oh God, his teeth…
His clawed hand emerged from under the bedspread and reached for her.
Alice was seven years old again, locked in the basement. She shut her eyes. He can’t hurt me. He can’t. It’s all in my head.
A sharp claw grazed her wrist. She cried out. Warm blood welled from the wound and trickled onto her cold palm. The metallic scent climbed to her nose. Alice clutched her damaged wrist against her chest.
The mattress springs popped. The bedding rustled. Feet thumped against the floor. The bed released the monster’s weight.
Alice didn’t want to see. She opened her eyes.
The monster towered over her. Firelight shifted over its boar-bristled hide. Her head tipped up, and its glass eye swiveled down at her. Its thick tongue lapped her blood from its claw.
Alice tumbled from the chair, landing on her butt. Her palm bloodied the wooden floor. As she scooted backward, a smear of scarlet followed. Her heart fluttered; her breath quickened. She twisted onto her hands and knees. Pushing herself upright, she launched herself toward the door…
And collided with something. Legs. The man was there, between her and the now-open door. He picked her off the floor. His hat and coat were gone, and he wore a blood-stained butcher’s apron over his shirtsleeves. A dirty ax hung from his belt.
“Please,” she begged. “Help me.”
“But it’s midnight, sweet Alice,” the man said. “Time for the feeding.” His scowl had been replaced with a gentle smile that he directed over her shoulder. “The father is pleased with you. The last sitter, though…the father found him distasteful.”
A single tear streaked along her cheek. Her blood dripped from her wrist to her fingers and onto the floor. “Why?” Alice choked out the single word.
“A good son must take care of his father.” The man held her out as an offering to the monster behind her. “And you understand how draining that can be.”
With an ecstatic moan, the monster seized her from the man, pulling her against its gray chest. She gagged at its fetid breath. It angled her head away. Its jaw expanded, and its saliva dribbled down her collar and onto her skin.
Alice struggled to escape its grasp. Her body thrashed; her legs kicked. She inhaled to scream.
But the monster stole away her breath. Its pointed teeth clamped down on her neck and tore away her flesh. An arterial geyser erupted. Its mouth returned to leech away her spurting blood.
The man chuckled. “He’s very hungry. And you, sweet Alice, are quite delicious.” He seemed far away though he stood at her side. His upturned lips were ringed in a red that he licked away. “Like I knew you would be.”
Alice batted at the monster with her weakening limbs. It tightened its obscene embrace while its teeth pierced deeper into her neck.
The room went black. Again, Mama didn’t come for her.
Maria Wolfe lives and writes in northeast Ohio, where she also practiced as a surgeon. She has undergraduate degrees in English Literature, French Language and Literature, and Biology, as well as an MD. Her work will appear in The Examined Life Journal. She enjoys reading, running, and writing. For obvious reasons, her favorite punctuation mark is the colon.