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"So you've seen the house?" asked thirty-eight year old Marge Tupper as she helped her best friend, Linda Blakely, roll dishes in bubble wrap.

Linda and her family would be moving in two days, two hundred, sixty miles away from the city of Branson, Montana to Apple Mountain Valley. Marge had never heard of the place until Phil accepted the position of principal of the private high school there. Linda had told her the town wasn't even half the size of Branson. Marge couldn't imagine living in such a small community. She'd grown up in Branson and loved the hustle and bustle of the city.

"No, but Phil says it's beautiful," replied Linda. "He says he can't wait to move in."

"Why hasn't he yet?" asked Marge.

Phil had already moved to Apple Mountain Valley to take his position. They'd needed him almost as soon as he'd accepted their offer. Marge had been staying with Linda and her two boys, Charles and Christopher, since Phil left. She'd thought he was already settling into the new house.

"They're still remodeling," said Linda with a sigh. "I can't wait to see what it looks like. From what Phil has described it sounds amazing."

"Will the boys have rooms of their own there?" Marge asked.

In the house they were about to leave the boys shared a room across the hall from Linda and Phil's. They'd never complained about rooming together, but Marge imagined they'd both jump at the chance to have their own rooms. She knew she would have never liked sharing a room with her younger sister when they were growing up.

"Yeah," Linda replied, smiling. "The house is so much bigger than this one."

“At least Charles and Chris like to room together," Marge said.

"They're both excited about moving," Linda informed, smiling again.

"I'd have thought they'd both be unhappy about leaving their friends," replied Marge.

"I think it's because this will be their first time attending a private school," laughed Linda. "They'll miss their friends, and I imagine the novelty will wear off the new school sooner or later. Right now I'm just glad they aren't causing me any headache about moving."

"Well, that's that," said Marge boxing the last bubble wrapped plate. "Now what?"

"I think that's all," said Linda, looking around the kitchen. "We're going to be eating on paper plates and using plastic cutlery tonight and tomorrow night."

"TV dinners don't sound appetizing," Marge said, wrinkling her nose.

"We have to be frugal," reminded Linda. "We need to save as much money for the drive as possible."

"Yeah," Marge said after a moment of looking at her best friend hard.

"Things will be better for us in Apple Mountain Valley," said Linda. She said it in such a tone Marge wondered if she was trying to convince herself.

"The very name is a mouthful," snorted Marge.

"It is, isn't it?" laughed Linda. "But the kids will be able to go to a private school, Phil will be making almost triple what he made here and I'll be able to finish my book."

"I suppose," said Marge, but she didn't look happy.

"Oh come on," said Linda, trying to smile at her. "It'll be great. You'll see. This summer you and Ralph can come and visit."

"It's just going to be very strange not having you and the boys around for Christmas," said Marge. "What'll I do with all the fruitcake?"

"Mail them to us," laughed Linda. "You know Charles loves those cakes."

"Disgusting as they are," mumbled Marge.

"I know!" cried Linda, smiling wide. "It isn't as if the trip through the mail could hurt them!"

Then the two of them were wrapped in an embrace, laughing almost hysterically. Linda would miss Marge so much. She was her best friend in the entire world. What would she ever do without her? It was too much to think about, so she just kept laughing and clutching the auburn-haired woman for dear life.

"What's funny?" asked Linda's thirteen-year-old son, Christopher, as he came into the kitchen.

"Nothing, honey," Linda said, letting go of Marge and trying to stifle her laughter. "You guys about ready for bed?"

"We've got the sleeping bags all set up," he replied.

"Well, crawl on into them then," she said. "Tell your brother I said to. I'll be in momentarily to zip you up."

"I'll just set this box with the others," said Marge as Linda watched her son leave the room. "What time are they coming for all of this again?"

"They'll be here at nine," replied Linda.

"Well, at least the boys will be at school," she said. "What are we all sleeping on tomorrow night?"

"The floor, I guess," laughed Linda. "I've got the two down sleeping bags for us."

"It'll be like camping," Marge said sarcastically.

"That's the spirit," Linda said, sticking her tongue out at her friend. "I've got to see to the boys and make sure they turn that television off."

Once she was sure the boys were safely in their sleeping bags, she sat at the dining room table with Marge. The two women drank sodas and talked into the night. Neither of them even noticed when Christopher sat upright and stifled a scream in the back of his throat. He'd been dreaming about a house he couldn't even describe to himself. It was a dangerous place fill with a darkness that wanted to consume him.

Thankfully the dream faded from his memory as he lay his head against the pillow once more. He glanced at his brother's sleeping form in his own bag next to him on the living room floor and sighed. He was safe. He fell asleep again quickly and didn't wake up until his mother was shaking him the next morning. They had little time until the school bus would arrive.

 

*        *        *

 

It was pandemonium in Marge's best friend's house for two hours as the men moved all of the furniture, boxes and appliances to the truck. Once they were gone, she and Linda vacuumed and mopped the floors. Then they sat at the folding card table with more sodas while the boys read their books in the living room.

"You're really going," she said, staring at her friend's red-gold curls that lay on her shoulders. She was going to miss Linda Blakely. They'd been friends since childhood; had grown up living next door to each other. Linda had been Marge's maid-of-honor and a year later Marge had returned the favor when Linda married her flaxen-haired hunk of a husband. They'd vowed to live on the same street and watch their children grow up, and then their grandchildren. That wouldn't happen now. She hadn't really let herself believe that Linda would move. Now there was no denying it. The house was empty.

"Yes," sighed Linda. "Tomorrow morning."

And then they reminisced about years gone by while the boys said their farewells at school. They talked about the first time they'd seen their husbands and what it was like for Linda to hold her firstborn son in her arms for the very first time. They talked about Barbie dolls and lip gloss, short skirts and sneaking out at night to be with their boyfriends, husbands now.

And too quickly the day passed them by. She helped Linda prepare TV dinners in the microwave, one for each of them. They sat around the folding table and ate in near silence. The boys talked about friends they would miss and those they wouldn't. They talked about the private school they'd be attending soon and how much they hated the school they'd just spent their last day in.

All too soon it was time for the boys to be back in their sleeping bags while the ladies retreated with the folding table and fresh sodas to the kitchen. Christopher slept peacefully that night. No nightmares of houses or darkness woke him. He was refreshed and ready for the trip to Apple Mountain Valley when his mother woke them at seven the next morning. Bathroom trips and a quick breakfast and then it was time to say goodbye to Aunt Marge.

She squeezed them both tight, kissing their flaxen heads. Oh how they looked like younger versions of their father. She loved them like sons and she would miss them terribly. Her last hug was for Linda and it was fierce. The two women whispered promises and fought back tears, then Marge was watching them drive down the street until they were gone. Shaking her dark-haired head, she turned and walked down the street to once again take care of the husband she'd neglected so she could say goodbye the right way.

 

*        *        *

 

Two hundred, sixty miles later, after three days of packing, they arrived in Apple Mountain Valley. The boys loved the snowcapped mountain range that served as the backdrop for the town. They drove past the frozen lake that dominated more than half the town lines. She made them both promise to stay off that frozen lake as she drove past it, through the heart of the small town, past the regular public school her children would not attend and the post office and finally to the two-storey white house with the columns in the front and the huge three-car garage that sat to the side and a little behind it.

Her husband's shiny blue Ford F-150 was sitting in the driveway, and she smiled big when she saw it. First thing she wanted was one of those kisses she'd sorely missed and then a bathroom with a toilet and paper to take care of after. She inspected the outside of the house as she led her boys to the front porch.

The clapboard siding was bright and looked new. Sturdy black shutters flanked the windows in the front of the house. Neatly trimmed shrubs lined the front from the edge of the porch on both sides to the end of the front of the house. Two huge evergreen trees stood proud and tall in the front yard.

"Nice," she whispered to herself as she let herself in the front door with the boys. Right into the arms of her husband she walked as the boys went to explore their new home.

Christopher had shuddered when he'd first looked at the house. It seemed oddly familiar to him for some reason. Cautiously he followed his mother inside and the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach got worse as his black and white Nikes touched down on the newly refinished hardwood floor of the huge hall.

The walls were paneled with a dark wood that matched the flooring perfectly. Huge wooden arches opened in three different directions from that hall. One was the dining room with the huge living room across from it. The third opened up into the center of the house with its open room and the "L" shaped staircase that led to the upstairs where their bedrooms were located. That same dark paneling was on the walls of the living room, dinging room and the huge open room they now stood in. It was broken only by the dark brick fireplace in the living room that was topped with a wooden mantle the same shade of dark brown as the walls.

"You boys can go pick your rooms," said their mother as she came into the open room. "No fighting. Then I want the car unloaded."

"Yes, ma'am," they chorused together as they headed for the stairs.

Christopher's unease grew as he walked up the stairs behind his brother. Both boys headed down the hall, but a whispered voice so light he thought he'd imagined it called Chris's name as he past the room across from the master bedroom. He wrapped his shaking hand around the brass doorknob and opened the door.

The room wasn't all that big, yet it wasn't small. There was a nice sized closet at one end of the adjacent wall, two windows across from the door and a blank wall on the other side of the door. He stepped inside and another shudder past through him as he looked for the source of the whispered voice.

"Ha! My room's bigger!" cried Charlie's triumphant voice as he came charging back down the hall and into Chris's, startling him.

"I don't care about that," Chris mumbled in reply. "I hate this place. It makes me feel weird."

"That's just because it's new," said Charlie dismissively. "You'll see. This place is great!"

Chris didn't say another word. He just followed his brother out of the room and back down the stairs to unload the car.

The furniture was supposed to arrive the next morning. Chris told himself that with furniture in the house it wouldn't feel so ominous. He ignored that whispered voice that seemed to be calling his name as he sat at the built in breakfast table in the kitchen with his family.

That night they slept in their sleeping bags on the living room floor, camped out with their parents. Chris had trouble falling asleep even with all the company. Every time he started to nod off he thought he heard the voice again. He finally fell asleep from exhaustion and then it was morning.

The furniture arrived and they were busy all day, arranging rooms and putting together beds. They unpacked clothes and odds and ends and then settled into the dining room for their first family meal in the new house. Chris didn't say much as his family talked over the table. He still felt unsettled in the house and couldn't figure out why. Soon it was once again time to go to bed and he wasn't sure he wanted to sleep alone in his room.

He lay in his bed, trying to go to sleep. He couldn't shake the feeling someone was watching him. He'd felt it since the first time he'd set foot in the house. Something or someone was constantly watching. He couldn't see anyone though. He'd looked in every room of the house. He wanted to look in the attic but it had been forbidden. Something was watching. Something was watching him.

He remembered the dream he'd had two nights before they'd left Branson. All he'd seen in his dream was darkness, but it had scared him more than anything had ever scared him in all of his thirteen years. He remembered the feeling he'd had in that dream; the feeling of unseen eyes watching, and he shivered. That's what this felt like. It was his dream all over again. The only thing missing was the darkness. He was thankful for the moonlight shining in his window, bathing the room in a dim glow. He was thankful until he turned his head to look at the window.

There was a man standing in front of the window surrounded by moonlight. Chris looked up at him and nearly screamed from terror. The man was dressed in what looked like a hospital gown. Dark blue-black bruises nearly covered the man's arms. His skin was pale, framed by close cropped black hair. What Chris took a moment to actually see was that the man had no eyes. In the sockets where eyes were supposed to be was nothing but blackness. He reached out his hand, and Chris started screaming.

It seemed like an eternity before his bedroom door flew open, his light was turned on and his parents were in the room. His father looked around the room, trying to find the source of his son's terror and found nothing. His mother's hand was clutching at the neckline of her nightgown as she stared straight at him. Chris could barely take his eyes off her, but he had to see if the man was still there. He nearly gasped when he saw there was no one in front of the window. The ghostly man was gone.

"There was a man," he said breathlessly, his silent eyes pleaded with his parents to believe him. One look at his father's stern face showed him that belief wasn't something he was capable of that night.

"You're too old for this crap, Chris," his father said in a gruff voice. "Dreams..."

"I wasn't dreaming," he said, interrupting his father. "There was a man..."

"Enough!" cried his father, startling him. He'd never yelled at him before in his life. "Go to sleep, Chris. Not another sound."

"But..."

"Did you hear me?" his father asked, glaring at him.

They left the room after that, turning the light off as they went. Chris sat in the darkness and tried not to cry. They hadn't believed him! He couldn't understand. It wasn't as if he lied to them all the time. They had to believe him! His father's stern face filled his mind and he realized they weren't going to believe him. He was alone again. He was alone in the dark where anything could get him.

"Merry Christmas," he whispered as he turned on the bedside lamp.

 

*        *        *

 

"What are you doing?" Phil asked his wife when she didn't turn into their room with him. She headed for the stairs.

"I just want to check the doors," she said quietly. "He's never lied to us, Phil."

"Linda, there's no one in the house," he said, striving for calm.

"Humor me," she said and disappeared down the stairs.

He shook his head angrily and went back to the bedroom, pausing outside Chris's door when he saw the faint light spilling under the door. He sighed and moved into his room across the hall and closed the door. He was getting into bed when Linda let herself into the room. She looked at him with guilty eyes before she took off her robe and walked over to the bed.

"Well?" he demanded.

"They're both locked tight," she said softly.

"Like I said," he replied, turning to turn off the lamp.

She slid under the covers and pulled them up to her chin. Phil turned away from her onto his side with a disgusted sigh. Had there really been a man in Chris's room? He'd never lied to them before. Why would he lie about this? Why...he wouldn't lie. He'd been mistaken. That's all it was. He'd been asleep and dreamt the man. She mentally chastised herself for being afraid of one of her son's dreams and snuggled against her husband's back to sleep what was left of the night away before Christmas morning.

Phil was still sleeping when the alarm went off at five. Linda sighed as she reached across him to turn it off. The turkey wasn't going to bake itself. She had things to do. She started humming to herself as she descended the stairs. It was Christmas! They had a lovely home, Phil had a great job and the kids would start their new school just after the new year. She should be happy. She decided as she entered the kitchen she would be happy.

She had the turkey in the oven and the apple simmering on the stove when Phil came down for his cup of coffee. Still no sign of the boys could be seen or heard but she expected that to change as soon as the smell of the food woke them. Her decision to be happy had worked so far. She even kissed Phil as she handed him his cup of coffee.

"Merry Christmas," she said, smiling at him.

"You're in a good mood this morning," he said, smiling back. She tried not to notice the smile didn't reach his eyes.

He sat at the breakfast table to read the paper while she prepared her pie crusts. She was filling one with the softened apples when Charles came into the kitchen. He smiled at her and she smiled back. His smile was genuine. She could always count on her Charlie for happiness.

"Merry Christmas, Mom," he said as he accepted a bowl of soft apples.

"Merry Christmas, Sweetheart," she said. "Where's your brother?"

"Must still be sleeping," said Charles. "What was all the screaming about last night?"

"Your brother had a bad dream," she said, eyeing her husband. He'd kept his head behind his paper.

"Must have been some dream," said the boy. "He never wakes up screaming like that."

"It was a bad dream," his father said from behind his paper in a voice that left no room for argument.

Then Christopher walked into the kitchen. He didn't smile and he didn't say anything. He shook his head when Linda offered him a bowl of apples and got his own bowl, a box of cereal and milk from the fridge. He silently filled his bowl and put the box and milk away before picking up his bowl and spoon and heading for the dining room. Linda sighed as she watched him go. She'd noticed how red and puffy his eyes were. Had he been crying? Was he awake for the rest of the night? She could only watched the back of his blond head as he left the kitchen. Saying anything would start Phil's wrath again.

Once she had the pies in the oven, and the boys had put their dishes in the dishwasher, she and Phil followed them to the living room to open presents. There weren't a lot of them this year and she was sorry for that. They'd had to spend quite a bit of money to move to Apple Mountain Valley. For a small town it had sure been an expensive move.

She pushed that thought aside as they got into the gifts. She watched her blond haired sons smile and laugh with each other as they opened their MP3 players. They laughed over their DVD burners too. She and Phil were pleasantly surprised when they opened their gifts to find the boys had been practical this year. No ties or house slippers this year. What they got were sweat suits with the Washington High School logo on them.

"Hey, there's one more back there," Chris said as he got down on his hands and knees to reach under the tree.

As soon as his hand touched the foot long slender box wrapped in silver paper, every bulb on the Christmas tree shattered. The sound was loud, almost as if a firecracker had gone off in the living room. It echoed off the walls and stunned them all to silence. Chris hadn't moved, and he was still clutching the gift in his hand. Before Linda knew what was going on, Phil was up and dragging their youngest son out from under the Christmas tree, heedless of the broken glass all over the hardwood floor.

"What did you do?" he yelled so loud Charlie recoiled from the harshness of his father's voice. Linda jumped at the sound as well.

"I didn't..."

"Don't lie to me!" cried Phil as he gripped the boy's arms tighter.

"Dad, you're hurting me!" cried Chris, trying to pull away from his father.

"Answer me!" Phil screamed in his son's terrified face, oblivious to his other son's matching horrified expression as he watched the scene unfold before him.

"Phillip, let him go," Linda said loudly. "You'll break his arms."

"Maybe I should," Phil hissed in Christopher's face. The boy instantly closed his eyes as if he would just endure this.

"I said, let him go!" she screamed. "Now!"

As Phil had shaken him the box he'd been clutching dropped from his hand. It opened on the floor and only Charles saw what was inside at first. A shiny silver knife with what looked like a razor sharp edge was inside the box. Charles looked from the knife to Christopher and back in horror. Had his brother planted the knife there for this? Would he kill their father?

Unfortunately for Christopher, Phil's eyes spied the knife in the box on the floor as well. He let go of his son to snatch up both the top and bottom of the box with the knife inside. He read the card and snarled, glaring at his son. 'The little bastard was going to kill me!' he thought. Then he did something he'd never done in Christopher's thirteen years of life. He backhanded his son so hard the boy fell backward, slamming his head against the fireplace.

"Dad!" cried Charles at the same time Linda screamed, "Phillip!"

"I'll show you," Phil said through clenched teeth as he grabbed Christopher's arm and stood at the same time, pulling the boy to his feet. "You want to play jokes and plan murder..."

"Phillip, what are you doing?" screamed Linda, but he shoved her out of his way when she stood to block his path.

"I'm not going to hurt the little bastard," he snapped at her. "I'm going to lock him in his fucking room!"

He was already at the bottom of the stairs when he informed her that her bastard son would not be hurt. She was furious with him. Even if Chris had somehow rigged the bulbs to explode, this was over the top. She couldn't let her husband hurt her son. The very idea the he would was alien to her. Phil had never struck either of the boys in their entire lives!

Christopher looked up the staircase and saw the strange shapes floating into his room. They were like mist in the sunlight streaming through the hall window. He knew what they were, though, and began to beg his father to let him go. He didn't want to be in his room with them. They'd kill him if he was left alone with them.

"Shut up!" screamed his father as he dragged his son up the stairs.

"Phillip, please!" cried Linda, but it was too late. They were almost to the top of the stairs. She had to act fast.

"Daddy, please!" cried Chris's pitiful, terrified voice and her heart broke.

"I said shut up!" screamed Phil as he physically threw the boy into his room.

Chris looked behind him and saw the ghostly men standing around his bed and screamed an ear shattering scream. He tried to run past his father out of the room, but he was caught and roughly pushed back. Three times it happened and he begged and pleaded. His father would hear none of it. He just kept pushing the boy to his doom.

Linda stood at the bottom of the stairs in shock from what she was seeing. Tears streaked her face as she stared at the spectacle at the top of the stairs. Her husband, the man she loved, was hurting her son! She couldn't endure this. She couldn't. Not her baby! He'd been so tiny and fragile when he was born. He'd never gotten to the "normal" stage growing up. Illness after illness had plagued his early years, and still sometimes they came back. Her beautiful, loving, trusting Christopher; he was hurting her baby.

And then it was over. The door slammed shut in his face, pissing him off even more. Christopher continued to cry for help inside his room. Help from what, Phil didn't know. He was safely on the other side of the door. Phil had to get away before he really hurt the boy. He couldn't believe what the boy had done!

"Please let me out!" cried Chris from the other side of the door. "Please, Daddy! Please! Don't leave me in here!"

"You'll stay in that room until I say you can come out!" screamed Phil as he turned from the door to face his wife.

How she'd gotten to the top of the stairs she'd never know, but she was standing there, glaring up into his face. What she saw in his eyes gave her pause and she stepped back in shock. Hatred like she'd never seen before radiated from his beautiful blue eyes as he looked at her.

"Phillip," she breathed, and then his eyes softened and he looked confused for a moment.

"What's happening to us?" he asked before he turned and went into their room, closing the door behind him.

She waited only a minute before she opened Chris's door and went to him. He was crouched in the center of his bed with his arms wrapped around his knees. His body shook with sobs as he hid his face. When she touched him he nearly flew from the bed in fear. She damned her husband for this. Then her baby was in her arms, clinging to her for dear life.

"Please, please," he cried against her shoulder. "Don't leave me in here! I know you don't believe me, but please! They'll kill me!"

He pulled back to look at her with such terror in his eyes she instantly believed there were dozens of people in the room. She looked around the room, trying desperately to see what he was seeing, but there was no one. There was nothing in the room but what was supposed to be there.

"Sweetie, there's no one in here but us," she said gently, holding him and trying to will him to accept the truth of her words.

"It's different when I'm alone," he said instead of being reassured.

In that moment panic threatened to take her. What was wrong with him? Was his mind responsible for this? She couldn't stand to think it, but if it were true she had to help him. She made up her mind he wasn't staying in his room. It would anger Phil but she'd have to find a way to deal with that. Her son needed her. He needed her. She wouldn't fail him.

She let him follow her downstairs and into the kitchen. She busied herself getting dinner ready and trying not to cry. She was so worried about her son she could barely think of anything else. Then before she knew it Phil was standing in the kitchen doorway watching her like a hawk. She couldn't decipher the look on his face. Was he angry? Was he remorseful? She just didn't know.

"Dinner's almost ready," she said, turning back to the stove. "Could you ask Charlie to set the table?"

"Why don't you have Chris do it?" Phil asked in reply.

"Because he's helping me in here," she said.

"Fine. Whatever," he said, stalking away.

Twenty minutes later they had a very tense Christmas dinner. No one said anything as they sat and mechanically shoveled food into their mouths. Christopher looked at no one. His eyes were only for his plate. He looked so forlorn she wanted to take him into her arms and hold him. It took every ounce of her restraint to stay in her seat and avert her eyes from the heartbreaking spectacle that was her youngest.

After dinner Chris sat at the breakfast table while she loaded the dishwasher and washed by hand the dishes that weren't suitable for the electronic wash. He said nothing and he didn't look at her. She was growing more and more worried about him by the second. She was trying to think of how to help him without angering her husband. She couldn't allow another episode like the one that morning.

Once the food was put away and the dishes were taken care of Chris followed her to the living room. She sat on the couch, ignoring her husband in the recliner. Chris didn't come to the couch or the love seat. Instead he sat at the bottom of the stairs and leveled his gaze on the tree. Charlie had cleaned up all of the glass. She'd have to do something special for him later.

She realized her mind was frazzled and sighed. She fought to organize her thoughts. Christopher believed, he believed, there were people in the house that wanted to kill him. Phil believed every little thing that went wrong was somehow Chris's fault. Phil was the one who'd left those ugly dark bruises on Chris's arms. Phil was the one who shook him violently. Phil was the one who was hurting him. She couldn't get her mind around that.

Phil had always been a kind and gentle man. That was why she'd married him. He was her wonderful, charming, caring, sexy, flaxen haired, sapphire-eyed knight in shining armor. He'd changed since they moved into the house. Could Chris be right? Could there be something or someone in the house? The idea was preposterous! There was no one in the house. There was nothing in the house trying to hurt or change anyone.

Then before she knew it night had fallen. The ten o'clock news was on. Charlie kissed her cheek and mumbled a goodnight to her before going up to bed. Chris didn't even come near her. He was pulling away. She could see it. What was the reason? Was it his belief that something in the house wanted to kill him, or was it his father? She hated to think it was his father, but to think otherwise was to admit something was wrong with her son.

She fretted as she lay beside her sleeping husband. What could she do to help her son? The thought kept running through her head until she heard the door open across the hall. Chris's door. She heard him trying to be quiet as he went downstairs. What was he doing? She carefully and quietly got out of bed, put on her robe and went to look after the house had gone silent and stayed that way for about ten minutes.

She found him curled up on the couch. The knitted blanket she kept draped across the back of the couch was bunched around him. He was sleeping. She knew she should wake him and make him go back to his room, but the fear and panic in his eyes that morning came to her mind as she considered it. Phil would be angry if he caught him, but she couldn't send him back.

She reset the alarm and crawled back into bed. Phil had become such a heavy sleeper since they'd moved into the house that she wasn't worried about waking him when the alarm went off an hour earlier than usual. She'd wake Chris and put the blanket back on the back of the couch and pretend he was just up early.

Before she knew it, three days had passed since Christmas. She hadn't called Marge to wish her a Merry Christmas. She hadn't even left the house since Christmas Day. Phil had to go in to take care of some paperwork, he'd said, and would be home around dinner time. She watched her son sit on the couch, looking at nothing until it was time to make dinner.

Suddenly a peace offering came to mind. Phil loved her roast beef. She quickly put the roast in the oven and began to cut carrots and potatoes to go with it. She never completely took her eye off Christopher while she cooked. The boy had followed her to the kitchen, sitting at the breakfast table, staring out the window at the falling snow.

She sent him to the living room to sit with Charlie while she got dinner onto platters and into bowls. She got dishes out of the cabinet and silver out of the drawers, grabbing place mats from behind the microwave as she headed from the kitchen to the dining room.

She hummed to herself as she set the table. Nothing was wrong. Everything was fine. There was nothing wrong with her son. The house was perfect. She kept telling herself that over and over as she moved around the table to set the four places. She tried hard not to think about Christmas Day and what had happened. It was the past. Sure it was only three days ago, but she had to believe everything was fine.

She tried hard to convince herself of that as she returned to the kitchen to start putting dinner on the table. Phil would be home soon and then everything would be fine. He'd tell her she was imagining things and then they'd laugh. Her hands steadied as she thought about that. Phil was her rock. She told herself that as she picked up the plate of roast beef and walked back into the dining room.

She nearly dropped the platter when she saw the table. She'd set it. She knew she had. She'd set four place settings! Damn it. She had! The bare table stared back at her as if in mocking. She would not cry. She'd only thought she'd set the table. That was what it was. She needed to hurry up. Phil would be home soon and dinner should be on the table.

As calmly as possible she place the platter on the counter and took four plates out of the cabinet. She moved to the silverware drawer and got enough for four settings. To hell with the place mats, she though as she walked back into the dining room and dropped the plates and silver all over the floor. The glass plates shattered when they hit the hard wood. It was impossible! Her mind screamed that over and over as she looked at the four chairs stacked neatly on top of the table.

"I told you," said Christopher, startling her.

"Why?" she demanded, suddenly angry. She'd protected him. She'd told herself he wasn't behind the exploding bulbs on Christmas. How could he do this to her? "Chris, why did you do this?"

"I didn't..."

"Don't lie to me!" she cried. He had to have done it. Why? Why would he do it? A voice inside her screamed that he wasn't lying to her, that he hadn't done this thing. She pushed that voice down and covered it with reason. He had to have done this.

"Mom, I swear," he pleaded. "You gotta believe me."

"You go to your room," she hissed. "Now!"

How could he do this? He knew how upset she'd been all day. Damn it he knew! Why would he do this? Was it simply to back up his ridiculous claim that someone was in the house? Was he trying to send her over the edge? She was so angry she nearly forgot the broken plates all over the floor.

She was still cleaning up the mess when Phil walked in the door. Dinner was cold. Plates were broken. She was livid. How could Chris do this? Was he so upset about moving to Apple Mountain Valley he had to make the rest of them miserable? She couldn't take this. She didn't even notice when the glass fragments cut her fingers.

"Linda, what happened?" Phil said, coming to help her immediately.

"Christopher," she said. "He played a prank on me, and I dropped the plates."

"Sweetheart, your hands!" cried Phil. "You're bleeding."

"Oh," she sighed, sitting back on her heals and losing the battle with her emotions entirely. She cracked like an egg in that moment and tears spilled from her eyes. How could she take this?

"Come into the kitchen so I can wash the cuts and make sure you don't have glass in them," he said, pulling her to her feet as he spoke.

"But the glass..."

"Chris should come down and clean it up," he spat. "Christopher!"

They moved into the kitchen without waiting for Christopher to come downstairs. Phil'd had enough of the boy's pranks. First it was waking them up in the middle of the night, screaming about a man in his room. Then it was the Christmas bulbs and now this. Something had to be done about the boy's behavior.

"Yes, Daddy?" Christopher said from the doorway while Phil was rinsing Linda's cuts.

"You get that damned glass picked up," hissed Phil without turning to look at his son. "Now!"

The boy didn't reply. Instead he started putting the pieces of glass in the dining room trashcan. He was careful not to cut himself as he tried to ignore the crushing presence he felt lurking behind him. He was in trouble. More trouble than he'd ever been in before. His father was likely to explode with anger any moment and that man was still following him through the house. Why couldn't they see him?

"Now get up to your room," his father said angrily when he was finished cleaning up the mess. "And don't come out until I come talk to you. I want you to think."

Chris put his head down and quickly made his way to the stairs. The man followed close behind him, and he tried not to shudder. They didn't believe him. They wouldn't help him. That was all there was to it. He was on his own. He just had to fight it. How hard could he fight, and how long?

"Christopher," he heard the voice calling from far off. He stiffened at the sound of it.

The man followed him. Every day since Christmas the eyeless dark-haired man in his hospital gown covering his pale torso, the same blue-black bruises covered his arms. The same dark circles were under his eyeless sockets. He watched him without eyes. Every day he watched. Chris didn't understand why the man always watched him. He never said anything, he only watched. The voice came from inside the darkness only Chris could see. The man scared him, but the darkness terrified him. He didn't know why, but somehow he knew if the darkness touched him he would die. He thought about it as he sat on his bed.

Then, as if thinking about it was a trigger, the darkness began to flow across the ceiling. Chris shrank back from the sight of it. His heart slammed in his chest as he watched in horror as the darkness blanketed his ceiling, almost vanquishing the light. Fear kept him rooted in place. His father had told him to stay in his room. He had no choice now.

"Christopher," called the voice in a whisper.

He sat in the middle of his bed and drew his knees up to his chest so he could wrap his arms around them. He fought his tears as he tried to block the voice out of his mind. Why wouldn't they believe him? Why did they think he was lying? Why wouldn't they help him? They were supposed to help him.

"Christopher," the whispering voice called again, and Chris lost his battle with his tears. And then the man, whom he'd completely forgotten was watching, lunged for him.

Downstairs Phil and Linda had been discussing what to do about Chris's behavior. She didn't like telling his father, but she'd had no choice. She quickly put together Christmas leftovers and heated them up as Phil went up to talk to Chris. She prayed he only talked to him. She couldn't take another violent episode. Then she heard him.

"Chris, wake up!" he cried. The sound of his voice was frantic. Something was wrong.

"He didn't do it, Mom," said Charlie from the kitchen doorway. "Chris didn't stack the chairs on the table. He was in the living room with me the whole time. He only went into the dining room when he heard the plates."

"Thank you, honey," she said, looking at the ceiling as her husband cried out for her son to wake up again.

"What's wrong with Chris?" Charlie asked. He looked worried, but he wasn't frightened. How could he not be?

"I'm not sure," she said, passing him as she went to the stairs.

When she got to his doorway she saw something that made her blood run cold. Phil was standing over Chris's limp form. She could see the marks on his neck from across the room. Phil had done this! He'd choked him! 'Oh, God, he's killed him!' she screamed inside her head as she crossed the room to her son.

"I found him like this," Phil said when he saw her.

"Liar," she hissed.

"Linda..."

"Don't," she said, straining to pull her son into her arms. She could feel his shallow breath against her cheek as she held him. He was alive, but how much longer would he be if his father remained in the house?

She got up and carried him out of the room with Phil on her tail. He kept saying he hadn't touched him over and over, but she wouldn't hear him. He'd nearly killed her son! She lay him on the couch and tried not to see Charlie's now frightened eyes as she crossed to the telephone. She dialed the emergency number and asked for an ambulance and the police. Her husband stared at her with open mouthed disbelief as she told the operator her husband had just tried to choke their son to death.

They stared at each other while she stayed on the line with the operator. She wasn't letting him out of her sight until the police arrived. She wanted him gone, locked up where he couldn't hurt Chris anymore. How could she have let him do this? She made herself keep it together for Chris, for Charlie. The boy was standing in the living room doorway, the dark tree stood ominous behind him. His eyes were on his father, too. What did she see in those eyes? She saw pain and confusion and fear. Never again. She told herself she would never let him hurt her sons again.

Then she heard the sirens. She told the operator she could hear the sirens, but still she held the line. The operator told her not to put the phone down until the police were in the house. She would do as she was told. Phil wasn't going to get the chance to hurt any of them again.

"Linda, you know I didn't do this!" he pleaded with her when he heard the sirens, too. "Please, Linny!"

"Don't," she spat, shaking her head and almost dropping the receiver at her ear. "Don't."

Then they were knocking on the door and Charlie was answering. He told them his mother had his brother in the dining room and they followed him in with a stretcher for Chris. Two police officers trailed behind the paramedics. She answered questions while the paramedics saw to Chris. Yes, that was her husband. No, she hadn't seen him choke her son. Yes, he was alone in the room with him when she got there. She told them about Christmas morning and explained the bruises on Chris's arms that hadn't had time to fade.

Things happened fast after that. They took Chris to the ambulance and told her how to get to the hospital. Phil was read his rights and handcuffed before leading him out of the house and putting him in the squad car. Then she remembered the operator and thanked her before hanging up just long enough to get a dial tone so she could call Marge.

Marge would leave immediately, she'd said. She'd be with them as soon as she could. That was good. She needed Marge now. Until then she needed to be with Chris. She and Charlie bundled up and got into the family car. They said nothing on their journey to the hospital. Linda didn't trust her voice to speak anyway. All she could think about was Christopher.

Once they arrived they were shown to the waiting area for Critical Care. They were told Chris had not regained consciousness and the doctor was in with him. Linda said a silent prayer for her youngest as her oldest sat beside her with fear-filled eyes. Charles didn't know what to think. Had his father really tried to choke Chris? He wasn't so sure. Charles had seen the ghosts around Chris's room. He'd seen the darkness that Chris tried to tell their parents about. He felt like a coward now because he hadn't backed his brother up.

He'd seen all the trouble Chris got into over the ghosts and the darkness. He was afraid he would be in just as much trouble. That kept his mouth shut. Now his brother was in a hospital room being cared for because he'd been choked nearly to death. Maybe if he'd told them what he'd seen Chris would be all right. Maybe his father wouldn't be in jail. He was sick with regret over keeping quiet. He wouldn't keep quiet anymore.

"Mom, I have to tell you something," he said softly. She looked at him and he knew he had to go on. She had to know. "Chris wasn't lying about the ghost with no eyes. He wasn't lying about the darkness that coats his ceiling. I've seen them too. I saw the ghosts around his bedroom door on Christmas."

She took him into her arms to silence him. First Chris and now Charlie. What was wrong with her children? No. She had to stop thinking that way. Could they be telling the truth? She'd never believed in ghosts. She'd been raised to believe ghosts were just a silly superstition or fantasy. Had her parents been wrong? Were there ghosts trying to kill her sons? It couldn't be true. Ghosts didn't exist.

"You just don't worry about that now," she said, patting his back as she held him. "We have to worry about your brother now."

"But that's just it," he said, crying now. "If I'd told you what I saw then maybe Chris wouldn't be here..."

"Charlie, no!" she hissed, holding him tighter. "This isn't your fault. Your father did this. This is your father's fault."

And then he knew. She wasn't going to believe him either. Maybe she thought he was just trying to stick up for his brother. He would have even if he hadn't seen the ghosts or the darkness. He really would have, but that wasn't what was going on. He was worried now, and it sickened him to be worried about himself while his brother was likely fighting for his life. He was worried because he believed now Chris was gone from the house the ghosts and the darkness would come for him. Now he knew his mother wouldn't believe him either, he realized he was just as alone as Chris had been.

Neither of them said anything more for a long while. The doctor never came out of Chris's room, and no one told them what was going on. Linda became increasingly worried while her oldest was getting more and more scared of going home. Just three hours later, when it should have been closer to four, Marge arrived at the hospital. She found Linda, and the two women embraced while Linda cried on her best friend's shoulder.

Then a doctor came out to talk to them. Marge listened as the dark-haired man told them Christopher had not yet regained consciousness. He said Christopher had suffered a slight head injury as well as near strangulation. Linda didn't understand where the head injury had come from.

"It appears his head was slammed into something," replied the doctor. "The back of his head. He also suffered from oxygen deprivation, Mrs. Blakely. We're doing all we can, but frankly we don't know why he hasn't woken up."

"Can I see him?" she asked; her voice quivering.

"Of course," he replied. "One at a time, please."

She went into the room and saw his small form lying in the bed. Tubes were all over him. Wires were connected to his chest by pads stuck to his skin. He looked pale and fragile, the way he'd looked so many other times when an illness had threatened him. How could she let this happen to him? Why didn't she stop Phil from going upstairs? It was only a prank. He didn't deserve this. She walked over to stand beside his bed with tears streaming from her eyes. She kissed her trembling fingers and placed them on his too white lips. A strangled sob escaped her as she looked down at his ashen face, her sleeping baby boy.

Marge and Charles were talking softly when she came back. She allowed Marge to go and see him next, taking a seat beside her oldest son. She wouldn't let anything happen to Charles. Not like what had happened to Christopher. She'd keep him safe. She'd be a real mother this time.

They made their way to the cars silently after Marge's visit. Charles had whispered he didn't want to see Chris that way when asked if he wanted to go next. Marge had to convince Linda to go home and at least freshen up. She promised to stay with Charles while Linda went back to the hospital. What she really needed was sleep. She knew Linda couldn't be firing on all cylinders either.

"There are towels in the main bathroom closet," Linda said absently when Marge asked about a shower. "I'm going to make some tea."

The house was beautiful. It was everything that Linda had described. The hardwood floors and paneled walls were amazing. The floors shined so much Marge could almost see her reflection. She wondered how life could be so horrible in a place so beautiful as she went upstairs to the bathroom.

Even this room was beautiful. The contrast between the gleaming white ceramic tiles against the hardwood flooring and paneling she'd walked through to get to the bathroom was severe. The porcelain toilet and sink absolutely gleamed. The huge claw-foot tub had a wrap-around plastic shower curtain on brass rings. The print was a beach on a sunny day.

Marge sighed as she stood under the hot spray in the shower. She couldn't believe how much her friend's life had changed in the short time she'd lived in Apple Mountain Valley. It was if moving here had been a curse instead of the blessing it was supposed to be. She couldn't believe Phil had hurt Chris like that. The man was loving and caring. He was the most sensitive man she'd ever met. Her own husband called him soft, for crying out loud!

She stood there so deep in thought she didn't notice the water filling the tub instead of going down the drain. She didn't see the darkness that was rolling across the ceiling. She did notice when the overhead light seemed to go out. As she looked up to see if the light had burned out the bottom of the tub seemed to tilt. She slid forward, knocking her head on the wall under the shower nozzle. As she went down she finally noticed the water.

Her mind refused to accept what happened next. The bottom of the tub simply vanished and she was sinking into the water. It was up to her neck when she finally started to grab for the side of the tub, gripping the shower curtain in one hand while she slammed her other against the side of the tub.

"Linda!" she screamed, but the shower curtain started breaking free of the brass rings that held it to the rod. One by one they gave with a sickening popping sound and she sank under the water. She flailed and kicked, pushing her head above water again.

Then the door opened and the light was on again. She looked up at the ceiling and saw the black darkness had gone away. She realized she was lying in the tub. The bottom was there and the curtain blanketed her. Linda was standing in the room, looking at her with horrified eyes.

"Marge, what happened?" Linda asked, coming to the side of the tub. She grabbed Marge's hand and began to help her stand.

"I..." Marge stammered. She noticed as she stood that there was barely an inch of water in the tub. "I'm not sure."

But she did know what happened. She remembered every detail. The darkness she'd overheard Charlie and Linda arguing about had happened. It was all true! What Linda was trying to convince Charlie was only his way of sticking up for his sick brother was actually true! The house... She was too far gone to think about it. They had to get out of the house. She had to make Linda see. She had to make her see soon.

Once they were back downstairs and in the kitchen, hot mugs of tea in their hands, she told Linda what had happened. She told her about the bottom of the tub first tilting to make her hit her head, then disappearing so she was drowning. She told her about the darkness that blanketed the ceiling, and all the while she knew her best friend didn't believe her. It was frustrating.

"Margie," Linda said soothingly. "You were so tired. You were probably asleep on your feet."

"Linny, this was no nightmare," she replied hotly. "This was reality. I know what happened to me. I was awake."

"You've been listening to Charles," Linda sighed. "I don't have time to argue about this right now. I have to get back to the hospital."

"Linda, something has to be done about this!" Marge hissed. "We have to get someone in here to take care of this."

"Who do you want me to call?" Linda asked. "I'll do whatever you want if it will calm you down."

"A priest would be good," she replied. "At least."

"Then we'll call the local church and see if a priest can come bless the house or something," Linda said. "You'll see there's nothing wrong here."

She humored her friend. It was ten o'clock in the morning, so she knew she'd get someone at the church. She called and asked to set up a time to come and talk with the resident priest. She was told he could see her at three so she gave her name, booked the appointment and thanked the receptionist. The church was in town, so she knew she'd have to leave Chris earlier than she'd have liked. Belise, the city the hospital was in, was a fifteen minute drive and then there was the traffic of the larger city to deal with.

"I'm meeting with him at three this afternoon," she said with a sigh. "That's the best I can do for now. I'm going to Chris now."

She arrived at the church, Our Lady Of Sorrow Parish, promptly at three. Father Rancusso was waiting in his office. His silver-haired receptionist showed her in. He was an older man with salt and pepper hair that was receding slowly. His brown eyes were kind and twinkled when he smiled at her.

"Please, come in," he said, smiling at her. "Have a seat, Mrs. Blakely."

"Please, call me Linda, Father," she said, sitting in one of the high-backed chairs in front of his huge desk.

She quickly explained why she'd come. She felt foolish recounting the tales of her children to this man of God, but she told him everything from Chris's not wanting to sleep in his room to Phil getting arrested and Chris being in a coma. She told him what Marge had said about what happened to her in the shower and how she'd seen the darkness on the ceiling. She'd said it was trying to kill her.

He listened very patiently and let her get it all out. When she mentioned the house she lived in she watched his face become grim. She knew he thought she was crazy, but she'd told him everything. When she finally stopped talking they were silent for a few minutes. She was beginning to regret coming to see him in those minutes. Then he spoke.

"There's something about your house you don't know, Mrs. Blakely," he said. "Something I fear may prove everything you've just told me to be true."

"I don't understand," she said slowly, wondering if he was about to tell her she was silly or something else entirely.

"In June of 1934, Harland Worthington III was arrested and charged with over fifty counts of murder," he said, his words sounding more grim with the weight of his collar. "They found victims in the freezer in the attic. There were more buried behind the house. Harland had inherited the house and business from his father. The mortuary had been in Apple Mountain County for generations, you see."

And then the story came out. She listened to one horrifying detail after another and was shocked when he told her he believed he should come investigate immediately. He wouldn't be put off. In the end he followed her in his car as she drove back to the house. He pulled into the driveway right behind her.

She felt silly when she was introducing him to Charles and Marge. He seemed especially interested in talking with Charles. They sat at the kitchen table while Charles told his tale of ghosts and darkness. He told Father Rancusso about Chris's room and the ghosts he saw in there all the time.

Finally, Father Rancusso asked Charles to show him the room. He pulled a long golden scepter out of his little black bag and explained it was only holy water. He was going to initially perform a blessing. If he found evidence to support what Charles had told him there would be more to come.

Charles led him out of the kitchen, through the great room and up the stairs to the second floor. He checked to make sure the darkness wasn't looming at the top of the stairs or anywhere near Chris's room before he took the priest up the stairs. The stopped outside Chris's closed door.

"This is the room?" asked the priest.

"My brother's room," confirmed Charlie, licking his lips.

The priest opened the door and they stepped inside. Charlie saw the ghosts immediately. Horrible scarred people with no eyes in their sockets. They each had the same pale-gray skin with bruises up and down their arms. They huddled and watched the priest as he started to pray and sprinkle holy water with his scepter. Then he stopped.

Charles stared in open mouthed horror as Father Rancusso's holy water scepter flew from his hand. It shot through the room to the window, shattering it, and kept going. His eyes weren't on the priest when he heard the man shriek. What he saw when he turned back to look at him nearly made him pass out from fear. The darkness had come! It wasn't cloaking the ceiling this time. It was up there, but tendrils of it had streaked down from the ceiling and were twisting around Father Rancusso's head!

The man was being led around the room by the darkness like a puppet who's strings had mummy-wrapped his head! Twice the man was led into a wall as he walked around with his arms flailing wildly. Then the man went rigid, his arms spread wide. The door opened as his shrieking was cut off. His arms fell to his side and he seemed to sag. Only the darkness was holding him up, and Charlie knew the man was dead. It dragged him from the room anyway. Charlie could only stand there and watch. It seemed like time was moving slowly as he watched until the darkness dragged the man down the hall and out of sight. Then he heard him hit the floor, but the sound was wrong. It had sounded like it was further off than just down the hall.

Then his mother was screaming. He knew what had happened when he heard her scream. Father Rancusso had been thrown over the banister. He ran to the stairs and saw confirmation as soon as he got to the top of the stairs. But it wasn't over the banister. He'd been shoved down the stairs. Why hadn't he heard it?

"Charlie!" his mother cried. "What happened?"

"I don't know," he said slowly. He couldn't tell her what really happened. She wouldn't believe him. No one would. The cover story firmed in his head then. "I think he fell down the stairs."

"I've called for the ambulance," said Marge as she came into the great room. "They're on their way. Is he alive?"

'He's dead,' Charlie thought to himself. 'He was dead long before he got to the bottom of those stairs.'

Then things began to happen very fast. The police and paramedics arrived, and Father Rancusso was pronounced dead by the coroner. They asked everyone questions, but no one had actually seen the priest fall down the stairs. They could only speculate. It was well past midnight when the police finally left them alone. An accident was what they'd said before leaving. There was nothing for any of them to worry about. Charlie had kept silent about what really happened. He knew if he hadn't the police would still be there.

They slept fitfully that night, huddled together in Linda's bed. Linda thought it was silly, but she supposed Charlie needed to be close to her after the priest's death. She still couldn't believe it. She supposed Charlie and Marge would add this to their collection of strange tales about how the house was haunted.

The next morning they ate breakfast mechanically, saying very little. Linda stayed with them as long as she could, but by noon she had to get back to the hospital. She couldn't neglect Christopher even though he would never know she wasn't there. She drove back to Belise, fighting sleep. She'd slept so poorly the night before, and it was catching up.

Chris hadn't changed since the day before. He was still pale faced and ashen. He was still in a coma for no reason the doctors could think of. He was still lying in that bed with the tubes in his arms and the wires connected to his chest. The steady beep of the heart monitor was the only sound in the room as she stood there looking at his sleeping form.

She settled in the reclining chair by his bed and stared at him. Her eyes grew heavy, but she fought it as long as she could. She was so tired. She didn't even realize when her head rested against the back of the chair and her eyes closed.

 

*        *        *

 

The theater was chilly as Linda sat down between her sons, holding the huge bucket of popcorn on her lap. It felt good to be out of the house for once. The packed theater was a welcome sight. She hadn't seen many people since they'd moved to Apple Mountain Valley. She'd been too wrapped up in the house. Why, she couldn't remember, but it was true. She sat back and sighed as the lights dimmed and previews began to roll on the screen.

It was subtle at first. She didn't even notice the silence for a few minutes. The red velvet draped walls slowly darkened in color until they turned black. It started at the back of the theater where she couldn't see and slowly spread all the way around the room. She did notice the entire room grew colder. Why, she could see her breath!

Then she noticed the screen. The previews had changed. She recognized her beautiful house on the screen. The scene itself was confusing. Police, paramedics and people were all over the lawn. They were bringing out bodies on stretchers. She gasped in horror when she saw her son, Christopher's face on one of the bodies.

Suddenly, Christopher was jerking and shaking beside her. She turned to look at him and dropped the bucked of popcorn. He was convulsing! She reached out to touch him and someone touched her from behind her seat. She turned and stared into the most horrifying face she'd ever seen.

The eyes were gone! Under the sockets were dark circles. The skin was pale and cracked in places. There was no mistaking who the face belonged to. Father Rancusso's once grandfatherly looking face had been transformed into a terrifying spectacle. His gray lips parted to reveal blackened teeth as he leered at her.

"I touched him!" he hissed in a voice like death. His hand was on Chris's shoulder! "Want me to touch them both?"

She gasped as she sat bolt upright in her chair. She'd fallen asleep. It was only a nightmare. She was safe. Chris was safe... He wasn't in his bed! She looked around the room, frantic, and didn't find him anywhere. Had the dream been prophetic? Tears sprang to the rims of her eyes as she gasped over and over again. Then there was a nurse in the room.

"My baby!" cried Linda. "Where's Christopher?"

"Calm down, Mrs. Blakely," said the older woman. "They took him down for a scan. You were asleep, and they didn't want to bother you!"

"A scan?" she whispered as she sank back into the chair. "They took him for a scan?"

"Yes," said the nurse. "Please, Mrs. Blakely, calm down. Everything is fine."

"I have to see him," she said, realizing as she spoke that the tears had broken past the dam of her eyes and were spilling down both cheeks. "I need to see him."

But they were bringing him back into the room as she spoke. There he was. Still not looking much better, but he was alive! She waited, tense as they transferred him back to his bed and reattached the wires to his chest. He was alive! Once they were out of the room she touched his face and then took his hand.

Then she remembered all Father Rancusso had told her yesterday. The mortuary, the vicious killings and the victims; she remembered all of it. She had to know. She had to see the newspaper articles. Surely the library in Belise would have them on file or something. She was leaving the room before she even realized she'd made the decision to go. She'd passed the library coming into the city each time she'd visited Chris. She knew where it was.

She checked her watch. Eight-thirty. The hours stenciled on the main doors announced the library would close at nine. A half an hour. It had to be long enough. She had to know. She had to see it for herself. That's all she could think about. The dream, still frighteningly vivid, was pushed to the back of her mind as she walked into the library.

"We'll be closing in thirty minutes," said the librarian, whom Linda barely looked at as she came in the main doors.

"That's fine," she called over her shoulder. She followed the signs to the periodicals and asked a red-haired woman for what she was looking for.

"Let's see," said the woman, pursing her lips and checking her watch. "That would be in microfiche. Anything before 1950 is now they've got it all updated. Let me get you started."

"Thank you," Linda said as the woman led her to the booth and explained how to use the system.

It wasn't hard to find. She knew the year and the month. The arrest of Harland Worthington III was the biggest news to ever hit Apple Mountain Valley. It was all there. He'd been arrested on fifty-two counts of murder. The house she now lived in stood proud and tall behind him, the scene of such grizzly killings. She moved on to the victims and her breath caught as she stared in horror at the screen.

The picture staring back at her on the screen taunted her. The white hospital gown, the deeply bruised arms from the embalming needles, the eyeless sockets and the buzzed dark hair were all there. This was Chris's eyeless man! Charlie had mentioned him! They were both telling the truth! They weren't sharing a delusion. They'd actually seen this man! This was their ghost! If they'd told the truth about the ghost... Her thoughts ran wild. The darkness, the people in Chris's room, all of it was true! 'Oh God help me!' she cried out in her head as she jumped from her seat and raced to her car. She had to get back. Charlie and Marge were in danger! She couldn't believe she'd been so blind. If she'd listened to Christopher in the first place...

That meant Phil hadn't been the one to choke him! She was horrified by that realization. She'd sent him to jail when he was innocent. She hadn't believed him when he'd begged her to. She ran from the library to her car, fumbling with the keys to unlock the door.

She raced through the streets of Belise to the edge of the city and the country road that would take her back to Apple Mountain Valley. Christopher was safe as long as he was out of the house. Phil was safe as well. She had another son to worry about. She had Marge to worry about. She was only distantly surprised she wasn't stopped for speeding.

She pulled into the driveway fifteen minutes later and left the car running. They needed to be able to get away fast. She had to get them out of there. She ran to the front door and unlocked the door with shaking hands. Tears were falling down her face as she stepped into the house, hopefully for the last time in her life.

"Charlie, Marge!" she cried as she came through the front door. She had barely let go of the handle when the door slammed shut behind her. She paid no attention. She had to get them and get out of the house before it was too late.

"Mom?" Charlie cried from the second floor.

She raced up the stairs only to come to a complete halt at the top when she saw the scene before her. Marge and Charles were huddled together at the end of the hall right in front of Charles's room. Their faces wore matching masks of fright. Between where she stood and they crouched in fear was a rolling cloud of black darkness. It was keeping her from them. She tried to move forward and the darkness advanced on her. She moved back and so did the darkness.

"Mom?" called Charlie again.

"Don't move!" she cautioned. Panic was only seconds from her, and she knew if she let go of the fragile control she had on herself they would all die.

At the same time she was furious with herself. All of the warnings had been right in front of her all along, and she hadn't paid attention to them. She'd written Christopher's warnings off as the delusions of a paranoid mind. She'd discounted the voice in the back of her mind that screamed that Phil was acting strange since they'd arrived. She'd watched as the house destroyed her family, and she hadn't lifted a finger to stop it from happening.

"Linda," a whispered voice called to her. She instantly knew that it was inside the darkness.

"No!" she hissed, shaking her head. She wouldn't let it into her thoughts. She couldn't.

"Mommy." It was Christopher's voice this time, still from within the darkness. It had her baby's voice!

Tears fell from her eyes as her heart was nearly ripped from her chest at the sound of her child's voice coming from inside the darkness. She tried so hard not to let her mind even think of what it meant that the darkness had her son's voice. He was safe in the hospital away from this insanity.

Then she was shocked to her very core. Ghosts poured out of Chris's room! They moved into the swirling dark mist, forcing it to shrink back away from them as they moved. She couldn't believe it, but they stood as a barrier to keep the darkness from separating her from Marge and Charlie. They needed no prompting. They came running to her. Charlie gripped her tightly.

"We have to go!" cried Marge, and then they were going down the stairs. Ghosts in front of them and behind, acting as shields against the darkness.

But she smelled smoke. It was getting thicker the further down the stairs they got. Then she could see it. It was billowing out of the living room where the fireplace was a blaze. It had caught the mantle on fire. The fire was spreading up the wood paneled walls. That wasn't her biggest worry, though. The darkness was surrounding the front door!

"Will they get us out of here?" Charlie asked in a frantic voice.

"Please!" breathed Marge, through her coughing.

They walked toward the door, ghosts all around them. These were the victims of Harland Worthington III. The victims that had been put in the freezers in the attic and buried in the yard behind the house, between the beautiful, but sinister, mortuary and the majestic Apple Mountain. They would help them escape.

As they walked, the darkness dissipated. When the door opened and they stepped outside into the night air; the gloriously clean night air, she knew they were free. They climbed into the car and drove out of the little mountain town toward her sleeping son and wrongfully jailed husband, toward freedom.

Chris was awake when they got there. They rejoiced next to his bed, each of them touching him at the same time. The doctor tried to get them to leave the room, but they wouldn't hear of it. Until Linda had kissed him and hugged him at least twenty times, she wouldn't leave his side.

It was to the police station she went when she did leave. It took some fast talking and even a discussion with Chris about what had happened. The beautiful boy made up a story that set his father free. They were together again hours later in his hospital room, crying and holding each other. It was over, and they were free.

 


 

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