The house was deep into the woods, down a dirt road, and all he could remember of the directions were something like “go until you think you have gone too far, then go some more.” It was late and because the moon was new and because of the dust in the air, it was hard to see the road, but there was a chorus of advice from his passengers, his friends, and they were determined to find their way.
It was a new haunt, supposedly a good one, one that made your hair stand on end and your heart to skip beats and your eyes to open wide.
Cameron was driving and was pretty sure he was on the right path because of the line of cars in the opposing lane, each momentarily blinding him with their high-beams, each full of teenagers—some hanging out of windows—screaming as they went past. But the further into the wood he drove, the smaller the road got and the lower the tree overhang was, and the more the dust settled into the car, the more the other three guys in the car began to doubt, convinced that no matter the line of cars, that somewhere they had missed a turn and before long, they would hit a dead end, flatten a tire and have to walk to the castle.
Then, finally, they found themselves in a clearing of more than twenty acres. The house was in the middle, glowing orange and yellow in the light of bonfires and torches—a huge rambling house, gothic, with broken windows and cracked paint. He parked near a fence on the side of the property and they made their way to the central and largest bonfire.
What seemed to be an ice fogswelled off the pond behind the house, wrapping itself around the corners of the house. But Cameron didn’t think it was cold enough for that, not nearly, but whatever the cause, its wrapping of the house, its ghostly tendrils snaking across the yard, some covering torches and glowing was, well, the only word that fit in Cameron’s mind was “haunting.” He wondered if it could have been manufactured and if so at what cost or if it was just a happenstance of placement and timing and fortune.
It was ten days to the big event. People were milling around the bonfires, drinking hot chocolates and ciders, their voices wafting in and out of range as the wind shifted, a few in costume, but mostly just jean and jackets.
“Come on Cam,” someone, probably Jimmy, said, “Let’s go get some eats and a brewski.”
Cameron shook his head and said “Finding a brewski or any alcohol on site isn’t very likely given safety regulations and all that.”
His friends threw their hand up in derision and left him at the fire. Yeah, Cam was a nerd and a geek, but he had the best car to haul them all around, and they had known him forever anyway.
Cameron watched them leave and was relieved. Something was causing that odd itching on the back of his neck; he was watching the line to enter the house. And he was watching the people as they exited, gasping for breath, holding onto one another, some weak-kneed, others crying, all making their way to the bonfires to collapse on the ground and shiver and talk excitedly, a few assumed what his old coach had called the uniform and official posture of defeat: hands on knees, head down and rapid, shallow breathing.
He looked at their faces and felt revulsion. There was something just. . . off. Most had that cherry-red-from-the-wind-and-the-cold face, but more than a few were ashen and drawn and some few—the ones which repelled him—had abrasions and scars and bruises and wounds, and what looked like matted blood in their hair; and it was these who were weak kneed and staggering and who collapsed the hardest on the ground.
He looked around for and was unable to locate his friends. He was ready to leave, concerned that the reason the house so far out in the woods as it was to avoid safety-minded police and fire marshals and security people, none of which could be seen on the grounds and he began to wonder what might be happening in the house, where his friends must have gone. Dracula’s music, surrounded and pervaded the arena, not loud, but present everywhere, as if speakers were embedded in every tree and shrub and buried in the ground and the music was eerie and effective, recalling the dankness and darkness and perversion of what Jonathan Harker found and escaped. He wondered, given the depiction of the three daughters, if he would have stayed or fled. Yes, staying meant death, but in the death was carnal ecstasy, which drew him much as it did Harker and VanHelsing. But Cameron had no Mina and was not sure if revulsion would trump desire.
The sky was clearing and the stars were bright in the moonless sky and without the cover of clouds, it was getting rather cold.
He bought a mulled wine without acknowledging how wrong he had been about alcohol, and sat in the grass in front of the fire and waited for his friends (who just simply must have been in the house, there was no other explanation). The fire was hot but there was no warmth in it for him: he was chilled to the bone and ready to leave if only his friends would return.
A girl not much older than he sat on a log maybe fifteen feet in front of him, facing the fire. She had that auburn highlighted hair worn in the Anne Bancroft Mrs. Robinson’s style, which seemed just a little out of place and more than a little anachronistic—did she keep her spiders in there, he wondered. She was wearing a very short skirt and a burgundy UM-Duluth sweater with a small yellow bulldog emblem and saddle oxfords. Her short white socks were flecked with what appeared to be blood spatter.
She had brushed his shoulder as she walked by and there was an immediate attraction, almost chemical, and he moved up towards her, stopping when she came into full view. She was a mess. Her legs were cross-hatched with scars, some seeping fluids. He looked closer and saw her sweater was torn and filthy, and she was scratching open sores on her neck. Both eyes were blackened and she seemed to look at nothing in particular. Her nose had been broken several times and it hadn’t been properly set. There were deep bruises on her cheeks and her forehead was almost black. She was missing teeth and her head rocked slightly back and forth and from side to side, mostly smoothly, but with an occasional jerk back into position.
She repulsed him, and, yet, he could not stop looking at her, as if magnetized, and, like Harker, was pulled inward by some unseen force. There was. . .something in her eyes, behind her eyes, lost and trapped, yet alive and real. He was lost there, in her eyes, when his friends finally descended on him, voices ecstatic and rapid. “Damn, Cam, where you been?” “That place is freaking awesome.” “You gotta go with us boy!” “I’m up for another round.” “No way I saw everything.” “What the hell is that in your cup?”
“Hot wine,” he said and sipped, making a face and pouring it out, “well, it was hot anyway.”
“We need to get some of that and head back in. You?”
“Well, yeah, but . . . .”
“What cowboy? You scared?”
“Look man, there is something just, well wrong here.” Cameron nodded at various people around the fire. “Look at the faces. Some of these guys look like zombies.”
Jimmy punched him in the shoulder and said, “Hey, dipwad, this is a haunted house and some of these guys were in there with us. Scaring us. Some of the actors on break.”
“I’m not so sure about that, some of the cuts look real.”
Jimmy shook his head. “You think they’re hurting people in there, cutting them? Gees, buddy, what’s wrong with you? Look at me and Dave and Ben. We look hurt? It’s just part of the fun is all.”
Cameron looked at Jimmy, and seeing nothing unusual, said, “Yeah. No idea what I am thinking. Too many scary movies I guess.”
“Well, this place is awesome. We’re all going again. Get moving.”
Cameron looked around and the trees seemed to have pulled back and when he looked back at the fire, he saw Jimmy had to have been right: they were actors on break and his mind was just working overtime. “Yeah, let’s rock-n-roll,” he said, grinning.
They got their tickets and got in line and the line was cacophonous and it was obvious Jimmy was right. In the line were people from the fire, people with deformities and with what had to be the best stage make-up he had ever seen in a haunt.
The house had sprung up out of seemingly nowhere, halfway between Little Duchess and The Rock with Two Noses. Cameron had never seen it and he thought he had seen everything there was to be seen in the county, had dipped his toes in everything that could be called a body of water and yet had somehow missed the one behind the house. And then there was the house itself. It was too massive to have been missed. He had heard nothing about the construction or preparation of the site or recruitment of the actors, and in a place as small as Calais County, it would have been all-but-impossible to have done this without attracting attention, but the oddest of the odd was that he recognized none of the actors. Maybe they were all from Duluth and he was just making ghosts out of fog and nothing more.
And why was it here, so far from anything that could remotely be called a town? Duluth was a long drive and yet, there were hundreds of people milling around. He shook his head. It didn’t make sense, but it obviously was working. The people behind this had to be very shrewd to have conjured the concept and the house and the actors out of thin air and make it all work— and all done so quietly as to arouse no notice in the little towns near it.
And the girl was behind him, touching his shoulder and whispering in his ear, “Please, I need to get away. You will help me, won’t you?” and he knew without looking it was her, the girl in the torn and tattered UMD sweater, but when he turned around, she had slid by him and was gone into the house.
“Did you see her, Jimmy?” Jimmy looked at him and shrugged. “That girl, the one from the fire, with the UMD sweater and the great body? Mrs. Robinson hair?”
“Missed that one buddy, but there is this blonde in here you will not believe and she actually kissed my neck. And she is the most wickedly built girl I have ever seen, but the make-up she is wearing is just frightening, but no amount of make-up can hide what is under it. This place is incredible.”
“No. Did you see the other girl, the brunette? Did you hear her? She said she needed my help to get away.”
Jimmy stared at him hard and said, “Maybe it’s you spend too much time doing math, maybe it’s fried your brain, at least about people and common sense. Get away? Are you serious?”
“But. . .”
“Look, dipstick, this is all an act, a put on. Nothing here is real. You know this. What was in that drink anyway? Jimminy, you’ve been to hundreds of these places. I think she must be a really good actor, or maybe you’re just in heat.”
“Yeah maybe. Maybe so.” Was one of Drac’s daughters inside waiting for him?
He followed Jimmy into the house and after entering, they made a sharp right and walked, and as typical, Cameron counted his steps—it was a damnable habit and he had found it impossible to break—, stopping at 73 when a man chased by a shrew with an axe darted across their path. The house cannot be this large, he thought as they continued on.
When they got to the exit, there she was again, her UM sweater tight on her, and this time, she looked in his eyes as she held both his forearms and, leaning close, whispered, “you have to help. I may soon be lost,” and she kissed the base of his neck softly before he could push her away and then he and Dave and Ben were outside. “Where’s Jimmy?” he asked.
“Oh, that blonde took him downstairs,” Dave said. “I started to follow, but the shrieks from there were from out of this world and I backed away.”
Cameron looked at his watch and saw over an hour had passed since they entered and was puzzled. “We didn’t go the same was as you did before, right? I mean, that’s what Jimmy said before I lost him.”
“Right. Talked to a guy over by the fire says he’s been through six, eight times and never went the same way twice.”
Cameron looked at the house and backed away from it, trying to judge the size. “Guys, I counted steps when we got in—before the axe lady—and we never changed direction and I got to 73 steps. No way the house is that big.”
“Pretty big,” Ben said, looking at it.
“Yeah, but not, well, never mind. Here comes Jimmy. It’s too damn cold to stay out here and since I have the keys and it’s my car, let’s all go home.”
Then Jimmy came in to the light, scratching his arm and then swatting.
“What’s that all about?” asked Ben.
“Minnesota state bird.”
“Kind of late in the year for them ain’t it?
“Dunno,” Jimmy said. I’m freezing my toes off, let’s get out of here for the night.”
The way to the house was easier to find and drive nine days before Halloween.
Jimmy was jumpy and anxious, talking incessantly about the blonde and the below ground chambers. The place on his arm sore and raw, but he couldn’t stop picking at it.
“That doesn’t look like a mosquito sting there Jimmy.”
“Yeah. I don’t know what it is. But it itches like hell. Sort of looks like your neck.”
“Got a rash, probably from where that girl kissed me,” he said and grinned.
They drove in silence after the static of the fading station took over the music. Cameron looked at Jimmy and said, “That place is weird. No way I could have walked 73 steps in one direction. Even baby steps, that’s 150 feet—almost half a football field.”
“Only you would count steps.”
“Yeah, I know. Obsessive compulsive me, but something just ain’t right, so I went down the county road office and borrowed a measuring wheel.”
“And what you gonna do? Walk right up and walk around the house with that?”
“And what’s that going to prove?”
“That the house ain’t that big.”
“And then what?”
“Then? I dunno. Guess I’ll go find that girl again.”
“See where else she can give you a rash?”
“You’re one to talk.”
“Well, don’t be looking for me. Marina tells me she’s going to show me the real deep crypts tonight, so we may be awhile.”
The house looked just as it did the night before and the same fog eerily lapped at the grounds and he walked around the house with the measuring wheel—almost 300 feet. After a little math, this meant that the space had more than a 5,500 square foot footprint, with three stories and at least one full basement The house was massive, but still not big enough to support 150 or 200 feet in one direction, not even on a diagonal.
He was sitting by the fire drinking a hot cider, trying to make sense of the math when the girl, wearing the same clothing, down to the same blood-flecked socks, sat beside him. He looked closely at her and noticing the bruises had diminished and her forehead was clear, said, “Little different make-up tonight?”
“What? Oh. No. We don’t wear make-up. You’d think it though, wouldn’t you?”
“But, last night. . .your face is not as bruised.”
“Oh, this?” She touched her cheeks. “I knew you would help. Now come on, I want to give you a special tour.” She stood and reached for his hands, linking her arm through his as they walked across the lot and he bought a ticket, and then they skirted the line and she took him in a side door and down a flight of stairs and through a tunnel to a series of dungeons.
Emerging three hours later, his wits frayed and his eyes bleary from tears, it was well past midnight and the crowd had actually grown from when he arrived.
She kissed his cheek and said, I have to get back, My time is up for the night. You coming back tomorrow?”
He touched his cheek where she had kissed him. It was dry. “I’m not sure I can,” he said, “I have to call a basketball game.”
“Well, the next night then. But, I know you’ll come tomorrow—you won’t be able to stay away” She winked at him and squeezed his arm, and continued, ” You will help me, I know it.” And then she kissed his cheek again and started off.
“Wait!” he called. “I don’t even know your name. . .”
She ran back and said “Anglaya, but just call me Angie or Layla. See you tomorrow.” And when he hesitated, she continued, “or the next.”
They waited on Jimmy for hours and when the lot emptied of cars and everyone was gone, they decided Marina must have taken him home, and cursing his lack of consideration and communication, left.
The game went into overtime. His ribs were bruised and he had trouble walking, and he was distracted by thought of Anglaya; maybe someone had run into him, even though he couldn’t remember. When he was shaving, he noticed the rash had extended down his neck, but it didn’t itch.
By the time he got to the house, it was past midnight and the line was three hundred people deep and Anglaya—he liked the feel of her real name better than Angie and Layla would to him forever be the muse of Harrison and Clapton—was nowhere to be found, so he bought a ticket and got in line and waited. The line moved amazingly fast and he saw some were letting him by. Maybe they sensed his desperation or his pathos and slid aside.
When he was close to the door, his girl ran through it and hugged him, thanking him for the help, but rushed away without giving him a chance to say anything. He was inside for ten minutes, absently wandering through a medieval torture chamber when he realized her nose was not broken this night. He rushed through, trying to get back outside and to find her.
Afterwards, while he was sitting by the fire, she came up to him and sat down beside him, taking his hand in hers. Her legs were clearer. Scratched, but not weeping.
“You guys vary the make-up a lot, don’t you?”
“Told you, no make-up,” she said, smiling and squeezing his hand. “But you don’t look so good. Your rash is worse. What else is going on?”
“Well, nothing really. I must have run into something because my chest is bruised and my ribs hurt. Can’t remember how I did it.”
The night was colder than it had been before and the temperature difference was greater between fire side and back side and he shifted around to look at the lake and the whatever kind of fog it was just in time to see Jimmy run through it and to the front of the house before disappearing in the woods.
She followed his eyes and said, ” Oh, that’s your friend Jimmy. He’s here with us now.” Without comprehension, he looked at her—her eyes were clear and alight—and she said, “He really helped Marina a lot.”
“Marina, the girl he liked? Helped her? How?”
“Same way you have been helping me. Only quicker. Now she is gone and he is here. But you seem so nice, so please, I don’t need any more help. I like things as they are, so, please, don’t come back.” Then she got up, and ran halfway to the house before returning and kissing him and saying goodbye before vanishing into the house through the same side door she had taken him the night before.
Cameron sat on the ground. His lips were burning, he could still feel the touch of her lips on his mouth and his hands were still warm from hers and his breath was gone and he was, as Bogie said, sitting there with a comical look on his face because his insides had been kicked out. He leaned on the log she had sat on before and watched the stars, not knowing what to do, not wanting to leave because she might change her mind and come back; not wanting to follow her because if she didn’t want to be near him then he shouldn’t chase after her; and not wanting to stay because the longer he stayed and the more the fog thickened, the more the music trembled through the ground and through him, the more unease he felt, lethargic. But, there was Jimmy, who was what passed for his best friend and who disappeared into the woods, and he really should wait on him.
So he waited and Orion shifted and Jimmy never returned and once or twice he thought he saw Anglaya’s face in a broken window looking at him, but every time he moved towards the house and her, she vanished. Then, finally, he bought another ticket and as he was walking to the door, people started to move out of his way, letting him pass in an obvious fashion, not like before, and he was in the house in minutes and wandered through it for what seemed like hours,
—through witch trials and tests;
—through an Inquisition chamber of horrors with Iron Maidens, racks, and horses drawing and quartering the condemned;
—through exorcisms gone bad;
—through rooms under the spell of poltergeists;
—through blind and dark corridors;
—through crypts and tombs of the undead: vampires ripping throats and werewolves rampaging and zombies decapitating people and feasting on their brains;
—through realized scenes from a deranged Baltimore poet and story teller: pendulums slicing people in half very slowly, inch by inch—the visuals so graphic he couldn’t believe the stagecraft—, people buried alive, scratching to breathe and to live;
—through rooms filled with rabid dogs and past a man eating his own leg while raving, the cocaine having previously consumed his mind: the twisted scenes from a more modern New England master;
—through scenes that would have made Aliester Crowley cringe and find religion and cause confessors to lose their faith, forever leaving the occult things of this world behind;
— through scenes from Dante’s circles of Hell, scenes of torture and death and mayhem and bedlam.
And through all this, he was untouched by human or inhuman, dead or undead hands and everything felt so real, he knew why the haunt was such a success, and when he emerged, it was daylight and the yard was empty and he went to his car to sleep.
When he awoke, exhausted and covered in the grime and blood and gore—why had this never before happened he wondered— from his last trip through the house. It was the sixth day before the night the dead leave their graves and walk the earth. He plugged his phone into the car’s outlet and soon knew he had slept through a full day and night. There were dozens of messages on his phone from worried co-workers and a really pissed-off Principal who, without time to find a substitute, had to cover his classes himself. And there were hundreds of text messages which he simply deleted because they were just too many to deal with.
He left the car and walked to the house, to raise someone, to find Anglaya, to find Jimmy, and to wash. His right knee hurt and walking was difficult, it was easier to slide his right foot along the ground than to lift it. The skin on his arms was becoming leprous and scaly and he had lost two teeth. He needed help, and logically, it would be from the proprietors of the house. But silence was all there was. There was no movement in the house and he could open none of the doors, the broken widows shuttered from the inside. The bonfires were out and the booths selling wine and cider and other beverages were not only not open, they were nowhere to be found.
He sat on the ground with his head in his hands for hours, watching the sun cross its zenith and start to sink and the air cooled and the fog began to form and he walked into the woods looking for a stream. He needed to clean himself and he needed a drink, and the lake or pond or whatever body of water it was that was producing the foul fog was not something he wanted to investigate.
He found a stream and fell into it, submerging himself in the freezing water, squeezing it through his hair, watching the wash flow first red, then brown and finally clear. And he looked at his arms and felt the rash on his face, which hurt to touch, and he sat in the water and the scenes from two nights before flooded his mind: the reality was more than he could comprehend. He was disoriented, down the rabbit hole. There was nothing with which he could compare and contrast. The stage-craft was beyond anything he could comprehend—the makers of slasher films had nothing on these guys—and this event, this haunt, this nightmare had sprung from nothing out of nothing. And Anglaya’s eyes had lost the pleading look he had first seen. They had cleared and a sharp crystal blue and what he had last seen in them was not horror and sadness and need but compassion and sadness. Things didn’t add up. It was like that odd way of wrongly applying math principles where you muffed something on purpose and proved that thirteen times seven is twenty-eight: it was wrong, well, the answer anyway was wrong, and yet, while you were watching, you bought into every step and believed the wrong answer. And it all just felt so real. Pendulums truly were slicing women and men in half, the screams and blood spattering—he had been covered— and draining through a hole in the floor —to where?— and the horror-filled and pain racked faces; and yet he knew that thirteen times seven does not equal twenty-eight and that if there was actual mayhem afoot, things would not be able to continue: people would go missing, like Jimmy; people would question and officials would investigate. It was 3-D theatre only, but it was good, above and beyond anything James Cameron could have devised. It could be nothing else because nothing else would or could exist. Reality meant madness.
The sun drops quickly in northern Minnesota, and Chippewa maidens started fires to keep themselves and their families warm. They had done this for a millennia since they had migrated from the west, from the Slavic cold, from a world more bitter than the north woods, and when the Chippewa had been replaced by the Scandanavians, the traditions continued; when the sun began to die, the first celebration was Samhain. The crops were gathered and the dead relatives walked the earth to be appeased by breads and pastries. And the fires, always the fires. And over these fires, they cooked lefse, and Cameron could smell the lefse as he made his way through the darkening wood to the open glen of the house, and when he arrived, there was dancing and merriment around the fires, and the house was open and the cars were arriving and he was determined to find her, to take her, to help with whatever it was she needed, and to find Jimmy and take him home.
But like two nights before, she could not be found. And he only caught one fleeting glimpse of Jimmy strapped to a blood-stained table under a pendulum, his face twisted into a malevolent sneer. The Jimmy he saw wasn’t the Jimmy he knew: his eyes were glazed and on the corners of his mouth was a foul foam, and he rushed out of the house, and once out, fell on the ground and crawled to his car and left, vowing to never return, to leave Calais County and forget everything he had seen.
He stayed away through sheer effort and fear and with generous use of whiskey and some methodone he had gotten from an old college friend. But the nightmares and delusions and visions of Anglaya were constant in spite of the alcohol and drugs.
The second day he took a hammer to his cell phone and unplugged the landline. The day after he checked into the resort at The Lake of The Loon and the Chippewa Maiden because it was getting too difficult to avoid the banging on his apartment door.
And then on October 30, he woke at noon and took a slow and careful bath because the skin on his arms was losing cohesion, and when he shaved the five-day stubble, his skin hurt from the scrape of the blade. The rash had covered his face completely. He had lost three more teeth. His walk was a painful shamble. His ribs hurt so much he couldn’t stand up straight and breathing was tortured and with every breath, he exhaled phlegm. And with each breath, he knew the house was the reason and he knew he loved Anglaya and he knew he had to return and had to bring her out.
The only thing he cared about was her. Her crystalline eyes, the purity and love and sadness in them seared his soul. He had to free her. Somehow. There had to be a way. But he was falling apart, mentally and physically. His time was drawing to a close. He had to get there while he still could, before midnight and, he believed, the end of things.
But he couldn’t drive. Every time he tried, a small piece of his hand sloughed off, so he put on gloves and a long leather jacket and pulled it tight to him and tried to get someone to take him, but every time he approached someone—even people he knew—they retreated, some crossing themselves. Giving up, he called a cabbie from Duluth whose card he had saved from a rounder the past spring and with the promise of more money than the guy would make in a week, sat in the Little Duchess B & B—The Beer and Bourbon House—and waited the three hours for him to arrive. When the cabbie saw him, he refused to let him in the car and it took thirty minutes of cajoling and $2,500 in cash to get him to take Cameron to the house, wait until all the crying was over, and bring one and all back to the inn.
By dusk, he was on his way, and by full dark, the stars and the pregnant moon hidden behind clouds, he was in front of the house.
When they entered the glen, he jumped out of the cab and walked to the house, ignoring the ticket booth. Everyone, every single person moved from his path, and he opened the door and walked in, pausing to let his eyes adjust. Anglaya was in front of him, and she looked pure and clean as a new-fallen snow, the only deformity a little crook in her nose that simply made her more beautiful to behold. And she took him by the hand and led him to a room just off the entrance he had never noticed before, a small room, with cordovan couches and a fireplace and a table set with an Absinthe fountain dripping into two cups. She sat him carefully on the couch and taking the fairy, sat beside him and they toasted life and drank.
“Cameron. You should not have come back.”
He started to object, and she touched his lips to silence him and again, he felt the burn. “Now quiet. I have to talk and I do not know how many times I can yet touch you. They are few.
“This house is not here, not really in this world. You suspect that—you have for days. I saw you with the measuring devise, so you know it does not fit here properly. Or anywhere. It is a phantasm. You can see it, you can almost touch it, you think you do, but not quite. It exists outside of time.
“I came here ten years ago. The house was in Petersburg, Russia, or the projection of it was, and there was a blond Swede I fell in love with and was under his trance—just like you with me—and after we made love, he was gone and I was here in his place. That’s how it works here. Once trapped, there is a trial time—a time when all hope seems lost, and for a time, things truly are hopeless and you exist in what appears to be a never-ending future filled with pain and suffering and agony. Your friend Jimmy is in that now. He is a device only. He will be decapitated and severed and garroted and disemboweled hundreds of times before he can wander freely. I was.
“But finally, this time is over and for a period, you are free to leave—if you find a replacement. I have been trying for four years now. We find a human to touch—we only get one a year—and with the first touch—the one I gave you what seems so long ago—there is planted in the human a pheremone, a hormone, or something chemical or I don’t know what, that causes you to come back, that changes you, that starts changes in you, starts to deform you, to change and degrade and dehumanize you. It’s different with every human. In some, its leprosy, some its scarring, others, well, it is based on some mechanism I do not understand and do not care to learn. And every touch accelerates the change, the metamorphosis. Your friend Jimmy was done in by that succubus Marina in two nights because of what they did to each other, because of how they touched. And there is nothing you can do for him because if he leaves the house before his time and without a replacement, he will disappear like a whirl of dust in the evening sky.
“It’s a scale. A touch on the hand does not have as great an effect as a kiss on the cheek and a French kiss is almost as strong as making love. And each contact progresses and accelerates the changes. But you can stop.
“I want you to leave. I am cursed because of the blond from Sweden. He entered me and by entering me, confined me to this house, possibly for eternity. Yes, I could leave, by damning someone else, but every time I try, and I have tried for years, I see the humanity in my replacement, I see his or her soul, and I withdraw. And every time I have tried and the closer I get—this year, I am maybe one or two innocent touches of you before we switch—the further into degradation I fall when the house closes and with it my window of opportunity. Each year, I fall further into the abyss. Eventually, it will be over, all hope will be lost and I will become a part of this house for all time. . . maybe not this year, but certainly next year or so.
I do not want that—who wants damnation? But what happens is that when I get close, I look at the condition of the human, of you, and I cannot finish the task. I damned myself out of lust and desire but so far I have not been able to damn another.
“So, please leave. It is almost over. Every year, the house changes its portal and every year we have twenty-one days to act and to make our escape. I have been here ten years because I cannot damn another. When the world ends and if there is a God, maybe that will count for something. But a God could not allow this. So go. Forget me and on the day of all souls, you will be healed and I will be gone. Run away. Now. While you can.”
And she vanished through a door he hadn’t seen.
He left the parlor and waded through the sin and decadence and destruction, making his way to the witches trials, to find a woman capable of leaving and to have furious and deviant congress with her until the change was made. It had to work. There was no other way. But, could or would another’s touch infect him or did Anglaya’s touch render him immune from others? Were he and she doomed to be forever opposites, forever separated: one damned the other alive? Was there to be no joining, no communion? He had to start quickly, before rational thought took over and before the realization of what these acts mean—before they were fully formed in his soul, and the horror outweighed his reason, causing him to run as fast and as far from Anglaya and the house as her could.
Infected, he loved her. Without her and uninfected, he would love her still. And there was only one possible way for them to be together, and that was immediate and prolonged deviant sexual congress with the damned, after which he would find her. Damned with a companion had to be better than being damned alone.
If only it worked.
If only she would then have him.