The guest fumbled for the phone receiver over the arm of a sofa. “Hello?”
“Aloysius. It’s me.”
Rain roared outside; a groggy Aloysius hoisted himself out of fitful sleep. “Emma?”
She explained with clinched breaths. “I’m calling you from my cell phone in my room.”
“I’m too terrified to move,” she gasped. “I think I hear my dress dummy moving under my bed.”
“You're hearing what?”
“Will you bring the pumpkin in here, please?” she pleaded.
Aloysius looked at the dark jack-o-lantern against window curtains; its trace of vanilla still lingered in the vicinity. “Of course,” he answered.
The requested item was fetched, and the dark hallway was navigated; a flash of lightning placed door molding at his shoulder.
Emma called out from the half-seen bed. “Matches are in my purse on the dresser.”
The rescuer bumped the edge of the dresser and felt the strap of her bag. Setting the lantern down, he rummaged through Kleenex and lipstick dispensers in the bottom of the purse to locate a matchbook. A paper match was torn off and struck. The nearly spent candle resembled a cookie in the hollowed-out gourd, yet enough wick remained to rekindle a flame.
Extinguishing the match, he turned to see Emma shedding her covers. Candlelight pierced her gauzy negligee to reveal an unclad body underneath. She cinched the evocative folds and scrunched with delayed modesty; Aloysius averted his eyes while she scampered into a robe. “I need your help moving the mannequin to the attic,” she said.
“You’re moving it because of a bad dream?”
Her declaration was dour. “That movie scared me out of my wits.”
“Then you watched the film?”
“Half of it,” she admitted.
He was contrite. “I’m sorry I fell asleep.”
She gestured over the side of the mattress. “You’ll see it under the skirt.”
Aloysius dropped to his knees and pulled the life-size nude mannequin from its burrow of dust bunnies. Made of plaster, it had weight. The distressed woman was already slipping toward the door with the glowing jack-o-lantern tucked under her chin.
Turning on her flip-flops, he carried the cumbersome object into the hallway, though managed a gentlemanly grip on the protruding female anatomy.
Emma stood at a wall where a purplish sari hung, and, on reaching under it, turned a doorknob to rouse a draft in a connecting passageway. “Through here,” she gestured, lifting the fabric for him to pass under.
The door opened with a stutter, and his guide circled in front of him. Light leapt to reveal a billowy floor-to-ceiling maze of spider webs. They hung in veils over a narrow staircase that led straight up two floors to an attic door. Having failed more than one test of manhood in her presence, Aloysius would suffer his fears of heights and spiders silently.
Emma, with an expression dipped in candle smoke, queried him with female calculation. “Will you be able to manage by yourself?”
“The door’s unlocked at the top.”
The steps were thick with dust from where shoes had not disturbed them for some time; the tenant crackled up them fearlessly. Once on the landing, she turned to light the way.
The mover was less concerned about scraping the floor in this unused common area, so opted to drag rather than tote the heavy dummy. With each grunt and pop of plaster against a step, there was a notch to mark his progress. He tried not to look down through the stair sticks, but the shallow, steep-pitched steps and scrawny handrail made it feel like he was crawling edgewise up a knife blade. Nearing Emma, she scooted down the banister and pushed open the attic door; it moaned before sticking on wizen floorboards. He squeezed through the gap to watch his shadow climb a peeling wall where the torchlight followed him in.
“I’m going back to bed,” she announced, setting the pumpkin at his feet. “Will you bring the lantern to my room when you’re finished?”
“Don’t you need it to see your way back down?”
“Thank you,” came her trailing-away gratitude from the unlit staircase.
Standing the dummy upright, Aloysius took a minute to pull away cobwebs from his clothes, and to examine the empty packing boxes around him. The switch in the bathroom yielded no additional light, and the faucet at the sink gurgled before a brief punch of aerated rusty water shot out; the toilet was also bone-dry.
Rain on tar shingles could not muffle the rising sound of music and laughter coming from the only window. He ventured to the ledge and found a party in progress next door. All the drapes in the neighboring house were open, and costumed revelers on the ground floor posed and pawed in a manner consistent with liberal alcohol consumption.
A splat of water flicked his shirt collar. The low light painted everything over him dimly but broadly, including a growing water spot on the ceiling; dribbles down the mannequin’s clavicle confirmed the steady drip. A chivalrous shove pushed the plaster woman out of striking distance, and placed the party-gawker back at the window.
Slicing wind pushed between the two houses to scour the neighbors’ panes, lifting a curtain. Aloysius could not account for the impression he was being watched, but his attention was drawn to a third floor window across from him, deep into the shifting darkness of a room. It was difficult to tell, but after a second or two he was certain he saw a woman wearing a sequined mermaid costume and scuba mask. She might have been in an efficiency apartment, or was simply a reveler who strayed into an uninhabited section of the party house.
Tapping her foggy pane, she drew a little squiggly heart with a finger. Fat drops of condensation trickled down to the sill while Aloysius’ captive gaze traveled up…
The young woman performed mock fellatio on her snorkel.
He meant to blink, but the exhibitionist pressed her full, uncovered breasts into the window in a dare, making her areolae spread like pancake batter under the glass. She ebbed away with another burst of rain, yet reappeared in a sliver of pinkish lamplight when the wind rallied.
With downy legs spread-eagle over the front of a wooden chair flushed to a door, the woman—now completely nude—masturbated with him in sight. Caught in intermediate flashes of lightning, her lips drifted over a dune-of-a-face, articulating long vowels and prickly consonants with digging, exaggerated gesture. It was surely a trick of darkness: one that had the form of her eyes and mouth moving along divergent lines of expression.
Given the queer, indecipherable nature of it, and Aloysius’ tendency to invent faces out of whole cloth, he could not speak to either the truth or intention of it. Paralyzed, the voyeur reacted against this seeming attempt at communication. He glanced away from the unfettered performance on detecting jerky movement below him; several masked merrymakers at a first floor window pointed at him in ridicule.
The wind again changed direction, and the exhibitionist in his peripheral vision wriggled orgasmically with more dribbles down her pane. She was abruptly splayed over the chair in an act of self-evisceration. Deboned legs peeled away, but before he could confirm the nature of the transformation, all her extremities had contorted backwards to send her scampering out of her seat, up onto the door face, and out of sight!
Aloysius swayed into a step, but did not contact the floor—what he saw out of the corner of his eye was not a crawling woman but a spider!
The yelping man clawed at his hair, frantic to remove any cobwebs clinging to his head. A plump, meaty spider scurried away from his shoe, leaving him to rocket backwards over the pumpkin.
Nothing more of the woman was seen for the torrential rain, so with no more delay than a shudder required, he retrieved his limping light source from the floor and fled the attic. The shadow of the stair rail unfurled below him like a snake, and knots of toes were employed to probe for steps. Once reconnected to Emma’s apartment, he crept up to her bedroom door to find her sound asleep. The pumpkin was placed on her dresser, and he returned to the front room.
His head found the hard arm of the couch somewhere under his pillow, but it did little to blunt his wakefulness.
The downpour ebbed and flowed over his body, and somewhere in the ebbing, bits of plaster were heard tumbling down inside the drywall; Aloysius roused to rejoin his prescient thoughts.
The room was still fettered under the storm, but his impression was one of movement overhead; it left him to fall behind. Another scuff arose—a piece of furniture was being dragged for some inconceivable distance in the attic apartment. He lurched out of the back end of it, seconds or minutes later.
“Aloysius. Wake up.”
Emma bent over him, fragrant in shadow. His rasp stabbed at the cloth belt of her robe. “Something wrong?”
She whispered close. “Someone’s in the house. I think I here them upstairs.”
“The mannequin?” he ventured torpidly.
“The one you called me to move.”
“Aloysius,” she quietly explained. “How can I call you? The ringer on the landline phone is turned off.”
He sat up on the sofa, confused.
She stepped to the window table where the pumpkin sat and relit the candle. Her look was singed in silhouette. “If someone’s in the house, we have to be careful.” The spent match was dropped in an ashtray. “There’s mud in the hall,” she added urgently, “and footprints leading to my bedroom door.”
“Those are probably mine from when we came in.”
“It’s him,” she interjected. “The creep from the mound.”
Aloysius glanced at the front door. “I’m a light sleeper. A prowler would have to walk by me on the couch.”
“He came in through the upstairs apartment. There’s a private entrance for it around back, and as its door requires no key, you can access the common area from it.” She pulled the terry cloth robe tighter around her, trembling. “The door at the end of my hallway connects to the common area, and it was open.”
The houseguest stood up, joining her in the exaggerated shadows. “That may have been me, too. I’m a sleepwalker. I may have been in your attic.”
“How would you know about the hidden door?”
Having no good answer, Aloysius grabbed the jack-o-lantern off the table, mindful not to jostle the precarious flame. “I should check it out.”
“It might be dangerous.”
The light lunged ahead of him when he turned toward the hall. “If it was me up there, I will know soon enough.”
With pumpkin clutched to his chest, he ducked under the draped connecting door to enter the common room. It was much, in general outline, as he envisioned. No dusty tracks, plaster marks, or cobwebs were on these stairs, although a set of wet footprints led down from the top.
Gathering his ersatz bravery, a current of air was followed. His foot arrested the creaking attic door, though on peeking past it he saw no mannequin. A water puddle was on the floor, yet no water spot was on the ceiling. Baffled, Aloysius returned to the window to look down on a neighboring party. He could not say it was the same house, or the same party.
The draft tortured his meager torchlight, so he set the pumpkin in the floor to note the direction of the yielding flame. Disrupted shadows on the wall revealed the torn edge of a papered-over doorframe, as well as a socket depression from where a doorknob was removed. Punching a hole in the latter, the door readily gave with a crack of brittle paper and puff of dried paste.
Being liberated, the draft jumped out of a second stairwell to pounce harder on the candle. Aloysius peered down the steps of a private entrance thick with cobwebs. The directions were jumbled in his mind. The spider webs he supposed to be on the central staircase were here. He did not recall the puddle on the floor earlier, but the wet prints he crossed coming up were conceivably his. With the blackness in the well threatening to devour the room he occupied, he resealed the passageway and returned the way he came.
Emma was still standing in her hallway. “No one up there?”
“No one,” he muttered.
“Maybe it was you I heard outside my door.”
“The candle’s almost gone,” she observed, “and I want to keep an eye on you.” She moved to her bed and turned down the comforter. “Besides,” she added quietly, “I’m too scared to sleep by myself.”
Aloysius stayed in the doorway; the floor creaked under his feet with unintended graveness.
“Put the jack-o-lantern on the dresser,” she said.
He complied with misgiving. “I may still sleepwalk.”
Emma dragged a chair over to the door with a plan. On wedging it under the glass doorknob, she explained, “If you move the chair, it will wake me.” She confidently circled to the bed and removed her housecoat; the sheer fabric of her nightgown, like a dusting of white flour, sifted over doughy skin underneath. She squared her body with his on the other side of the four-poster bed.
Averting his gaze, Aloysius noted the mannequin’s red-nailed finger poking out from under the bed skirt, and believed its presence, more than the revealing night apparel of his hostess, spoke to his true wakeful state.
“Come,” she commanded, patting the fitted sheet before crawling onto it.
The bedfellow leaned in the direction of her thump. He followed her under the cover without further prompting to face the door.
“What are you thinking?” she whispered behind him.
He felt her hipbone sink beneath them in the mattress. “I can only fall asleep on my right side,” was his response.
She turned away; her soft voice echoed off the wall on her side of the bed. “Goodnight.”
He thought to say goodnight, but left it too late.
The candlelight quietly snuck away to the footboard, and then, in plunging over it, was gone. He wanted to believe they had dropped into pleasant slumber together, but the rods in his eyes were less sluggish, less resigned to follow the settling shadows into incoherency.
Stuffed animals along the wall merged in his mind to become a chimera, and though he could not see its fused eyes, he felt its hot breath on his cheek. “What are you thinking?” asked she.
A face looked back from the divide; the man found only vacuity in it, seeing straight through to the back of her head. A pair of eyes in sockets surely lay in front of him, but for all intents and purposes they were hidden in the room.
“What are you thinking?” came her question again.
The words tightened like a garrote around his neck, raising the shallow silence between them to a deafening pitch. “That I’m on my left side,” he answered.
Her hand enfolded his; she rephrased. “What were you thinking when you were spying on me through the keyhole?”
Aloysius reopened his eyes, thinking them already open. He was under the impression he was facing Emma on the bed, talking to her, but he was still turned to the door.
Lightning in the curtains revealed a different configuration in the room. The chair had slid down the door to land flat on the floor. Equally unnerving, his face still tingled from a keen gaze, and his curled fingers, possessed with the thought of a lingering grip, continued to dip into the ominous black current around the bed. He sat up to lean cautiously into Emma. She was now turned toward him, though he could not tell if her eyes were open or shut.
Bedding worked like a counterweight against his body, but once on his feet the certain stare followed him to the door. The chair was righted, and he cast a glance back at the bed. If Emma was awake and watching him move the chair, wouldn’t she speak?
Crawling back into bed, he confronted her half-stamped expression again from a pillow, but knew her eyes—her staring eyes—were not present.
Lightning flashed over the bed to reveal his bed partner was fast asleep.
Something had already congealed in the vitreous of his eye, only it was a slamming trapdoor he was late to see...
With double-jointed limbs arrayed around her in a way that pushed down into his innermost fear, the grinning mannequin was planted on the ceiling over the bed. Her dangling breasts—like unblinking decoy eyes on a spider’s back—fixed on his arrested respiration. A plop of moisture squirted out from between her legs, striking his hip; the unexpected warmth of it loosened his abdominal muscles in the manner of a prey animal surrendering to a predator’s jaws. A flecked lasso of yellow-green began trickling down from her lair, at first yielding like a contour of skin before spreading in a fire over his body. His slackening arm floated up to escape the incineration—the drowning current of urine...
Emma groaned with the nudge. The next clap of lightning was inevitable, though an eternity in coming—a table lamp shot on across from him. She squinted at him crustily from under her covers. “What’s the matter?”
Motionless blades of a ceiling fan pinned him to the mattress—not a mannequin spider. He was exposed in the glare. “The roof is leaking,” he whimpered.
A hard look turned up a dripping ring of discoloration around the base of the fan overhead. Emma retreated into her housecoat. “It’s hardly raining outside now!”
Seeing his state, she dropped to her feet and came around to his side of the bed; Aloysius clambered into a soberer orientation. Her words were crisp in the bedding. “I don’t think the leak penetrated the mattress liner.” She unlatched the fitted sheet and turned with a bundle in her arms to speak plainly. “You need to get out of those wet things.”
Aloysius looked down at his pants with mortification.
She reproached him. “Don’t be silly, Aloysius. I need to put your clothes in the dryer. Take them off in the bathroom if you’re so modest.”
He squeaked, “Do you have anything I can put on?”
She assuaged his panic from the hall. “I have some flannel pajamas.”
Chapter Seventeen, Section Four/ Back/ Contents Page
Copyright © 2007 Michael Teague. All rights reserved.