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It was on a beautifully dreary autumn day, when dark clouds hung low to touch the clawing branches of naked trees, that I rode my first bus in what had to be millennia. I stared at the empty seats, they stared back, and caution still dissuaded me from leaning my head against the window the way I once did. The sights of the vast exterior yet entranced me, and my eventual destination remained for the most part at the centre of a parallax in my vision. I had almost forgotten the smell of gasoline, the creaking of ancient bus seats beneath me, and the brief insights into the lives of unusual passengers on the subway train.
A buzz at my pocket impelled me to pull out my phone, unlocking it to see the message:
‘You almost here?’
I glanced back at my friend’s house in the distance, its familiar jagged roof poking just above the neighbouring apartments and its bleak paintwork just as chipped and weathered as I remembered.
‘In like 5 min’ I answered.
As I approached his home, I couldn’t help but recall the years we shared before my family moved away. Even after nearly a decade I regarded Rick Usher as one of my boon companions, and though we only talked through texts and occasional meetups we still shared the quasi-brotherly bond we forged in boyhood. During the pandemic we talked with each other most often; while he provided me with conversation so I didn’t slowly go insane, I helped by giving him advice on his rocky relationship with his sister. Maddie, who had been staying at his place for some time after a messy breakup of hers, had always been the polar opposite of her brother. It was a common joke among our group of friends that if one believed something then the other would believe the opposite, and when it came to the all-encompassing quarantine they had frequent arguments about safety precautions.
It was with a sigh of elation and nervosity that I first arrived before the Usher house. The place always seemed to me to be ancient and alive, with its vacant eye-like windows and the extensive spread of the vegetation around it. Vines reached over the sides of the building, minute fungi hung like spiderwebs from the eaves, and every crack and splinter in the discolored walls was accentuated with the hint of something green growing beneath. As a child I could’ve sworn there was something haunted about the place, as if ghosts roamed there at night and monsters shuffled quietly in the basement. One aspect that was new, however, was a faint foul smell surrounding the property. I couldn’t quite place a finger on what it was, but it reminded me somewhat of the time I spent at my uncle’s farm.
“Eddy!” cried the voice of my friend, suddenly at the door with a refreshing grin on his face, which snapped me from my phantasmagoric ruminations.
“Hey!” I answered as I smiled back, and we quickly hugged outside before he wordlessly invited me in. I came to realize that it was the first human contact I had felt in months, and it was strange to think I received it so far from my own home. I dropped my backpack near the door and took a look inside.
The room in which I found myself was very large and lofty. The furniture and decoration of the place was as dilapidated and antiquated as I recalled, though now that Rick was in charge of the place instead of his parents it was easy to spot how he’d changed it: various instruments were scattered around like generous seasoning on a salad, posters of different bands, movies. and video games hung on the walls to show he wasn’t as old as he looked, and (presumably due to his time of seclusion) several books laid dejected on tables and seats. On one of the tables was his record player, and beside it stood his large catalogue of vinyl albums.
Rick and I talked together at length here, mostly about how bizarre it was to finally see each other and how my voyage to his house had been. I briefly debated bringing up the subject of the foul odour I’d previously noticed, but figured it was best to ask after we had had our pleasantries. We caught up as we often did, and throughout our lively discussion I was surprised that we weren’t being interrupted by his sister. It was a common occurrence for Maddie to suddenly barge into a conversation upon hearing Rick propose his opinion about something, taking the chance to go on a tirade against it and make fun of him in front of his friends. As we exchanged words I also noted how he’d physically changed since the last I saw him: his features had grown gaunt, the shadows of his eyes darkened, and though genuinely or by a trick of the light he seemed considerably paler. When I asked about his condition he simply laughed it off and replied:
“Surprised you’re not looking like a ghoul too, having no one at home with you.”
“Granted.” I admitted, then remembered the other question I had been meaning to ask.
At the sound of her name the blood visibly sank from his face, and he gave me a ghastly expression that suddenly unnerved me at my core despite the fact that it came from my friend.
“She’s in her room.” said he, and with that he rose from his chair and began inspecting his records. “Remember when we disagreed about how necessary it was for her to go outside for a smoke?”
I nodded and replied:
“Yeah, it’s the last one I heard about.”
Rick gave a low, exasperated sigh and finally picked a familiar tattered Joseph Haydn collection from one of the shelves.
“Well she didn’t listen, as she never does, and she went outside while I was disinfecting the grocery bags.” he explained as he set up the vinyl on the record player and music began to fill the room.
“I have reason to believe she may have the virus.” he told me with wide, unblinking eyes, and continued as he sat back down. “She’s been locked in her room for some time, and I provide her food and water. I’d let you two talk, but you know how she is. She could convince you to jump off the roof if she really wanted you to.”
“You have her there against her own will?” I asked, and Rick grimaced at the question as if it offended him.
“I’ve been keeping her alive against her will since we were children, Ed. She’d have died at that carnival fair when we were 12 if I wasn’t there, and again at 16 when she wanted to hang around with people that eventually all ended up either in a shallow ditch or in jail. I’m keeping a close eye on her, she’s my sister. As soon I’m sure she’s not a threat to herself or me, I’ll let her out.”
I understood his reasoning, but still shook my head.
“Why didn’t you just take her to a hospital? Call a medic?”
Rick waved the suggestion away like a pesky fly.
“And make it even easier for the both of us to get exposed to the outside or damn her to a system that doesn’t always work? Haven’t you heard all those stories in the news of hospitals with neglectful, murderous staff or seen all those doctors that eventually find out they’ve been infected too? There’s a slim chance she doesn’t even have the virus, so I won’t risk it. I’ve always been safe and comfortable with what I know, and what I know is that that room is the safest place she could possibly be right now.”
I was never one to have fervent arguments with anyone, so I heaved my shoulders and let him do what he thought was best. After all, he could be paranoid but I’d never heard of Rick Usher ever being wrong about his worries. He seemed pleased that I dropped the subject, and we spent the rest of the night talking and laughing as friends do.
It was far too late in the evening, or perhaps too early in the morning, when we finally decided to call it a night and head to our respective beds. He showed me to my room, and in the process walked me by his room and Maddie’s, where I could faintly hear the first album of The Cranberries playing on a speaker. Curiously, the stench I’d been smelling seemed to get stronger as we walked forth, though I still didn’t dare bring it up on the first day of my stay at the Usher house.
“Goodnight Ed.” Rick said as he stood before my room’s door frame, smiling with an arm gesturing towards the bedside table. “I left that old Ethelred book you loved so much at the table, if you ever have trouble sleeping.”
I smiled warmly back, genuinely appreciating the fact that he had even remembered what my favourite novel was in boyhood.
Once he’d gone to his own room and I had gotten comfortably into the pajamas I had packed, I did find myself struggling to fall into the lull of slumber. It felt unnatural to sleep somewhere besides my own bed after months of doing just that, and something about the house still made me uneasy. Moonlight filling in through the window cast my own distorted shadow on the shabby wall in front of me, and all I did was stare at it as it slowly rose and grew larger than me as the night went on. My body rejected the idea of sleep in such a foreign place, so I resolved to read Ethelred’s story in the Mad Trist to convince my brain I was comfortable here.
At first it appeared to work, as Ethelred’s valiant quests and tales of courage brought me back to a time where I needn’t worry about anything else than the words before me. Progressively though, as I got into the latter, more tragedious parts of the legend of Ethelred, the sense of unease that I’d been ignoring slowly crept back. Some chapters described the effects of a terrible plague sweeping the country, and with every description of a blemished corpse or retching child, strange images of Maddie suffering similarly began flashing in my mind. Ethelred would splinter the gates of enemy forts with the mighty swings of his mace, and at those moments I could swear the sounds of something heavy striking wood were coming from inside the house. Damsels in distress and tortured maidens would scream out in horror for Ethelred’s aid, and those desperate cries rang in my skull like the clapper of an agitated bell. At last, there came the story of Ethelred’s battle against hordes of undead monsters, and when they moaned and scratched at his door I could not bear it.
I closed the book as fervently as I had opened it, and in my stupor I nearly failed to notice that I had not been imagining the sounds of Ethelred’s foes. Slowly turning my gaze towards the hallway, I heard the banging, crying and scratching of before, somewhat muffled by the door. Quietly and cautiously I rose from my bed and walked into the hallway, and it was then that I was sure of it. Terrible wails came from Maddie’s room, and the stench that I’d previously noted was in fact most prevalent there. I held my breath as I walked by Rick’s door, then stood paralyzed before Maddie’s. The cries and sounds of movement suddenly stopped. My fingers shivered over the doorknob, and with my heart trying to beat out of my chest I swung the door open.
Splayed on the ground directly in front of the door was the unmoving, lifeless body of Maddie Usher. Her long blond hair was unruly and torn in places, her nightgown was damaged beyond repair, and her thin limbs were the colour of dirty snow. Her speaker kept playing the same album from The Cranberries on the other side of the room, and her arms were outstretched as if the last thing they had done was claw at the door. Sure enough, the inside was covered in countless nail-sized carvings and wood chippings were spread across the floor around her. I knelt, and staring into her pale eyes, I put my fingers to her neck. It was unbearable, being this close, but I had to make sure.
There was no pulse.
All at once panic gripped at my throat, and I had trouble grounding myself in reality. A thousand thoughts clashed together in my head at impossible speeds, and Maddie stared directly at me in silent judgement at all times.
“Ed? What are you doing!?” Rick’s voice yelled from behind me, and I turned my back on Maddie to see him with a wild and crazed expression standing in the hallway.
“Can’t you see she’s—”
A cold palm gripped my shoulder.
Originally Published on www.bandersnatch.ca Vol.49 Issue 14 on April 29th, 2020