Melvin Michaeladis awake from his nightmare feeling more frightened than he had in years.
He had fallen asleep in his wheelchair while watching the snow falling down onto his garden and dreamed. He dreamed of the past, of Beechwood House and his mother. He had spent his lifetime trying to put them out of his mind, especially the woman who gave him birth, but it all came flooding back because of that boy.
When he had seen the cameras all turn off, Melvin had become nervous. He had seen Bartlett enter and then after a while, they had just turned black for no apparent reason. While he had waited in vain for a phone call from the fire department or something to tell him that the house burned down or something equally destructive, something that would finally end his nightmare, he had fallen asleep.
Unfortunately, every single year of his life, and he was quite old, he had become more and more certain that the nightmare never really could end. It just existed like the rising sun and gravity: an unchangeable part of reality.
When he turned his wheelchair around, he nearly jumped out of his skin. “Good God, son!” he cried and then he really looked at the boy. “You look like you were dropped through a meat grinder.”
“I kind of was,” he replied simply. His face was hollow and pale and there was a remarkable amount of dried blood on his shoulder, neck and face. He was armored too, like those monster hunters he used to hire to go into the house to find its heart, but Bartlett was different. He was not affected as deeply as they had been, not jabbering about people and things they knew and didn’t know at the same time, but he was still affected.
He was shockingly calm: incredibly and utterly so. Melvin had seen every spectrum of emotion in his hunters but that one.
And unlike the others, it was clear he had been there the whole night. Melvin had clocked lone adventurers and hunters at about three hours at the most except for the one who killed himself shortly after leaving the house, which he had clocked at an hour and forty-five when a doctor gave him the believed time of death. He was one of the bets that Melvin made, bets intending to frighten someone into burning down the house or something in a fit of horror, but they never did.
After that, Melvin had been too guilty to send anyone into the house and he resigned himself to a lifetime of nightmares of cackling laughter.
“Why are you hurt?” Melvin found himself asking. Bartlett was not supposed to be hurt exactly. There was nothing in there to hurt anyone as far as he knew yet it was clear Bartlett was had not only been hurt but also attacked. He certainly didn’t get that bloody falling down the stairs.
Bartlett smiled in a way that didn’t touch his bloodshot eyes, took out the key to the front door, and placed it down on the table beside the chair.
“Please say something.” Bartlett didn’t and just stared at him with that same smile and then, quite suddenly, Melvin was reminded so much of James Bartlett when angry that he thought he was looking at his ghost. “Why are you hurt? Nothing in that house can hurt you.”
His smile slipped off and he said in a very soft voice, “Even things with fangs.”
That made absolutely no sense to Melvin. “I don’t follow. Snakes? I heard a rumor about a giant snake somewhere—”
“No,” Bartlett said softly. “Not snakes.”
“I don’t follow.” And he really didn’t. “Why have you come here, Ethan?”
Ethan looked away and didn’t seem to know anymore. Melvin guessed that Bartlett had thought Melvin was some kind of secret mastermind to the whole Beechwood thing, whatever it was, and knew everything. He wouldn’t be the first to think that but if it had been true and he had been sneaky enough to playact an idiot old man convincingly, the Huntress or the Saturnine would have figured it out and he would not have lived even to early middle age, let alone old age.
Bartlett turned his eyes back and said, “Tell me about the ritual under the house.”
“How in God’s name did you learn about that?” Melvin asked with wide eyes.
“How do you think?”
“Noah Waddell maybe,” he replied.
“No. He’s dead and he didn’t talk about it.” Bartlett frowned. “He knew?”
“He knew a lot more than what he wrote in that book of his, yes,” said Melvin simply. “There’s a reason why’s he not around and he didn’t die of a heart attack despite what the newspaper wrote.”
“How did he die?”
“I don’t know exactly,” he replied honestly. “Ask the blacks if you can. They know but they probably won’t tell you. At least, not any more than you already know, anyway.” He shrugged. “I don’t even know if he’s really dead.”
Bartlett frowned at nothing for several moments. “You really don’t know what was in that house, do you?”
“Ghosts and shades.” He shrugged. “I don’t know what else you—”
“Tell me about the man with the axe.” Melvin felt his body clench tightly involuntarily as his world went spinning around and he quickly grabbed the sides of his wheelchair for stability. “The one wearing the Mask of Comedy,” Bartlett added as if there was more than one.
Melvin managed, somehow, to compose himself although it took several minutes. “You saw him as a shade,” he said but Bartlett’s expression revealed nothing. “Son, he is dead, and that is all you need or ever want to know about him. That and the fact that you are very lucky you and he did not end up alive at the same time.”
“What do you know about him, Melvin?”
“Do not stir that up,” he said simply. “He’s dead. Leave it at that. Please.”
Bartlett looked at him for a moment, calculating, and Melvin felt sick. This boy knew far, far too much to be safe and yet, looking at him, he thought him quite formidable. He was as good and kind as James Bartlett was but also meaner, merciless and able to get his hands very dirty. Yes, Melvin realized. Anyone coming after Ethan Bartlett would be very sorry.
“Tell me about the woman who laughs like Margaret Hamilton.”
He knew whom he meant instantly and he did not want to talk about her. “I’m not particularly sure what that—”
“It was Madge Michaeladis, wasn’t it? Your mother.”
It was. “She’s dead too,” he said softly and leaned back. “She would be well over a hundred if she wasn’t, you understand.”
“What was she doing with all the black children?”
“You look like you know.”
“I don’t.” Bartlett was getting irritable and the idea that he was incapable of torture fluttered in front of Melvin’s eyes like a treat but then vanished. Ethan Bartlett was not his grandfather.
“I don’t know honestly,” he said. “My mother was—” he shrugged “—crazy and I mean that word. Not crazy as in exceptionally wild but crazy as in—” he looked him into Bartlett’s eyes “—lunatic. The woman was—” he thought about her reading to him with blood on her neck and face, sewing pictures of dolphins, dancing at midnight to the sound of a room filled with birds “—genuinely insane.”
“You look like one hell of a victim,” said Bartlett. “You really don’t know anything, do you?”
“If you have to live in Bartlett Bay, the first thing to learn is to never learn other people’s secrets.”
He opened his mouth to say something then shut it. He had tried to get away, countless times in fact, but that horrible yet beautiful house where his insane mother had once danced had drawn him back each and every time. What he wanted to say was “Beechwood isn’t done with me yet” but what he said instead was, “No.”
Bartlett stood up and said, “Someday, Melvin, I may come back and ask you more questions. I may not ask you so nicely.” Then he turned around and was gone.
Melvin felt a strange weight off his shoulders the moment the door was shut. He couldn’t describe it exactly and he didn’t know what to make of it but he felt better. He liked the fact that someone had gone down into that house and beat it and he suspected, since Bartlett saw the ritual, he had done something about it.
Unfortunately, he had not found the heart. Melvin would have known if that had happened.
Bartlett knew it too. He was still looking for something, still digging. Melvin didn’t tell him everything but Bartlett didn’t tell Melvin everything either. That boy wasn’t finished with Beechwood either.
He had mentioned Melvin’s mother, Madge, who the Huntress called the Summoner, and Melvin found his thoughts drifting uncontrollably toward her. He moved his chair to a different window in the east parlor of his little house on Edwina Rd on the north side of Maple Grove and looked out across the space of the city diagonally toward where had there been no other houses, he might have been able to see Beechwood itself.
He could still hear that terrifying Margaret Hamilton laugh as she went skipping along through Beechwood’s halls like a mischievous little girl, a laugh that bordered on psychotic, hysterical and excited all from some deep well at the back of a mind so crazed, it should never have seen the outside of a white-walled room.
Melly, come on and embrace the darkness, she had told him often. It was her phrase for being a prankster, which in her mind could be anything from fixing a chair to torturing a child but it was usually just a normal prank like a bucket of water placed over a door. He found himself suddenly wondering if she was down there in the darkness right then, embracing it, and laughing that crazy laugh of hers all the while.
The Huntress killed her just as she killed her mother’s favorite killer, or “buddy” as she called him.
Melvin had seen the Butcher only once when he was very young. He had appeared out of nowhere with Melanie Daniels’s head in one hand and his axe in another. His mother had put him there either as a “harmless prank” or to harden him up, either of which was an equal possibility.
He still dreamed about that night and for that reason, he liked to stay up late enough to be too tired to dream. Sometimes it even worked.
He never really knew the reason his mother had Melanie Daniels killed. She was his babysitter and had done nothing wrong or even remotely out of the ordinary for that matter. Even the babysitter that beat him only got herself fired. His mother never gave him the same answer twice when prompted to answer his question. Once she said Melanie raped him, which she hadn’t, another that her “father” commanded her so. Each time was vastly different and she seemed to believe it fully, speaking as solemnly as a devout Christian quoting the bible, but she then never recall the earlier explanations when asked later.
Melvin concluded, or as close to concluding as was possible, that Melanie Daniels had simply done nothing wrong in any way and his mother had killed her as a product of her insanity. His mother just got it in her head one day to kill her and then simply did.
He jerked as his cellphone suddenly rang. Still at his side where he left it last night, he answered it without looking at the number. “Hello?”
“Hello Melvin,” said the soft, female voice that he could never quite place.
Melvin’s eyes went wide and he thought he was going to have a heart attack. He waited for it to happen and when it didn’t, he was disappointed. “I—I thought you were—”
“Dead?” replied the Huntress. “Not quite yet, Melvin.”
It was she who ended the nightmare in that lazy year of 1948 when President Harry. S. Truman was still in office with corruption ramped, poles dropping yet still riding strong on the bomb then and forever. The nightmare that began and ended with an axe.
But who was she? He knew she was a woman, he had seen her once, but all he had seen was the woman’s body, slender, with the Mask of Tragedy she wore to mock the Butcher’s memory over her head. He hadn’t even seen her hair.
Margaret Bartlett perhaps? He had thought so once but she turned out to be too deluded and weak. It was stupid of him to believe it honestly, as she was dumb enough to marry Julian Bartlett, who corrupted and ruined every single one of her children and grandchildren. To compound her idiocy, she fell into an embarrassing denial phase.
Annabelle Fuller maybe? She was the daughter of a Merrick and she could be as violent and vicious as any of them and if Noah Waddell knew Madge Michaeladis was killing black children years later, Annabelle almost certainly knew at the same time. The blacks had more reason than most to go after his mother.
Babs Bernard? She was of the right age, knew the family and was as cold as ice. There was nothing special about her, a woman even less remarkable than even Margaret Bartlett was, but there was just something about the icy way that she glanced around at everyone. There was something dangerous about her.
There were many other women who could be her. His own sister, various fisherwomen, that old Hamilton broad Mary who seems sweet but everyone knew was hiding secrets. His mother once said, all women have secrets, and she was right. She was very, very right.
Then it dawned on him.
It didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered that she was alive and she was talking to him.
“Are you there, Melvin?”
“I’m here,” he said softly. He hadn’t heard her voice in decades and he realized he was different from the man had been when she last called him. For one, he wasn’t worried or frightened anymore. He had been at first, a knee-jerk reaction, but he realized then that he no longer cared whether he lived or died and that he was too old to be tortured without it killing him before anyone got any kind of information. “Who are you? Are you Annabelle Fuller?”
“Do I sound black?” she asked in an amused voice. “It would be appropriate, wouldn’t you think, after what your mother did those poor children.”
“Why have you called me?”
“The chess pieces are starting to move, Melvin. A few new players have entered the game but we’ve got a hell of a knight this time.”
Melvin thought about Ethan Bartlett’s entrance into town. He thought about Tori Randal, Jessica Downs, Grace O’Brien, the Wellington girls, and now the house, which was somehow changed for the better despite not being destroyed. “What do you want from me?” he asked.
“I want you to start looking around and listening. You’ve been under the shadow of your mother and the Butcher for too long and it is time for you to step out into the light. This needs to end, Melvin, and you know it.”
“Who are you?” he asked again.
“Melvin, there are closets to hide in, stairs and beds to slip under, and shadows aplenty to crouch into and wait. I understand you don’t run very well these days.” He couldn’t find any words and felt very uncomfortable with that series of proposed possibilities. “Sooner, or later, the Saturnine will realize you know more than you claim and they will come for you, if for no better reason than to murder your knowledge. Find what you know and give it to the boy.”
“What will he do?”
“He’ll kill them. Just like he did Agatha Cane and Sheldon Martin.”
“Sheldon Martin?” He hadn’t heard that name in a long time and he honestly couldn’t say he was sorry he was dead but the other? “Madam, Agatha Cane was born in the mid-nineteenth century—”
“They will come for you, Melvin,” she stated simply. “They will come in the night someday, I don’t know when it’ll be or exactly what they’ll do but someone will probably say in the newspaper ‘Melvin Michaeladis died of a heart attack.’”
He swallowed a lump down his throat and felt sweat appearing all over him. He had the sudden strange idea that she was behind him and then found he was afraid to look.
“Melvin, you’re too old games and delusion. Do the right thing. You don’t want to see the Mask of Tragedy again.” Then she hung up and was gone.
Or was she?
He did turn around then, saw nothing, and then lifted up his cellphone. He had caller ID on his device and he could find someone who was harassing him. Even someone as old and out of touch as he was had no trouble making it work. He went to the recent calls list on his phone casually but then stopped and stared at the last number that called him.
His heart had almost stopped and he felt beyond disturbed. He had recognized the number instantaneously and easily.
It was his house line and the one phone connected to it had been in the room right behind him.