The House at the End of the World
I don't like our new house. The floor boards look like old men sleeping and there is a cat hidden in the ceiling between floors. I don't like my new school. The teacher speaks with a hiss and shuffles and all the other kids play dead better than I do. I don't like my new town, the city at the end of the world. Everyone here but us wears masks. I don't like our new woods, the forest behind our house. These trees mark the end of the world.
Pine trees. They smell like sap and blood and things burning in the shadows. Like a wet match. The pine trees huddle together. Like old women, talking. Every once and awhile a tree would turn and look at me, and I could see rheumy sap eyes and crinkled pine tree fingers. Nestled with cones and needles. Green—dark, deep green. Like the color of my mother's eyes. Like the color of my eyes.
That's another thing about this city, this town at the end of the world. Everybody here has the same color eyes. Newspaper eyes, I call them. Because they are that grey of newspaper, that grey of dishwater. Haunted by the lack of color, by the lack of substance.
I don't like my dreams at the new house. These are the worst. I dream of the cat who lives in the walls and the ceilings. He has a human skull for a face and a scorpion tail. His paws make scratching sounds as he pads from room to room. In my dreams his name is Francis. In my dreams he's writing a book on torturing humans. In my dreams he's using me to write his book. My skin as parchment. My blood as ink. My finger bones as quill. I am book, and subject of book at the same time.
I do like a painting in the house. It was on the second floor, in the hallway. It is about my size. Big enough that I could walk through it. It came with the house. When my mom saw it she wanted to throw it away. She called it junk. She called it trash. "Mary," she said calmly when I was mad and wanted her to keep it, "Dear, it's ugly. And it's not even good art."
But my dad understood. Back then he was a different dad. Before the changes. Before the hour of the waking. He insisted that we keep it. Said it had an old world charm to it. I thanked him for hours on end, and made him pancakes for breakfast the next day. I don't make pancakes for breakfast anymore. The dead do not eat pancakes.
The painting. It is of a little girl with brown hair. She sits on the floor of a forest. A pine forest like ours. But the trees are kinder. They don't huddle around with sharp tongues and clawed hands. They are baking cakes. They are telling stories. They are singing sounds and holding hands.
Needles around the little girl. Like little green trees. She has needles in her hair and in her mouth. She is playing on the ground. She is making a house out of pine tree sticks and mud. I want to live there. The house is unfinished. Two mud people look up at the house. They have no faces yet.
The little girl has a scar across the middle of her face. Deep. Like she had been cut in half. I can tell that she's singing as she plays. The song goes like this: Who killed cock robin? Who killed him? Who killed cock robin? I, said the sparrow, with my bow and arrow.
Just thinking about it makes me happy. There are faces between the pine trees. Of children, playing. One of them is running. I can see his feet and the back of his legs.
On the first day of school I wasn't allowed to talk. I couldn't answer questions in class.I couldn't chatter or speak to any of the kids. If I opened my mouth my teacher would shuffle over to me and hit me hard across the face. I wasn't allowed to cry, either. I didn't have a mask. I couldn't play dead. So I was unclean to them.
I didn't like that. Everyone in the city wears masks. They are all exactly the same. Clean, white porcelain. No face. No nose. No decorations. And then holes for their dull, grey eyes. Until I wore a mask I couldn't be a part of the school.
The teacher was an old man named Mister Livedog. He liked to talk in a fast, hissing voice. When he gave lectures, his body would weave back and forth. Hypnotic. And his lectures were always strange. Something was always off about them.
Like on that first day. Most of what we learned was the founding of the city on the bones of a giant. The giant who tried to eat the world whole. And how the founding father had crawled out of his eyes, and created the city with bits of his brain tissue and internal organs. His lectures were always weird stuff like that. By the third day I stopped listening.
Once a day, every day, the people play dead. Usually it's when I'm at school. They announce playing dead with the sound of an air raid siren.
Everyone was quiet. Mister Livedog bowed his head, and said the same creepy poem he always did when it was time to play dead: "They come from the pictures, the mirrors, the walls and the ocean. They come from the sky and the earth and our ruins. The watchers in the pine will keep us safe. The watchers in the pines will make us whole. Play dead, play dead, play dead, and keep the city from being eaten."
Then they would fall to the floor. Only people with masks could play dead. I had to sit at my desk with my head down, holding my breath. I wasn't allowed to breathe more than I had to while everyone played dead.
It was terrible. The children writhed on the floor, moaning and howling as if they were in horrible pain. The sound of chains sliding on linoleum filled the hallway of the school. And they all began to smell. Like fresh corpses. The sky outside of our classroom windows turned red. Snow fell to the ground. Soon it was over.
But again, again. Day in day out. They kept on playing dead, once a day. When I asked about it, my parents only said that they have different customs than we do at the end of the world. So I should be nice and play along. When I asked if they played dead, they said no. They said that they didn't have masks yet.
I wonder if they have a mask for me?
Sometimes at night I can't sleep. Not because of the cat in the walls. He sleeps at that hour. But other things walk through the halls. I try to sleep. Telling myself that they can't hurt me. That I'm safe here with mommy and daddy. But I'm not fooling anyone.
Shuffling feet in the shadows. Heavy breathing. And then fingers drumming on the hardwood floors. I hear lots of people, slouching, moving. Some crawling across the floors. Others I swear are moving across the ceiling. Some whisper. I don't listen to what they whisper. Their conversations sound angry, abrupt. Tempting and dreamlike. I don't want to hear what they say. I don't want to follow them, wherever they are going.
One night I saw a figure standing in my doorframe. Outlined by the light of our bathroom. He had a unicorn horn on his head. I couldn't see his features. He was only a shadow. But he sang. Sang with the most melodious voice I've ever heard. My dad has a good singing voice, but this guy puts him to shame.
As he sang I heard the sound of trees bending in the wind, and my heart stopped. I saw he had a mask in one hand. A knife in the other. I made the mistake of hearing his words. The words of his song. And I got a chill. "We will make you hollow, we will fill you with maggots, we will drink your thunder, we will make you normal."
I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. He didn't step into my room. Eventually he left. I would love to say I never saw him again, after that. But that would be a lie. As much as I hate to say the truth. That would be a lie.
On the second day of school, I still wasn't allowed to talk. I just had to sit quietly while everyone around me chattered. Their teeth clacking together. Like someone cold. Or sick with a fever.
The teacher taught songs. Showed them how to use fire to awaken a sleeping giant. He said that all houses had sleeping giants in their basements. Even mine. And soon they would awake. That was when he turned to me. His eyes smiled behind the mask. And that, he said, would be when you and your parents become official citizens.
Everyone applauded. I wanted to, but didn't want to get hit again. So I stayed quiet while they applauded. Their chattering teeth, their drumming fingers.
In the middle of the applause the air raid sounded. It was time to play dead again.
I walk to school while everyone else rides the bus. My parents don't drive me. They both have to work very early. And dropping me off would make me late. We moved here because they both got jobs at the same company. They were very excited about getting jobs at the end of the world. Work was hard to come by elsewhere.
I don't know what they do there. They never tell me. Whenever I ask they change the subject. Sometimes dad forgets to change out of his work clothes before he comes home. It's a long white suit.
Sometimes he comes home with his face covered in blood stains. Ones that won't ever wash off, he said. But the next day he's able to get them off. But his face suffers for it. It is rubbed raw and red.
My mom always comes home in the same white dress. She's never had blood on her face. But her skin suffers anyway. Rubbed raw, rubbed red. Neither of them like to talk about what they've seen, what they've done. They like working here. They don't want to get fired.
But every once and awhile I'll see sadness in my mom's eyes. A longing for a life other than this one. She will come up to me on those days and hold me for a long time, sobbing. I try to ask what's wrong, but she won't tell me. I'm not supposed to know. I'm never supposed to know.
My father doesn't get like this. He's always happy. Always smiling. It scares me.
Near the end of my stay, there were new doors in the house. They seemed to have grown there over night. These doors were painted black, and I couldn't open them. They were hot to the touch. From behind I heard screams.
That night my parents came home wearing masks. They were naked, and I saw scars across their bodies. Rings and rings and rings of scars. Spiraling scars. Old scars, from when we first moved here. They didn't talk to me once they started wearing masks. I was invisible to them.
It's only time, I thought, before they get a mask for me. I don't want to wear a mask. I wanted to stay Mary. I didn't want to play dead, I didn't want to fit in. I wanted to be in a normal house.
That was the night I brought the painting into my room.
The people that came out at night were louder now. Like they were having a party. And my parents' voices mingled with them now. I heard screams, and then ripping sounds. Like flesh being ripped from bone. I looked over at my painting. And for a minute it changed. It showed a giant devouring. Blood pouring down his face. Legs sticking out of his mouth. The crushed bodies of children in his hands.
And then it's different again. Changed again. Back to the painting I know and love.
I tried talking to my parents. They had no voices behind the masks. None for me. I asked if we were moving soon. Nothing. I asked, with terror in my voice, if I would have a mask soon. Nothing. They didn't eat breakfast or lunch or dinner with me anymore. I was on my own. I ate a lot of cold cereal.
Mostly because the stove scared me. It was old. It was iron. And one day I found a fingerbone inside of it. It had black ink on the end of it. And a pile of ashes around it. I left the fingerbone inside and never touched it again.
There was no one at school. I sat in the classroom by myself. Even when they were supposed to play dead. I didn't want to go home. It was scarier there. The cat wasn't in the walls anymore. I think he's out, stalking the town. Looking for little skull-faced mice.
When I got home the house was empty. My parents didn't come home from work until very late. I stayed away from the doors. I stayed away from the walls. The ceilings. The basement. I heard something stirring in the basement. Like it was trying to wake up.
Tossing, turning. Waking slowly at the end of the world.
I went outside. But there was a fog amongst the pine trees. And the sky was a brilliant red. The same red of playing dead. It was the playing dead sky. And from the trees I heard whispering. Watched the trees huddle closer together. Point their needle fingers at me. Mutter between them. Outsider, outlander, living.
When my parents did come home it was late into the evening. I heard them rush inside. Run about. It was dark. Night. The strange shadow people would be here soon. Wailing through the sleeping doors. I didn't want to be awake when they came. But I think I had no choice.
Then I heard the air raid siren. It announced that it was time to play dead. And I got this terrible feeling. In my stomach. Like something was alive inside of me, crawling, trying to force its way out.
I ran downstairs. I don't know why I did it. Maybe I wanted to see how my parents played dead. Probably not, though. Some things you just do without thinking, and they happen. They happen whether you will them to or not.
I found my parents sitting at a table. In the center of the table was a candle. And a mask. Just the size of my face. My mom turned. Looked at me. Her mask was off. Her face was just muscle. Was blood and bone. There was no flesh left. "Go to sleep, little Mary. Please, just go to sleep."
The thing in the basement tossed, turned. Restless again. I tried to say no. I tried to say I wasn't ever going to sleep again. I tried to say that I was running away from home. That I couldn't take living here anymore.
Instead I walked upstairs. That thing inside of me made me do it. I have no idea how. But against my will, against my thinking, it made me turn around. Walk. Heel toe, heel toe. Hup two three four. Walk all the way upstairs. Passed the doors opening to the lands of love and pain. Passed my parents room, and the skull cat that now stalked the corridors. And into my bedroom where I laid down to sleep.
I awoke to fingers on my face. To a mask sliding over my skin. To a knife in the darkness, gleaming, devouring the shadows, hungry for my skin. I screamed, but felt a fist in my mouth. Bit down on fist. Fist moved away while my father bit his tongue. My mom was not in the room with me. That was a good sign.
I ran over, ran past him. He walked carefully towards me. Knife swinging in hand. His face was off. His mask was off. His eyes looked like two marbles in the light. Grey newspaper marbles put into the holes in his head.
I ran over. Ran into the picture without even thinking. The painting opened up for me, let me inside. I walked through without even thinking. Without even planning.
There was the girl. Creating a little house. When she saw me her mouth opened. I saw no tongue. She pointed behind me. Pointed outside of the painting. I turned. Looked. My body was still out there. Lying flat on the floor.
My body was still out there. Gone. I was in here. I watched as my father leaned down and began to cut away at my face. My body didn't scream as I watched. My body didn't fight as I watched. It just laid there. Quietly. And let him carve, carve, carve.
I turned around to ask the girl what had happened. But the painting had changed. The giant was there. Crushed children in his hand. Blood running down his face. He was howling. Howling. Awake and mad and hungry.
Paul Jessup is a critically acclaimed writer of weird, strange and slippery fiction. He's been published in many magazines, both offline and on. He is currently under representation by Colleen Lindsay of Fine Print Literary Management and is a member of the SFWA. You can check out Paul's super awesomeness at http://pauljessup.com, and then order his amazing books (Open Your Eyes—a space opera novella for the broken, and Glass Coffin Girls, a collection of weird stuff). You know you want to. Come on, come on, come on . . .