Gothic horror meets Lovecraftian horror. A scary mix, indeed.
Amy Winchester loved old books. The girls who teased her at school said she even looked ‘book-ish’, with her round glasses over large, round green eyes, long dresses that sometimes tripped her up, and pale, scaly skin (when the weather was dry). She would spend hours in the Academy’s huge tiered library reading Victorian mysteries or about valiant heroes trekking through lost lands. When she walked through the hallways, it was often while holding a leather-bound tome that felt almost as large as she was against her chest. Despite the looks she got from her classmates, she smiled at the wonderful smell of leather and old paper under her nose.
At her expansive home with her Aunt Nettie and Uncle Vernon, she did the same, reading in Uncle’s study, on the balcony and tucked into a corner. These were even older and more esoteric subjects. She read about her great uncle Mortimer, who took the ears of eight Congo cannibals (she’d grimaced when she’s read that and a little more than shocked when a brown, leathery object that must have been an ear fell in her lap), about Grandpa Joe that had scalped four Cherokees and was in his turn scalped by Apaches (and lived!), and Aunt Lenore that had died treating the Spanish Flu in France.
When she wasn’t reading, she wondered if she’d ever have any adventures of her own, though hopefully one that had a better ending. Her own parents had gone on many exotic trips as well, though the only one Amy had joined had been her parents’ last.
Amy had been four when the three of them had gone to Port Llast in South Africa. Their steamer had struck a reef and started to sink. The details of how she survived and not her parents weren’t clear to Amy, but when she eventually made it back to Canada it was with Aunt Nettie and Uncle Vernon, who’d never had children. They’d taken the body of her father back, too, but her mother had never been found. That had been ten year ago and no one would tell her the details of her rescue, if anyone knew. Amy herself had tried and tried to remember, but she couldn’t remember anything before the Academy. She didn’t even have a memory or a photo of her mother or father, Uncle Vernon refused to keep photographs in the house, a thought which made her read with even greater concentration so she wouldn’t cry.
One rainy summer afternoon, everything changed for her. After lunch, she had retreated quietly to the study, stoked the coals in the fireplace to warm the room, and tucked herself into her favourite nook, reading a heavy book on astrology. Though not her favourite subject, the idea of stars and planets determining one’s future was a romantic idea. She hadn’t been there long when Uncle Vernon came in, jingling his pocket watch and tugging on his beard in agitation. He was muttering to himself, though Amy couldn’t catch any word definitely, though she was certain she heard her own name a few times, forcing her to edge closer to the edge of the balcony to hear better.
She hid, chin to the carpet, and peeked through the wood railings down at the her round, balding uncle as he paced back and forth, sloshing the brandy in his hand.
“Damn it, Vernon,” he croaked. “Why’d you let Jack bring them, Vernon? Why’d he bring them back and why’d I get involved? They didn’t belong here. There’s no sense to it and now I’ve got this girl to mind. This girl that… raaagh!” Jack, Amy knew was Vernon’s brother and her father. He dashed the glass on the carpet and crunched over the shards, paying them no attention. It suddenly occurred to Amy that this was the tenth anniversary of her rescue and her parents’ death.
Something on the shelf near the fireplace grabbed his attention. He pushed several larger books aside and draw out a small blue notebook she’d never noticed before. Uncle Vernon muttered silently to himself, gesticulating violently with the notebook. After a minute of this, he stood before the fireplace and Amy heard him whisper, just barely, “She mustn’t know” and he tossed the small book into the flaming coals.
Amy gasped before she could stop herself and clapped her hands over her mouth. Uncle Vernon glanced up at her and seemed to search her eyes guiltily before stomping out of the room as quickly as she’d ever seen him move.
Amy was too shocked by the sight to move for a moment before she remember the notebook and she raced clumsily down the spiral stairs to the fireplace. She grabbed the metal tongs and tried to save the notebook, which was in flames. She dropped the book on the hearthstones and did her best to put the flames out quickly, though the heat burned her hands a bit. The blue cover was almost completely black, but the embossed letters clearly spelled J. Winchester: her father. Was this his journal? she thought, her breath catching in her throat. Sadly, when she opened the journal the edges of every page were crumbling ash and the interiors were curling brown. Inky letters and hints of words and dates were all she could make out.
She turned the pages carefully, but angry tears dripped from her eyes, sometimes onto the pages, increasing her anger. What did Uncle Vernon not want her to know about her father? How could he decide that for her? It wasn’t fair!
Amy kept flipping pages faster and faster as her fury grew, hardly caring anymore about the scorched pages she damaged, trying to find something legible. So far as she could tell, the journal seemed to be from between March of 1888 and February of 1890 and told of John and Vernon’s travels along an uncivilized river in the Congo. Beyond that, she couldn’t be sure, but near the end were mentioned a cage that her father was upset about, Bethany, her mother, and attraction. Had her parents met during the Congo safari? Amy recalled once when she’d asked Uncle Vernon about her mother. He had chuckled, said she’d been a botanist, and became cross when Amy had pressed further.
Amy closed the book, wishing there had been more useful information inside. There wasn’t enough here! She clutched the crumbling book to her chest, trying to take it inside her, to absorb the lost words so they made sense. When she stood up, however, she stepped on something hard. She tripped a little when she tried to see what was underneath her shoe and sat down hard on the floor again.
She’d stepped on a gold locket in the shape of a round fish and attached to a fine gold chain. It had obviously fallen out when Uncle Vernon had thrown it. There was a latch, but she couldn’t get it to open. She blamed her clumsy fingers and studied it closely instead. At the bottom was a tiny hole, no wider than a pin. Perhaps that was the trick to opening the latch? she wondered.
She put the locket and book into her frock’s pocket and made her way back to her room. She hoped she had a pin small enough to fit inside. The path back to her room passed the kitchen. As she got closer, she heard Uncle Vernon speaking in low tones she couldn’t make out. She passed the doorway quickly, only glimpsing him leaning hard on the central island countertop and Aunt Netty, thin and bony, chopping up a fish (the smell wafting in the corridor was of trout), her large eyes blank as she took the cleaver to the meat and listened to Vernon.
After she was to be in bed, she got up quietly and went through her sewing kit. Risking a single candle, she took the smallest needle she could find and, though it fit in the locket’s hole, she still couldn’t open the catch. Frustrated nearly to tears again, she went to bed, and dreamed of underwater people with faces that were blurred and ever-shifting.
The next day, Amy found Aunt Netty sitting in the garden near the pond. She was slowly applying a medicinal lotion to her arms to keep them from breaking out in hives, or so Uncle Vernon had said when Amy asked. Uncle Vernon has always said Aunt Netty was sick and she never really seemed to get well or worse. The woman was just quiet and slow. Amy sat next to her and it took a moment for Aunt Netty to notice her. She looked at Amy with her large, gray eyes that, to Amy, had always seemed spaced a little too far apart.
“Hello Amy,” she seemed to croak, her eyes and face blank of emotion.
“Hello Auntie.” Amy squirmed under that flat gaze. She was thankful that Aunt Nettie never became angry like Uncle Vernon. After a long pause where she avoided looking into Nettie’s face, Amy continued. “I found something I wanted to show you.”
Amy took the locket from her pocket and held it up Aunt Nettie’s face, as she was near-sighted, but never remembered to wear her spectacles. Nettie gasped, a deep gurgling sound in her chest, and took the locket to dangle in front of her eyes.
“I can’t open it, Auntie. Do you know how?”
Aunt Nettie ignored Amy and gazed at the locket, almost fondly. She finally looked at Amy, her smile crooked on one side. She turned the locket over and pointed to the tiny hole. “Use a key.”
“Yes! Yes! A key,” Amy said excitedly. “Do you know where it is?”
Aunt Nettie seemed to consider the question by stroking her chin, an act which dislodged thin flakes of dead skin that drifted into her lap. She handled the locket back to Amy. “Yes. With your father.” Nettie then pulled down her lower lip, the interior of which was a veiny blue. Nettie let go of her lip, which snapped back with a wet plop, and she cackled at something Amy just didn’t understand.
“Goodbye, Amy,” she said simply.
“Bye, Auntie,” Amy replied uncomfortably. Aunt Nettie’s illness was getting worse it seemed, perhaps affecting her memory. Did she forget that her father was dead?
Amy spent the rest of the day considering what she should do. At a quieter-than-usual supper she told Uncle Vernon that she’d like to go into town early the next morning to pick up a book she’d ordered. He simply grunted and stared down at his plate. She looked at Aunt Nettie, who slurped her soup and met Amy’s gaze blankly. One bulbous eye winked slowly at her.
“Thank you, Uncle,” Amy said, and left the table early. No one seemed to notice.
Her alarm woke her before dawn the next day and she tip-toed downstairs carrying her supplies in a tied up bundle: a full lamp, a heavy pry-bar she’d found in the shed, some tuna sandwiches she’d made, her father’s journal, and the locket, of course. Despite nearly crashing down the last few steps, a stumble blamed on a sagging fourth board, she hadn’t seemed to wake anyone up. She left a note to Uncle Vernon near the door saying she was in town, as they’d discussed.
The Church of St. Michael Cemetery was only a few kilometers down the road and the sun had just barely crept over the horizon by the time she saw the black iron fence surrounding it. Amy nervously hoped that the gate wasn’t chained and locked, but it was fortunately open.
The Winchester family crypt was in the far corner of the cemetery and it wasn’t long before she enjoyed darting between the big stone headstones and obelisks. A ground-clinging white mist swirled cool and playful around her ankles, but as the sun rose a bit higher, it quickly evaporated.
The crypt wasn’t much more than a squat stone box with a green-stained bronze door. She pulled experimentally on the dew-slick ring but it wouldn’t budge. There was, however, more than enough room to fit the pry-bar inside. She looked around, anxious of being caught by the groundskeeper, but it had to be no later than five or six in the morning. Amy whispered a little prayer and jammed the pry-bar inside and pushed.
There was a loud crack and creak, or so it seemed to her, as it slid open an inch. Startled, Amy yanked the pry-bar out and hid behind the crypt, pressing herself against the cold, mossy stone. No shouts followed and she peeked out. There was no one in sight, so she stuck the bar back in and pushed the door open just wide enough that she could get inside.
The crypt at ground level was little more than stairs going down and a few angelic statues covered in dusty cobwebs. A cool morning breeze suddenly wafted through the crypt, sending icy chills down her back like death’s bony hand. The door creaked slightly and she turned to see it drifting closed. Amy quickly stuck the pry-bar into the gap and cursed her short-sightedness. She had nothing to keep the door open besides the bar, which might trap her if she couldn’t push it open from inside, but if she had to open her father’s grave, she’d have nothing to use.
After a few moments of fretful indecision, wherein she painfully wrung her hands together, she left the pry-bar behind. Amy lit the lamp and stepped carefully down the steps.
As she descended, mist slid down the stone steps ahead of her, apparently more eager to find the bottom that she was. The air at the bottom was cold and dry, making her arms and neck itch, but she was too excited to scratch much. In a square chamber were three corridors leading to small rooms that held the remains of three Winchester families, or so the plaques read. She found the one with her father’s name on it and crept forward, brushing cobwebs aside. She often caught a yelp in her throat when she thought she felt a spider on her arm, but nothing seemed to hear her. Even echoes seemed to reconsider returning to her, for her footsteps seemed muffled and quite delayed. Her skin crawled at the thought of someone following behind her outside of the lamp’s light.
Inside her father’s own crypt were three stone and wood coffins, John’s grandparents on the left, one over the other and John himself on the right. The slot above John’s was empty, of course. Perhaps, Amy thought, she would join him down here when she died. She pushed the morbid through aside and stepped up to the coffin, but still found it difficult to do more than stare at it.
A part of her was terrified that if she touched the coffin it would turn to dust, destroying its secrets, or wake her father from heavenly dreams and he would be angry with her. These thoughts were silly, her mind told her, but she bit her lower lip with worry.
She finally got up the nerve to search the coffin. She ran her pale fingers across every surface, hoping that the locket’s key was hidden here on the surface. She only found dust that puffed up around her and crowded her lamp’s beam of light. She had to stop for a while as a coughing fit took her until the dust had settled somewhat.
Without a key, she would have to open the coffin. It was more difficult than it would have been with the pry-bar, but she got her fingers around the heavy lid’s lip and pulled and yanked as hard as she could, sliding it a little each time. She stopped often to cough, though not as badly as before, and by the time it was wide enough her arms and shoulders ached and felt heavy as lead.
Putting the lamp on the lip of the coffin, Amy peered inside. A smell like dried, long rotten leather and damp earth wafted up from the skeleton, which wore a dirty and disintegrated suit. Amy was slightly disappointed, never having realized before that she’d expected to recognize her father, but, in fact, there was nothing here that she could say was definitely her father. Only the plaque above the coffin told otherwise.
It suddenly occurred to her that insects and nightcrawlers might be living inside the suit. Would they swarm her if she touched their desiccated home? She wasn’t so sure she wanted to put her hands in the pockets after all. She looked at her father’s yellowed skull, as if he would tell her what she should do. Amy shook her head, trying to dispel these horrible worries, when she noticed something glinting off the lamp light when she moved her head. A clump of brown flesh still clung to the lower jaw and there was definitely something metal peeking through. She suddenly recalled Aunt Nettie plopping her lip when Amy had asked where the key was.
Amy carefully lifted the leathery bit of skin and slid a tiny notched rod from it. The key to the locket! She grabbed the lamp, nearly spilling the oil, and sat on the floor with the locket. Her hands shook so much from excitement that it took what seemed like an age to slip the little rod into the bottom of the locket.
Finally, it slid inside with a slight click. Amy could finally move the catch and the cover snapped slightly as it opened. Somewhere far above her was a metallic clang followed by larger boom and the darkness of the crypt stole a little closer around her.
There were two photos inside. On the left was her father, her eyes instantly drawn towards his strong, clean features. John was written beneath it. His eyes, however, were sunken dark-rimmed circles that stared intensely from the photograph and his smile, serene at first glance, seemed oddly lecherous. On the right was something that could not possibly be her mother. The eyes were large, expressionless and set much too far apart, nearly facing opposite directions, like a dead fish’s, and the lips were flabby and drooped, but formed a crude smile made of strange teeth. A nose, squished and little more than two holes, sat like a parasite in the middle of the pallid face. Hair, thin and stringy, caked her scalp. There was a hint of scales, actually scales, around the neck.
Despite its utterly inhuman features, Amy, her guts a frozen stone inside her, recognized some of them instinctively in Aunt Nettie and, even worse, herself. The name written below the face proved it: Btuni. Bethany.