“WHAT IF” is the springboard from which fiction writing leaps. WHAT IF the economy tanks and your hard-won, well-loved career as a documentary filmmaker has slowed to a crawl? WHAT IF you turn a problem into an opportunity and set out to use the newfound time in your life to write a second novel? The ideas begin to churn. WHAT IF? Our cheerful and completely ordinary cottage is suddenly a character. A very haunted character.
WHAT IF? Vic and I disappear to become twenty-somethings Sunny and Andrew, newly escaped from Brooklyn with their toddler daughter only to find their adorable (if rundown) cottage is murmurous and rotten with the ghosts of its terrible history, and that the house, sentient, watchful, seems to have ensnared the family.
WHAT IF? Real life starts to find its way, fully transformed, onto the page.
REAL LIFE: The convent next door is suddenly vacant, our good friends the Sisters of Mercy replaced by a pair of perfectly nice young women who are renting the space.
IMAGINATION OVERDRIVE: The nice gals next door morph into “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” a sinister married couple who are rarely seen, but their presence is felt. Throw in Shepherd, a former Green Beret turned church caretaker who quotes poetry, lies readily, and gets Sunny drunk in the afternoons. He also introduces her to the mysterious old utility tunnels under the church grounds that may or may not be real.
And finally, WHAT IF you’ve gotten three quarters of the way into the manuscript only to discover that your working title, “THE SOUL COLLECTORS,” is a recently published book? All in a day’s work. As it turns out, THE DARK SIDE OF TIME is, well, a scary perfect title. But you’ll have to read the whole thing to find out why. Meanwhile, here’s a teaser. Be afraid.
A hot breath in Sunny’s ear whispered in a language that had little to do with human speech and in fact could not be described in terms that were human; not quite music, nor even sound, it bubbled endlessly like a spring in a forest, and though it was a soft sound she knew it to be unimaginably evil and that whatever it was saying was rapacious and seductive and insistent and it would have her, she could feel it caressing her in the dark, the undulant form pressed to her, a smell of burning hair and meat, and some dark spice not found in the known world.
She was not dreaming. With that realization she sat straight up in bed. “Andrew!?” She knew without looking that Andrew was gone, as was whatever had been fondling her. She turned with terror to the baby monitor. She saw not the nursery, but a high-ceilinged room she did not recognize; the ornate bed, however, she did, and she likewise recognized the occupants of it. Andrew, naked, struggled with Mrs. Smith, bucking and rolling. Their panting ululations audible. From beneath him her dark unfathomable eyes were trained on Sunny’s. The cushiony crimson lips curving into a mocking smile. Receiving Sunny’s man unto her. Standing in the shadows, Mr. Smith watched, fully clothed, masturbating himself with an urgent hand. His sunglasses covered his freakish eyes, and as Sunny stared he slowly lifted them off to gaze at her without expression. From his thin mouth extruded the flickering tongue of a snake. He beckoned.
Beside her, leaning back in the bed, drawing on a cigarette, Shepherd said, “We don’t want to kill you. We just want to fuck with you.”
Sunny switched on the light, blinking. It was two in the morning. The monitor now showed only the sleeping child in her nursery. Shepherd, however, was still in the bed with her; he was using an empty whiskey glass as an ashtray. He was himself apparently naked. The sheet casually flipped over his groin, his powerful upper body corded with lean muscle.
“Are you wit’ me?” Shepherd asked her. “You know what the man said. You’re either wit’ us or against us.”
Sunny said, “I don’t know what’s going on anymore. Who are you?” Her own voice tinny and unfamiliar in her ears.
“All will be revealed,” the giant told her. “In the fullness of time.”
A rustling sound from the foot of the bed, below Sunny’s line of sight, and before she could respond, the dog Bachelor had leapt upon the bed to lie facing them, great white paws splayed, little eyes alert in its broad face. It shook its teratic head and its viscid saliva liberally splattered the linens.
“I don’t like to leave him alone,” Shepherd explained. “At night. He don’t like it.” He stretched a long arm to scoop Sunny into a partial embrace, her head resting against his shoulder. “I feel that way about YOU, Querida,” he told her. She sighed, settling back against him, breathing his not unpleasant jungle smell, nicotine. Her throat closed, her eyes stinging. MY house. My HOUSE. She may have slept. It was hard to know anymore.
Sunny opened her eyes reluctantly. She lay in darkness. The clock face just turning four. The monitor showed Bunny in placid slumber. The doorbell rang in a single note, a vibrating gong that boded ill. With deepening apprehension, Sunny rose. Andrew lay asleep on his side of the bed, undisturbed. On the landing she peered down the stairwell; a dark figure was visible through the windows flanking the front door. Shit! Shepherd? She made her way down the stairs in the dark, slid the chain on, unlocked the door and cracked it open. It was then that she saw the cop car idling in the lane, red lights flashing hypnotically. Two cops on the porch. A walkie talkie crackled something not understandable.
“Ma’am,” one of the cops said. “We were notified of a domestic disturbance? A dispute? Can you open the door please?”
Sunny said, “No. No domestic dispute, you’re mistaken. Who called you?”
“We can’t tell you that, Ma’am,” the young cop said. He looked all of eighteen. “Only that it was a neighbor.”
The other one chimed in. “They said there was shouting and screaming for hours,” he informed her. “Things breaking and a woman crying.” He looked closely at Sunny. She shrugged, giving up, and slipped the chain free, opening the door, flipping on the porch light, the light in the hall.
“I can’t imagine why anyone would have said that,” Sunny told them. “You can surely see for yourselves that everything is perfectly OK. I’ve got my husband and baby sleeping upstairs.”
As if on cue, Andrew called, “What’s going on?” He appeared at the top of the stairs.
“We come in please?”
Sunny stepped aside finally, gesturing them in. “I would really appreciate it if you’d not wake the baby,” she told them coldly. Andrew came down then, hair spiking in every direction, puffy-eyed and yawning. He wore only a pair of sweats, and next to the uniforms bristling with cop gear he looked naked, peculiarly vulnerable. No one sat.
“I don’t know who made that call,” Andrew said. “But I myself have been asleep since the ballgame ended, before that really, if you count the boring parts.”
Sunny was struggling to reconstruct the night as it had progressed. She remembered only dinner clearly, and that had been pacific enough. Admittedly it was odd that Andrew had somehow divined her audition, whimsy wasn’t like him. They’d shared the bottle of cabernet. Things got fuzzy here — perhaps because she’d taken a Sonesta before bed. (Something about the Smith’s wine…had she not thrown it out? Did Andrew drink some? Blank.) She recalled Andrew kissing her goodnight before going up to watch the game while she sat reading in bed, and the next thing she knew the doorbell woke her. Could they possibly have fought? But why? And when?
The cops were fidgeting uncomfortably. The young one cleared his throat. “Nobody heard anything? Like, maybe could it have been another of your neighbors involved in um, a dispute, argument?”
On impulse, Sunny asked abruptly, “Does this house have a history of violence? On police records? That would be accessible to the public?”
The cops glanced at each other. The young one cleared his throat again. “Ma’am, I wouldn’t know. You’d have to call Public Affairs.”
“You’re sure everything is OK here?” From the other, the taller, older one.
“What can we possibly say to convince you?” Andrew asked. He showed them out the door. From the porch they all spotted Mrs. Baccari, three doors down, slip like a shadow back into her house. The convent swathed in total darkness, seeming almost to breathe. The sky to the east paling gradually, limning the enshrouding branches of the tall old trees.
Back inside, slipping the chain into place again, Sunny realized that she was wearing only an old tee shirt and a pair of Andrew’s boxers; this was the least of her concerns. As her husband climbed wearily up the stairs, she saw with shock that his back was covered with angry crescent shaped wounds, bruising at their edges, emerging from the waist of his sweatpants all the way up to his hairline, like horrid little bites.
Something half-remembered, but gone immediately. “What happened to your back?”
Back in a bed devoid of heat or comfort, they lay far apart and very still, their eyes open, staring sightlessly into the obscure gray wash of the coming day.
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DISCLAIMER: Stephanie Silber owns the copyright to the foregoing and gives permission only for the writing sample herein to be distributed free of charge, and without alteration.