Katters expected the house to be different, somehow, by the time they got back. Sucked into a hell dimension, maybe. Inexplicably replaced with several acres of untended cemetery. De-glamoured and revealed as the burnt husk it truly was. There would be a groundskeeper nearby, or a gas-station attendant, or a transient hobo. “That house?” he would say. “That house has been gone for forty years.”
But no such luck. The house was exactly as they’d left it — warm, inviting, nice in a way that made her scales itch — and she had no legitimate reason to not go back inside.
(Except that it was haunted.)
Zebra dropped his purchases on the floor by the stairs. Katters hovered near the front door, her own purchases in a plastic bag at her feet, except for the soda she’d started in the car. She’d left the front door open, but the cold, night air didn’t seem to make it across the threshold. The foyer remained stuffy, and almost too warm.
“You’re still an asshole,” she muttered, because while she was feeling better, she was also feeling bitter. Lucidity had not chased away her demons, but it had illuminated that — thing Zebra always did, you know — that thing. He thought she was too crazy to see it, but she could still tell when she was being mocked. When someone was poking her so they could watch her snap.
Zebra had bought a duffel-bag along with his other supplies, and was putting everything else into it. “Even if nothing happened,” he said, glancing up at her before slipping a pack of lighters into one of the pockets. “I still need to check out the basement. I need to investigate the entire house, including any basements that should not and cannot possibly exist.”
“You don’t need to do anything. Hell, you very frequently don’t do the things you need to do, anyway! There’s nothing stopping you from leaving well enough alone.”
“It’s not well enough, though, is it?”
Zebra sighed, letting his head hang for a moment before he stood and walked over to her, the flashlight he was about to pack away still in his hand. “Do you trust me?”
“Don’t say that, I’m being serious.” He tilted his head, giving her an earnest look. “You trust me to — how do you put it? You trust me to tell you when your brain is lying to you, right? Well, your brain is lying to you. Just like it was lying to you when you had that breakdown in the bathroom a month ago, and when you thought that server at Big Sweet’s was poisoning you. Just like your brain was lying to you when you killed Marc.”
Katters glared at him and lit a cigarette in his new foyer. He sucked his teeth, but apparently decided to let it slide.
“There’s nothing evil or dangerous about this house,” he continued. His tone was still light, but there was a sharpness to it, now, a finality. “It’s just a house. I’ll go down into the basement, shine a light on things, and that’ll be the end of it. We can move on with our lives.”
He flicked his flashlight on and off a couple times, smiling at her, before walking back over to his bags.
“Hey, Zebra,” she said, her voice positively alight with sarcasm. “Tell me again about how the basement can’t actually exist.”
He frowned. “Well, you’ve got me there. But that doesn’t mean it’s haunted. I’m sure it’s just your every day, run-of-the-mill magic.”
“Yeah, and you’re an expert on these things, I guess.”
“Here—” He threw a walkie-talkie at her. She caught it, but dropped both her half-finished soda (which spilled all over the floor) and her cigarette (which extinguished in the puddle). She sighed.
He slipped the other walkie-talkie into a pocket on his bag. “If something goes wrong—”
“I’m not coming after you, I already told you that.”
“You can leave.” He shrugged. “Get a head-start and retreat back to Snowtown.”
She muttered, “I could do that now.”
He either didn’t hear her or didn’t think it was worth responding to. He slung the bag over his shoulder and took one last loop around the staircase. The look on his face implied a rotten smell coming from it, but it was only his personal animosity. “Magic,” he scoffed, and went down into the cellar.
Katters opened another soda and almost dropped that one, too, when the walkie-talkie crackle-hissed at her.
“Katters, respond, over.”
“What the fuck do you want?” she asked it, heading to the kitchen. A few seconds later, she rolled her eyes and added: “Over.”
“Just making sure it works, over.”
“Cool,” she muttered to herself and not the walkie-talkie. She shoved it into her pocket. “Cool, cool, cool, cool, cool.”
There was a dish-towel hanging from the oven handle. A pastel, floral pattern, good for nothing except matching the curtains. She grabbed it and went back to the foyer.
Katters was a — well, she wasn’t a rational person. Zebra had very good points, actually. She wanted to say this was different, that her fears this time were obviously real and justified. But she’d have said that about the Big Sweet’s server, too, and if she’d have been of a mind to talk she’d have said it about Marc.
She dropped the towel on her spill and mopped it up with her foot.
She wasn’t rational. Not always. A real-life, honest-to-goodness judge had made that a matter of law, even. But she was scientifically-minded. Her curiosity got her into more trouble than her cowardice. So this did seem different. It made sense to her, that it was different.
God, it was warm in there. She went back to the door, stood at the middle-point between the haunted house and the backwoods, mountain road. A choose-your-own-horror-adventure. But it felt nice, the heat at her back and a breeze cooling her face. Maybe that was the real problem, maybe—
The walkie-talkie squawked again, letting out a burst of static and a high-pitched whine that trailed off into a faint tinnitus. It figured that Zebra would buy cheap junk for his expedition, considering it wasn’t much more than a practical joke on her, anyway. But she dug the transceiver out of her pocket and spoke into it.
“Yo, something up? Over.”
She waited, and was about to try again when it let out another squawk. The static this time was longer, and she thought she could hear something inside it. Or — fuck.
The static faded, but the other sound — footsteps, maybe, great, heavy footsteps, wood creaking and groaning underneath an unfathomable weight — the other sound stayed. Got louder. Closer. Unless, it wasn’t, unless she was hearing things.
She didn’t want to be there. She shuffled her feet by the door, something in her head telling her to bolt as something else tracked her down through the walkie-talkie — and for a second there was another sound, and then it cut out.
Everything stopped. She was alone. Standing on the darkened porch. Hearing nothing.
Panic sat low in her chest — antsy, no-where to go and nothing to do. But that, too, faded after a minute. She shook herself, shook the jitters out of her arms, and held the walkie-talkie back up.
“You hearing there, Zeebs? Over.”
She didn’t really remember leaving the house, hadn’t really been herself when she’d done it. She was having trouble staying herself, now, kept slipping out of her own mind and into the fog weaving through the trees and over the gravel.
“Zebra? Respond, over.”
It was too cold out there. Too warm inside and too cold out there, and everywhere was a faint pressure like she was surrounded by eyes. Faces. Ghosts.
She stepped onto the threshold and the — whatever it was, the sounds, faded back in. Step. Creak. Breathe. Creak. Step. Something very big living in the static between transceivers. It spoke, and Katters almost dropped the walkie-talkie.
The basement door opened somewhere behind her and she did drop the walkie-talkie.
“Come…on…down…” It was deep, rough, almost mechanical, like each word was accompanied by a crunch of gears and a hiss of steam.
“What was that?” Zebra’s voice, and the rest of him, appearing around the stairs.
The — thing, dissolved back into static and then silence. Katters stepped over it, didn’t want to touch it, something creeping over her back and up her neck, didn’t want to be in the house but wanted to be alone even less.
“What happened?” Zebra asked her. “You look like you’ve seen a, well.”
“Heard.” Katters nodded at the walkie-talkie and fished her cigarettes out of her pocket. “Heard.”