III. A Light in the Canopy
“You’ve got to be shitting me.”
Noelle turned. Ben had stopped in his tracks. There was their beacon of light, shining brightly from two large windows. Other than the moon, it was the only illumination in the darkness.
The hair on the back of Noelle’s neck bristled as she looked towards the grand estate. She walked towards the property but a sturdy gate stood in her path. She fingered the chain that wound between its wrought iron bars. “Hmm. No lock,” she announced towards the others and unraveled the rusty chain. Its coarse texture picked at her gloves.
“I’m not going in there,” said Ben.
“Your objections aren’t going to stop me.”
Despite their urgent need for help, Noelle took steps towards the house in trepidation. Ben followed close behind her with Kim in tow. The path to the entryway was long and wide but covered in snow and shadow.
“I don’t know what’s worse… Not being able to see the full extent of what’s around us or the thought of having you shine that light around so that we could see what’s around us.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Well do you think it’s better to close your eyes when you’re afraid? Thinking it’s your imagination and that it will all go away? Or do you prefer to shine that flashlight around so we can see what we’re walking into? Don’t tell me you’re keeping the light in front of us because you would hate to see me trip and fall.”
“I’m keeping it in front of us so I can see where we’re going. Stop panicking.”
“This place doesn’t give you the creeps?” Ben’s dark eyes roved. The details of the property grew with every step they took.
“It’s just a house, Ben.” Noelle swallowed hard, disliking the uncertainty in her voice.
“Yea. In the middle of nowhere.”
“We don’t know that. There could be a small town just a mile farther down the road. Maybe we’re not as far from her dad’s as we think”
“Why don’t we take our chances?” Ben turned back towards the gate.
“Ben!” She ran towards him and laid a hand on his shoulder. He turned but kept his eyes on the property as though it were alive. Noelle took a deep breath and rubbed her temple. “I am exhausted. I have a splitting headache. My toes have gone numb and I am so cold that I can actually feel it in my bones. My best friend is hurt, which I feel personally responsible for, and I’m stuck in the wilderness with a flamboyant homosexual who cries like a girl at the sight of his own shadow.”
“I’m not flamboyant.” He readjusted Kim in his arms while listening to Noelle’s steady huff.
Ben nodded his head but refused to meet her gaze.
She took a step towards him. “Look, I know we have our differences and maybe if the whole thing with Peter hadn’t happened we would have started out on a different foot but we didn’t. I’m not saying that we should forget the past, shake hands and be friends. You know me well enough to know that’s not how I work. But I’ve been running myself ragged this entire week to make sure that everything would be perfect for Kim’s birthday. Despite what has happened this evening, I’m still trying my best to keep us safe. Not because I care about you. Not because Peter cares about you. But because Kim does and it’s what she would want. I’ve got a million things running through my head right now and I’m trying my best to remain cool so that we both don’t lose it.”
“What’s running through your head?”
“I keep replaying the accident in my mind. Could I have reacted faster? Could I have driven smarter? Did I do the right thing? That car is a rental and I don’t have liability insurance. How will I be able to afford the damages? What’s going to happen to Kim? How will I tell her dad? Will he hate me? Can he ever forgive me? Can I forgive myself? Can I get us out of this? Where are we? The first draft of my thesis paper is due in a week and I haven’t started. And it may just be my nerves but I think I have to pee.”
Ben chuckled. “It’s nice to be reminded that you are human even though you don’t often choose to show it. Thank you.”
“I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the best in emergency situations.”
“That doesn’t mean I can’t use your help,” she said.
“If it’s any consolation, Peter always speaks highly of you. He said that your unwavering attitude is what drew him to you in the first place.”
“So why’d he pick you?”
“Hey now,” Ben said in light offense. “I can be decisive, just not fearless.” He shivered as his eyes went back to the estate.
“So, would you prefer it if I shined the flashlight around the property? Or would you rather close your eyes and pretend we’re not here? I’d offer to give you the flashlight but your hands are full…”
“Is this some sort of peace offering?”
“A cease fire. For now,” she said.
Ben agreed and watched as Noelle waved the light up and down the path. Small bits of a vastly overgrown and unkempt landscape came into view. Covered in snow, the hedges were uneven and half strangled with ivy. The trees appeared lifeless; their trunks were twisted and hollowed. A nearby birdbath had fallen into disrepair. The tall grass poked through the snow in several areas and was overrun with weeds.
“Still creepy,” said Ben.
“I’m sure there’s a reason. This place has probably long been abandoned and some looters left a candle burning or something.”
“That’s one bright ass candle.”
“Maybe the owners died and the electric company somehow forgot about this place?”
Ben snorted. “Your maybes are half as bad as my what ifs.”
“Ok. Maybe it’s a little far-fetched but we’ll find out soon enough. Come on.” Noelle pulled Ben along by his arm.
After walking through the overgrown gardens and down the long, graveled path they finally came to the entrance. When they reached the porch, Noelle looked up to see that the overhead light’s electrical base dangled from the ceiling. “That makes me feel so much better about this place,” Ben said under his breath.
Noelle called out as she knocked on the door. “Hello. Hello?” She pressed her ear against the wood but could not hear any response, not even the creaking of steps or the shuffle of feet.
“Is that light still on?” asked Ben.
“Let me check.” Noelle stepped back onto the gravel path.
“Yea,” she said running back towards the door. “Two windows fully lit on the second floor. Someone must be inside. “Hello?” She knocked again but still there was no reply. “What time is it?”
Ben shrugged, unable to see his watch with Kim in his arms. “Nearly one in the morning, I’d guess. I don’t see any cars. What is it?” Ben asked, regarding her facial expression.
“I hear something. It’s faint but it sounds like… scratching.”
“Please tell me you’re joking. I won’t be mad if you tell me now.”
“I don’t want to appear like a peeping tom…” Noelle rested her hand on the door’s handle.
“But you want to appear like someone who is breaking and entering?”
She pushed the latch down with her thumb and looked at Ben with excitement as it clicked. “Just entering.”
“Ben, we’re going to freeze out here. We need shelter…at least until sunrise. Please, Ben. I know what you’re thinking. No more what ifs.”
The door opened with a loud creak. Noelle entered first. The heels of her boots produced two solid thuds that echoed into the void, causing the hair on Ben’s neck to stand on end. He remained in the doorway, shivering like the last leaf on an autumn tree. He took a deep breath to try and calm his nerves but the stale, thick air sent him into a fit of coughs, causing him to drop Kim. Noelle rushed to her side.
“Are you all right?”
“Yea,” Ben croaked. He recovered and leaned against the door frame. “Swallowed some dust.”
“I wasn’t talking to you.” Noelle held two fingers against Kim’s neck again. “She feels cold but she is still breathing. Do you think we should try and wake her?”
Ben shrugged. “I’m no doctor.”
“Me neither. We could try giving her water but I’m afraid she’ll choke or something.” Noelle cradled her friend in her arms. “Maybe we shouldn’t have let her fall asleep? I’m afraid she’ll never wake.”
“I’m at a loss.” He placed a hand on Kim’s shoulder and gently shook her. “Kim? Kim. Kim!” A deep growl came from the far side of the room. Ben stood and backed towards the door. “Did you hear that?”
“Yea.” Noelle’s eyes darted across the room’s shadows. “I heard it.” Images of the creature from the road took over her imagination. “There might be a wild animal in here. I didn’t think about that.” She held Kim tighter and turned on the flashlight. “Do you see anything?” The light passed over every corner of the room but only revealed bits of peeling paint and dust covered surfaces. Noelle called out but there was no answer, nor any sound of movement. “It’s so quiet. Maybe we’re just really tired and a little spooked.”
“I don’t think we would’ve imagined the same thing. There must be a light somewhere.”
“Here.” Noelle tossed him the light. He flicked the flashlight around the door and found an ivory switch covered in a thick layer of dust.
“Here we are. Guard your eyes,” said Ben, half expecting it not to work.
Noelle squinted as the room flooded with light. It poured from an enormous chandelier, dangling from the two story ceiling. A carpet of dust covered what once would have been a beautiful hardwood floor. Bits and scraps of chipped paint and wallpaper had been pushed into various corners. The foyer was empty besides a few lingering books on a nearby shelf and a small table upon which there was a vase filled with the long decayed remnants of flowers. To the left, a large staircase curved up towards a loft and the adjoining hallways on the second floor.
“I wonder how long those lights have been burning upstairs,” said Noelle.
“Do you still want to stay here?” Ben tucked the flashlight into his pocket.
“What choice do we really have? It looks like no one has been here for a while. I don’t see how that can harm us. Besides, we need a place to stay. Think there is a bed or sofa that we could rest her on?”
“Let’s check one of these side rooms?” Ben ventured. “I don’t trust leaving her out in the open especially if an animal might be in here.” There was a second growl. Noelle bit back laughter as Ben looked sheepishly down towards his stomach.
“Wild animal all right. There are some crackers and sandwiches in the bag.” Noelle took her hands away from Kim long enough to take the backpack from her shoulders and toss it towards Ben. “Do you feel comfortable looking by yourself or do you want to switch places?”
“We’ll go together,” he said, bending over to retrieve the sack. “I’ll rest Kim on that table so she is at least up off of the floor. We’ve got the lights on so I feel a little better.” With a hesitant look out front into the shadowy courtyard, he finally shut the front door and turned the deadbolt, securing them inside. “Did you want to look for that room upstairs? The one with the lights on?”
“Maybe we should find a phone first. There’s a chance the line is still active if the electricity is working.”
“There,” Ben said, pointing towards the loft. Against the railing was a small wooden table with a coiled phone cord hanging from its side.
Noelle smiled at him. “Good eyes.”
Ben snatched some crackers from the bag and set it on the ground. Whilst tearing the package open and cramming the peanut butter filled sustenance into his mouth, he took hold of Kim and positioned her limp form on top of the table in the center of the room, pushing the vase of dead flowers aside. He tried his best to make her look comfortable, draping the blanket back over her form and balling his scarf up into a makeshift pillow. Double checking that the front door was secure and locked, he turned his attention back towards Noelle.
She treaded every step with caution and cringed at every creak, waiting for the stairs to crumble beneath her. The deep red carpeting that had been placed upon them had worn thin and in some places, exposed the mahogany wood underneath. The banisters that remained intact were joined together by cobwebs and the railing danced when she pressed against it. When she reached the top, she could see it more clearly.
Covered by more dirt and grime was a black rotary phone. Setting on a lonely end table against the wonky railing, its cord ran across the loft and into the darkness of another hall.
Moonlight poured in from a large circular window that overlooked the back of the grounds. The view was massive, revealing the vastness of the mountainside. “We must be right at the summit,” she said to Ben. “The view from up here is amazing.”
“I’m coming up,” he announced.
Noelle turned from the window. There was a delicate armchair near the phone that leaned to one side, having broken two legs. A dark green, leather couch nearby had lost its luster. Another bookshelf, equally neglected, displayed thick tomes on medicine and science. Noelle plucked one from the shelf and wiped its fabric cover, the dust forming clumps as it tried to cling to the wordless surface.
“Wonder why no one thought to loot the phone,” Ben said as he arrived on the second floor.
Noelle placed the book back and walked over towards the railing.
Ben held his face to the large window and blocked out the light from the room with his hands. The reflection of moonlight against the snow highlighted the jagged headstones of a small family graveyard.
Ben snorted. “Typical. No. Stereotypical.” Ben turned away from the window. “I’ll go back down.”
Noelle wiped the some of the grime from the phone and held it to her ear. “It’s dead,” she called down to Ben. She looked down over the railing and watched Ben’s face fall as she placed the phone back on its base.
“Why would they have electricity and no phone?”
Ben shrugged. “What are we going to do now?” His lanky frame slumped against a nearby bookshelf.
“We wait until morning.”
“Here?” Ben did not even try to hide the disappointment in his voice. He had been holding onto hope that she would somehow change her mind.
“It’ll have to do. I would like to try one more thing though. I want to try and reach the attic to see if we can get a signal on my phone. That’s our only other option for the night.”
Ben sighed and stood from his post. As he released his weight from the bookshelf, there was a loud thud followed by the clanking of chains and gears. Noelle came down the steps with the enthusiasm of a child on Christmas morning. The bookshelf on the ground floor gave a loud shutter and separated itself from the wall. Ben looked at her in disbelief. Noelle reached forward and tried to push the bookshelf further but it would not budge.
Without a spoken agreement, Noelle grabbed the flashlight from Ben and squeezed her thin frame behind the bookshelf. “Come on,” she called from the darkness. Giving Kim one last glance, Ben followed.
Behind the bookshelf was a spiral staircase made of wrought iron. Noelle’s shoes made a soft clank as she followed it down. The air was much cooler down there but more crisp and moist than that of the air in the rest of the house. When they reached the bottom, she scaled her fingers against the wall and found a large electrical switch.
“What do they have down here?” asked Ben. “Old Sparky?”
Noelle placed her shoulder underneath the switch. Using both hands, she pushed and the dusty device creaked in protest then locked into place with a click. There was a thump, then the springy sound of electricity. Gradually, a small lantern warmed the room with its comely glow.
Despite the house’s grand exterior, the lower room was about the size of a hospital room. Its walls were made of stone and what little of the floor that could be seen was made of dark slate. The small room was filled to the brim with old medical textbooks stacked several feet high. Old cupboards aligned the walls, overstuffed with aged papers and dusty scrolls. Small jars filled with liquids of ranging shades set atop the cabinets. In the middle of the chaos was a small desk. Though it was also piled with books, there were not quite so many and to Noelle’s great surprise, not quite so dusty.
“That looks like it’s been handled recently.” Ben pointed out the fingerprints on the cover.
“It looks like it’s been handled a lot through the years,” she said as she opened the book. A few sheets were unbound and gently tucked back within the folds.
The pages towards the front were faded beyond comprehension but Noelle continued to flip through them, taking great care not to tear them. It was not long before she found a page she could read. The handwriting was elegant and thin. Within the fine script she deciphered several names and dates reaching as far back as 1307.
The first legible entry had a faint line through the name of Radu Dinescu. Beside his name it read: Ziua de naştere. 6 Aprilie 1313. Ziua de moarte. 2 Iunie 1349. Ciuma. 36.
“Whatcha got there?”
“Some sort of record,” she said. “Birth dates. Death dates.”
Ben shrugged. Disinterested, he grabbed the flashlight from the table, taking time to explore every nook and cranny that the old lantern could not reveal.
“Ben, this is amazing. Come look at this. It’s enormous. Do you know what language this is? I don’t recognize it. Though it does seem familiar.”
Noelle flipped the book over and began going through the pages backwards. There were a few pages in the back left blank without a trace of ink. However, as she continued, what she saw on the next inked sheets were not names, but drawings. There were drawings of men and animals as part of one body, drawings of otherworldly creatures being sacrificed or worshipped and drawings of unfamiliar symbols and what looked to be ritual instructions.
“What kind of doctor was this guy?” She was immersed in the torturous scribbles until she finally flipped far back enough to reveal the last name on the family tree and the only one without a line through it.
Vladyslav Beglitzi. Ziua de naştere. 14 Ianuarie 1970. Ziua de moarte.
Below the empty death date were two words. Written in a more masculine hand, they read: Sunt mort?
“Do you know what ‘sunt’ means?” she asked Ben.
A loud commotion came from the other side of the room as Ben shrieked and knocked over a mountain of books.
“See a mouse?”
“Noelle, please come tell me what I’m looking at.”
Noelle rose from her chair and navigated her way towards him. She rested her hands on his shoulders and moved him to the side so that she could get a better glimpse of his latest discovery. Setting at about three feet tall was a small refrigerator packed to the brim with bags upon bags of what looked to be blood.
She reached forward and grabbed one of the bags at the top of the pile. Labeled on the front, the bag read, “Laszlo. O-.” Noelle pulled another bag out and another but they all were labeled the same way.
“Smart, I guess,” Ben said, still perched on the floor at Noelle’s feet.
“What do you mean?”
“These are all labeled O-. It’s a rare blood type that can be donated to anyone who needs it,” he explained. “Not sure why they needed so much.” He stuffed the packets of blood back into the refrigerator. “But there is enough blood in here to create a new person.”
She looked over her shoulder at Ben and saw that all of the blood had drained from his face. “Sorry,” he said, reaching for the wall for support. “I really don’t like blood.”
“Yet you seem to know a lot about it.”
“Comes with the territory,” he said. “My parents are doctors.”
“Maybe we should go back upstairs,” Noelle suggested, shutting the refrigerator door.
Ben nodded, rose to his feet and dusted off his pants. He led the way back up the steps. With one last look at the book, Noelle walked over to the large electrical switch and flipped it downwards. When she reached the top, Ben’s fists were shoved into his jean pockets, his frame rigid and skin pale.
“Do you still want to try the attic?” he asked, handing her the flashlight.
“We have to.” Noelle took a deep breath and began trekking up the main staircase. “But first I have to pee. I’ll look for a bathroom. Can you check on Kim?”
Ben nodded. “Take your time. I’ll wait here with her.”
Noelle’s stomach eased as her bladder emptied into the pot. Pleasantly surprised that the plumbing was still in order, she tore the first layer of toilet paper from the roll and discarded it hoping that the layer underneath would be more suitable. The white walls of the bathroom were stark and void of any decoration. The combination shower and bathtub was stained and lacked a curtain to hide its ugly nakedness. Pulling her pants up, she pushed the toilet handle down and walked over to the sink.
The soap on the ledge was caked in dust but it served its purpose. She splashed water on her face and tried to clean the wound near her temple, massaging it with soapy fingers. “That’s not so bad.”
She shrieked as Ben came rushing into the bathroom. He closed the door behind him and leaned against it, wide-eyed and trembling. “There’s someone else in the house,” he said.
Copyright © 2015 Regina Bethory. All Rights Reserved.
Interested in reading the whole thing? Laszlo (The Chronicles of Noelle, Book 1) is available here.
Regina Bethory is a fiction author. She graduated from Christopher Newport University with a Bachelor’s in Directing and Play Writing and from Newport News Shipbuilding’s Apprentice School as a Test Electrician. She also has a degree in Funeral Services. As an avid minimalist and traveler, she enjoys spending her time learning new things, seeking new experiences and de-cluttering. When she is not writing, she can often be found in comic book stores and early morning matinees.