THE GIGGLING GRANDMA WITH THE LIZARD EYES
by Cyndi Gacosta
Darling Ross, a 59-year-old grandmother and five-time widow, puzzles Detective Jorge Cabrera. The friendly, unassuming old woman is not someone he would have pinned as a person of interest in a mysterious death. She lives in a gorgeous, two-story adobe house in the rural southern California town of San Julian with her sixth husband, Mr. Joseph Ross. She welcomes Cabrera and his partner, Detective Elise Alvaro, with a smile. Her sparkling, dark brown eyes exude a warm familiarity.
Cabrera takes mental note of the house’s cosy atmosphere and immaculate cleanliness. He feels damned foolish being there. Inside are the hallmarks of a typical, law-abiding, affluent married couple. Monet imitations and family portraits decorate the walls atop antique furniture with embroidered, floral patterns. There are bookshelves stocked with a wide breadth of genres, albeit with a heavy emphasis on romance.
A glass corner hutch stores what appears to be a small community of porcelain statuettes, with Christmas village snow globes, antique renderings of cats and dogs, cherubs, and Grecian nymphs. The only break from the pristine order of the dining room can be seen on the coffee table, with sewing items strewn about in front of the bulky television. He can only assume that it is permanently stationed on some sort of home-shopping channel. Another cabinet displays fine china dinnerware of countryside landscapes, cementing the central theme of the room.
The whole place smells like cinnamon buns fresh out of the oven, which Darling has been baking up until their arrival. She insists that they sit in the dining room, where they can chitchat and enjoy the breath-taking view of the rolling green hills, Darling makes a point of telling the detectives that this is how she starts every morning, with a nice cup of chai green. She gestures for them to take a seat at the table.
“What about your husband? Is he home?” asks Cabrera.
“Mr. Ross is resting in the bedroom upstairs. He spent a week in the hospital for a minor heart attack.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I hope he recovers soon.”
“Yes, thank you. Do you prefer—” Darling starts to ask, but she is interrupted by the loud shrill of the white corded phone on the wall. “—coffee or tea?”
Cabrera eyes the screeching phone. It demands to be picked up. He can’t recall the last time he’s seen or heard such an ancient piece of technology.
“Aren’t you going to get that?”
Darling floats over to the wall and brings the phone to her ear in one smooth motion. “Ross residence.”
Her tone is light and sweet, remaining calm amidst what sounds like a barrage of unrestrained screaming on the other end of the line.
“Sorry again, dear, he can’t come to the phone right now, but I’ll let him know you called.”
She hangs up the phone and gazes up at the detectives with a tight-lipped smile and unblinking eyes.
“Coffee or tea?”
“We won’t take up too much of your time, Mrs. Ross,” says Alvaro, “we just need to ask a few questions and then we’ll be on our way.”
“Please stick around as long as you wish.” Darling ushers them to the dining room. “We rarely have visitors.”
“Rarely? Don’t you have any children?”
“A long time ago I had two daughters, but they died young.”
Alvaro’s expression softens. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“What about your son?” Cabrera recalls seeing a young man in some of the family portraits in the living room.
“Joe’s son, Brian, lives in Seattle with his wife and two young sons.”
“They don’t come to visit at all?”
Darling’s right eye twitches and her smile tightens.
“They’re busy people; lawyers, you know. So, coffee or tea?”
“We appreciate the offer—” starts Alvaro.
“I’ll have coffee,” Cabrera pipes up, ignoring his partner’s side glance of annoyance.
“Black,” he adds, before nudging Alvaro.
Reluctantly she gives in and replies, “Same.”
Darling disappears into the kitchen, humming to herself. Again, Cabrera feels foolish. What he simply can’t understand is how a little old woman in a yellow, pastel, daisy-print dress with short, curly, salt-and-pepper hair could be connected to so many deaths.
They’ve got nothing to prove it. No physical evidence beyond the mere suspicion that she could be a carrier of some sort of disease. She’s got six dead husbands. Now a dead ex-brother-in-law. All seven met the same unexplained, gruesome end. They had just received the toxicology report for the most recent death, Robbie Jacobs from San Diego. It stated that Mr. Jacobs’s blood alcohol level was .15%, but they found no other incriminating substances, like rodenticide or cyanide.
The coroner noted that there were no exterior wounds, and no signs of a fight. And yet, from head to toe his skin was blue and purple. What the report couldn’t explain were the maggots in his scrotum. Nor could it explain the distended belly, or the fact that thousands of beetles and cockroaches swarmed out of the body the very second that the coroner punctured the skin with a scalpel.
He shivers at the memory. The bugs were everywhere inside the bloated corpse. And the smell. That stench stuck with him for days.
“Here you go, dearies!”
Darling returns with three mugs and two cinnamon buns on a tray. She serves them their coffee and treats with forks on the side. How could she let their fingers get too sticky from the warm, moist buttercream frosting on top?
She seats herself across from the detectives with her mug of chai green in hand. “So, if I may ask, what is this about? Why have you come?”
“This is about Robert Jacobs,” answers Cabrera. “Did you know him?”
“I do, yes. Robbie was my ex-husband Connie’s brother. What did he do now? Did something happen?”
“Robert Jacobs is dead,” Alvaro blurts out.
Darling blows on her steaming hot tea and takes a sip. The corner of her mouth twitches into a grin as she lowers her mug. “Oh? So, he’s keeled over and gone to meet the Lord. When did he pass?”
Strange. Cabrera ponders. What an odd time to smile. Alvaro throws him a suspicious glance.
“About a week ago. You weren’t informed about his death?”
“No, this is the first time I’m hearing about it.”
“When was the last time you had any contact with Mr. Jacobs?”
Darling stares into her chai green, firmly clutching the mug. “Last month Joe and I had an unpleasant encounter with Robbie in San Diego.”
“What were you doing in San Diego?”
“We were vacationing and visiting friends, and we happened to bump into Robbie and his wife, Ethel, at Seaport Village.”
“Did you have the chance to speak to Robbie and his wife?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“He called me a ‘bitch’ and threatened to kill me. He said he’d make me suffer first before he’d cut me up into pieces.”
Cabrera raises a brow. “Why would he do that to you?”
“Because he thought I was responsible for Connie and his mother’s death. How did he die?”
“The cause is unknown.”
The corner of Darling’s lips curves upward. A spark dashes in her eyes.
“I don’t suppose you think I killed him.”
“It does look...” Alvaro starts to say.
Darling frowns. “Suspicious? Is this about my past husbands?”
“No, you’re not a suspect for murder. That’s not what we are saying,” Cabrera insists. He looks to his side, and registers Alvaro’s cynical glare. Her eyes betray her thoughts, despite tight lips. ‘That’s exactly what we’re saying.’
“I’ll remind you that my sixth husband, Joe, is still alive and we’ve been happily married for seven years now.”
“We’re just trying to piece together the cause of Robert Jacobs’ death. His family wants closure.”
“His death is the best thing that could have happened to Ethel!”
The two detectives exchange quick, alarmed glances.
“Why would you say that?” asks Cabrera.
“He wasn’t a good man. Not even a half-decent husband,” she continues, “He was a heavy drinker,” she shakes her head, “And he squandered most of his inheritance on gambling and whores.”
“Mrs. Ross, Jacobs’s wife told us that he died the same way that your ex-husband, Connor, and his mother, died,” says Alvaro.
“So, Robbie was sick?”
“Yes, he showed flu-like symptoms, skin discoloration, and swelling, especially in the abdomen area.”
“Sounds like he died from natural causes; I figure it had to do with his drinking.”
“Jacobs was with a mistress—”
“Mistress? Why am I not surprised?”
“—And they had gone to a hotel in the evening, but they didn’t check out the next morning as planned. Jacobs’ body was discovered by a hotel housekeeper. His mistress was found hiding in the bathroom. She claims that she saw a woman in the hotel room with them. Her description matched yours.”
“Oh, bullshit!” Darling blurts out. “Pardon my language, but I wasn’t in the city last week.”
“Yes, we figured that.”
Cabrera interjects, “Perhaps she was seeing things, as she had mentioned that you had red eyes, and that your reflection in the mirror resembled a kind of demonic creature.”
“But Ethel Jacobs thinks you had something to do with her husband’s death,” adds Alvaro.
“Me? How could I be responsible for his death? I didn’t force him to down bottles of cheap wine.”
““In her mind, she believes it was witchcraft.”
“Witchcraft? Oh, come on! Detectives, be serious!”
“When we did a little background digging,” Alvaro says, “we found out that your ex-husbands had also suffered those exact symptoms, and that they died in the same manner.”
“So, you really do think it’s witchcraft?”
“No, not all. I’m not a believer in the supernatural. There’s a scientific explanation behind these deaths.”
“And what is that?”
“The coroner who examined Jacobs’ body suspects that it could be an infectious disease that you may have passed onto him and the others.”
Darling chortles. “Oh, please, I do not carry an infectious disease! I had my regular check-up last month and I have a clean bill of health! And I always wash my hands with soap before I cook! I bathe every day and take every precaution to keep myself in good health. I haven’t had the flu, or even a cold since childhood.”
“That’s good to hear, but we think it’s best if you come with us to the medical clinic and get tested.”
“I don’t think so, dear; I’m not going anywhere.”
“I might know something that could explain it all,” Darling says in a coy manner. “But it’s a long story to tell.” She drinks her tea and dabs the corners of her lips with a napkin.
Alvaro presses on. “Okay, tell us what you know.”
“First, have a taste of my cinnamon bun. You haven’t even touched it!”
Taken aback, Alvaro narrows her eyes. “Excuse me?”
“Oh, go on, dear! Just a bite, and tell me what you think.”
“Mrs. Ross, this is a serious matter we’re discussing here!”
“And I’m serious, too. Try my creamy bun.”
Alvaro scoffs and nudges Cabrera to say something. Darling raises a brow.
“Do you think I’ve poisoned it? Infected it? Oh, don’t be so silly!”
Without hesitation, she reaches over to Alvaro’s plate with a fork and stabs into the bun, slicing off a tiny chunk at the corner. Pure bliss consumes her round, jolly face as she chews on it. Her eyes sparkle with glee.
“See? It’s baked perfectly. Have a bite! It brings me so much joy to see others enjoy my food.”
Cabrera nods. “Okay, okay, I’ll have a bite.”
Might as well anyway, he reasons with himself. He woke up late and skipped breakfast, so he had to wait until lunchtime at the police station canteen. Today’s menu was a disappointment: a miserly tomato and ham sandwich with no cheese, a cup of assorted fruits, and a salad lightly coated with ranch. Now the glistening buttercream spread on the bun calls to him in a sultry voice only he can hear.
He picks up the fork and digs in.
Instant addiction. The sweetness! Its delectably creamy texture! The magical bun’s flavour lassos him in for a second bite. It melts in his mouth, and the buttercream is heavenly. Like a sweet memory, it lingers in his tastebuds.
“This is incredible! Wow!” he exclaims.
Darling beams. “Thank you, Detective. There’s more if you like.”
He turns to his partner, “It’s unbelievably delicious! Take one bite! Come on, just one!”
Alvaro throws him a hard look, but with some resistance she caves and haphazardly digs in with her fork.
“It is delicious,” she says without feeling.
Darling tilts her head and smiles at her. “I’m glad you like it.”
“I hope you—mmm—don’t mind, Mrs. Ross,” Cabrera says in between bites, “if we record the conversation.”
He pulls out his smartphone from the pocket of his jacket and places it on the table, switching the voice recorder on.
“I don’t mind,” she says, “like I said, it’s a long story and there might be details you won’t be able to remember or write down fast enough.”
The quiet, unassuming grandmother blows into her chai green and takes a long sip, savouring its warmth and essence. She takes a moment to marvel at the rolling hills, and the other large, adobe houses that dot the landscape. After a moment of meditative calmness, she turns to the detectives.
At once, her profound, dark eyes pierce through them, widening into a stare that raises the hairs on Cabrera’s arms. Such a feeling had not struck him in years. The same sense of visceral dread that he felt when he stared into the pitch black of a gun barrel during a botched hostage negotiation. A sinking feeling of foreboding in his stomach that begged him to abandon ship at once. This is it. Turn back now, or you will never return.
He shivers, and Darling Ross begins her story.
People think it’s cute that my name’s Darling.
It was supposed to be Darlene, but the way Mom said it sounded like Darling, and the hospital registrar printed it that way. So, Darling it was. Darling Carmen Thelma Marcos.
I lived with my family in San Judas, about an hour drive from San Julian. It was a small, middle-of-nowhere town in the California Valley. I had one older brother. His name was Junior. My parents were hardworking folks; Dad was a high school literature teacher and Mom ran a little general store. They raised me and Junior strict Catholic and taught us to be obedient. So, we asked no questions, and did what we were told.
We didn’t go out of town much, and whenever we did, we’d just visit some other small, middle-of-nowhere town near San Judas. Dad thought it was too dangerous to go to the bigger cities. Too many lunatics out in the world, he said.
Other than that, it was home, school, and church. With that kind of upbringing, you could say that I developed a weak spine. Weak and sheltered. San Judas was the only known world to me. I was a smidge envious of other kids whose families took them to places like Disneyland and Hollywood, even Las Vegas. I didn’t have friends. I was just a nobody to everyone. Nothing I did was ever enough for other kids to take an interest in me.
If I wanted a taste of excitement, I listened to Dad’s stories about aswangs. It was a thrill I looked forward to, every night before bedtime. Aswangs were creatures of the night that stole corpses. Not only that, but they fed on foetuses, and the sick and dying. He’d sworn he’d encountered one as a young boy in the Philippines. He had the habit of hiding under his Lola’s bed when he played hide-and-seek with his siblings. Then, one night, he found himself beside this red-eyed demon with a long snake-like tongue licking his Lola’s cold limp hand dangling off the bedside.
Those stories stirred my imagination. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and see their shadows outside the bedroom. Just standing there, peering right in with their red eyes. I’d be covered in sweat, with my bed sheet soaked in ruin. I was that scared. I was young then, perhaps ten years old at the time.
Oh, Junior got a kick out of it. He’d shut off the lights in the bedroom and hide behind the long curtains, or in the closet. Then he would wait for me to come in so he could jump out and scream. Mom would slap him upside on the head. She got him to stop, and she assured me that aswangs were just stories. But her words couldn’t soothe the bubbling fear in the pit of my stomach. And so, to ease my mind for a decent night’s sleep, Mom lined the bedroom windowsill with salt and cloves of garlic. These were natural protections against the aswang.
But still, I wanted more horror tales. There wasn’t a shortage of them in town, for sure. At my school, kids talked about a woman who lived in a decrepit house next to the local pet cemetery. They said she was a witch, or as Dad would say, an aswang—the aswang of San Judas.
Rumour had it that during the day she’d take on human form in order to blend in with the townsfolk. No matter how human she tried to make herself look, they said you could still spot her in a crowd. But San Judas had a bunch of strange-looking folks. It wasn’t easy to pinpoint who was the witch unless you came face-to-face with her. Because when you got up close, you could see your reflection, turned upside down, in her eyes. And when she smiled, you’d see rows of crooked, jagged teeth from the opening of her mouth down to the throat. That would be the last thing you saw before she devoured your head.
At night, she transformed into a winged, vampiric beast. People were quick to blame the aswang of San Judas for every misfortune. I remembered when the Aquino house across the street from ours went ablaze one night. They were a family with nine children. That night, Mr. and Mrs. Aquino and four of their children made it out of the fire, but five didn’t. Junior and I watched it all happen from the porch.
The smoke was so powerful. Singed our nose hairs right off! Sometimes I can still smell it to this day. All night long I held my breath, listening for the screams. We all thought they had burned alive in the house. I was always curious about these morbid things.
When they put out the fire, the firemen went in and searched for the five missing kids. I was certain they’d find human remains, but they found nothing. Not a single charred bone. The strangest thing was that they were never able to determine the origin of the fire. So, everybody pointed their fingers at the aswang. They said she started the fire with the intention of kidnapping the children. Why? Many thought that it was for a kind of ceremony... of human sacrifice. I suspected that they were taken for dinner.
Dad thought different. ‘The fire happened because the Aquino kids misbehave all the time,’ he said, ‘and they don’t listen to their parents. That’s what happens when you don’t listen to your parents, and when you don’t go to church!’
I took his words to heart. For God said, “honour your father and mother, and he who speaks ill of them will be put to death.” So, that was what I did. I listened to my father’s instructions and didn’t forsake my mother’s teaching. But no matter how much I obeyed God and family; nothing could have saved me from the misfortune that changed my life. The day I lost my eyes.
Coffee spurts out from his mouth, and stains Cabrera’s newly laundered white shirt. He coughs and gasps for air. He sets the mug down on the table and grabs a napkin to wipe his chin. In a momentary panic, he brushes his shirt, floundering in his attempts to scrub the coffee-droplets off his shirt.
“Excuse me,” he blurts out the second that he catches his breath, “You lost your eyes?”
Darling nods. “That’s right; when I was about ten years old, I lost my eyes.”
Alvaro casts a doubtful look, raising a brow. “They look intact to me, Mrs. Ross,” she folds her hands together and fixes a stern glance. “Look, I don’t see how this is relevant to Mr. Jacobs’ death. So, if you please just tell us what information you have then we can move on.”
“Oh, it is relevant information, Detective. I need to tell you this part of the story.”
“Do you expect us to believe that a witch in San Judas is connected to Jacobs’s death?”
“Or an ass-wang,” adds Cabrera.
“Ah-swung,” Darling interrupts, correcting his pronunciation, “It’s aswang. When you open your mind, then your eyes will see the world beyond the world we know.”
Cabrera senses Alvaro’s incredulous glance. Her foot nudges his. She nods her head slightly towards the door. But he doesn’t want to go just yet. They’ve only started. He wants to delve deeper into this “world beyond”. He looks at his subject with deepening curiosity, entranced by the possibility that something unusual—perhaps even supernatural—happened to Robert Jacobs and her ex-husbands.
Alvaro nudges his foot again. Stronger this time, with impatient eyes pressing him to end the interview immediately. “Let’s end this now and go.”
He looks down at his half-eaten cinnamon bun. But why leave? He hasn’t even finished. It would be rude to just get up and leave it there, lonely, and uneaten on the plate. It was so thoughtful of her to make them.
We’re her guests, he tells himself. It’s only considerate to stay, hear her out, and finish the delicious bun. And, perchance, have another one.
Cabrera stares at the fork in his hand and admires how the sterling silver reflects the glistening sunlight as it pours through the window. It is almost a pity to see such beauty pass as he dips it into the bun for another bite.
Alvaro stomps on his foot, making his toes throb. He grunts and glares at his partner. She remains stoic with her hands folded on the table.
Cabrera gulps and clears his throat. “Tell us, Mrs. Ross, how did you lose your eyes?”
“Yes, tell us,” Alvaro says sardonically, rolling her eyes. “Our minds are ready to be opened.”
Darling sips her tea, peering at them over the rim of her mug. Amusement twinkles in her blue-green eyes.
Junior and I were on our way home from school on foot. Dad usually picked us up, but the car broke down one day and had to be taken to the shop. He trusted Junior enough to make sure we got home on time.
I hated the walk. It meant passing by the pet cemetery. Well, I should say, the pet cemetery that the aswang of San Judas called home. Her house was like an entity. It was alive, and it knew that people were afraid of it. Those black, haunting windows watched us; whichever way we went. Their eyes stayed hot on our necks. I kept my head down, eyes to the sidewalk, and I kept holding on to Junior’s hand as tight as I could. But he’d shake me off and say I was being a baby.
Curiosity got me itching bad one day. I dared myself to look up. Just a quick look. You know what I saw? Up on the second floor, a woman peeked from behind the white curtains. Our eyes met. Her eyes were as soulless as those windows. That cold, terrifying stare cemented me to the sidewalk. I was frozen, terrified of what she would do if I moved.
Junior didn’t see her. He thought I was being an annoying little sister. When I refused to budge, he picked me up and carried me home over his shoulder. I dreaded the walk from that moment on.
Next day, a couple of boys called out to us from the cemetery. I recognized them right away. They were boys in my brother’s class. The blond one was Bo, and the dark haired one was Davey. Both of them thought they were the baddest boys in town. Cool and slick.
When Junior greeted them, Bo had this devilish smile. He called for us to come join him. I held Junior back and told him that Mom and Dad would be angry if we didn’t come home in time. But Junior, being the rambunctious boy in the family, brushed my hand off and hopped over the fence. He was damn stubborn. He said it would only take a minute. But that was not to be.
We ended up following Bo to a tall grassy spot. Davey was poking something with a stick. When we got closer, I caught a whiff of something rotten. There, on the grass, was what looked like some kind of dead animal, split, and peeled open like some fruit with its head detached. Its body was the size of a chihuahua, but it was hairless, and it had the face and tail of a rat. It smelled like a chunk of raw meat that had been left outside to blister and fester in the sun. Its intestines, heart, and liver were missing. The boys thought that the aswang had tossed the carcass out after devouring its essential parts.
Davey said that it was a Chupacabra, but they all just laughed at him. Bo poked a stick through its hollow eye socket and lifted it up. He thought it was funny to wave that thing in front of my face. I almost ran straight home with or without Junior, but he grabbed the back of my shirt and told me to quit acting like a ‘damn scared baby’.
I begged him and pleaded for us to leave. I told him that I had a very bad feeling that I couldn’t explain, and that we had to go before it was too late. He just yelled at me and told me to quiet down.
As they argued about what to do with the creature’s body, an evil idea lit up Bo’s face. He picked up the carcass by its skinny hind legs and dumped it into a black plastic bag. Davey dared Junior to throw the bag into the aswang’s house. He refused, but they kept up the pressure.
Davey called him a ‘Damn pussy.’
Those words really riled Junior up. His hands curled up into fists. Then his eyes narrowed; and his nostrils flared like an angry bull ready to strike. I grabbed his wrist and tried to drag him out, but he wrenched himself from my grip. He took the bag and flung it with all his might, like a shot-put thrower.
We watched it fly into the air. I was so sick with worry that it seemed to move—in slow motion. My heart dropped to the pit of my stomach when the bag crashed through a second storey window. No one breathed a word. We waited for something to happen.
Bo thought it was so funny. He even patted Junior on the back. Then he made a bold move: he crossed the boundary between the aswang’s house and the pet cemetery. He threw his hands up, as if to dare the aswang to challenge him.
‘What are you going to do, you bitch?’ he cried out.
The other boys chimed in, and so did Junior. He looked like he was having the time of his life. I yanked him back by the neck of his shirt.
I yelled ‘We’re going home now!’ But Junior wiggled away.
He tried to calm me, but it was too late. The sun was still out, and the day was bright as any other. But when the front door began to creak open all by itself... the house swallowed up all the light.
We shut our mouths. Our eyes fixed on the darkness. I felt something inside that house stare back at us. Something angry.
It threw some kind of object out at us, sending it into the air faster than we could reach. Then it smacked Bo right in the face. He let out a disgusted grunt when he touched his blood-smeared cheek. Junior staggered back in surprise.
You know what it was?
That mysterious creature’s severed head. Its one cloudy eye stared back at us, and its lizard-like tongue hung limp on the side of its smiling mouth.
As the boys would have said, we were scared shitless. Bo and Davey bolted down the street, and I headed in the opposite direction with Junior. I needed to go home. I felt relieved when we turned around the corner of the block, right by our home. But when we got there, we found ourselves in front of the aswang’s house once again. The door remained wide open; waiting for us to come in. And, once again, the darkness stared back at us. Then I noticed that Bo and Davey were back beside us, just as confused and terrified as we were.
We ran back to the corner, and I spotted our house another block away. I cried in relief. We were so close to home. I wanted nothing more than to be locked up inside, as far away from this evil place as I could be. All I wanted was to be back in my room; surrounded by crosses and pictures of Jesus and my heavenly saints. But no... I did not reach my home. Instead, I was right back in front of the aswang’s house.
Time wore on, and the sun began to set. And then I remembered a story Dad told us about the time he and his friends had gotten lost in the jungle when they were boys. They circled the same path for hours. Dad claimed that a half-horse, half-human creature, tikbalang, led them away from their path. The only way to get back on the right track was to turn your shirt inside out and walk backwards with your eyes closed. I wondered if the aswang had the same powers as a tikbalang.
I told the boys we’d better do exactly what Dad did, so we could all get home safely. Bo shut down the idea. He said it was stupid. They were agitated and near the point of tears.
When night came there was total darkness around the aswang’s house. The streetlights wouldn’t turn on like they should’ve. Only moonlight shined on the house. The door stayed wide open, taunting us. But then I saw a light flicker on in one of the rooms on the first floor! I was so relieved when my mom poked her head out of the window and called my name.
‘Darling! Junior!’ she said, ‘Don’t just stand there. Get inside!’
Davey joined in and called out, ‘Mom?’
I got angry and shouted at him, saying that it was ‘MY mom!
Junior paled and told me that he didn’t think it was mom. I still remember the look in his eyes to this day.
As we fought, Bo cut in and said that the woman in the mirror was his Nan. He pointed to the second floor, not the first.
‘Junior was the first to notice that something was very, very wrong.
Mom stepped out onto the porch with Dad close behind her. She put her hands on her hips, and her eyes narrowed. ‘Darling Carmen Marcos! Fernando Juan Marcos Jr! Come inside, now!’
‘Mama!’ I cried out and ran up to the porch.
‘Damn it, Darling, no!’ Junior yelled.
I swear it was Mom. It sounded just like her, and it looked just like her. Junior cried for me to come back, but I didn’t listen. I couldn’t think of anything else. I just wanted to go home. When you see something familiar in what feels like a nightmare, you’d run to it without question. If you’re dying from thirst, you’ll drink anything that looks like water. Bo and Davey joined in, one at a time. Then Junior reluctantly followed.
Once we crossed over that threshold, we were swallowed up like flies in a Venus flytrap. The door slammed shut behind us. I could see light coming from the living room, but it wasn’t plugged into any socket.
The place was old, with its faded and scratched wallpapers. My skin prickled at the feeling of being watched through the holes in the walls. But I didn’t see any eyes. Only cockroaches and beetles crawled out of them.
I nearly choked from the thick dust floating in the air. Then I felt myself get kicked up from the floor as I struggled to free myself from sticky cobwebs that clung onto me.
Junior tried the front door. It was locked, and no matter how much he threw his weight into it, it wouldn’t budge. We tried the window. Locked, too. Bo had the bright idea to throw a chair through it, but it bounced back without so much as a scratch on the glass.
Davey suggested we try the backdoor in the kitchen. When Junior found the switch, the ceiling lights flickered brightly for a moment before dimming to a dull, orange glow. It was barely enough to light the path to the kitchen. Bo led the way. Junior kept close to me, holding my hand.
Davey, the stupidest boy in San Judas, flung the fridge door open, unleashing an awful stench that had been sealed inside for God knows how long. The odour punched our nostrils.
He backed himself against the wall, his eyes wide and fixed on a pile of carcasses and rotten organs that the aswang had stuffed in the fridge. He kicked it shut and said something about rumours of grave robbing in the pet cemetery. Then he gagged and puked on the floor.
Bo wanted to get out. He hurried over to the back door, only to find that it was locked, too. No matter how many times he tried to kick and push it down, it wouldn’t open. Not even a crack.
The thought drove us into despair. It only angered Bo and made him kick harder.
I hoped someone from outside could hear the commotion. At the same time, I was scared that we were being too loud. That the noise might awaken something that slept in the house.
Then I heard it. A gentle but firm voice. Its breath was cold against my skin, as if it stood right next to me, whispering into my ear.
Stop it, or you’ll wake up Momma.
I just jumped out of my skin! The boys had heard the same thing, too. We looked around, but nothing was in the room with us. We stood stock still. All was dead silent, except for our own ragged breaths. And then I heard a loud, crashing noise from above as something heavy, and wet, rolled down the stairs.
The boys couldn’t decide who would check it out first, so they resolved it with a game of rock, paper, scissors.
Bo lost. He grumbled and swore and punched them both on the shoulders. But they stood their ground, and he went first. We followed him, staying several steps behind.
Bo stood by the foot of the stairs. Nothing there. But I swear that we had heard something! The noise was crystal clear.
I clung to Junior like my life depended on it. The eyes inside the holes in those walls... they were watching our every move.
Momma’s up! Momma’s up!
The whispers echoed throughout the house. Again, we couldn’t tell where they were coming from.
Bo clenched his jaw, as well as his fists. He cried out towards this... thing and yelled. ‘Let us go home!’ Then the little voice called to me once again.
Momma’s coming! Momma’s coming!
I heard slow, lumbering footsteps across the floor above us. As the door swung open, a freezing wind swept across the room. The lights flickered and went out and we plunged into near darkness, save for the sliver of moonlight coming through the windows. The whispers grew faster and faster, like a giddy child.
Momma’s here! Momma’s here!
Momma loomed behind Bo, glaring down at him with her monstrous red eyes, and her unfathomable size of nothingness. The rumours were true: when you looked into her eyes you could see your reflection, but it was turned upside down. And when she opened her mouth, she revealed a tunnel of sharp teeth from the opening down to the throat. It was the last thing Bo saw. And Davey... and Junior... but it spared me.
Instead, her eyes burrowed deep into mine like balls of flames. I couldn’t look away; it was like some invisible hand that grabbed me and pulled me towards it. Her eyes were like the sun.
I saw white. Then red. And I felt a horrible, burning pain. My eyes were on fire! I felt them wither up inside their sockets and crumble into ashes. And I was left with two empty black holes in their place.
Cabrera looks down at his plate. Nothing but tiny crumbs left. For the life of him, he can’t explain how he ate it so fast. Nor can he explain how he can stomach any food while listening to something so grisly. From the corner of his eye, he sees Alvaro cringe; her cinnamon bun left untouched since the first bite.
Alvaro takes a sip of her coffee, instead. Cabrera debates internally, pondering whether to sneak his fork over and swipe it from her plate, or to wait a little longer. Just another minute... He sits, waiting impatiently for an end to the uncomfortable silence that hangs in the dining room.
Darling eyes Cabrera’s empty plate, “Before I continue, would you like some more, Detective? I can fetch another from the kitchen.”
“Yes, please!” he answers, like a grateful, greedy little boy bubbling with excitement at the promise of more sweets. Off she goes with the empty plate. Cabrera sits tight, eagerly awaiting his second serving.
“This is absurd, just ridiculous!” Alvaro bursts with indignance. “Does she think we’d believe that story?”
He shrugs. “I’ve heard that a lot of crazy things happen in San Judas.”
“Oh, god, really now? Don’t start with your bizarro theories...”
“I mean, why not listen to what she’s got to say? She knows something about Jacobs’ death. And there could be clues she’s dropping in her story, no matter how ridiculous it sounds.”
Alvaro shakes her head and scoffs. “Jorge, she’s just conjuring up a fake story to distract us. We need to get her to the clinic. If not, then perhaps we can take something from the house that has her hair follicles, like a hairbrush or—”
“Elise, we can’t just take things without a warrant.”
“It’s probable cause. We don’t know what she has. She doesn’t know either. Maybe it’s—”
Darling waltzes into the room with a fresh plate of cinnamon bun for Cabrera. He salivates instantly.
A smile appears on her round, matronly face. “I should tell you how I got my eyes back. That’s when things truly changed for me.”
Alvaro lets out a low, frustrated hiss through her teeth. “Mrs. Ross, where are we going with this? Tell us exactly what you know about Robert Jacobs!”
“I will tell you, dear. Be patient.”
The police discovered the boys’ organs in the fridge. Their limbs were out in the cemetery, right in the exact same spot where Bo had poked at that strange, dead creature. Their arms, legs, and torsos had been ripped to shreds, as if by a large animal. The house was searched. Every room, every crevice, and every little hole in the walls. But Momma was nowhere to be found.
I told everyone that the aswang was real. But, of course, no one believed me.
The boys’ deaths left people shaken, absolutely terrified. Mom became catatonic while Dad mostly went on as if everything was normal. He still went to work every day and read the Bible and prayed. But he stopped telling me stories. Instead, he would go out for long walks at night for hours at a time. Sometimes he wouldn’t come home until the next morning.
And no one believed me when I told them that the aswang took my eyes. Folks came up with their own theories. Some said I did it to get attention. But the doctors figured a rare disease—anophthalmia—was the cause of my missing eyes.
Since my family were Catholics, they believed it was God’s punishment for going into the house in the first place. Dad used to say: ‘Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them.’
And, so in their minds, I was unclean. I knew—not entirely, it was more like a feeling—but I knew they blamed me for what happened to Junior. Like I should’ve gone straight home and told them what he’d been up to. They didn’t say or do anything. They wouldn’t even hold my hand to comfort me. I was all alone, left with no one to guide me in the darkness. And then, one night, Momma came to visit.
Momma didn’t have a form; her presence was all around me. The air felt different—heavier, tense, cold. But it was strangely comforting. And it embraced and consoled me.
You’ll see again with my eyes, she told me.
This powerful force pushed me back on to the bed. My arms and legs were pinned down. I tried to wiggle away, but Momma was too strong. Then I realized that this itchy, pins-and-needles feeling was the work of dozens, even hundreds, of tiny spiders! Their little spindling legs crawled up my cheeks and into my eyes, burying into each socket.
I could feel them filling to the breaking point, like balloons about to burst inside a tiny pore. The pressure kept building. I thought my head was going to explode!
When I finally woke up the next day, I saw grey silhouettes of items around my room. Little by little, sight returned to me. I could see everything! Clear as day! Colours! Light! My bedroom! But I also saw the horrified faces of my family, staring back at me. Mom fainted. Dad went white as a ghost and pissed in his pants.
He was the first to say something. I will always remember when he said, ‘Oh, my poor Darling, you have the eyes of the Devil!’
He wasn’t wrong. I looked in the mirror and saw the Devil, too.
Since then, I hid behind bug-eyed sunglasses. I never took them off. Not ever. From that point on, my family wouldn’t even look at me. Dad lost his appetite. Mom fainted when she saw my Devil’s eyes. They told the school I had an eye operation that had gone wrong. I was a quiet student. No one bothered or noticed me. That is, until Clara Cooke came along.
Over forty years later I still can’t forget about her. In most people’s eyes she was a bubbly, cheerful girl. Everyone thought she had a little golden halo over her light-brown curls, like a Shirley Temple reincarnation. But she had a mean streak. Underneath the ‘good girl’ smile and rosy cheeks was a thoughtless, cold-hearted creature. She preyed on anyone she thought was beneath her.
She came up to me one day with her two sidekicks, and dared to ask me, ‘If you take the sunglasses off, like, do your eyes shrink when they’re in the light?’
I told her that I didn’t understand.
Clara laughed, and her goons laughed with her. I’ll never forget what that little monster said next. ‘You know, do your eyes get more chinky and, like, you can’t see? I’m asking if that’s why you wear the sunglasses.’
She pretended to have slits for eyes. They all let out this roaring laughter, like they were werewolves howling at the moon.
I told them that I could see just fine and called them a bunch of dumb bitches. And then that girl laid a sunburning slap on my cheek so hard, it knocked off my sunglasses. I reached down to pick them up, but she crushed the lenses with her foot. I threw her the nastiest glare I could muster up. It reminded me of a Bible verse: ‘the eye is the lamp of your body; when your eyes are clear, your whole body is also full of light; but when it is bad, your whole body is full of darkness’.
Darkness filled every inch of my body in that moment.
The girls were so scared they almost shat their pants, and they scampered away. Still, that didn’t stop Clara from coming up with a nickname. Oh, she thought she was so clever. I heard the whispers; the talking behind my back. They called me Icky Iguana. By third period, the whole student body started calling me ‘Guana’, like it was my God-given birth name. The class wouldn’t stop their jabbering and pointing.
Our science teacher, Mr. Mann, hollered for everyone to shut up.
He demanded to know: ‘Who are you calling an iguana?’
Their eyes fell on me.
I tried to shrink away, down to the size of the smallest molecule. The left side of my sunglasses had cracked, and most of the right lens was missing. Mr. Mann took one look and clutched his chest like he was about to have a heart attack. He went up to the blackboard and lectured the class about the similarities and differences between iguana and crocodile eyes.
Students couldn’t stop giggling, and Clara had the widest shit-eating grin all over her fake, “innocent” face. I wish I had the satisfaction of smacking it off. But I didn’t have to. Because, you see, this omnipotent being sent a miracle! Not God. Momma.
I watched that smile transform into a grimace in a heartbeat. Her hand flew to her throat like she got something stuck, and all of a sudden, her face was redder than a tomato. Then, she reached into her mouth and started pulling something out, like a magician with an endless rope of colourful cloth. The thing in her throat landed wet and hard on the floor.
It was the longest and fattest centipede I ever laid my eyes on!
The centipede crawled around the room. Dazed and confused. You should’ve seen the others. I thought their eyes were going to pop right out of their skulls! Clara birthed a dozen more out of that vile mouth. The last one was the biggest of them all. It opened up her mouth so wide, that once it pulled itself out, her lower jaw was dangling loosely off a single thread of muscle.
Oh, don’t worry. She lived. By sixth period, the whole town knew who Centi-Clara was. It made the front page of the county newspaper. TEN-FOOT INSECT CAUSES HAVOC AT SAN JUDAS HIGH! This made Mr. Mann upset, because centipedes aren’t insects, and the news editor had been his student.
The darkness that I had felt before faded. and gave way to light. Everyone thought I did it to her. Maybe I did, but do you know what that meant? Momma gave me a gift. No one in that school ever dared to cross me again.
Politely, Darling asks to be excused. She must attend to her sickly husband.
“What the fuck,” Alvaro shouts once she is gone. “What are we doing here, Jorge? This is too much! Certainly, she’s not right in the head.”
Cabrera taps ‘pause’ on his Smartphone. “You don’t believe her?”
Alvaro gawks at him, shaking her head in disbelief. “And you do? Did we not listen to the same story? The woman claims she lost her eyes and that an aswang—demon or witch or whatever she calls it—regrew her eyes with super spiders!”
“You’re kidding, right? Jorge, come on.”
“I know you don’t believe in the supernatural, but I think if you just open...” He pauses and sighs.
“Look, have I told you about my family?”
“No, you haven’t.”
“You rarely talk about that part of your life.”
“I’m going to tell you something that I’ve never told anyone.”
Alvaro straightens up in her seat. A look of concern flashes across her face. “Okay, I’m listening.”
He fumbles with his fingers for a moment, hesitant to delve too deeply. No, I can’t. A bead of sweat drips down his forehead as he vacillates.
Come on, says a voice from within. It’s been three decades. Someone needs to know. He’s entrusted Elise to have his back on the field. Maybe, then, he can trust her with his secrets, too.
“I had an older sister; her name was Elena,” he begins. “She was three years older than me. Just the best sister you could ask for. Our lives changed when she got sick, I think she was about twelve years old. At first, she had a fever and chills. Then she started refusing food, preferring raw, warm meat. She changed, transformed into something...”
He pauses for a moment, remembering the pale face of his sister, and the way she stared at him with ferocious, reptilian eyes.
“My parents took her to the doctors,” he continues, “but they had no idea what it was. Elena’s behaviour grew worse, almost like an animal. She bit the nurse on the face. I was there. I saw her feed on a woman’s face! I knew that she wasn’t my sister anymore. She was gone and something else was inside of her.”
“Oh, god...” Alvaro gasps.
“The nurse survived, though she lost both eyes, most of her lips and about half of her nose.”
“What do you think was wrong with your sister?”
“It’s obvious, isn’t it? She was possessed.”
He nods. “By a demon.”
Cabrera takes another bite of the cinnamon bun, registering Alvaro’s look of concerned disbelief. She may not believe it now, but he is certain she will come around. He licks the fork and dips into the bun again. “Yes, a demon.”
“What happened to Elena?”
“She escaped the hospital and was run over in a traffic accident. And as if it was all some cruel joke that God had played on us... my dad was the driver.”
“Oh, shit, I’m so sorry, Jorge. That must’ve been traumatizing. But how does this connect to Mrs. Ross’s story?”
“I think she’s possessed, like how Elena was possessed.”
“How do you know that? Mrs. Ross seems fine.”
“It’s a feeling, Elise. Perhaps the demon inside her is dormant right now, and just waiting for the right time to strike.”
Cabrera lifts up the fork and dives in for another slice, but Alvaro slaps his hands away.
“Stop eating it,” she says.
“It’s rude not to finish what’s offered to you when you are a guest in someone else’s home.”
“We’re not houseguests. We’re investigators on official business!”
Alvaro gets up.
“Elise, wait,” he says, grabbing the cuff of her jacket, “Where are you going?”
“We need something that can tie her to Jacobs’s death.”
“How? We can’t just snoop around without a court order.”
Before Alvaro answers, the door swings open. Darling breezes into the dining room with a pot of coffee and a brand-new plate of cinnamon bun. She refills Cabrera’s mug and sets the plate down before him.
“I hope you’re not going just yet,” she says as Alvaro inches her way towards the door. “Oh, please stay, I haven’t finished my story.”
“Actually, I need to use the bathroom. So, where is it?”
“It’s under the stairs.”
“Mmm...” Cabrera moans in delight as he digs into the second helping. “Well, don’t worry, Mrs. Ross, I won’t be leaving until I’ve finished this.” He points to the bun and cuts off another piece, “But you’ve got to tell me your secret recipe for this!”
“Oh, it’s no secret,” Darling says, giggling, “I’m sure you can look up on the Internet and find a recipe.”
“But yours hits so differently!”
He licks his finger so as not to waste any of its sweet flavour.
“Yes, well,” her smile widens, “Maybe I did put a little more love, a little more care into it.”
The corded phone rings again.
Darling bolts from her chair, leaving it wobbling from the sudden movement. She strides over to the wall to pick it up and listens for what seems like a split second, before slamming it back on the hook. Not a word is spoken to the caller.
Cabrera taps ‘unpause’ on the recorder. “Okay, Mrs. Ross, let’s go on with the story. What did you mean when you said that Momma gave you a gift?”
“Let’s just say... I could do any and all things through her. It is she who strengthens me.”
“And your eyes...”
“My eyes? What about them?”
“You said they were unusual, but they look normal.”
“Well, that’s the miracle of contact lenses!”
“And the centipede incident, did that really happen?”
“I don’t lie.”
“Well, that’s good to know! So, let’s fast forward a bit to the part where you met your first husband.”
“Which one, dear?”
“Start with the first and we’ll go from there.”
Darling’s smile wavers, and her eyes sink. Tiny, inadvertent slips of the mask. Then she catches herself. And without hesitation the warm, maternal smile returns; lighting up her face from cheek to cheek. Memories of her past marriages resurface.
True love is hard to find. It sure doesn’t play out like those romance books at all. It’s a sad fact of life. And a dose of reality that most of us learn to swallow hard.
I looked for love on Lonely Hearts. I thought I’d find luck; someone I knew had met her husband—a doctor—on the website. Most of the men didn’t stand out to me. Some declared their love and then disappeared without a trace. Others got freaked out by my eyes and ran away. Either way, I would never hear from them again.
Then, one man sent me a heart dart. Sam Duke, a lawyer from Missouri. He promised the world to me. I mean, plenty of men said the same thing, but Duke laid out concrete plans. He could take me away from my dreadful town and give me the life I deserved. I had never seen such confidence and charm. He could turn fantasy into reality. I told him how much I longed to leave San Judas. He flew me over to St. Louis and less than a year later, we were married.
Life was a dream. The first year of marriage was heaven—trips to Europe and hard-to-get tickets to Broadway. In our second year, I gave birth to two daughters. Perfect house, perfect family, and the perfect husband. I found out, later, that he also happened to own two other perfect houses with two other perfect wives and children. Neither of them even knew about the Duke’s secret life. But Momma knew. Momma smelled his lies. So, I threatened to leave him. I was going to take the girls and move back in with my family, but the Duke put on a convincing act. The way he cried and begged for forgiveness and cried. How could I not give him a second chance? After all, whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them, finds mercy—Proverbs 28:13.
So, he ended them—his other family. He hired people who owed him a favour. Police found his first wife and three teenage sons under the porch of their New York countryside home. Barbiturates in their system and two bullets in each head. The other family—a wife and one teenage daughter—well, they were found in an oil tanker. Police could only identify them by their teeth because the oil had corroded all of the skin and meat from their bones. I knew me and my girls were next. But by some miracle, he dropped dead before he could carry out his sinister plan. They said he suffered a heart attack—something had frightened him, but no one delved any deeper into the case. So, I became a widow just before my 30th birthday.
Five months after Duke’s death, I got a heart dart from Theodore Barter, a jewellery store owner in New York. We got married not long after our first meeting. Again, the first year was good; typical honeymoon period. I didn’t love him, but I liked him. Theo treated me well and lavished me with gifts, you know, things like jewellery, designer shoes and dresses. He was a good man with a good heart. When he was sober. But he was a violent alcoholic and a gambling addict. I also learned that he had accumulated mountains of debt and he tried to whore me off to his debtors. So that didn’t work out so well.
After Theo, I married Garrett Greene from New Jersey. He was a gentleman without a vice—no drinking, no gambling, no other love affairs. I thought... finally, a good man! My husband, until death do us part. That was until my sweet little daughters saw a sketch of his face on FBI’s Most Wanted; one of those unsolved mysteries shows. Turned out his name wasn’t Garrett Greene. His real name was Xavier Watts-Lister, and he was from Washington state. Before me, he had a wife and four children. He shot them in their sleep with a silenced .22 long rifle. Then he buried the bodies in his backyard, under the porch.
Husband number four wasn’t much better. He liked little girls too much. I caught him masturbating with my daughters’ dirty panties, and he looked me right in the eye as he ejaculated.
Four failed marriages. Of course, through no fault of my own. Momma told me that the heavens always find a way to bring punishment for those who deserve it. So, all four of my ex-husbands got ill. Now they’re dead, and the world is all the better for it.
I moved back with my girls to San Judas and took up a waitressing job. I was about ready to give up on love altogether! That was until I received a heart dart from Connor Jacobs of Doss County in California. We didn’t meet until almost a year of messaging back and forth. He was willing to drive down all the way, about a seven-hour drive to San Judas, just to meet me. Me! I was flattered, for sure. I picked the time and place. We met at Sam’s Saloon. People there liked to dapper up, oldies style. I remember that moment like it happened yesterday.
The jukebox whirled to life, playing Ritchie Valens’s We Belong Together. And like a dream where time froze still, a young man with this black, Rockabilly hairdo walked through the front door. Heaven’s light shined around him.
‘I like your eyes,’ was the first thing he said to me. I laughed. Oh, Heaven on earth, nobody’s ever made me laugh like that! And, especially, nobody’s ever said that to me—’I like your eyes; I like your whatever.’ I never heard anybody say that they liked something about me! I guess that’s why I fell in love with Connie.
The Jacobs family ran a restaurant franchise back then, all across California. The patriarch, Mr. Talbot Jacobs, died from a heart attack and left the business and his fortunes to his widow and sons.
Connie was the middle child of the Jacobs family. Robbie was the oldest. Oh, boy, Robbie... What can I say about him? He could drink a party right under the table. Oh, the storms he caused! We’d be having a good time, but then as soon as you said one little thing, or gave him one little look, and he would turn on you at the snap of a finger! I guess, I gave him “a look” he didn’t like. He didn’t like looking me in the eyes.
One time he looked right at me and said, ‘You ever thought about contact lenses, Dar? No offense, but has anyone ever told you that your eyes give them the fucking creeps?’
Dar... The nerve of him. Momma didn’t like him either.
The youngest of the Jacobs siblings was Blanche. No one liked to talk about her. She had run off with her mister when the family found out she got pregnant before marriage. And no one had heard from her ever since.
Connie’s mother, Gina, was deeply attached to him. Every hour of every day she had this tight, desperate grip around his neck. She reminded me of a peacock without its feathers—long neck, narrow face, and beak-like nose. And the moment we first met I knew we were going to be at odds for as long as she lived.
She lowered her cat-eyeglasses, and looked me up and down with those black, beady eyes. Then she told her son she was glad he found help for the house, so she wouldn’t have to do the house chores herself.
Connie’s face flushed. He corrected her and told her that I was his fiancé.
I still remember every word they said that night at the dinner table.
‘What happened to the other girl? I liked her. She was a good girl from a well-to-do family; the father was a doctor, and the mother was a lawyer. High-standing family. Why didn’t you stay with her?’
‘It didn’t work out, Mom, I told you that.’
‘And you think this one will work out?’
‘Mother, I promise, I’ll be okay.’
‘Oh, honey, what did I do wrong? Are you trying to make a statement or something?’
‘No, it’s not that!’
‘What’s this one’s name again?’
‘She’s right here, you can ask her yourself.’
I was so timid back then. I squeaked out my name, ‘Darling.’
‘Darling? Well, Darling, you know how to cook normal breakfast food? You know, like pancakes and eggs? Scrambled or sunny-side; and make toast—French and regular-style?’
‘Yes, I know how to cook.’
‘Good,’ was all she said.
We got married. Connie and I. The wedding was a small affair at the chapel—no fanfare or parade, just simple yet elegant. After that, my daughters and I moved in with Connie and his mother up in Doss County in their mansion on the hill. Connie and I had plans to live out of state, but Gina insisted we move in with her, claiming that an old lady like her shouldn’t be left to live alone without family.
I was convinced there were souls trapped inside the walls. All night they cried, like a starving colony of God’s abandoned souls, wailing at the bottom of Hell. Connor laughed when I asked him if he knew the house was haunted. He assured me it wasn’t. I said I heard someone crying; I knew it wasn’t me, him, or his mother. It was someone else. He went quiet. The air clenched up like a fist. But he never gave an explanation.
And I had this unshakeable feeling that someone was watching us in the bedroom, like we were ants in a terrarium. I swore the eyes on his mother’s portrait moved. I felt a presence behind that painting.
I hated that house. I didn’t care if it was the biggest, nicest house in San Judas; that place was not a home to me. Connie was gone most days, from early morning to late evening. He worked a lot, as he was in charge of the family business. So, I was always left in that house with the old bitch.
Gina pecked at me like an annoying bird for every little thing I did or couldn’t do right. I did as I was told, and I cooked what she wanted me to cook. I tried my best to please her! But people like that only raise their expectations higher and higher, and just when you think you’ve got it right, they always find some new thing to shit on you for. Like the beddings, for example. I bought new ones for the house before we moved in. I got them from the nicest store I could find in that town. The pillow covers were ivory white, with a gold medallion square stitched in the centre. Brand new pillows and everything.
And did you know what she said?
She said she didn’t like the way the pillows smelled.
I told her they were brand new and that they were just for her.
But she was so sceptical, pointing at me and asking, ‘Did you wash them?’
‘Yes, ma’am, I washed them.’
She sniffed the pillows again and shook her head. ‘Still smells like Chinese,’ she said,
‘And the duvet...” she sniffed it, too, and told me that it stank to high heaven. “No homeless person would want to sleep with that!” She crowed at me.
‘Don’t you smell it?’ she asked.
I told myself, keep calm, keep calm, justice takes its time, but it’ll come.
All I could do then was nod and say, ‘Okay, I’ll wash them again, Gina.’
‘Thank you,’ she said, ‘You’re such a dearie.’
Cabrera dabs his sweaty forehead with a napkin and undoes the top button of his shirt. The collar feels like it has tightened around his neck. Something has shifted in their surroundings. The room seems bigger. And the light above them hurts his eyes, suddenly feeling brighter and oppressively hotter.
A fly hovers above his last piece of cinnamon bun and lands on the edge of the plate. It rubs its front legs together, licks its thin lips, and buzzes. This disturbs Cabrera. He can hear its thoughts. It likes the scent of the cinnamon and the buttercream, and though it is tempted to go in for a taste, the fly refuses to touch the half-eaten bun. I can’t believe you ate half of it! Oh, boy, you’re done for!
Cabrera slides off the chair to his knees and meets the strange insect at eye level.
“You can’t smell that?”
The fly draws closer to a crumb and takes a sniff, careful not to touch it.
Ah, it’s so wonderful and tempting! The scent of cinnamon gives you that lovely feeling! Like coming home to a warm house after a long day of scavenging garbage. And the buttercream... like the creamy texture of decomposing flesh. But it is tainted.
“Tainted? As in poison?”
Poison? Oh, no, no. She wants to play with you first. Dangle you upside down, like a cat suspending a mouse by its tail.
“If it’s not poison, then what did she put into it?”
It’s kind of like a seasoning for creatures like her. It’s tasteless and odourless for humans. It doesn’t really affect you. Perhaps it is a good thing, in a way, as it calms your nerves before you die.
The fly glides over to his shoulder and scoots close to his ear. Its shrill yet soothing voice, consoles him: Oh, don’t worry about the pain, you’ll hardly feel it.
Cabrera smacks himself across the face.
“Is everything alright, Detective?” asks Darling, a hint of amusement perking up her voice.
“I’m alright, everything’s good.”
His shaky words reverberate throughout the room. They echo in his ears. He straightens up in his seat and stares into her deep, brown eyes. He notices a strange gleam in them, like flecks of sparkling gold. Their lurking malice fills the seasoned detective with a spiralling, sea-sick wave of foreboding.
“Would you like some water, Detective?”
“Are you sure? You look a little pale.”
“Okay, maybe, I’ll have some water.”
“Sure thing! You stay right there. I’ll go fetch you a glass.”
Darling leaves swiftly before returning a moment later with a glass of water. A cold droplet slides down the glass as it lands gently on the table. The fly darts to the bubble, sips at it, bathes in its moisture, and dies in it. She flattens the winged creature with a flyswatter.
“Your partner is taking a while in the bathroom. Perhaps I should check on her and make sure she’s alright.”
Cabrera clears his throat.
“No, she’ll be fine. Please continue with your story.”
Darling’s face disappears, and what remains is a broad grin, baring a row of perfectly straight, white teeth.
The Lord had truly favoured us in the second year of our marriage. After weeks of waiting for a sign, and enduring the bitch’s incessant demands for a grandchild, I was blessed with a pregnancy. Connie, overjoyed by the news, celebrated the occasion with a party. We invited Robbie, his wife, Ethel, and their three-year-old daughter, with nanny in tow. And don’t forget Robbie’s colleagues, as well as his side mistress. Glasses of champagne were passed around—not to me, of course—and we toasted to our little miracle. The bitch, much to Robbie’s dismay, lifted her glass and made it known aloud that it’d be a boy, the one to carry on the family legacy. The long-awaited heir to the family’s chain-restaurant throne.
For once, a true warmth, the kind you feel in a loving home, flooded through the halls of the Jacobs house. Even the old bitch acted motherly towards me, insisting I didn’t stand on my feet too long.
‘Rest, my dear,’ she’d say, before fixing me up a drink, which she called a ‘prenatal mimosa’.
‘Non-alcoholic, of course,’ she claimed. And she’d take my little girls out to the park so I could lie back in the chaise, with my special mimosa under the tree shades in the solarium.
Those six months were a blessing; the only good months.
I painted the nursery walls yellow.
Bright, cheerful. Yellow, the symbol of happiness.
And the soft carpet floor, white.
But then, something warm trickled from between my legs. A trail of red droplets followed me. The child died inside me.
I went down a dark bottomless pit, falling forever.
Down... down... a dark... bottom... less
I never repainted the nursery. We kept the crib, the diaper station, the closet, the bassinette, and the rocking chair. Sometimes I fell asleep in the rocking chair, alone. I slept a lot. Hours turned to days, then days to weeks. Oh, God, my memory of those months, I think, is a haze. Like a thick fog.
I heard them again—the ghosts inside the walls. I heard them in every room. And in the middle of the night, I lied in bed, listening to those weak, desperate pleas for help.
Let me out... let me out... let. Me! OUT!
The voice sent an icy, torturous vibration down my spine.
I woke up Connie.
‘Do you hear the voices?’
Connie grumbled. He was agitated I had woken him up. ‘What voices?’ he asked, sharply.
‘The voices! Voices! They’re in the walls! They’re everywhere! They’re in this house!’
But he didn’t hear anything. ‘Go back to sleep,’ he said.
I couldn’t sleep. They cried all night. How could anyone sleep through that?’
Connie was knocked out cold, but I stayed up alone.
Then, at dinner, I asked again. ‘You really can’t hear the voices?’
Oh, boy, Connie didn’t want to hear about me and my ‘voices’ again. He slammed down his fork and spoon, the table jumped. ‘Not again, Darling!’ he yelled, ‘there are no voices in the walls!’
Old bitch Gina tried to feign concern. ‘Voices, dear?’ she said, ‘You just lost a baby; I hope to God you’re not losing your mind, too.’ Then, of course, she turned to Connie and started to talk about a girl he used to date before he met me. How she got married the same time Connie and I did, and how they had a son with her handsome, state senator husband.
Gina said, ‘Imagine that... what if you’d been the one to marry her, I’d be holding a grandson.’
But I wasn’t losing my mind! I got up, ready to throw the damn butter knife at her. I said, ‘I’m telling you that there’s something wrong with this house!’
Their eyes shut. Their mouths zipped. And their ears covered.
I had had enough! So, I traced the voices from the sitting room, pressed my ears to the wall, and followed them up to the second floor. They grew stronger as I passed the bedrooms and followed them down the hall to a dead end. It felt odd that the voices were the loudest in that part of the house. Then an idea came to me: this was a false wall.
I did what anyone would have done in my situation.
And what do you do? You get a hammer—a sledgehammer, it does more damage—and you break down that fucking wall until you find the voices. Logical, right?
I broke it down. I smashed it to pieces. And guess what! I knew it, oh, I knew it all along! Behind the wall was a staircase that led up to a single door. And behind that door was a dark room, almost pitch black, save for the little round window on the roof. It had a horrific stench that hung in the air. It knocked the breath out of me. I can still smell it now. Like a neglected and lonely animal, living in its own waste. And indeed, there was something else living in the room, too.
Have you ever seen a mummy without its wrapping? It was lying on a cot in the corner.
My heart jumped straight up to my throat. I thought I would die from fright on the spot. The thing was a shadow of what it used to be: a human being.
That was the day I discovered where Blanche Jacobs had gone, for all of these years. The one who ‘ran away’, or so they claimed. The one who had brought shame to the family by getting pregnant out-of-wedlock. The one whose cries haunted that mansion’s walls.
Blanche didn’t run away. She’d never even left the house. The family had locked her up in the dark attic room. And I saw her, lying in her own filth, staring back at me with her gaping mouth; a deep, black, toothless hole. The life inside her dried eye sockets had long passed.
Then there was a sudden commotion downstairs. Furious voices came up closer and closer towards me.
‘What the fuck did you do, Darling?’ Connie shouted. I could hear his mother in the background, demanding that he’d make sure I couldn’t leave the house and report them to the police.
Like I’ve said, love never turns out how they show it in those romance books. My dearest Connie, who I thought had cared about me more than himself and his mother, shut the door and locked me in.
At first, I thought that I was going to wither away and die in this dark, lonely room. Just like the poor, ‘missing’ Jacobs daughter.
But the darkness didn’t last for very long. A hot, radiant light enveloped me. And I felt all the bitterness and wrath and clamour and malice swell up inside of me.
I wasn’t alone.
Momma had woken up.
Cabrera rises up from the chair.
“I should check on my partner; see if she’s alright.”
“I’m sure she’s fine, Detective; she hasn’t been gone for that long.”
“Yes, but please excuse me, I need to use the bathroom, anyway.”
“There’s one upstairs at the end of the hall but try not to make too much noise. My husband is sleeping and he needs his rest. He doesn’t like it when he’s disturbed.”
“I’ll be careful, Mrs. Ross. Thank you.”
He stumbles over the chair, but quickly catches himself against the wall.
Darling starts to get up from her seat. “I can show you the way—”
He straightens up. “No, thank you, Mrs. Ross, I’m sure I can find the way.”
Stepping out of the dining room, Cabrera trips over his own feet, staggering back, and falls to the floor. He scrambles back up. Something is different. He can’t put a finger to it. The warm and cosy atmosphere that greeted them has abandoned the Ross house. Everything seems off.
“Elise!” he calls out.
As he lurches into the main hallway, all is alien and labyrinthine. He doesn’t remember the seemingly endless series of twists and turns, all with doors leading to dead ends. What puzzles him the most is how exhaustingly and near eternally long the hallway is. As he stumbles towards the end, it appears to stretch on, longer and longer. Sweat drips from Cabrera’s brow as his breathing quickens. He stops and turns down a narrow corner to his left, only to find himself back at the dining room’s entrance.
Elise... Elise... Elise
The walls speak.
Who’s there? Who’s there?
The walls giggle.
Hey, bub, are you lost?
He glances left and right, but finds no one.
Over here, bub, on the wall!
He looks up and finds a tiny fly on the wall. It zooms over to his shoulder and hops closer to his ear.
What are you looking for? I can help.
“Why do you want to help me?”
Because you look lost.
“What is this place? What’s happening?”
You’re in an aswang’s mind trap. But don’t worry, it’s not impossible to get out! You must, I repeat, you MUST hold onto your sanity!
“It’s probably too late for that; I’m talking to a fly.”
Yes, true, but I’m your only hope for survival.
“I need to get out.”
Come on, follow me. I’ll go slow; keep your eyes on me, bub!
The fly leads the way at an arm’s length ahead of him. They pass by a procession of bedroom doors. One after another; to the point of nausea. Cabrera eyes each one in a haze of confusion, swearing that he doesn’t remember any of them from when they first set in for the interrogation.
Letting curiosity get the best of him, he opens one and peeks inside. Within seconds, his stomach churns. Ten-foot-long centipedes with bodies as thick as the arms of grown men, hang on the wall like a tapestry. Darling’s story of Centi-Clara echoes in his thoughts. The story twists his guts. As their gluttonous bodies cling to the wall, he is unsettled by the image of long, fat insects crawling out of a cherubic little girl’s mouth and landing with a loud thwap! on the floor. It hits him like an axe to the throat.
Insect causes havoc at San Judas High!
No, no, not insects. Predatory arthropods.
Insects. Arthropods. It doesn’t matter. These things on the wall look too real. Almost alive!
“No. They’re fake!” He chuckles loudly to himself. Cabrera then breathes a deep, loud sigh of relief as he observes their shiny exterior, reflecting light like polished mahogany wood. Now he bellows with laughter. It echoes through the room.
He reaches out and touches the smooth back of the arthropod. It wriggles in agitation, shaking off decades of sleep.
You shouldn’t touch anything in this house! Everything here is cursed!
The fly lands on his cheek and slaps him. It registers as nothing more than a mild itch.
Now you’ve done it!
The once dormant centipede crawls over to its brethren and prods them from their slumber with a shrill signal. They begin to stir slowly. Their antennae writhe around, scanning their surroundings before finally pointing towards Cabrera.
Oh, fuck, step back, slow... slow...
“They’re harmless, right?”
These insects can eat your face off.
“They’re not insects; they’re...”
Who gives a shit about that right now? Or do you want your last living moment to be a giant centipede eating your face?
“No, I would very much like to keep my face.”
Then, you might want to back the fuck up, bub!
I said run, chubs! Run!
He bolts out of the room, slamming the door shut. Sweat drenches his face as he runs down the hallway. His heartbeat rings through his ears. The centipedes clatter behind him, their hundreds of dagger-like legs crawling along the floor. He fights the urge to look back.
That door! That door!
The fly points to a door at the end of the hallway. Cabrera lunges towards the door and wrenches it open. With every ounce of strength in his faltering body he slams it shut, using his weight as a barricade. As he slides down to the floor he caresses his fragile head in his hands, feeling hundreds of insectile claws scratching at the other side. Deafening, agonized voices screech at him to let them in.
“I don’t know what’s happening,” he starts to cry, “Why’s this happening?”
Because you ate her cinnamon buns, bub. You ate a lot of it. Now, you’re fucked.
“I have to find Elise. We’ll get out of here. There’s a way; there has to be.”
He picks himself up and wipes the sweat off his forehead with his handkerchief. Cabrera looks ahead, and gasps. Right in front of him, like a slap to the face, is the dining room. Darling sits at the long table, pouring herself another cup of tea.
She sets down the kettle, raises her cup, and blows on the steam.
Cabrera slips a hand into his jacket and pulls out the 99mm pistol from its holster. He flicks the safety off and points the weapon at the old woman.
Darling shakes her head. “I wouldn’t do that, Detective.”
“You poisoned me.”
“Poisoned? I did no such thing, Detective.”
“Are you a witch, Mrs. Ross? What you do to my partner and I?” He screams, his voice shaking.
“Please, calm down and put that gun away before you kill me, or yourself.”
“No! What the fuck did you DO?”
“Please sit down.” Darling responds with an icy calm. “You’re such a good listener. I’ve been dying for someone to listen to me.”
He pulls the trigger.
Not a bullet fired. As useless as an empty cap gun.
He pulls again. Still nothing.
He checks the gun’s chambers. Every single one is loaded. His lips quiver, and as he looks up, he finds himself lost inside Darling’s pitch-black gaze. All resistance bends to her will as he is lured in, deeper and deeper and deeper. Every muscle in his body limps and slackens. His firm grip around the pistol loosens, and it drops like dead weight on to the table. He screams from within, but his mouth ceases all motion. Cabrera falls back against the wall and shrinks down to the floor like a frightened, shivering hamster. Then, with vile serenity, Darling’s cold, looming shadow sips the warmth from his body.
I watched the old bitch die. My husband, too. Both needed to know they couldn’t treat me that way; they needed to know that I had enough. I saw their deaths through Momma’s eyes. Her eyes were everywhere, watching every little thing those little rats said taking account of every single thing they did.
Do you think I’m cruel, Detective? I am not a hateful woman. People made me this way. Clara. My dead ex-husbands. Old bitch Gina and her bastard sons. Oh, her especially. She was eviler than the Devil himself.
She had made it quite clear she despised me and hated the thought that my blood—inferior in her eyes—would mix with hers. You see, it was she who killed the baby inside me. And she... tortured my two little girls. While I was imprisoned in the family’s secret cell, she forced them into servitude. They clipped her toenails and were forced to eat them if they so much as protested. And she starved them. They went on for days without food except for the nails she’d forced them to chew on. One day, she felt ‘generous’. She fed them pastries baked with chocolate, cinnamon, and a healthy dose of thallium sulphate. As my girls foamed at the mouth and choked on their vomit, the old bitch sat back and enjoyed a vanilla ice cream. And my dearest Connie did nothing to save them. Like a good, dutiful son he followed his mother’s orders to bury them in the garden.
Momma’s anger grew. I could hear Connie and his mother chat with party guests, laughing away in the dining room without a care in the world. Like nothing had changed. It was so easy for them to forget about me, and my little girls. Just as they had forgotten about Blanche. So, there I sat, trapped inside those walls. Condemned to a lonely grave, with a corpse as my only friend.
Momma could’ve slaughtered them, right there and then in the dining room. But no, no, no! I didn’t want her to chomp off their heads or eat their guts and lick their bones clean. I wanted them to feel a slow, painful burn that’d eat them inside out. Right until the moment that they exploded, I wanted them to feel everything.
They would taste Momma’s magic. And I would be the fly on the wall to witness it.
Connie was the first to go. It started off as a cold. He called in sick at work when a fever broke. He was experiencing intense pain in his stomach. Incredible pain that left him bedridden. His abdomen swelled up like a purple air balloon. His hag of a mother found him cold, dead, and bloated as a beached whale. Then, in anguish over the death of her first-born son, she threw herself onto him with arms around his swollen gut. But the pressure caused this huge explosion, showering beetles and cockroaches everywhere as the bitch flew to the wall.
She was next. Like Connie, she developed a fever and pain all over her body. She thought a glass of wine and a warm bath would soothe her.
After days of trying to reach her, Robbie drove up and found her in the bathtub with a glass of red wine in her hand. She’d been in the water for so long, some of the skin had stuck to the tub. And, when he tried to pull her out, her bloated and bruised corpse erupted inside the tub. Nothing left but her fingers on the tile floor, and the cockroaches that had filled up her gut.
I was saved. Momma had freed me.
A curious light twinkles in Darling’s eyes; a meeting of glee and thinly veiled contempt. It is a look Cabrera is all too familiar with, after countless hours spent in interrogation rooms. The spark. There is a certain glimmer in a killer’s eyes as they recall the most intimate details of their crimes. He once likened it to an old chef passing on a long-cherished secret recipe.
Darling sat at the dining room table, glowing in the spotlight that she had craved for so many years. At last, what sat before her was a willing audience for her story.
Darling sips on her chai green and slams it back on the table. Tea splashes over the rim, dribbles along its side, and pools around the glass.
A fly lands on the droplet.
Darling strikes it hard with the palm of her hand. It flails and stumbles in the air, wings fluttering erratically. After a short, agonizing struggle it collapses on the table. Its twiggy black legs twitch and twist before it stops, lifeless.
She plucks it off the surface and eats it, grinning from ear to ear with rows upon rows of sharp, jagged teeth.
Cabrera gulps as he sees his own reflection, hanging upside down in her bright, red eyes.
The Ross house appears to be perfectly orderly. So, it surprises Alvaro—or, rather, disgusts her—when three brown cockroaches clamber out of a sink hole in the first-floor bathroom. Such pests are, of course, common in houses. They are not, however, common in the affluent community of San Julian.
She dries her wet hands with a towel. Upon closer inspection, she discovers maggots writhing in the cloth. With utter disgust she throws it down and clasps her hands together, rubbing them furiously. In hopes of scalding that creeping sensation off of her skin, she rinses them again in hot water. Alvaro rushes out the bathroom door and slams it shut behind her. She leans against it and slides down to the floor, checking the front and back of her hands. They’re clean. And yet she still feels the maggots on her skin.
This has been one of the most exhausting days of her career. All she wants is to march back into the dining room, drag Jorge away kicking and screaming, and run from this god-forsaken house as soon as humanly possible.
“Jorge?” The voice is faint, distant, but unrecognizably his. She follows, but no one dwells in the hallway. All is still and silent. Then she notices something in the corner of her sight. A single door, slowly creaking open on its own.
The hollow voice echoes from behind the door, crying for help from some cavernous void.
Alvaro peers into the room and finds no sign of her partner. A dizzying apprehension fills her stomach. Every single item in the room—the bookshelves that line the wall, the glass corner hutches, and each and every antique trinket that sits upon them—seems to watch her every move. Sitting perfectly still, silently mocking her. Something writhes above. In exasperation, she draws her gun and points it towards the direction of the movement. Her jaw drops. Long, ravenous, centipedes squirm among the shelves.
Her stomach churns as the details of Mrs. Ross’s story flood through her mind. A ridiculous fantasy, all of it. She reminds herself of its impossibility, repeating over and over like a soothing mantra. The silence is torn by the dancing claws of the centipedes, clattering away as they descend the bookshelves.
Alvaro shakes her head with eyes closed. They’re not real.
When she opens them, the centipedes remain intact on the wall.
Hallucinations. Just a hallucination.
She jumps at the shrill whine of the black corded phone on the desk beside her. It is joined by its friend in the dining room, disharmoniously screeching into her ears in unison. Ring after ring after ring, yet no one answers. Unable to bear it any longer, she swipes the phone from its hook. “Who is this?”
“You’re asking me?” the man raises his voice, bellowing in frustration. “I should be asking you! Who am I speaking to?”
“Elise Alvaro, criminal investigator. Now who’s this?”
“Criminal investigator? Did something happen to my dad?” the caller begs, his breathing rushed and shallow. “I’m Joseph Ross’s son, Dan.”
“No, we’re not here about your father; it’s your mother.”
“She’s not my mother! I’ve been trying to reach my dad for days, but she won’t let me talk to him.”
“According to Mrs. Ross, your father’s upstairs in bed.”
“Maybe you can get me on the phone with him, Detective; that old witch won’t let me.”
“I see. That is very strange. I am sorry.”
“Yeah, well, things have been rather strange lately.”
“And what kind of strange things have you noticed?”
“The last time I spoke with my dad was about two weeks ago. He told me that he wasn’t feeling well—maybe it was the flu or something.”
That churning sensation in her stomach reaches a fever pitch. She senses what’s to come. Nonetheless, she presses on for more details.
“Did he tell you what symptoms he had?”
“He said he was feverish. He felt a lot of pain in his stomach; there was some swelling.”
Her fingers whiten as they clutch the phone in a death grip. The symptoms perfectly match those of the previous victims. She flashes back to the bloated, insect-eaten bodies of Darling Ross’s past husbands, and suspects that Joseph Ross might have met the same end. “I’ll check on your father and call you right back,” she promises the desperate son.
“Thank you very much! Could you, please?” He lets out a loud sigh of relief that breaks her heart.
“Yeah, I’ll help. Give me your number—wait a second.”
Alvaro sorts through the cluttered desk in search of a pen and paper and pauses abruptly. Her eyes widen as she sees a love letter, neatly written by Mrs. Ross and addressed to a man named Earl. Through kind and enticing words, Darling outlines her plan to leave Mr. Ross. It is not the only one; she finds at least thirty in a pile. Some are addressed to different men.
Looks like Mrs. Ross has found her newest husbands. New victims, with new bank accounts to suck dry.
She quickly jots down Dan’s number on a notepad and hangs up. Bracing herself for the worst, she takes a deep breath and climbs up the stairs. A thick, pungent odour thickens in the air as she ascends the staircase. Alvaro winces and shields her mouth and nose, trying not to throw up into her hand. After ten years in the force, she can handle a gruesome spectacle. Through desensitization and routine, she’s developed an iron lining in her stomach.
Nothing, however, can prepare her for the sight of Joseph Ross’s corpse. Maggots pour from his mouth like rice boiling out of a pot. A swarm of flies encircle his lifeless body, as though they are a congregation taking communion. One by one, the buttons on his pyjamas pop off. His swollen belly continues to expand with its skin thinning to the texture of paper. As his outer flesh shrivels and stretches to the breaking point, one single fly lands atop his belly button. Then his stomach ruptures completely. Alvaro raises her arms over her head as cockroaches and beetles rain down upon her. She stumbles out of the room and bolts towards the staircase. In a frenzy she tries to slap them off her arms, legs, neck, and hair. They dig and claw at every inch of her body, crawling under her shirt and up her pant legs.
The flies buzz around her.
You should run! Run! Momma’s coming!
She swats them away from her face and runs in to the dining room. She scans the room, but Cabrera and Mrs. Ross are gone. His smartphone lies abandoned on the table. The chair that Cabrera had sat on as he lovingly munched away at cinnamon buns lies overturned in the empty room. The only sign of his presence is a trail of blood leading up to the wall. Sharp, piercing dejection overcomes Alvaro as the inevitable hits her. Dead. Her partner is dead.
She picks up Cabrera’s phone and pockets it. “Jorge! Mrs. Ross!” No response but the shrill ringing of the corded phone on the wall. She picks it up.
“Did you see my dad? Is he okay?” Dan asks.
“I’m sorry, but your father...”
“I knew it,” his voice cracks, “Momma got to him.”
“Momma? You mean, Mrs. Ross. I thought you said she wasn’t your mother.”
“No, she isn’t my mother... she’s my Momma,” The voice morphs into something nameless and inhuman. The last word rings out in a low, croaking growl. The caller chuckles, “Momma’s going to get you, Elise, and I bet you taste good, too.” A thick, snaking tongue seeps out through the speaker, sliding across her cheek.
Alvaro throws the phone away in revulsion.
You’d taste sweeter if you had more of Momma’s buns.
The phone dangles left to right on its cord.
I’m going to make you mine!
The viscous lump of flesh squirms towards her and splits down the middle into two wetter and fatter counterparts. One whips itself around her ankle while the other ensnares her neck. She collapses to the floor, kicking to free herself from its slimy, repulsive grip. With both hands, she clasps and pulls at the tongue that wraps around her neck. With every desperate attempt to wrench it from her neck, its grip only strengthens; tightening, and slowly squeezing every breath of air from her windpipe.
Near the point of blacking out, and despite an enveloping powerlessness, she spots something shiny on the floor in the far-left corner.
With all the remaining strength she can muster, Alvaro makes a grab for it and plunges the fork into the centre of the tongue. She sucks in a lungful of air as it releases her. The tongue creature slithers, writhing away in pain with the fork stuck in its side. She pulls out her gun, aims carefully, and shoots. The bullet strikes the twisting monstrosity that constricts her ankle.
It recoils. A ghastly, hideous shriek fills the room. Blood sputters out from the phone like a malfunctioning water fountain.
Alvaro runs out the door, not daring to look back.
She limps toward the car, her ankle throbbing with each step. Yet she grits her teeth and fights through the pain. Escape is the only thing that matters, with or without her partner.
She gets into the car and calls for back up before the engine roars into gear.
“I’ll come back, Jorge! I swear.”
Her heart pounds as she ponders Cabrera’s fate in the Ross house. She pulls out of the driveway and slams on the gas, speeding off into the pitch black of the night. The car’s headlights barely light the dirt road in front of her.
Darkness surrounds her from all directions. Alvaro flails blindly until she spots a sole speck of light in the distance. In desperation she chases it. As it grows nearer, that sick, dizzying feeling returns to her stomach. Towering in front of her, with its light shining like scalding flames, is the Ross house.
“No, no, no!” she gasps, setting the car in reverse and taking off again. Minutes pass at the speed of hours as she drives aimlessly down the road, in what feels like a ceaseless, torturous loop. She passes another house and pulls up to the drive away. Her stomach drops when she sees the Ross house, yet again.
“Fuck!” she screams and steps on the gas.
She lets out a thin sigh of reprieve as it shrinks away in the rear-view mirror. That relief is short-lived, however, as the car crawls to a slug’s pace. The engine lets out a hoarse roar, like laboured breathing. Then it sputters before finally dying, taking the battery with it. The car’s headlights black out, leaving her completely blind to that which surrounds her.
With her bloodstained fingers, she grabs Cabrera’s phone and clumsily looks for its flashlight. Instead, she recoils as Darling Ross’ interview resounds through the speakers of Cabrera’s phone.
It stuns her with its volume. The file is crystal clear that it’s almost as if she can feel her presence, sitting right beside her in the passenger seat. Right where Cabrera would have sat.
Robbie deserved what he got for being a thorn in my side. There’s something I didn’t tell you before. Somehow, he found my home number, and he would call me up and make threats.
He’d say, ‘I’m gonna get you for what you did.’
‘I didn’t do any wrong,’ I’d say to him, ‘I didn’t kill your mom or your brother.’
He didn’t believe me of course. I mean, I guess, he wasn’t completely wrong.
But something had to be done. He needed to shut up.
Alvaro finds the flashlight app and gets out of the car, scanning her surroundings with shaking hands. There is nothing. Nothing at all but the long stretch of dirt road ahead and the tall, gangly trees around her. Or does she see a faraway light? Small and rectangular, like one of those large adobe houses along the landscape.
Robbie wasn’t a good human being, much less a good husband. Oh, poor Ethel. Poor, dumb Ethel. She just had no idea. He’d have a thing going on with younger women working under him. Secretaries, assistants, and interns. Even the nanny... Ethel caught them once right beside their daughter’s crib.
A shadow runs past the spotlight, giggling. Then another. Footsteps run across the car roof. Startled, the phone slips from her hand. Panting and hyperventilating, she pulls out the gun from her holster. The giggling swirls around her as hands bang on the windows, leaving the frosty imprints of children. Panic seizes her. There is no one to shoot. She holds onto the grip handle as the car starts to rock from side to side, growing more violent.
My little girls won’t hurt you. They just like to have fun. They just need someone to play with. It can get lonely for them here.
The rocking stops so abruptly it heaves Alvaro forward. Her head cracks the front window. Fighting off unconsciousness, she fumbles for the phone with one hand to the floor, reaching under the passenger seat. With a searing agony convulsing through her skull, she picks herself up, only to see two little girls squatting on the hood of the car. White, glowing eyes peer through long strands of black hair. They cock their heads to the side and giggle, but their pale, blue lips do not smile.
Where were we? Ah, yes, Robbie. A man with no self-respect, living in sin against his own body, and with any woman he could find. He just couldn’t keep his—pardon my language—pathetic dick in his pants. He’d take them out for dinner and a rendezvous at a swanky hotel. On his final night, he took some pretty, young number to the Gold Lion Hotel—the fanciest, ritziest spot in the city. They had a nice restaurant inside. Oh, my, Robbie ate well. Prime beef topped with 24-karat gold flakes and a side of portabella mushroom and caviar. And the sinful lovers downed their meal with a ‘chateau de vin rouge.’
After dinner, Robbie went up to his hotel room. Drunk and as horny as a dog in heat. I was the fly on the wall. I watched them undress as they sucked each other’s faces.
Instinctively, Alvaro points the gun at them. Her finger on the trigger.
The girls giggle and disappear like wisps of smoke blowing away in the wind.
“Oh, fuck,” Alvaro breathes. She leans forward, peering into the darkness before her, waiting for them to return.
Out of the dark, long strands of black hair shoot towards her, wrapping itself around the car, and pulling it forward. Without hesitation, Alvaro sets the car in reverse and slams on the gas. The tires squeal like screeching pigs. To her horror, hair slithers through the cracks of the front window and whips around her neck, cruelly squeezing as she gasps for air. With her foot desperately pounding the gas pedal, she rips it away and gasps. She wiggles herself free and crawls out of the car, stumbling onto the ground.
Alvaro scrambles to her feet and runs, adrenaline coursing through her veins. The phone barely lights the path ahead of her.
Momma paid him a quick visit.
Robbie believed he was a real sex machine. And he thought that his cock was God’s gift to women!
I’m reminded of a passage I once read: there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.
So, when Robbie reached the summit of all pleasures...
Alvaro stops and falls to her knees, breathless. Tears flow down her cheeks. Hope seems as distant as the glowing, rectangular light on the horizon. She doesn’t want to fight it anymore. Whatever ‘it’ is. This is her fate. Darkness swallows her whole as the phone’s light drowns out.
Well, Momma made him cum maggots.
The words resound through the desolate valley, as Alvaro gazes at her own aghast reflection, inverted in the red abyss of Momma’s gaze.
Sunrise has always been Darling’s favourite part of the day. An occasion so calm that she prefers to enjoy its tranquillity in solitude, without interruption. It has always been a morning ritual, her special moment to herself. Once upon a time, in the earlier days of their seven years of marriage, Joe blessed her by waking up too. But that could only last for so long. To her dismay, this peaceful morning routine soon gave way to incessant demands for her to cook his breakfast.
“I’m awake and starving, honey,” he’d say, “Aren’t you going to start cooking yet?”
“How about another minute, dear,” she’d say, “I just want to admire the view a little longer.”
“The sun rises, the sun sets, there’s nothing new to admire!”
After endless badgering, she begrudgingly tore herself away from the window and started on his breakfast.
But not this time.
Now, until she unites with her new beau—his name she has forgotten—she will have her mornings to herself.
She fixes herself a cup of tea in the kitchen and heads to the dining room, where she is greeted by a revolting, bloody mess. The daunting task of cleaning is too much to deal with right now.
“Later,” she mutters to herself.
She finishes off the last piece of cinnamon bun that one of the detectives had left last night. It certainly is one of the best she has ever made. Perhaps, even, the best. And the bitter garnish of the detective’s blood, drizzled lightly over the buttercream spread makes it all the more delectable.
She sips her chai green as light from the morning sun spills into the kitchen. A peal of her daughters’ laughter uplifts her spirit. Two tender young apparitions dance around the detectives’ car.
The beauty of these vibrant green hills, decorated with other white adobe houses that sparkle like pearls, never grows tiresome. It always takes her breath away.