From the anthology INHERITANCE: THE BLACK SHEEP

Normal People

by Lauren A. Forry

 

The tires skidded over the gravel as Sam pulled over to the side of the highway, underneath the sign for Clarks Summit. Her old green Geo Tracker stopped with a lurch, sending three plastic Wawa bags filled with candy to the floor. She reached for the bags and dug through them for the last Milky Way Midnight. A tractor trailer barreled past, shaking the Tracker as she settled back in her seat. She used her teeth to open the wrapper and bit right into the dark chocolate and nougat. Another car, a black SUV, zoomed past going 80-85mph. Sam watched it disappear as she rolled the chocolate over her tongue, letting it dissolve in her mouth before swallowing. Her eyes remained on the road long after the SUV disappeared.

            The exit for Rickets Walk waited ten miles up the road. She took another bite and told herself she could keep driving north, head into New York or, hell, even Canada. Or she could turn around, head back to the Northeast Extension, and take 476 all the way to Conshohocken. That’s what she’d done the day of the funeral, except that day she only got as far as the Lehigh Valley service plaza before accidentally-on-purpose getting back on the turnpike in the wrong direction. Another tractor trailer lumbered by, this one struggling with the hill. Its exhaust drifted through her half-open window, ruining her next bite. The candy bar now almost gone, she’d soon need to make up her mind. Turning around had been easier when she’d still been sixty miles away and had something to return to. This close and now without her job, it was harder, like there was a magnet in her chest dragging her home against her will, telling her this was where she belonged now that she failed every place else.

            Sam shoved the rest of the Milky Way in her mouth then leaned across the gear box and flicked open the glove compartment. Several Milky Way Midnight wrappers drifted to the floor. She ignored them and shoved the latest wrapper in with the others that remained, tucking it behind the emergency flashlight so it would stay in place. As she shut the glove compartment, her phone, hidden under the papers from Grimshaw and Associates, rang.

            Carlos – Work, read the caller ID. Unless he was calling to apologize, she wouldn’t answer. To Sam, voicemail was the third greatest invention in the world, right after candy bars and light switches. She could hear what people had to say to her without needing to respond. They could yell all they wanted to, and it wouldn’t matter.

            Her phone beeped. Carlos’s voicemail was two minutes thirty-seven seconds. She could listen to it later and have a good laugh once Mr. Plimpton rehired her. Sam pulled a pack of Reese’s from one of the plastic bags and decided she would get off at the next exit and turn back. The sooner she spoke with Mr. Plimpton the better. Those on the mountain above Rickets Walk didn’t need her. Leave those outside to their fate, and they shall leave us to ours – the oath rang clear in her head. She shoved the Grimshaw letter in her army surplus messenger bag and started to put the Tracker in gear when she saw the state trooper’s car in her rearview. She’d not even heard him pull up behind her. She hid the peanut butter cups under her bag as the Milky Way soured in her stomach. Upon his arrival, she rolled down the window.

            “Morning, miss.” He tipped his wide-brimmed hat. “Car trouble?”

            “No. Sorry. Important call.” She held up the phone. “Didn’t want to talk and drive at the same time, you know. I would’ve put my flashers on except the button’s broken.” She shrugged her shoulders and tried a flirtatious laugh. She burped instead. The trooper continued to stare, trying to place her. She needed to leave before he did. “Anything else I can do for you, sir?”

            He lowered his sunglasses. “You look really familiar.”

            “Do I?” Samantha smiled but looked straight ahead.

            “License.”

            “What for?”

            He waited silently. Sam pulled out her wallet and avoided eye contact as she handed over her ID. His scrutiny weighed upon her as she waited for it back. He whistled then leaned on her car door.

            “What are you doing back here?” he asked.

            “You’ve seen the news then you should know.”

            “They call you to tell you he died or could you feel it in your soul?” The mockery dripped from his lips.

            “May I have my license back, please?”

            He twirled it in his fingers. “I’ve seen them a few times, when I was a kid. My brothers and I used to sneak up there. Watch them through the fence. Better than the zoo. Is it true you recycle your own urine and shit for food?”

            Sam refused to respond.

            He glanced again at her license. “You don’t look like them. Not as much. All you’d have to do is change your name and nobody would know the sort of freaks you come from.” He handed back the license. Samantha rubbed her tongue across her teeth, licking off the remnants of chocolate. “Enjoy yourself,” he said.

            “Are you going to spy on me to make sure?”

            “Hell no,” he laughed. “No one goes up there anymore. Us normal people can’t stand the smell.” He returned to his car and sped off, sirens blaring.

            Sam tossed her wallet on top of her bag, rolled up the window, and started the engine. Ten miles ahead, she shoved the rest of the peanut butter cups in her mouth and flicked on her right turn signal.

 

Local news vans surrounded the compound’s entrance. Female reporters wearing pressed blouses, skirts, and practical sneakers hovered on the dirt road with their cameramen, preventing Samantha Wilkes’s undocumented entrance. Before they spotted her, Sam threw the Tracker in reverse and backed down the mountain to the overgrown side path. Though the tracks were covered in long grass and fallen branches, they remained passable, especially with four-wheel drive. Memory led her up the mountain, around the compound’s perimeter to the private back entrance townie kids would use to smuggle her cans of root beer and Twizzlers. She’d almost bought a Twizzler at Sheetz when she stopped for gas, until she saw the newspapers stacked neatly in racks by the door.

            Wilkes Family Shocker!

Holiness Family Secrets!

Estranged Granddaughter Inherits Cult Fortune!

            The picture, identical on each front page, was over a decade old, taken outside the county courthouse when her request for emancipation was granted. Even so, she’d left the Sheetz quickly and returned to the anonymity of the highway. Now, stopped in front of the back gate, her anonymity again slipped away.

            As soon as she switched off the engine, the silence overwhelmed her. No birds sounded up here. Squirrels kept to themselves. Even the trees refused to rustle their leaves. She opened her door to stale, stagnant air tinged with sulfur, and her palms grew sweaty as the unsettled feeling stirred her stomach. She grabbed her messenger bag and secured the strap over her shoulder. Though Mr. Grimshaw’s letter weighed little, its presence helped ground her. Mr. Grimshaw wouldn’t let anything happen to her.

            The same old rusted padlock secured the gate, looking as if it had remained locked since her last exodus. She wrapped her fingers in the chain-link and stared in at the compound. The weathered backs of unstained wooden cottages glared back. She remembered the cottages as bright and cozy, surrounded by healthy gardens, like the cottages in the fairy tales she used to read when she was meant to be studying the Bible. Now, the wood appeared rotted and spotted in mold. Remnants of untended gardens – dead stalks and dry ground – littered the overgrown grass. Sam wondered if it had always been this way, if maybe she had viewed these exact walls but with a child’s innocent eye or if, like Granddad Joe, the whole compound was dying.

            Sam stuck her toes between the links and started climbing the fence. It wobbled under her weight, and her stomach scraped against the metal as she struggled upwards. After three attempts at the top, she managed to swing her right leg over and start the climb down. She landed on the dusty ground with a thump, her lungs gasping for air, feeling jealous of the slim, little girl who could once run the length of the camp without stopping. As she dusted off her knees, the barrel of a gun pressed into her spine.

She rose slowly. “Hey, is that anyway to treat a cousin?”

A teenage boy – seventeen or eighteen – stood there with a shotgun. He had the same pale red hair and blue eyes as the rest of her family, but she couldn’t place him. He would’ve been only three or four when she left.

            “You probably don’t remember me,” she said.

            He stepped closer, sniffed her neck, then stepped back. “I know exactly who you are,” he stated, finger on the trigger. “Blood traitor.”

            “Lucas. Lucas!” A woman approached, her red hair twisted in a waist-length fishtail braid thin and limp as the rest of her body.

            “Melanie.” Sam smiled despite herself.

            Melanie pushed down the gun barrel. “You do not point weapons at family.”

            “But she’s…”

            “Go.”

            Lucas slung the gun over his shoulder and stalked off towards a small hut in the corner.

            “That’s little Lucas? Cousin Louisa’s son?”

            Melanie stood with arms crossed. “Shouldn’t you enter through the front? Your admirers are waiting for their interview.”

            “That’s exactly why I didn’t.”

            “And since when don’t you use this family for your personal gain?”

            Sam stared at her feet, about to comment on how no one outside Luzerne County even knew about the Wilkes family, when Mel apologized.

            “I’m sorry, sister. I know this must be difficult for you.”

            Sam looked up and saw some of the men in the distance, the soot on their overalls indicating they’d just come from the mines. Their clothes hung loosely, like scarecrows that lost their stuffing. A gust of wind blew in a stronger smell of sulfur that remained in the air even as the wind died.

            “Things don’t look too easy around here, either,” she said.

            Melanie uncrossed her arms and fiddled with her braid. “Mr. Grimshaw’s frozen the family accounts until the estate is sorted out. Judah’s been trying to get him…well, they’re not really seeing eye to eye.” Mel watched her, waiting – to say something about their brother or about the inheritance, Sam wasn’t sure. Whatever Sam had to say on either subject, Melanie wouldn’t want to hear.

            “I better find Mr. Grimshaw,” she said and started to walk away.

            “Granddad said you would stay. That death would bring us together again. They were his last words.”

            The flutters in Sam’s stomach worsened.

“I better find Mr. Grimshaw,” she repeated, leaving Mel standing in the dusty path. A little redheaded girl ran out to Mel and climbed into her arms. So she was an aunt, but who was the father? Sam filed that information away with everything else she didn’t want to know about her family.

The layout of the compound remained unchanged. Sam followed the brown dirt trail which led away from the cottages and turned left onto the gray gravel path to the Big House – the original three-story stone mansion built by her ancestors in the days when they were just the Wilkes family, instead of the Wilkes Holiness Church of God. Even from a distance, the old glass windows stared down on her, judging her more than the people gathered on the wooden, wraparound porch.

            The women, pale red hair in braids, crossed their arms while the men, hair cropped close to the scalp, hooked their thumbs through the belts of their jeans. As she approached, some could not bear to look at her; they turned their heads or even scattered from the house. Others, her brother Judah amongst them, kept their eyes on her so intently, they seemed incapable of looking elsewhere. All sniffed the air as she approached, like a pack of curious bloodhounds. Years of conditioning prevented her from reacting despite the chill that ran through her. She met Judah’s gaze.

            “Suppose a hug’s out of the question.”

            “Is that meant to be humor?” he asked.

            “Sarcasm. Sorry, I forgot both were banned here. Now, are you going to move so I can go in?”

            “I don’t know. Is the doorway big enough?” He reached to squeeze the fat around her waist. Sam jumped back. Judah and the men laughed. “See, sister? Sarcasm.”

            Sam felt her face go red as their hair. “Let me pass, Judah.”

            The laughter ceased. Judah came as close as he could without touching and took one long sniff of her neck.

            “Your soul is unclean, Samantha. Full of sin. I can smell it. We can all smell it.”

            “Guess Granddad Joe couldn’t. Must be why he left me the money and not you.”

Footsteps gathered behind her. Sam turned to see the entire collective standing there – the old and young, children and parents and grandparents – as strange to her now as when she was a child. She ran a shaking hand through her curly brown hair and tried to speak with confidence.

            “I’m only here because Granddad Joe sent for me. It was his command. Are you going to disobey his command?”   

            No one moved. No one ever listened to Sam. They only stared at her with their faded blue eyes. Fish eyes, she called them as a kid. Wide and glassy. She felt a hand on her shoulder and spun to strike her attacker, stopping when she saw it was Mr. Grimshaw. The old man pulled his wrinkled face into a smile and gave her shoulder a light squeeze.

            “Let’s go inside, kid.”

            Sam turned to the house. As she looked over her shoulder, she saw that Mr. Grimshaw’s presence had scattered the flock, except for Judah. He remained leaning against a porch pillar and swiped his thumb over his nose. Sam resisted the urge to spit at his feet.

            Once inside, the darkness of the house struck her. She could barely make out the shape of the staircase in front of her.

            “I can’t see,” Sam grumbled as Mr. Grimshaw helped her upstairs.

            “Your brother ordered for the curtains to be closed and the lights to remain off so as to observe a period of mourning. Watch the fifth step.”

            “I remember. Judah’s still an idiot then?” She maneuvered around the broken stair.

            “Let’s just say he never grew out of it.” Mr. Grimshaw led her to Granddad’s study on the second floor. Once the door closed behind them, he switched on the lamp which sat on the antique desk. The Big House was the only property hooked up to the electricity, per Granddad’s wishes. It was why the family avoided the Big House, unless they were called to enter. They thought the electric light unnatural and shied away when it was on. Even Mel had been scared of it as a child, acting like it burned her eyes. Sam had always been drawn to it. That Granddad could create light without matches had only added to her awe of him until she started sneaking off with the townie kids from Rickets Walk and realized all normal houses had light switches.

            Spread over the desk were copies of her grandfather’s will while crumpled paper bags from McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts filled the overflowing waste paper basket. Across the room, she noticed a rickety army cot with pillow and blanket.

            “Mr. Grimshaw, have they been keeping you hostage?”

            He laughed. A sadness filled his eyes that might’ve just been the shadows.

            “No.” He nodded to the cot as he sat behind the desk. “That’s by choice. Someone has to keep an eye on them until…” he winced. Sam saw the arthritis paining him as he lowered himself into the chair. If Granddad passed at 87, how much time did Mr. Grimshaw have left? As his gnarled hands fumbled with his glasses, Sam realized Mr. Grimshaw couldn’t protect her like he used to. He was too old. Fragile. The unease that filled her when in the presence of her family began to take hold.

            She fiddled with the strap of her messenger bag. “Mr. Grimshaw, not that I’m not pleased to see you and all, especially after everything you’ve done for me over the years, but if it’s all the same to you, I want to sign whatever I need to sign and leave.”

            He sighed and searched through a drawer.

            “I don’t mean to be selfish, and I wouldn’t have come up here at all if it weren’t…managing a Wawa doesn’t pay the bills like you’d think it would. Well, it didn’t, I should say. But it wasn’t my fault. It was Carlos. But they wouldn’t listen to me so, I…”

He handed her something across the desk – a Milky Way.

            “I prefer the Midnight ones.” She paused. “Christ, I am selfish. Sorry. Thanks.” She toyed with the candy bar, waiting to be reprimanded. That was the purpose of this room, after all. Mr. Grimshaw merely folded his hands.

            “Samantha, I wanted you to come here in person…when I said you inherited the estate, you inherited the money, that’s true. But your grandfather…that is…”

            Sam tensed. This was how Mr. Grimshaw waffled when he told her Mother had died, and when he told her he could no longer support her financially.

            “You inherited the entire estate. The money, the mines. And leadership of the compound.”

            Sam laughed once – short and cruel – and waited for Mr. Grimshaw to say he was joking. He did not.

            “Oh my God. You’re serious.”

            “He believed – no – he knew you were the only one who could assume command once he passed on.”

            “That’s bullshit. I haven’t even been here for, what, fourteen years? And now I’m just supposed to do what he commands? I left so I wouldn’t have to listen to his proselytizing or his orders.”

            “But you’re here now.”

            “Because I’m broke. Not because he declared I should.”

            Mr. Grimshaw spoke so softly, she could barely hear him over the ticking of the clock. “He thought you would have figured it out by now.”        

            Suddenly, he looked a hundred years old, his sad, hound-dog eyes on the verge of spilling tears. Never in her life had she seen him even close to crying, and it created a hole inside her like a vacuum that sucked out all the strength she’d gathered to come here. When Mr. Grimshaw removed a handkerchief and lifted up his glasses to dab his eyes, Sam tried to hand him the Milky Way. He laughed and waved it away.

            “Your grandfather and I have been…were friends for a long time. I decided to practice law because of him. Because he needed someone he could trust. Someone outside the family.”

            “He wouldn’t have needed someone outside if he let the family outside.”

            “It was necessary to protect them.”

            “This isn’t protection. This is a cult. And I figured that out long before I ever left.”

            Mr. Grimshaw removed his glasses and stared at them as if to clean them. Instead, he returned them to his face and rose from the chair. Sam didn’t know if the creaking came from the chair or his bones.

            “What do you know about the family sickness?” he asked, examining the bookshelf behind him.

            “Sin. I mean, Granddad said it was sin. That we were more susceptible to it than most people, so we had to remain purer than others.”

            He pulled down a cracked leather photo album and returned to his chair. Sam remembered that album, of sneaking a peek into Granddad’s study and seeing it open on his desk. Mr. Grimshaw sat. This time, it was definitely his knees that cracked.

            “I always thought it was the blood one – hemophilia. Or what’s that one where people are allergic to sunlight? I looked it up on Wikipedia once. One of those things families get from too much inbreeding.”

            Mr. Grimshaw began paging through the book. Sam winced. When Granddad had caught her sneaking, he’d backhanded her across the face.

            “I don’t care anymore if my dad was also my uncle and cousin – thanks for the therapy – but if Granddad Joe hadn’t been so against seeking medical treatment, they could all be out there living normal lives. Illness isn’t a sin.”

He stopped on a page but hesitated in showing it to her. She caught a glimpse of a blurred figure in a photograph, but he covered it with his hand.

            “When I said he did this to protect them, I didn’t mean your family. I meant the town. To protect Rickets Walk from your family.”

            “You mean it’s contagious?”

            Mr. Grimshaw closed the book and placed his hands on top, as if trying to keep the truth from spilling from its pages.

            “It is genetic,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “At least we believe it is. And certainly a dominant trait. Did you learn about that in school?”

            “Mr. Grimshaw, I only know what I read on the internet.”

            He nodded as if he didn’t really hear her. “It heightens the senses – hearing, smell – though not sight. Makes them more attuned to the natural world. To the…inner workings of the human body. Especially…especially the blood. When exposed to a large population of people, like Rickets Walk, it causes them to behave irrationally.” He looked at the photo album, running his fingers over the edges.

            When Granddad had seen her lip bleeding, he’d locked them both in the study and hugged her tightly, whispering over and over again how sorry he was. He handed her a handkerchief then took a Hershey bar out of his desk. Candy was forbidden inside the compound, but Granddad said he’d make this one exception for her, his special girl, and kept her in the study until the bleeding stopped. Then he’d burned the handkerchief.

            Sam blinked and cleared her head. When she returned her gaze to Mr. Grimshaw, he looked as lost as she. Like the animatronic fortune teller she once saw at the Luzerne County Fair, he kept talking despite his blank look.     

            “When your great-great-grandfather discovered the anthracite mine, he found his fortune, but he discovered something else, too. Something that should never have seen the light of day. But instead, he fell in love. It wasn’t until your grandfather’s generation came along that they discovered your maternal line carried the sickness. That it had passed to the children. And the children’s children. Before then, the Wilkes family was well-regarded in Rickets Walk. If people needed work, they knew they could rely on the camp to provide it.

            “One afternoon, a farmhand from Rickets was injured helping to dig the foundation for the chapel and started bleeding. The family rushed to help him, but then they ended up…the scent of the blood in the air drew out the sickness chum draws a shark. Turned them into something else, something worse…And your great-grandfather knew those ten could never again be who they were.”

            “The Ten. You’re talking about the flu epidemic,” Sam said as her stomach grew colder. “When ten members of the family died as a holy punishment. One for each of the commandments. Granddad Joe saw it as a kid. It’s what made him turned to God.”

            “There was no flu, and this has nothing to do with God.” Mr. Grimshaw’s voice became harsher than she’d ever heard it. “Your great-grandfather killed The Ten. Had to to stop them becoming…” His arthritic hands curled into fists. “And he tried to kill the rest. Stop the sickness once and for all. But how can you do that? How can you kill your own kin and still live a full life? The others had done nothing wrong – remained innocent and ignorant of their true nature. So, your great-grandfather started the holiness church to keep everyone close. And when your great-grandfather died, he passed the church onto your grandfather. And now your grandfather’s passing it on to you. Do you know what color your grandfather’s was?”

            “Gray.”

            “Before it went gray.”

            She shook her head no. “I always thought red, like them.”

            “No. It was brown. Like yours. The family sickness hardly ever skips a child. But when it does, the family becomes that person’s burden until another is born.”

Sam started to feel as if the world were tipping on its side though she didn’t know why or where it would land when it fell.

            “You feel it,” Mr. Grimshaw said. “You always have. It’s why you cried constantly as a baby. That wasn’t colic. That was fear. And it grew in you as you got older, but you never knew what you were afraid of. It’s why you ran away, and why I helped you. Your grandfather wanted you out of here.”

            “Because I was a weak, scared child? Afraid of shadows for no reason?”

            “Because you weren’t like them. Because you’re normal.” He pushed the album towards her. “But those that don’t inherit the sickness must inherit the burden of the truth.”

            Sam took the album but refused to open it. She felt a familiar tickling on her arms, as if little bugs were crawling up and down her skin. The same feeling she got when Judah stared at her too long or when the little children licked their lips at her when she watched them in nursery. All her life, Sam felt special. Granddad always told her so in private. Now that feeling left a horrid taste in her mouth, like she was special for being the only person to survive a plane crash or school shooting.

            “You helped me leave, helped me emancipate myself, just to bring me back?”

            “To keep you safe. Make sure you would grow up away from them until it was time.”

            Sam shook her head. “You were in on his sick jokes all along. His nonsense about being a special messenger of God, about us being a chosen people…”

            “He did that to keep the family close, so they wouldn’t wander into town and hurt anyone else from outside. The one thing Joe Wilkes firmly believed was that there is no God.”

            Though Sam believed this herself, that she repeatedly joked with Mr. Plimpton that she was the family atheist, she could not believe it about Granddad Joe. Granddad Joe who preached every Sunday, carried a Bible in his pocket everywhere. Built his whole ideology around a belief in the one true Lord. Despite everything else Mr. Grimshaw told her, this was too much.

            A silence hung between them, broken when Sam pushed back the chair. “I don’t want it.”

            “Samantha.”

            “You can keep the money. Keep the estate. Everything.”

            “There is no one else. It has to be you.”

            “This family lost the right to tell me what to do when my father married me to my brother.”

            “Joe never approved of that. He reprimanded your father…”

            But Sam couldn’t handle any more of his explanations. She ran for the door. Her heart pounded loudly in her ears, but she could hear Mr. Grimshaw trying to follow, calling her name. She used one hand to guide herself down the dark stairwell, the other clutching the album she couldn’t manage to put down.

            The bright day obscured her vision as she burst onto the porch, but she didn’t let that stop her. She knew the way. The landscape, like the people, never changed. As she leapt off the porch, a loud thud sounded behind her. She turned and hesitated. Mr. Grimshaw laid face down, spread out on the porch. Judah helped him sit up as blood trickled down his face. In a warbling voice he called to her. Sam ran for the back gate.

            Sweat running down her face, her chest burning, she stuffed the album in her bag and scaled the fence, stopping only when her shirt caught on a broken link towards the top. She threw herself into the Tracker and sped down the hill, her last image of the porch – of Judah tilting his head towards Mr. Grimshaw’s face, leaning into the blood with his tongue outstretched – one she was certain she imagined.

 

The shabby Comfort Inn tucked behind an Exxon gas station provided a welcome relief from the weekend traffic outside. Even the cigarette smoke that drifted into her non-smoking room from the bathroom air vent helped the world feel more solid around her, erased the sense that every face from every passing car had been staring at her, judging her. The TV broadcasted much needed background noise that let her imagine she was back in her dingy, little apartment, listening to the neighbors argue in Spanish.

The album sat away from her on the hotel desk, its presence weighing on her mind the way it had weighed down her arms running from the compound. Candy wrappers surrounded her on the bed. Her stomach ached, but she continued to open wrapper after wrapper, consuming the evidence of her last, disastrous night shift as if a SWAT team were about to break in on her any moment. A click of the remote, a bite of an Almond Joy. A click of the remote, a bite of a Snickers. A click of the remote, a bite of a 5th Avenue.

Her self-distraction ended when she stumbled upon the local news, and her picture, a more recent one, flashed on the screen – her ID photo from Wawa.

“Damn it, Carlos.”

            “There has been no word on whether Samantha Wilkes has returned to the Holiness Family campground…”

            “Compound,” she muttered.

            “However, she has been spotted in the area.”

            The state trooper, a serious smirk of self-satisfaction gracing his face, appeared on the screen: “Miss Wilkes and I had a good, long talk. I advised her it may not be best to go up there, but she seemed quite intent on returning to her family. It’s a shame for her to have come so far only to get pulled back in.

            The screen went black. Sam tossed the remote onto the bedside table. It skittered off the smooth surface and onto the floor by the desk. As she followed it, her eyes fell on the album. Without thinking, she crossed the room and flipped it open, examining the pictures Granddad once struck her for glimpsing. Old photographs covered the pages, stuck in place with little black triangles on their corners. Though the pictures were in black and white, she could recognize the family’s appearance changing with each generation. A mix of dark and light features gave way to only pale skin and hair until, by the third generation, only one little boy with dark hair stood out from the rest – Granddad Joe.

Halfway through, she found the blurred photo she’d seen in the study. A man raced towards the camera, but his eyes were dark – black – and the gaping hole she thought was a mouth was filled with sharp, white points. In the background lay the legs of a prone figure surrounded by other pale people, crouched as Judah had crouched by Mr. Grimshaw.

            Sam shut the book and glanced out the window towards the direction of her mountain. No. Their mountain. Whatever happened on that mountain was not her responsibility. Leave them to their fate. The chill she felt came from the rickety hotel room a/c unit. She ate another Mounds bar, but it had no taste. She thought about turning the TV back on but feared seeing the state trooper’s smug face again. The cozy room had lost its comfort. Sam picked up handfuls of candy wrappers and tossed them in the trash can then threw her few belongings into the plastic bags. She’d return to work and apologize for her outburst. Explain that she understood how unprofessional she’d behaved and, if Carlos had chosen to be disobedient, it was because she had not been able to manage him properly.

As she collected the mini-bottles of shampoo and soap, her phone rang. She crossed the room to the desk and looked at the screen.

            Unknown.

            Another reporter, probably. She ignored the call and shoved the phone in her pocket. Plastic bags in hand, she shut the hotel room door and went down to the lobby. Reception was empty, so she rang the bell once, twice. Finally, a round man wobbled out of the back office. He sneezed into his hand.

            “Can I help you?” he asked, reading something on the cracked screen of his iPhone.

            “Checking out.” She laid the card keys on the counter.

            He glanced up and sneezed again. “Didn’t you just check in?”

            “Change of plans.” The bag holding the album grew heavy. The plastic handle cut into her palm. He took the keys, his eyes now lingering too long on her face. She could see the moment his thoughts clicked into place.

            He leaned across the counter, breath reeking of stale tobacco and Fritos. “Good. Go back to your kind. We don’t want you inbred freaks around us normal people anyway.”

            “Well, that goes for us, too.”

            And, like with Carlos, she was unable to control herself any longer. She spit in the man’s face then turned around and knocked the carafe of complimentary coffee to the ground, spilling hot brown liquid all over the tiled floor. On her way out, she pushed over the potted tree by the exit.

After piling her bags on the passenger’s seat of the Tracker, she checked her phone. A new voicemail from the unknown caller appeared above Carlos’s. If it was a reporter, maybe they would offer her money for an exclusive. She could let people know what she really thought of her family, and of them. She first listened to Carlos’s.

“Holy shit, Sam. I always knew you were loco, but really? You grew up in a cult? No wonder you’re so messed up! Mr. Plimpton ain’t never gonna take you back now. I heard him talking in his office. He’s seriously freaked out that you’re gonna have your family do some voodoo shit on him. He’s so scared, he ain’t gonna press charges for the two hundred bucks of candy you stole. I was right. You’re such a freak—”

Sam deleted the message, now afraid of listening to the next. Still, she pressed play. A breathless voice panted on the other end. Screams sounded in the background.

            “Samantha…it’s Melanie. I got your number from Mr. Grimshaw’s paperwork. Please. Something’s happened to him. And to…to Judah. We feel it everywhere. Sin. It’s gotten in. We’re trying to fight it but please. Mr. Grimshaw, before he…the last thing he said, he said you knew how to stop the sin. Like Granddad Joe. Please, Samantha. I can feel it inside me, too, bursting to get out. And I don’t want it to. I’m a good girl. I don’t want it!”

            The voicemail ended. Sam held the phone a moment then tossed it on the passenger’s seat.

Leave them to their fate. That’s what Granddad Joe preached every Sunday. Leave those outside to their fate, and they shall leave us to ours. We shall not intrude on them nor they on us. Every Sunday, the same words. The same oath. Sam could say it backwards in her sleep. She started the car, and the gear shift screeched like the screams on the voicemail. In the rearview, she saw the front desk clerk in the hotel doorway, shouting into a cell phone and pointing at Sam’s car.

            Sam sped out of the lot, drove through a red light, and headed back up the mountain.

 

The Tracker’s headlights illuminated the locked gate of the chain-link fence. The news vans had disappeared, the mountain returned to its desolate state. After pocketing the emergency flashlight from the glove compartment, she left the Tracker behind and climbed up and over the main gate.

Once inside, she proceeded slowly through the grounds, the dim beam of light leading the way. The chill mountain air nipped at her bare arms. No lamplight shone from anyone’s windows, no curtains ruffled as she passed. The air carried a faint whiff of something metallic and raw, the same smell as the meat house. The Big House, too, was quiet. Her flashlight revealed a bloodstain on the porch. Mr. Grimshaw’s blood. The stain was smeared, as if someone had tried to wipe it up with a rag. Or a tongue.

            Sam turned away and continued down the silent path until she glimpsed the figures through the windows of the chapel. The flashlight illuminated drops of blood on the chapel doors, and she remembered Mr. Grimshaw’s true story of The Ten. Before entering, she lifted the ax from outside the nearby toolshed. With a flashlight in one hand and the ax in the other, Sam pushed the door in with her foot.

The entire family stood inside the chapel, facing the altar. They swayed gently back and forth, like animals restraining from the kill. Upon the altar lay a body. She could tell by the way his arm quivered as the figure above gorged itself on his insides that Mr. Grimshaw was dead, and her fear turned to guilt and her guilt to anger. By the weak light of the flashlight, she recognized the feeding figure and called to it.

            “Judah.”

            He looked up from his meal, face and mouth covered in blood, skin paler than she had ever seen – almost pure white. He hissed at her, revealing pointed, bloodstained teeth. Sam remembered Granddad Joe’s words, the ones he used whenever they disobeyed.

            “Judah, you’ve chosen the wrong path. You’ve chosen the sin. For this, you must be punished.” Though the words were the same, her voice did not carry the same force.

            Judah cocked his head to the side then returned to his meal. Sam tensed.

            “For god’s sake, Judah. You can’t eat people.”

The family cowered from the flashlight’s beam as she marched up the aisle. Their clothes remained free of blood, untainted. Sam transferred the quiver in her voice to her hand and, though her command remained firm, the ax wavered.

            “Get off him, Judah.”

            As was her brother’s way, he ignored her pleas.

            “Final warning.”

The sucking sound threatened to make her sick.

“My soul may be unclean, Judah, but yours is black as shit.”

            Sam swung the ax. It was harder than she thought and had barely enough force to cut his shoulder but was enough to draw his attention. Judah hissed and leapt at her. She blindly swung the ax again, striking him in the chest. He fell to the ground, writhing in pain. Sam yanked the ax from his chest, closed her eyes and brought it down again and again until the only movement of her brother’s body was a post-mortem twitching of his clawed fingers. Between his elbow and torso, a delicate film of new skin had begun to form, like a wing.

            Sam dropped the ax and turned to the family as they shuffled towards Mr. Grimshaw’s body. The smell of blood overwhelmed the wooden chapel.

            “No!” she shouted, and they stopped. “You must fight the…the sin. Don’t let it control you. Turn around. Walk outside.” She grabbed the fallen flashlight and shone it at the door. Their eyes glowed green in the dark.

            “You’re good people. You don’t want this. You don’t.”

            A woman moved – Melanie. She was the first to exit and, one by one, the others followed. Sam waited until each was gone before following them out. They clustered together, staring at Sam. Though her mouth had gone dry, she spoke.

            “Melanie, fetch me your oil. Go now. You, too Lucas. Everyone, send one member of your household to return with any oil you have.”

            They did so. At Wawa, Carlos never even responded when she asked him to clean up a spilled Slurpee. Despite being her inferior, he was always pushing her, disobeying her, testing her authority. Making fun of her for her ignorance of everyday things – Disney movies and MTV, the names of all fifty states or who fought in World War II. Like he was so much better for having his GED and an iPad. Like she didn’t belong because she’d never listened to Madonna or Michael Jackson and thought X-Files were something you used to organize your drawers. Like she knew nothing about the world. It had felt good to punch him.

After everyone returned, she instructed them to dump the oil around the outside of the chapel.

            “The chapel has been contaminated by sin,” she announced. “It must be destroyed.” She took matches from Melanie, lit one, and threw it on the chapel. Flames slowly encircled the building. Instead of watching the fire, they watched her, awaiting their next order. She could say anything, and they would obey. She could even tell them to return inside the chapel, to wait until their souls were purified by fire, and they would. She could be rid of them forever. In the fire’s increasing glow, she saw Melanie’s pale face, some of her color returning as her little girl clutched her side. Lucas stood with his aged mother – Cousin Louisa whose wrinkles reminded her of Mother.

            They waited. All she had to do was give the word.

            “Go back to your households,” she said. “I’ll call a family meeting in the morning.”

            And they listened, the trance wearing off as the smell of smoke burned away the scent of blood. She wished Carlos were here, so she could show him the truth about the world. That all the things he knew meant nothing. That the world wasn’t normal but strange. Stranger than he or the normal people of Rickets Walk knew.

Once the grounds had emptied, Sam went to the Big House as the chapel burned. Upstairs, she locked herself in the study and switched on the lamp. With a tissue, she wiped away Judah’s black blood. She would keep them here for now. Judah’s death was enough. Maybe she could use the family money to bring in doctors, scientists. People who could help, and could be paid to keep quiet. And maybe it wouldn’t help. But those choices were for another day.

She shifted Mr. Grimshaw’s papers and began reading Granddad’s will. There on the desk sat the Milky Way Mr. Grimshaw had offered her. Sam fought the craving and tossed the candy in the trash.

           

Lauren A. Forry was brought up in the woods of Bucks County, Pennsylvania where her FBI agent father and book-loving mother raised her on a diet of The X-Files and RL Stine. After earning her BA in Cinema Studies from New York University, she moved to London where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Kingston University. There she was awarded the Faber and Faber Creative Writing MA Prize for her first horror novel, The Compulsion. Her short stories have since appeared in multiple sci-fi and horror anthologies. She currently resides somewhere in the woods.