Part I: The Slow Ascent

I’m pretty sure my mom’s boyfriend died before we moved into the house.

Look, I know it’s crazy, and I have never been one to believe in the supernatural.

But how else could you explain what happened after we moved in? What other possible explanation could there be besides me going insane?

No, I am positive that Brice is dead, and I’m only telling you this now because I don’t know what to do.

My mother refuses to talk about it, and I can’t blame her, but it is so lonely holding everything in, and I can’t do it anymore.

Mom divorced my father when I was two, and in my 22 years alive, I could count on one hand how many times I’ve seen him.

He doesn’t matter, though; I have never lacked love. Mom is my best friend, and we do everything together.

When she started dating Brice, I was happy for her and relieved that she was finally with somebody who treated her well.

I was even happy when Brice invited mom and me to live with him after he inherited his mother’s estate.

The house was in the country on a vast, lonely plot of land, and the entire ride there, mom chatted happily.

“He’s been working on it every day for months. Oh, it’s going to be great, Samara. It’s huge, and there’s so much we can do. The only downside, he says, is that there are many bugs, but an exterminator will be out soon to deal with them. He has it under control for now. Isn’t this just great?”

I nodded at the right places and made noises of approval.

The positivity in me died when we pulled into the gravel driveway.

If I had to describe the house in one word, it would be run down.

It was a shambling, three-story that looked like it was held together by spit and prayer. Shingles were missing, and the paint was peeling. The windows were big and black and reminded me of eye sockets.

The yard was overgrown with weeds and choked with relics of the past: a rusty tricycle, an old tire swing, and baby dolls bleached by the sun. When I kicked one, its face cracked open, and a stream of bugs scurried out. Ugh.

As cliche as this sounds, it was a house straight out of a horror movie.

I didn’t let what I thought show on my face because mom was ecstatic.

She called it charming, and I mirrored her, but inwardly I thought that nothing about this house exuded charm.

I was being a brat, and I reminded myself that this was only temporary. I had just graduated from college, and so far, looking for a job had been exhausting and demoralizing. The prices of apartments made me want to cry.

The front door opened, and Brice emerged from the house’s dark. He has always been pale, especially in contrast to my and my mom’s dark brown skin, but he looked paler than I have ever seen. He looked sick, and I stared at the angry red bumps circling his neck.

He caught me looking and smiled, and I smiled back weakly.

I didn’t like Brice.

He has always been kind to mom and me and has done nothing offensive.

He never made me feel unwanted as my father did and mom loved him. I have never seen her this happy.

I suppose I was jealous of him. For years I had been the only recipient of mom’s love, and now I was to share her with this strange man.

His eyes were ice blue, devoid of emotion, and when he smiled, it was cold and predatory like a shark’s.

He led us inside to give us a tour, and it surprised me that the interior was starkly different from the outside.

It was beautiful, with arched windows and slanting high ceilings. The dark floorboards gleamed, and the rooms were impeccably furnished with pristine vintage furniture.

I gawked, and Brice laughed at my expression.

“Surprising, right? I know the outside looks a mess. After mother got sick, she couldn’t keep up with it. Come on, let’s see your room.”

We climbed those elegant stairs, and the second floor was just as lovely. My room was airy and bright and smelled like fresh paint. The walls were my favorite color, sage green, and a large canopy bed was in the center, surrounded by moving boxes.

“I thought you’d want to put your things exactly where you wanted,” Brice said from behind me.

I turned around, and he was smiling.

“Isn’t it great, Samara?” Mom said, beaming. “Didn’t he do a great job?”

“Yeah,” I said, and I smiled. “Thank you, Brice. It’s amazing.”

He said nothing; he just kept smiling. His teeth were white and very sharp.

We spent the rest of the day unpacking. The largeness of the house seemed to swallow mom’s and my meager belongings.

It was hot, and the stairs left us winded.

Around six, mom and Brice went to pick up pizza, and I roamed the house.

The second floor had four bedrooms; Mom and Brice’s was diagonal from mine. The last, Brice told us, led to the third floor. Its door was painted black with an intricate silver door knob.

“Mother used it as an attic.” He explained. “Nobody has been up there in years.”

I wanted to ask why, but before I could, Brice steered us away.

Well, he’s not here now, is he? I thought. My heart beat fast in anticipation, and I grabbed the silver doorknob and turned it slowly.

It was locked.

“Fuck,” I whispered to myself. I jiggled it in vain, but the door stayed locked, and shrugging, I went downstairs to wait for the food.

I had a weird dream that night.

I dreamt I was walking around the house, a golden light flooding the rooms.

I floated up the winding stairs, my toes brushing the floor. I headed towards the black door, and when I grasped the doorknob, it disintegrated in my hand.

Darkness billowed out of the room like a cloud. It extinguished all light, and when I blinked, I was on the third floor.

It was as big as a ballroom and empty and dark. The room shook violently, and I struggled to stay upright.

The walls pulsed red and cast tall contorting shadows. They bent and danced and twisted into impossible shapes, and I watched l as they beckoned to me. They coyly teased me.

The color washed over me like a crimson wave, and something hot and wet dripped out of my ear.

I touched it, and my fingers came away slick with blood. My blood hardened and shimmered on my skin before drifting away like fireflies.

They vanished into the dark, and I followed them.

There had to be hundreds of them suspended in the air. Fairy lights, I thought, made up of blood.

I reached out to touch one and cried out when I made contact.

The little fucker had burned me!

My eyes pricked with tears of pain.

“Wake up,” I whispered to myself. “Wake up.”

I did all the usual stuff when I wanted to wake up from a dream. I slapped my face and pinched my skin, but nothing happened.

I didn’t know what else to do, so I kept walking. My heart beat louder with each step, staccato drumming inside my chest.

Somebody was standing in front of me. I could hear slow, ragged breathing.

My arms prickled in gooseflesh, and my mouth went dry.

The room was red now, and Brice stood in front of me.

His skin was clammy and gray, and his neck lolled onto his chest. His arms hung limply at his sides. He reminded me of a marionette whose strings had been cut.

Before I could stop myself, I reached out to touch him, but he grabbed me first. His hand encircled my wrist.

I watched, terrified, as he slowly lifted his head and gazed at me with milky-white eyes.

His mouth fell open as he emitted a low, rattling croak. He jerked his head, his neck making sick, crunching noises.

He shook. His entire body trembled. His mouth opened wide, and he vomited a stream of black beetles.

I wanted to run, but my feet were glued to the floor; the bugs crawled toward me and clung to my skin. I screamed, and they crawled into my mouth and down my throat. I couldn’t breathe. I was dying. Please not like this.

I woke up gasping and gagging, and I clutched my throat.

I could still feel bugs inside of me, and my stomach roiled. I ran to the bathroom and vomited until I felt empty and brushed my teeth until I felt clean.

I didn’t think I could go back to sleep, but I did.

Thankfully, I didn’t dream.

Breakfast was quiet. Mom hummed while she cooked and outlined her plans for the day. Brice and I silently played with our bowls of oatmeal. I was thinking about my dream, and Brice looked even worse today.

The rash on his neck had darkened to a deep crimson and spread down his fingertips and halfway up his face. He scratched at it until the skin broke and bled.

I watched as droplets of blood dripped onto his oatmeal.

“Brice!” Mom said in alarm. She had finally gotten a good look at him.

“Honey, are you having an allergic reaction to something? Did you get bitten by a bug?”

Brice shook his head and tried to smile reassuringly at her. His eyes were glassy and bloodshot red, and with his gray-tinged skin, he looked like the undead.

“I’m fine; I’m okay.

Mom ignored him. She was in nurse mode now. She wanted to take him to the hospital at once.

Brice shook his head. “No,” he gasped. “No hospital.”

“But hon-“ mom started, but Brice shook his head again.

“I’m fine, Ana. I am. I’ll take some Benadryl and rest for a little while. I feel worn out today.” He stood unsteadily and kissed mom on the cheek.

She watched him leave, and her brow furrowed in worry.

“I’ll be right there!” She called. “Try not to scratch so much.”

She turned her concern on me.

“How do you feel? Are you alright? No bug bites anywhere?”

“No,” I said, chewing a mouthful of oatmeal. “I feel fine.”

Mom looked at me and began clearing the table and washing the dishes.

“Do you mind helping me a bit with unpacking? We only have a few boxes left.” She said over the sound of running water.

I nodded. “Sure, no problem.”

“I’m going to check on Brice, and then we’ll get started.” She hurried up and disappeared to the second floor.

I finished the dishes and remembered Brice’s bowl on the kitchen table.

I stirred it with a spoon and watched as the mushy oatmeal turned pink, and then I put the spoon to my lips and ate it all.

The door opened for me this time.

After mom and I had finished unpacking, she went to take care of Brice.

I could hear them quietly arguing as I walked by their closed bedroom door. I could make out one word: hospital. Brice still didn’t want to go.

I thought about his rash and my dream and the black door with the silver doorknob.

I wondered if it would open as it had in my dream.

Would I want it to? Yes.

Did I want to go to my room and face rejection emails and send off more job applications? No.

Well, it was decided then.

I didn’t tiptoe down the hallway, but I crept as quietly as possible. The black door looked bigger than I remembered, and its knob gleamed.

Sunlight streamed from the large bay windows, and I noticed the doorknob was in the shape of a flower, every petal delicately engraved.

I twisted it with sweaty hands, and as it opened, my heart pounded. I walked up the stairs.

It looked exactly as it had in my dream, only cluttered. There were white sheets draped over furniture; that looked like misshapen ghosts, a grandfather clock whose hour and minute hands were stuck on twelve, boxes labeled in illegible script, a beautiful ornate mirror, a record player placed on a dark brown desk, and even an elegant chandelier that still looked pristine.

There was also dust, a lot. I had a sneezing fit, and I watched as it swirled in the air, sparkling in the sunlight.

I walked around, inspecting every item. It reminded me of a consignment store. Why was all of this still here? Yes, they were old and dirty, but they were intact, and some Lysol would help.

I want, I thought, my stomach fluttering; I want all of it, even the chandelier.

The thought surprised me because I have never coveted objects, but I could put them to use. They wouldn’t have to stay here gathering dust with nobody to appreciate them.

It was the mirror I wanted the most. That beautiful floor-length mirror called to me from the other side of the room.

It drew me to its beauty, and as I walked closer, the sun began setting, turning the sky orange.

Shadows crept onto the walls; they were tall with long, crooked fingers. They beckoned me, but I didn’t react. I only had eyes for the mirror.

I stared at myself, and my reflection stared back. There was a spiderweb in my dreadlocks, and still staring, I plucked it out. The net wrapped around my thumb, turning into thin strands of gold and silver. It pulsed on my skin and grew tighter until it dissolved inside me.

Sounds were coming from the mirror, laughter, talking, and the clinking of glasses—the din of a get-together or a party.

I reached for that mirror, stretching my fingers toward my reflection, and its surface rippled like waves as I brushed it.

This was a bad idea. This was a terrible idea, but I couldn’t stop; I plunged my hand in, and something grabbed my wrist.

It pulled me into the mirror, and I fought back as hard as possible. My arm was halfway through the glass. It felt like pins and needles were being dragged along my skin. It kept pulling me until my face was inches away from the mirror.

I am going to fall through the looking glass, I thought giddily. Down the rabbit hole I go.

I wanted to close my eyes, but the mirror shimmered in the most beautiful of colors, Some I had never seen before.

I saw her; a woman was staring at me from inside the mirror. Her face was trapped in a whirlpool of color, and she smiled, revealing broken yellow teeth.

Her eyes were black, and her skin was white as snow. She gazed hungrily at me and tightened her grip so hard that I thought she would tear my arm off.

“I have you,” she whispered. “I have you.”

She caressed my cheek with one long claw and then dug it into the skin.

“Samara!” Mom’s voice made me stagger backward. The woman, startled, let go, and I fell on my ass, sending a cloud of dust in the air. I watched as she sank back into the mirror, its surface rippling.

“Samara!” Mom called again, and for the first time, I was happy that she had never learned how to use her indoor voice.

I bolted down the stairs, not caring how much noise I was making. I made sure the door was closed shut behind me. My heart felt as though it would burst out of my chest. I took a second to catch my breath and then went to find out what Mom wanted.

Mom and Brice’s door was open. As I walked by, I couldn’t help but peek in.

Brice lay on his back, sleeping. I could hear his snores from here.

I went to close the door and then stopped.

I watched as a large brown bug crawled out of Brice’s open mouth and burrowed itself into his nostril.

Brice didn’t feel better the next day or the day after that. When the weekend came and when he remained immobile in bed, Mom, fed up, ignored his protests and took him to the hospital.

He stayed for a day, and then they sent him home with an antihistamine and a potent antibiotic cream.

Mom told me it was an allergic reaction, but she didn’t look convinced, and I wasn’t either.

Mom had missed a week of work watching over Brice. She didn’t want to go, but with Brice sick and me still jobless, she needed every hour she could get.

She was a nurse at the local hospital, the one she had taken Brice to, and often worked doubles.

That meant while she was gone, I would take care of Brice.

It involved little, asking him if he wanted to eat or needed more water, to which he always replied no.

I don’t remember the last time he had eaten. I don’t know the last time I saw him. All our communication was through that closed door, and I refused to open it, remembering the bug that had crawled out of his mouth.

I was in my room struggling to put out more applications, wondering what I was doing wrong when I heard it.

It was the sound of something being dragged across the floor or the sound of somebody dragging their feet as they walked. I frowned as it grew louder and realized it was outside my door.

“Brice?” I called out. “Brice, do you need something?”

There was no answer, just that slow, deliberate shuffling.

It was seven, and mom was still at work. She had called to tell me she would be at the hospital much later than she thought.

That meant I was alone in this house with Brice, and I thought of my dream, which made my stomach turn.

“Brice?” I called again. “Brice, mom doesn’t think you should be out of bed.”

I crossed my room, and when I yanked open my door, there was nothing. The hall was empty.

“Brice?” I called again, and as usual, his bedroom door was closed. I grasped the doorknob and began to turn it when an icy hand wrapped around my wrist, and I screamed.

Brice stood beside me, and he looked awful. His face was still that sickly shade of gray, tinged blue. His eyes were bloodshot red, and sweat poured down his face.

That was nothing compared to the rash on his neck. The shade of purple was so dark that it looked as if it was black. It had spread up his face and down both arms. It was a swirl of the macabre, the coloring of death.

He tried to smile at me, and the effect was ghastly. I tried not to let my discomfort or fear show, and when he let go of my wrist, I fought the urge to wipe my hand on my pants. His hand was cold and slimy.

“I wouldn’t go in there,” Brice croaked, his eyes fixed on mine. “It’s a mess; I’m sorry I scared you. I was getting some water.”

He slowly shook the glass of water at me as though he needed to provide proof, and I smiled nervously at him, wanting nothing more than to run and lock myself in my room.

“Okay, well, I’ll let you rest. I hope you feel better.”

I hurried away, but Brice called out to me.


I turned and met his intense stare.

“I wouldn’t go up to the third floor anymore. It’s not safe.”

Then he entered his bedroom; the door clicked as he locked it. I stood mystified in the hallway, wondering how he knew I had been up there and what he meant by it’s not safe.

I don’t remember falling asleep, but I must have.

I stood in the middle of a dark room lit dimly by the moon’s light.

The air was full of fat flies; they buzzed incessantly. One came close to my face, and I clapped my hands together, squashing it.

I stared at the crushed mess on my palms. They glittered and turned into shards of diamonds. I watched as they floated in the air; they twinkled like stars.

There were bugs everywhere. On the walls and the floor, they coated the white sheets over the furniture, the record player, and the chandelier.

Only the mirror remained untouched by the insects. It gleamed on the other side of the room.

No, I tried to say no, but I couldn’t move my tongue or open my mouth.

The bugs formed shapes. Legs, torso, arms, head. They crowded around me in a circle, dancing and contorting.

They pulled at me and crawled on my skin. They whispered threats and panted curses.

I struggled to keep my mouth closed, but I wanted to scream.

Stiff fingers brushed my lips; I opened my eyes and saw a familiar face peering down at me from the ceiling.

The woman from the mirror was grinning at me. Her eyes were pitch black, and her white skin absorbed the moonlight.

She hung in the air upside down, her legs dangling from gold and yellow threads made into a web. The mirror gleamed, and I saw the delicate threads trailing from it.

The web stretched across the entire room, delicately woven into intricate shapes, and on it, several large egg sacs quivered. They looked like silk body bags.

The one nearest to me shuddered and tore open, and I watched whatever it encased fall out.

A leg at first, limp and pale, a hand crossed with black and purple veins, and then a bloated purple face with ice-blue eyes, staring but not seeing.

It was Brice. It was Brice’s dull but kind face looking down at me. The few strands of web encasing him gave way, and Brice’s body fell with a resounding thud.

Brice was dead. Brice was very dead. His torso had burst open, exposing the inner workings of his body.

His organs were furry and black and moving, and I realized that he was full of thousands of trembling bugs. They had burst through his body after eating him from the inside out.

Something was playing with my hair, twisting fingers through my dreadlocks. The woman was still watching me, her many eyes twinkling and hungry.

I haven’t forgotten you; have you forgotten me? Her gaze said.

She kept touching me, and I dimly realized that not only did she have many eyes but many arms and legs as well. She stroked my hair gently and grazed my face lovingly.

She looked like every monster I have ever imagined combined, but I didn’t feel afraid; I felt exhilarated. My heart pounded madly in my chest.

She stuck a finger between my lips and pried my mouth open. She mashed her lips against mine and breathed into me.

A flood of bugs danced on my tongue, and I hungrily swallowed them all.

They were sweet and bitter and tickled as they glided down my throat. They coursed through my veins, crawled on my organs, and glued themselves to my rib case.

They hummed on each and every bone.

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