That night, we occupied the bar in the windowless room within B-'s favorite mansion, before the curtain that led to the door that would almost end the world. For the past few weeks I had been handsomely paid to tend the bar at these events, to ask no questions and spread no tales; tend the bar I did, and if I had questions or tales I kept them to myself.
As had become the custom of late, Charisse stood blindfolded on the low table at the center of the room. For the amusement of all, one of the ladies had gifted Charisse with leather underthings, and of course there were always fresh stockings. The heels were the same that she'd been wearing the first night, when the men had taken her.
Roger was piloting Charisse, blindfolded himself. The better to focus, he had told me the first time I had witnessed the exercise of his talent. Privately, I had always thought it an affectation, but given how this all ended--well, perhaps I was wrong about that, too.
Ezekiel was leaning forward in his armchair, his bushy moustache practically bristling with the energies Roger commanded. Across his lap, her arm around his shoulders, Dorothy squirmed happily; behind his cigar in the other armchair, with his arm draped so that it did not not quite touch Meredith, B- was all scowls.
The look on Charisse's face--words cannot describe the horror that stretched her lips beneath the blindfold. But she stood as Roger guided her, arms akimbo and legs spread, a parody of wanton confidence.
"Make her dance," Meredith told Roger. "Something complicated and desperate. Something slutty."
I--it is my shame and damnation, the cheer I gave that last suggestion. Meredith was always suggesting dangerous uses for the girl, and as I never felt entirely comfortable in B-'s house, I often covered my doubts with great shows of enthusiasm for them. Or perhaps these are only an old man's lies, given what happened.
Charisse danced on the tabletop, Roger piloting her with the expertise of long practice. She wept without knowing she was weeping, and we cheered Roger's skill.
"Down on the table," Meredith commanded. "I want to see her legs spread, the little trollop." Roger, drunk with his power, obeyed.
At the bar before me, Jill clapped drunkenly. "She probably likes it, the tramp," Jill said.
"Now make her rake her legs," Meredith said. "Dig deep. I want to see blood."
That it would be the women who commanded such things--I would not have believed it had I not been there. That these beauties could take such sybaritic joy in the degradation of another--
Ezekiel leaned forward further, his own fingers wandering across Dorothy's lap toward the hem of her short striped dress.
Myself, I hoisted another drink, perhaps to drown out the voices in my own head that told me how wrong it all was.
But Roger hesitated.
"Do as she says," B- growled, a tone well-used to obedience.
Roger's mouth twitched at the sound of it, but Charisse only lay there with her legs spread toward Ezekiel.
"You never hurt her," Meredith complained. "Are you sweet on her, Roger Goodrich?" She leaned forward, a wicked smile on her small mouth. "Oh, my. I never saw that before. You are sweet on her, aren't you?"
B-'s cheeks hollowed as he sucked on his cigar. He let a fragrant plume of smoke rise into the air. "I do hope that is not the case."
Roger, of course, could say nothing, but Charisse's hand flew to her inner thigh immediately. Pink streaks followed the trail of her fingernails.
"You know what?" Meredith said. "This is entirely boring. I have something better in mind. Have her take off your necktie, Roger."
Roger's shoulders relaxed. His hands twisted in the air before him, and Charisse slid from the table and onto her feet.
In her heels she was nearly as tall as Roger, and her hands went easily to his neck. A large part of me wanted her to break free, to wrap her hands around his throat and squeeze; the world was full of Rogers back then, and the loss of this one would be a significant benefit to the good name of the rest of them. But she tugged the tie free.
"Don't untie it," Meredith said.
Beside her, B-'s lips bent. Instead of dropping ash onto the floor for Charisse to clean after the session, he tapped it into the glass on his thigh. That struck me as strange, but even then I don't think I had any idea what was coming. Not that I could have stopped it.
Meredith had Roger pilot Charisse around the room, removing first Ezekiel's tie and then her husband's. And then she had her knot the three of them together in the middle. Whatever else ith might have been, it was also, to be honest, a fantastic display of Roger's control.
"Have her put one of the loops around her neck," Meredith said. She tapped a fingernail against her cheek. "Hurry, now."
Roger saw it then. I still didn't, but I could tell from the way his head dropped that he knew something I didn't.
"Now lay her on her stomach, with her feet up."
Charisse's face was largely hidden by her blindfold, but her spine was rigid and unwilling. Suddenly I understood what was about to happen. I wish I could tell you that I voiced objection. Some part of me did. But I drank instead of speaking, and poured another for Jill, who would some nights deign to go back to my apartment after Charisse had been put up. I was paid well for my silence.
"Remove your blindfold, and hers. Then loop the other loops around her ankles."
Roger removed his blindfold. His gaze was firmly fixed on his own feet.
"Around her ankles," Meredith repeated. Hers, too, was a voice of command. A different sort than her husband's, perhaps, but not a voice used to recalcitrance.
Charisse whined, the low desperate sound of a car-struck dog. Ezekiel's hand had disappeared entirely under Dorothy's dress, and she was writhing against him. Jill had finished off her drink and was looking to me for another. Meredith's eyes glittered. And B- --
B- was directing a meaningful stare toward the curtain beside the bar. The curtain was thick and black, but it never did much to block the draft from behind the door beyond.
Roger saw the direction of B-'s stare, and removed Charisse's blindfold.
I'd never seen her eyes before. They were the blue of a surprised jay's wings. And they were wide and terrified and fully aware.
It wasn't to ensure better control that Roger had insisted on the blindfold, I saw then. At least, it wasn't entirely to ensure better control.
It was so he could do it at all. The horror, the terror in Charisse's expression--
I broke from her gaze and looked at the curtain myself. The draft had grown colder, or perhaps I just felt it more keenly.
"Kneel at the edge of the table," Meredith instructed when Roger had finished with the task he'd been given. "I want you to look her in the eyes."
The mewling from Charisse's throat was so awful that I could not bear to listen or watch. So I drank, again. And I watched Dorothy and Ezekiel.
Dorothy's head was upside down over the edge of the chair, Ezekiel's arm all that kept her in her seat as his right hand worked away. She kicked her legs, her arching back pushing out her breasts. Her fingers twined in Roger's short hair. The flush in her face, the way her mouth stretched with her moaning, made her much easier to watch than what was happening an arm's length from her.
Across the bar from me, Jill gave a too-loud laugh.
"Look her in the eye, damn you," Meredith snarled.
"Do it," B- growled. "Get it over with."
Charisse's keening cut off like a shade being drawn. Roger's continued for a good long time after that.
When it was done, when Dorothy had yowled out her climax, when Roger was sobbing on the floor before the table, when Charisse had been rendered nothing more than a slumping purple-faced pile of flesh, B- looked at me. "You know what to do."
I'd never done it before, but I knew well enough what he wanted. "All right," I said drunkenly. "But you're paying me extra."
"There are gloves under the bar." B- drew on his cigar, tapped the ash into the glass. Charisse would not be there to clean it, after all.
Her body was heavier than I'd expected. I managed. I was young and strong, back then, and at the end her whines had been so much quieter than Dorothy's shrieks and Jill's laughter that the whiskey let me put them aside. She was luggage, and I lugged her.
When I laid her body down to the side of the curtain and slid the curtain back, the fierce chill baking off the thick steel door behind it would have sobered me immediately had so much not depended upon my clinging to my inebriation.
"Careful," B- told me. "Shove the body in, and close up quick. Bolt it fast. We don't want to attract any attention."
The steel wheel centered upon the door might have been made for a banker's vault. Beneath the thick leather gloves, my sweat froze and pierced my hands as I clenched them around the wheel.
Beyond--oh, God, beyond. Beyond was night. Terrible, eternal night, a night without stars, a night without hope of day's return. Into that darkness, a fierce wind rushed, tearing the breath from my lungs. I froze for a moment.
There were sounds in that void. Fierce cawing, like a murder of crows each ten times the weight of a man. A fearsome hungry crackling that might have been the skin of a giant snake sloughing away.
The light from the room traveled nowhere into that eternal night, and for the moment all I could do was stare in terror and fight for breath.
Behind me, Roger howled, a long wolflike cry that broke my paralysis. I bent to pick up Charisse's body, all numb hands and desperate heart.
B- cursed, and I heard the wooden clatter of the table overturning. Ezekiel swore too, and Jill laughed with such unhinged abandon that I had to look.
Roger stood, his hands clawed in the air before him. Across the overturned table, B- glared at him, his jaw set in a rictus of fury and his own hands upraised.
Roger staggered back.
Behind me, the noises grew louder. I had not thought they could get louder. The chill bit deeper. I had not thought that possible, either. But I could no more move to close the massive door than I could bolt for the exit across the room.
B- snarled, and Roger stumbled closer to me. His movements were not his own.
"You only sip from the void, boy," B- snarled. "I drink it whole."
He forced Roger back another step, and another, his eyes never leaving Roger's and his hands never dropping.
Roger tripped over Charisse's body, fell backward.
His head slipped into the doorway and vanished as though no light at all came from the room we were standing in. Roger screamed a high girlish scream.
And then something ripped him from the room like a child's toy.
"Throw the body in," B- snapped, and the thought of his fury directed at me was enough to spur me back into motion. I bent and lifted, felt searing pain race up my back but I did not, could not, let it stop me and I tumbled Charisse into the void, the crippling pain in my back nearly pulling me in after her. I cried out and fell to my knees.
"Close it, damn you!" Jill's shriek held no trace of humor now, unhinged or otherwise. Only terror.
I couldn't. I tried to stand but my back would not let me.
B- bent his fingers and I was wrenched upward despite the ball of fire raging in my lower back. My hands reached for the door. Hideous shrieks tried to claw through my throat, and failed. I felt B- like a child's glove into which a man's hard hand had been shoved, and even without the pain that had set my back ablaze the brutality of this invasion nearly killed me.
Through the door, something stretched. Something massive and black, something a little like claws, a little like a tentacle, but mostly like the twisted wreckage after an automobile fire. It was only part of the thing, I knew. The rest was too big to fit, but what made it through the doorway was long enough. It threaded through the air as though it were iron cable and B- a massive lodestone. It engulfed him like a hunger.
B- did not cry out. Did not swear or grunt or even breathe. He did not have time for such luxury. The thing yanked him through the door with the ferocity and speed of a striking tornado.
His presence within me disappeared and I fell forward, landed against the open door.
The cold froze my face in a blaze of pain that went instantly numb. It paled before the desperation of the endless night before me.
Behind me, the women were screaming. Panicked footsteps raced for the door to the rest of the house.
Through the black doorway, something else snuffled nearer. Something smaller and hungrier. Something, I knew in that moment, that would fit through the doorway and, once in our world, would show no mercy and never be killed.
Skin ripped from my face as I forced myself to roll away from the door. Kicked it closed.
It slammed shut with a brief sucking sound that terminated in an echoing crash.
And the something on the other side crashed against it.
I do not remember how I forced myself to my feet. I remember the flow of blood from the ruined left side of my face and a curious lack of pain there. I remember the blistering wildfire that was my back. I remember the wheel spinning in my hands, the blood freezing on my skin again. But I do not remember how I stood.
I awoke several hours later to an empty house, and made my slow and painful way to the outside world.
Outside the sun shone brightly, a last gorgeous spring day full of buzzing bees and fragrant flowers. It must have been warm; the boy who looked twice at me then ran away screaming was wearing short pants.
Perhaps it is the ruined skin of my face, or perhaps it is the terrible things that we did and I saw in that room. Perhaps it is simply the chill of the door, of what lies behind it, baked into my bones and making them brittle. All these years later, no matter how far south I travel, no matter how warm I keep my room, day and night I still shiver with the cold, shiver and shudder and quake. I have never been warm again. And never will.
This one was for a BoingBoing comment thread, an explicit call for stories based on a picture. See the picture here (new window). It didn't go quite the way I'd thought it would, but I like it.
Another 500 words or so in the beginning ended up getting cut for sake of getting into the story. I liked them, too, but they ultimately belonged to the story that didn't get told, as opposed to the one that did, so away they went :).
As always, feedback and improvement suggestions are always welcome; as always, the title is terrible so feel free to suggest a better.