Voices in the Crawlspace

"Just when you think you know what’s going to happen, Mesling pulls the rug out and down the trapdoor you fall, spiraling into expertly crafted nightmares. I’m already looking forward to Pete’s next offering!"—Robert Essig, author of In Black and People of the Ethereal Realm

You can hear me read "Voices in the Crawlspace," along with tales by Aaron J. French and Anthony J. Rapino, in episode 26 of The Bare Knuckle Podcast. Also, don't miss out on the lavishly illustrated anthology that spawned it: Black Ink Horror #7!

“Anything new in the evening edition?” Roger asked, tipping a beer to his mouth as he barged into the kitchen.
 Dagmar sat at a small kitchen table with the paper spread out in front of her, one dim light doing what it could to make the newsprint readable.
“Not really,” she said. “Not tired enough to hit the sack, though.”
“You ask me, these folks that are gone missing, they’ll turn up in some hooker sting, snorked out on joy powder, pants bunched up around their ankles.”
“Not everyone shares your disturbed fantasies, Rog.”
“But you’ve noticed they’re all in the same line of work.”
“A lawyer, two cops, and a judge. Hardly a group you’d expect to see talking politics at the corner bar. I think it’s more sinister than that.”
“Course you do. Too many of them damn crime novels you’ve always got your face buried in. Just you wait and see if I’m not right about this. They’re probably skinny-dipping in some fancy hotel pool as we speak.”
“The paper says it’s being treated as foul play. Doesn’t sound like they’ve been able to make strong connections between any of the missing.”
“You believe everything you read?”
“You believe every damn notion that pops into that stone on top of your neck?”
He didn’t like that. His beer arm stopped halfway to his mouth, and he glared at her without saying a word for the longest time. “I’ve been around long enough to trust my own judgment with shit like this. I need the local paper telling me what’s what the way you need another lap on the ugly mill. When they actually have something to report—like evidence—maybe I’ll pay attention.”
“You asked.” She’d learned long ago to ignore most of his tirades, to avoid an exchange of insults, elude the bait. “You going to bed?”
He stood with his belly out for a moment, a sneer streaked across his face, but eventually he relented and downed the rest of his beer, happy to pretend he’d won some victory over her.
“Better finish this sixer. I’ll probably just pack it in on the couch tonight.”
And like a tiger slipping into the woods after feeding, he was gone into the darkness of the living room. She heard the electron surge of the idiot box as it warmed to life, and she vowed to be in bed before he settled on Fox News. Some of her girlfriends complained about husbands who couldn’t keep a television set tuned to one station for more than two or three minutes. With Roger’s tastes, Dagmar wished she had it so good.
She didn’t fall asleep worth a damn on the best of nights. The stack of books on the little table beside the bed was so tall and precarious because of her insomnia, or whatever it was. Thoughts crowded her mind whenever she lay down to rest. Music helped sometimes, but she had to wear headphones if she really wanted to drown out the white noise of her day—or evening—and they were uncomfortable to wear in bed. Books were far more effective weapons in the battle against sleeplessness.
The topmost tome was the latest exposé claiming to pry open the shroud of deception that had been draped over all acts of government following September 11, 2001. It was titled—cleverly, she thought—The Administration of 9/11. Unfortunately, the title was by far the book’s most compelling feature, for the narrative had quickly dissolved into a wandering thread of conspiracy theories. Still, she kept dipping into it, no longer hoping to find much truth or insight in its pages, but occasionally amused by some of the author’s more outlandish claims. As if the terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center hadn’t been complicated enough to orchestrate and pull off—without so much as a blip of interference at any point along the way from conception to execution—A. C. Baddington wanted her to believe that former vice president Dick Cheney had personally given pull orders on the north and south towers, as well as building seven. A gallery of black-and-whites offered a visual comparison between the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings and controlled demolitions from various dates and locations. Blah, blah, blah.
Dagmar was stunned to realize she’d read eighty pages of Baddington’s drivel. She had the feeling she’d come and gone, turning a number of those pages in fits of shallow sleep, but still… eighty pages. No sign of Roger, either. He’d never spent an entire night on the couch before, and she didn’t like the idea all that much. Maybe he was right not to see much value in her. Maybe life had just sort of built up around her like a crust because she lacked any real skill at defining herself. She didn’t suppose she’d ever been tested. All she knew for sure right now was that she wasn’t just having trouble falling asleep. She was also a little afraid.
Afraid? What the hell was there to be afraid of? Good god, did marriage make you so dependent on your spouse that you couldn’t make it through a single night in separate rooms? No, she couldn’t blame the institution of marriage. After all, many married people traveled for work. Surely their partners learned to live without fear. Learned. That was it, of course. She hadn’t learned to get by on her own, because she’d never had to. She laid a quivering hand on her stomach and balled up her night shirt several times.
Check on him, said a small voice somewhere in her mind. Get up and make sure he’s okay.
What an absurd thought. Of course he was all right.
But she rolled out from under the covers, swinging both legs over the edge of the bed and sliding into her slippers. A chill crept up on her right away, from her heels, which the slippers didn’t cover, to the bare skin of her arms and neck. Her pajama pants felt paper thin.
She was willing to walk through the dark house, but she refused to call out his name. Maybe she could live with the discovery of his absence by sight—or touch, come to that. Maybe. But the sound of her own voice calling and calling throughout the small rambler without response would launch her into a panic.
Absence? her rational mind shouted as she paused in the hall with a hand laid gently against each wall, her head rolled slightly to one side. You sure are letting the full moon get to you tonight, old girl. But she couldn’t help but notice there was no hum from the television’s tinny speaker, no gray–blue glow flickering at the end of the hallway… no snoring.
That’s when she noticed the sound of voices coming up through the floorboards. Whispering voices, muffled into an indecipherable drone by the floor between Dagmar and the speakers. Two of them, it sounded like, but she couldn’t be sure. In her mind’s eye, she began to see dozens of vagrants conversing in the crawlspace, huddling and twitching like oversized rats scuttling over each other to make a warm nest even warmer.
Had they been whispering all night and her mind refused to pick up on it until now? Is that why she’d had even more trouble than usual getting to sleep? If so, what the hell could anyone be chatting about down there for so long? Thieves would have wanted to be in and out. Perverts and psychos didn’t tend to operate in pairs, as far as she knew. What, then?
Her next step was sure to be the one that would land her on a loose board, which would groan in protest, and the whispering voices would cease, their owners suddenly attentive. That would be bad. But staying put was even worse, not knowing if Roger was sitting up on the couch, similarly petrified by the strange voices. If not, he had to be told. The only way into the crawlspace was through a small hatch at the back of the house, sunken in a kind of concrete window well. Crawling in there in the middle of the night was a man’s work. Feminism be damned.
She shuffled for a few steps but didn’t care for the scraping sound her slipper soles made on the hardwood floor. Soft, easy steps proved the better tactic, as she made it to the living room without eliciting a single squeal of wood or nail. But when she reached the couch, her husband was nowhere to be seen.
Okay, no reason to lose it. So he slipped into the kitchen for a drink of water or a late-night snack. Big deal.
But right away that didn’t feel right. She would have seen or heard some sign of him as she passed the kitchen. The running tap, glasses clinking as he plucked one from the cupboard, the magnetic shrrrp of the refrigerator door being peeled open—something. And what could be taking him so long?
Unwilling to admit to herself that one of the voices from below the house might have been Roger’s as he plotted her undoing with some nefarious hireling, Dagmar stepped softly into the kitchen to be sure he wasn’t there, knowing there was only one other place to check. She’d passed the bathroom on her way to the living room. The door had been open, the light off. He’d have seen her pass by, surely. Still, it was a possibility worth eliminating if she struck out in the kitchen.
Which she did. Her heart beat a little faster, a little harder, and suddenly a glass of water didn’t sound like a bad idea. She pulled down a tumbler and flicked her finger through the stream from the tap to make sure it was cold enough, then filled the glass more than halfway. But the water never reached her lips. When she peered out the window above the sink and saw a slender, motionless figure staring back at her from the edge of the patio, the glass dropped from her grasp and shattered in the ceramic sink.
But the figure wasn’t motionless. It was a man, and he swayed in small, uneven circles, though his feet remained firmly planted. She wanted to look away, wanted to make a dash for the front door and run screaming to Alison and Bob’s house across the street. But the man at the fringe of the yard light’s range held her for the moment, as surely as if his long, bony fingers were squeezing her shoulders to keep her in place. His face was long and worn out, the corners of his mouth drawn down into a permanent frown, and strips of orange fabric hung from his torso and legs, adhered by a mottling of sores. She didn’t welcome the thought, but there was undeniably something of the grave about him.
A wave of shudders passed through her. She was usually one to know what to do when events fell out of line with the planned or expected course of things. Not this time. The patio had always made her a little uneasy after dark, and she’d probably feared this very occurrence many times without giving the image time to gel. But she would have thought the sliding glass door was more of a problem than the kitchen window. They’d never bothered to curtain it, and it was an awfully big open space to walk past in the night, especially if the lights were on. Very easy to feel you were being watched.
Maybe she had been. She wondered if every time she’d passed by the sliding door and felt the chill touch of apprehension, one of these things had been out there staring in at her.
That broke the spell. It was definitely time to locate Roger or phone the police. No need to mention anything about the undead vibe she was picking up from the man outside. Let the authorities draw their own conclusions if it came to that.
On her way back to the bathroom, she found the loose board she’d been worried about. The screech it let out seemed incredibly loud but probably wasn’t. She kept moving. The voices had been inaudible from the kitchen, but now she heard them chattering away again.
Roger was not, of course, in the bathroom. Now she could no longer brush aside her fear. The last barrier between herself and whatever threat was posed by the man outside, and those underneath the bedroom, had evaporated. She wished she had the cordless phone from the bedroom as she wondered what the man outside was up to.
“Dagmar, please!” Her husband’s voice, low and strained. She wasn’t sure if it had come from outside or under the floor. She stepped into the bathroom, wanting to see something through the window, but she’d have to draw open the shower curtain first. The window was on the other side of it. Only when she laid a hand on the plastic curtain did it occur to her that one of them might be standing in the tub, waiting with an anxious smile. “Dagmar…”
His voice was almost depleted. The backyard, definitely. What were they doing to him out there? She threw open the curtain, sending its metal rings whining across the rod. No one standing there. She let herself breathe.
As she stepped into the tub to get a better look out the window, however, she was shown her error. One of them lay in the tub, staring up at her with malicious holes for eyes.
She tried to twist out of the thing’s reach, but it was quick and strong. In an instant it had her ankle. She felt her skin tear, smelled the horrible earthy, dead odor of decay, even above the damp-plastic stink of the shower curtain. In a struggle to keep from vomiting, she almost fell backwards. Seeing an opportunity, it gave her leg a tug, but she caught hold of the shower-curtain rod and steadied herself.
“Where’s my husband, goddamn it?”
Its lips curled back in an ugly, mirthless smile. “Out of commission,” it managed to utter through rotten vocal cords and a ruined mouth. “Only an appetizer. You’re the one we’ve come all this way to see.”
It used her ample hips to drag itself up, slowly winning the struggle they were engaged in.
Then she understood, saw it all with the clarity of a sunrise over nearby Lake Serene. She wasn’t sure she believed it yet, but she understood. The cops, the prosecutor, the judge. She’d assumed they were showing up dead for some reason that connected them to each other, but not one to which she, too, was connected.
“We’re moving in, Dagmar,” it rasped. “Into the basements and cellars and crawlspaces of those who wronged us. Feed… us… Dag… mar…”
Orange tatters of clothing hung from this one, too, in dirty strips that she now recognized as the remnants of state-issue overalls. Peels, they called them on the inside, as in orange peels. Dagmar knew something about being on the inside. Not because she’d ever been convicted. Heavens! She wouldn’t have lasted a day behind bars. Certainly not a night. No, she had the privilege of leaving again whenever she made her rounds to the tri-state area’s prison facilities. They were terrifying places to visit, but how the inmates must have envied her ability to come and go, more or less as she pleased.
But that wasn’t why some of them had grown so enraged that it was worth coming back from the dead to mete out revenge. It was the reason for her visits that must have crawled deep enough into their skin to make this… uprising possible.
The strangulating smell filled her head, and she wanted to apologize to this troubled, stymied soul for doing such a good job of delivering the medical supplies—especially the solutions used for lethal injection—to area penal institutions. Even as he dug his nearly fleshless fingers into her saddlebags and tugged hard enough to make her lose her grip on the rod… As she fell on top of him and he grabbed the hair at the back of her head. As he licked her face and brought her head up as far as his reach would allow. Through it all, and seeing how it was to end, she wished in vain for words that would quell the storm inside his head, maybe save her own life in the process.
But the corner of the tub came at her far too quickly to allow for anything but pain. And there was a lot of it as the thing in the tub slammed her face repeatedly against the porcelain edge, until her teeth began to chip and bury themselves deep into her gums. She coughed some bits out, swallowed others. Her last vision in this world was the rivulets of her own blood that ran down the side of the tub and pooled where they met the linoleum. She whispered a prayer against becoming one of them, and before life could escape her, she felt a gnawing sensation at the back of her head and wondered at the strange ways of God.


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