Adriana Priest was overheated. She was sweaty, her hair clung uncomfortably to her neck, and her armpits felt like swimming pools. She didn’t smell wonderful.
Mosquitos from the dense woods that lined the heat-warbled sidewalk where she walked were beginning exploratory dive-runs at her baking flesh. The strap of her bag, even with its integrated cushion of memory foam, was gnawing into her shoulder. Her left knee ached from a tumble she took two days ago during a tourist run through the Willow Road Murder House.
Her left sock had worn through and her toes were rubbing against a seam in her boot.
Despite these troubles, Adriana was in a great mood.
Her phone rang. It was Claire Blackpool.
“Addy. How far off are you?”
“So – wait, what? What’s ‘yeah.’ What does ‘yeah’ mean.”
“OK, here’s the thing,” Adriana said.
“No, no, no.” Claire’s voice was tinny. Adriana had a good phone and good service – her sponsor saw to that – but the woods here were thick and the sidewalk was cutting across a remote stretch of nothing. “No. Everyone is here. Already. Adriana.”
By everyone, Claire meant the other members of their Shriexing clan, Team Mwerte: Sadie “Sad” Horlacher, Thea Torres, Lester Hoyle, and Charlie Tremble.
“Well,” Adriana said.
“Are you in the car?”
“Is Steve with you?”
“Prince Charming dumped me off on the side of the road.”
“Well, I dumped him. First. We had a bit of an argument.”
“Seriously? He just left you on the side of the road? And after what happened in Michigan?”
“He doesn’t know about that. But it’s kind of my fault… a bit. Maybe.”
“Uhhh… OK, I’ll bite.”
“He wanted to stick to schedule. I wanted to make a detour to check out the Willow Road Murder House. I won, of course. But then I kinda slipped on the Bloody Stairs and hit my knee, and he thought I’d be out for the rest of the season and freaked—”
“How in hell did you pull that off? Willow Road isn’t even malignant.”
“I know, but Old Man Hollowface lunged at me and caught me off guard and—”
“He’s nothing but mist!”
“I know that, he just startled me, OK? Happens to the best of us. Anyway, I didn’t much appreciate his attitude, Steve I mean, and told him so. I think he was more interested in getting into Team Mwerte than—”
“Getting into you?”
“Very funny. Anyway, blah, blah, blah. Here I am. He’s not going to be joining us for the season, by the way.”
“Agh. Hold on.” Claire’s voice receded, and Adriana heard a muffled discussion. Claire came back on. “Where are you, exactly?”
“Um, heading down Craven Road. Outside of Morrisville”
“How far along the road are you?”
“I don’t know! It’s a road, there’s woods…”
“How. Long. Ago. Did you pass Morrisville.”
“And, let me guess, you don’t know how to access the GPS on your phone.”
“You make that sound so terrible.”
“Hold on.” More conversing in the background. “OK. Charlie is coming out to get you. Keep heading south of Morrisville—”
“Keep going away from Morrisville, not toward it! And Charlie will pick you up in the next town, Clayton. I’m guessing you’re about five miles away, assuming you have been walking two hours.”
“You know, you’re still thirty miles away from our camp? Thirty! Oh, and by the way, we’re supposed to start prepping for Splatter Cave in half an hour. You were cutting it too close, even without this hiccup.”
“So, sue me, bitch!”
“I’m going to do something to you, for sure. How are you, otherwise?”
“I’m great! My mood is wonderful. I always enjoy shaking dead weight off my back.”
“Whatever, I liked Steve.”
“He’s all yours. Oh my God, Claire, it’s so shitty hot!”
“I know! I seriously think the sun is about to swallow the Earth.”
“Can the sun do that? Wait. Is the sun bigger than the Earth?”
“Is it? It is. Right?”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake Addy! Please tell me you know the answer to this.”
“The only thing I know is that screwing with you is so much fun.” She didn’t actually know. More precisely, she had never thought about it before. “Oh, hey, there’s a store up ahead.”
“A store? Is that what you said? Maybe Charlie can pick you up there, save you some walking. What’s it called?”
“Hold on, I’m coming around a bend in the sidewalk, let me see the sign. It’s called… um… Craven Road Clothing and Consignments. Nice! I need socks.”
“OK, hold on, here’s Charlie.” Her voice went muffled again. “She’s at a store called Craven Road Clothing and Consignments. Yeah. OK.” She came back on. “He’s heading out now and will pick you up at the store. So wait there.”
“What if it’s boring?”
“Then wait anyway!”
“Kay, I’ll talk to you in a bit.” She hung up.
The store was an ugly, grey rectangle with a black tar roof, nestled against the woods. Four milky windows stared blankly through cataracts of sun-bleached advertisements for Hollie Hobby dolls, collectable kitchenware, and hobby paint. A fourth sign proudly declared: Pet Rocks Sold Here!!
Adriana’s boots crunched over gravel as she approached. The entrance door was flimsy glass, riddled with cracks and mummified with ages of disintegrating packing tape. Dozens of bits of paper, the torn corners of old paper flyers taped to the glass, obscured the view into the store. These were probably adverts once, for bake sales or free kittens, long since ripped away.
When she pushed the door open, a small bell on the other side tinkled weakly.
The shop was narrow and cramped with racks of clothing. On the far side of the room, a dirty glass display case was packed with crafts and supported a cash register that would have been quaint decades before Adriana was born. Near the register were shelves of collectible statues, doll house furniture, and old Christmas decorations. To the left, a stairway descended, thickly carpeted in alarming orange shag.
Adriana paused near the door. “Hello?” The room was empty, the register unmanned.
The place smelled old. Musty. She was reminded of a particular closet in her aunt’s house, and the way the clothes inside seemed to wait, like strangers crouched in the dark, for her to open the door.
She turned her attention to the nearest clothing rack. The items there were tacky, worn, decades out of style. They smelled like her grandparents and of mothballs.
She didn’t think she would find socks here or, if she did, that she would want to wear them.
A bead of sweat slid between her breasts, tickling. It was sweltering. Dust moats swam through the heavy air like particles of ash.
She approached the register, hoping for a bell. She didn’t find one, but the display cabinet was full of small plastic statues of large-eyed urchins and weeping clowns, giant wooden spoons, and an owl made of brown yarn wrapped around nails driven into a block of wood.
“Hello?” Adriana called. She aimed her voice at the stairs. “Hey there, is anyone here?”
Nothing. The price tags hanging off every tacky object were faded and peeling. The prices were a decade or more out of date.
She gathered a pinch of white hair from the left side of her head and tickled the ends against her lips. Something was out of whack here. It was a gut sense, nothing psychic. Something bad was down those stairs, she knew it. Common sense suggested that she should leave.
I should leave, she thought. Claire is going to kill me if I miss Charlie because I’m screwing around.
The problem with common sense was that it seldom aligned with her pathological need to collect ever-larger needles of fear, and then drive them directly into her nervous system. She was an adrenalin junkie, and she was overly-curious.
The path down the stairs was narrow, hemmed on both sides with pop culture refuse the shop owners had optimistically affixed with price tags: several yellowed Sillisculpts statues, a stuffed Kliban’s Cat, an All in the Family board game, a box of pinback buttons with faded slogans (Keep on Truckin’! Have a Nice Day!). In places this stuff was piled in boxes two and three levels deep.
The stairway widened into a large landing, crusted with the same orange shag, spectacularly stained and matted, and cluttered with more boxes of flea market trash and stacks of old vinyl records. Several clothing racks were set againstg the dark wood paneled walls. The stairs continued on the other side of the landing.
To her right was a door; the room beyond was black. She fished in her bag until she found her flashlight.
The 800 lumens LED beam illuminated a room that seemed to belong to an old woman. A four-poster brass bed was neatly covered in a dingy quilt. A long dresser crouched in the shadows. Atop it lay an old-fashioned silver hand mirror, glinting next to a porcelain water pitcher. A nightgown and nightcap were spread across a worn recliner.
Why was this here? Adriana panned her beam around, settling on a framed oil portrait of a young and beautiful, but severe, woman wearing an old-world headdress. There was no door on the hinges. It made no sense to have a private room exposed so close to where customers presumably shopped. Was this the apartment of the owner’s elderly mother?
Adriana sniffed. Musty air. The smell of an old woman. Pungent, but not the roil of sickness and rot in the nose and on the tongue that would suggest she had stumbled into a malignant haunt.
She clicked off her light. What she need to do was head up and wait for Charlie. Outside. But he was half an hour out. Standing around in the heat would be tedious, with the mystery at the bottom of these stairs nagging at her back.
She stood at the edge of the landing. The stairs went quite far. Oddly far. The light from the landing was lost halfway down.
But of course, she would.
Just a few steps. Maybe a few after that.
Just enough steps to get a hint of what was down there.
Her weight on the first step caused it to squeak and she held her breath. Nothing stirred in the shadows below.
She went slow. In places the steps seemed to tilt forward, and her boots threatened to slip on the shag. She thought of carnivorous plants she had read about, and the way they trapped insects with spines that pointed down toward the part of the plant flooded with digestive enzymes.
She was halfway down when she saw light: a room down below. She couldn’t make out the details, but in the faint ambience she could see shadows moving. There were faint voices. She strained to hear.
“Hungry.” An old woman’s croak.
“So hungry.” Another.
There was a third, hissing something incomprehensible in what sounded like a Slavic tongue. Three distinct voices. The cracked, hoarse words of ancient crones.
“Hungry. So hungry!”
Well, here we go, she thought.
Normally her next step when discovering a new haunt would be to figure out how to hack it. Research, planning, a test run. Preparation could mean days with her nose planted in esoteric books or hovering over old maps.
She didn’t have time for any of that. The others were already annoyed with her tardiness. At this moment Team Mwerte was supposed to be practicing a run on The Splatter Cave, a particularly dangerous malignant haunt, their first after the mid-summer season break. She had put her team behind schedule. And her fickleness had cost them a stringer in the form of the dearly departed Steve. She was sure they were pissed at her.
Charlie was probably going to grouse at her the entire car ride back.
She had to do the dumb stupid right thing, damn it.
She took care on the way up. The crones were hungry, after all. They said so. It wouldn’t do to let them know she was here.
Back outside in the oppressive heat, she was five minutes down the sidewalk when Claire called.
“There you are. Where the hell have you been?”
“I told you, I went into the store to look for socks.”
“For an hour? I’ve been trying to reach you!”
“An hour—? I’ve been inside five, six minutes, tops!” She checked her phone. Five missed calls. “Oh… fuck me! It’s lost time. I’ve just lost fifty-four minutes.”
“You just experienced lost time? How?”
“Oh, it was that store. Weird stuff going on in there, not sure what. Witches, maybe. I’m actually walking away from it now, just to be on the safe side.”
“Seriously? God, only you, Adriana. OK, look, Charlie blew a tire, he’s going to be at least another half hour.”
“Wonderful. Well, I suppose… I could wait in the store for another few minutes, then he’ll be here. How do I do the math on that?”
“No. Don’t do that, you don’t know what you’re dealing with. Just wait where you are.”
“But it’s so hot! I can’t… I’m dying… I’m whiny… I’m— uh…” She heard a soft rustling sound. “Hold on.”
Near the woods was an upright pile of clothes in the shape of a man. Pants twisted to form the legs. Balled-up sweaters made the torso. Coils of shirts made the arms. The head was a spiral of bras.
“Got to let you go for a minute,” Adriana said.
“Why, what’s going on?” Claire’s voice was a squawk over the poor connection.
“Call you back in a bit.” She hung up.
The clothes-man stood unmoving, regarding her. Or was it looking at the woods? It was hard to know. It didn’t have a face.
“Hi there,” Adriana called. “Did you need me for something?”
It took a sharp step in her direction.
“OK, hold on!” Adriana shouted. “Don’t do anything stupid!”
The clothes-man shuddered and collapsed in a pile of component apparel. The garments lay like an overturned hamper, then slithered into the woods and down a steep bank as if yanked by dozens of strands of invisible fishing line.
“Well, OK then,” Adriana said.
She called Claire back, walking quickly. “Remember my theory about bleed-over? Where all this exposure to the paranormal is sort of, like, marking us, drawing supernatural occurrences our way?”
“Yeah. You think that’s happening to you now?”
“Oh… maybe.” The woods were filling with a soft rumbling.
“What? What is it?”
“I’ve— got to run. Literally!” She hung up and sprinted, just as a massive pile of outdated, moth-eaten clothes erupted from the woods. It reached the sidewalk in two ungainly bounds before splitting halfway through its bulk into a gaping maw, socks dangling down like teeth.
So, the shop did carry socks! Adriana thought.
The clothing mass paused a moment on the sweltering concrete, it’s mouth-form opening and closing, searching for a scent. And then it caught Adriana’s, leaping after her like a dog after a squirrel, undulating like a rolling wave.
Adriana knew she couldn’t outrun the mass; it was coming too quickly. She veered off into the woods.
The mass followed, but Adriana was agile. Darting around trees and leaping dead falls, she outpaced the mass and re-emerged on the sidewalk in sight of the store.
She dialed Claire. “Do me a favor, call Charlie and tell him to meet me right outside the store.”
“OK, but he’s only just got the tire fixed. He’s still at least half an hour away.”
“Just tell him to get her as soon as he can.”
“Adriana, what in hell—”
“Gotta go!’ She hung up. She could hear the mass sliding through the woods, over moss and logs, searching for her.
She ran to the glass door and opened it slowly, clasping the bell in her hand to prevent it from jingling. She was not surprised to find the clothing racks empty.
Three minutes. She fumbled with her phone to find the alarm app.
The mass came shuffling past the door. Adriana moved off to the side, out of view.
Three minutes. Two.
The mass circled past the door again. It paused there, long enough for Adriana to smell it, the musty stench of retirement home laundry, before moving on. She heard it slide around the corner, brushing against the outer wall as it went.
Two minutes. One.
“Do you smell that, mother?” It was a voice deep below.
“I do, I do! Youth. Young meat! I thought I smelled it before, but now… now I am certain!”
A third cackled something in the Slavic language Adriana didn’t recognize.
“Yes, grandmother! Ah, it’s been so long! Let us climb the stairs and claim this young flesh, let us tear it apart with our moldy teeth!”
Oh brother, Adriana thought. She checked her phone. Still one minute.
Footsteps thudded softly on the heavy carpet. Thump, thump.
Adriana positioned herself next to the door.
“Hungry,” something said, nearing the top of the stairs.
“So hungry,” something else hissed. “Tear the young flesh with our moldy teeth.”
Adriana’s alarm beeped just as a head of scraggly white hair appeared in the stairwell. She opened the door and stepped into the outside heat, hoping she had the timing right.
Charlie was in the gravel parking lot in his four-door Jeep, honking the horn.
She threw herself into the passenger seat. “Hi. You might want to gun it.” The clothing mass was erupting around the corner, it’s gnashing laundry mouth pointed their way.
Charlie threw the Jeep into gear and pressed his foot down on the accelerator. The mass struck them on the side as they sped onto the road, knocking them into the opposite lane. Charlie righted the Jeep and accelerated again, leaving the raging mass of clothes behind. Adriana watched it shrink in her side mirror. Craven Road Clothing and Consignments faded into the distance with it.
Adriana put on her seat belt. Charlie looked at her, then at the road. Then at her again. “That was a giant pile of clothing, wasn’t it.”
“Yeah.” She sat with her hands in her lap. “OK, admittedly, that was a bit weird.”
He kept his eyes fixed on the road and didn’t reply.
“Hey, can we stop somewhere and get socks? I need socks.”