#25 – How It Feels

This is Part Six of a longer narrative. Read Part Five here, or start at the beginning.

This is how it feels to be Stephanie Norwood.

The door slams shut at the top of the stairs. The sound reverberates through the cold stone. You feel it in your fingertips. It triggers a reaction in your chest like a shot of adrenaline, a dose of fear so intense that your heart races, speeding along as if it wishes to escape – it will escape, if you don’t let it. You have to find a way out before it does. The sounds of the beast, the enemy you’ve hunted, pacing upstairs. 

You scratch at the door, driving furrows down the soft wood with your bare nails, which break and splinter with your efforts. Blood trails down the back of your fingers, collecting in the cuticles where it will later dry and look like old paint – if there is a later. It does nothing to improve your position. You hammer your fists against the back of the door, howling and screaming, anger and fear swirling in your gorge to form a primal keening, a sound unlike any you’ve ever heard. It exhausts you. You travel down the stairs, now intimate with the dark, and lean against the cool stone-and-earth walls. The rise and fall of your chest marking the depth of your impotency. 

There is no knowledge that could have prepared you for this. The academy has little to offer to students who find themselves trapped in a monster’s lair. You laugh; a naked, foreign sound in that dim place. The absurdity of the situation belies the fact that your life is close to ending. You wonder what your committee might have to say about this and realize your life up to this point has been a waste.

You rise and wander back through the dark. The knowledge that the Bric-a-Brac Man is upstairs (doing what?) makes the journey easier. You find yourself back in the chamber with the small sad bundles. Seeing them awakens something in you. Something you thought dead, trapped by the dark. It’s a small flame, and it’s fighting, snapping at the air. You think of the children the monster stole, the lives it stole, and pledge not to fail them. Not to fail Katie. You will find your way out of here so that you can kill the monster.
Because monsters deserve to die.

So begins the long process of searching the dark. Though your eyes have adjusted somewhat, the gloom has only changed from a black-black to a blue-black, hardly enough to do anything by. You think you can make out shapes, shadows made form, but nothing seems certain. You run your hands over the floor, over the walls. You find little to interest you. Some baubles and knick-knacks. A few small house-hold items that suggest this place might once have been different. Bones. Too many bones. Then you find the door.

It is short and wooden, no higher than your knee. No wonder you missed it. You reach down and push on it, and it swings back, revealing a room beyond. You crawl down on your hands and knees and once you pass inside you hit your head against the earthen roof. You feel small threads of root tendrils tracing your ears. The ceiling is low. The image of a veal crate leaps into your mind without asking and the purpose of this place becomes clear. It seems to emanate with malevolence. But you’ve already checked everything else and so you must carry on, running your fingers along the wall, into the grooves where the bricks meet and the mortar lies. 

Then you find it. Your fingers almost don’t recognize it at first, so raw and red are they, but they scrabble and pull and soon you feel the lip of the brick against their pads. Somebody has worked away at the ancient stone. You pull and feel it shift. Emboldened, you pull harder, and it shifts a little more. You rip off your belt with a snapping sound and flip it so the buckle faces out of your fingers like some atavistic and vestigial claw and you scratch away at the stone, feeling small shavings dancing down the rear of your hand. You labour like this for longer than you can reasonably track, the air growing swampy and humid around you, until at last the brick begins to shift at your very touch. You reach your fingers behind and pull and it pops free, landing on the earth with a dull thud. A chill of air beyond fills you with hope and you pledge to fight on, scrabbling away at the next brick. And the next. And the next. 

When at last the bricks have been pulled back from the wall of that cell, a tunnel remains. You cannot see it in the dark but you know it must be there for the air that comes from it is fresh and cool compared to the heat of your prison. The only thing worse than the thought of going into that tunnel is the thought of not doing so.

You take a deep breath, and head on in.

This is how it feels to be Stephanie Norwood.

You scrabble on your stomach through the bowels of the earth. The walls hug your shoulders on either side, the earthen floor soft and vaguely damp beneath you. The ceiling is low and brushes against your head as you push yourself forward into the dark, discarding the questions that come to your mind, the what-ifs that threaten to loosen your bladder and drive you to cower like a cornered rabbit. You have no room to turn around. It’s forward or die.

Forward or die. 

The stone walls shift to soil as you descend deeper into the earth. Strange mosses and other nameless lichens tent against your hands as you crawl forward, bowing softly to your pressure. Your fingers brush against worms and other skittering things. All of it is but noise to you; pointless distractions. There is life and there is death. Everything encompassed within the first category is superior to that in the latter. You tell yourself this in the hope that you might come to believe it, even as the tunnel narrows and you’re forced to crawl through with your breath held, hoping that when the time comes to exhale, you’ll be able. 

The soil beneath your fingers begins to transition from solid hardpack to something soft and damp. You don’t know how far down you’ve come but evidently you’ve reached the water table. Memories of elementary science classes years ago rise and then scatter in your mind. Why would you need those now? They change nothing. It’s forward or die.

Forward or die.

The soil begins to cling to your hands as you crawl. The cool squelchiness of it is almost soothing to your tattered fingertips. The bloody traces of your work are clotted and staunched with mud. You are now crawling through the mud, the gentle sucking of the earth replaced with something more reluctant to let go. The mud is thick and heavy here and you feel for the first time actual water beginning to slosh around your limbs. You realize now how thirsty you are and you lower your head but an inch and begin to drink greedily of the still, stagnant water. It’s cold and tastes of dirt and is filled with silt that gets caught in your teeth and lingers on your tongue and yet it’s the best water you’ve ever tasted. Once you’ve had your fill, you carry on, hoping that the tunnel will soon rise.

And then you reach the pool.

You can’t see it, but its depth becomes clear when you reach your hand forward to pull yourself along and find it totally submerged, drowned in cold water that makes you gasp at its touch. It sloshes softly in that slim space. You reach out blindly in the dark for its surface and find only the roof of the tunnel, sodden and unyielding. The way forward is completely underwater. You don’t know how far it goes. The thought of turning around occurs to you but briefly before you remember that there is no turning around, there is only crawling backwards to a different end. So you make your choice.

Forward or die.

You pull yourself along with a claw-like hand, grabbing a clump of the pool’s muddy bottom to reel yourself in. You do this twice more and then there’s no more room to breathe, you take a great gasp, the last gasp you might ever take, and then you’re submerged. All sensation is occluded. There is only the water and the tunnel. The air in your lungs stale, useless. All you can do is move forward. Something creeping in, colder and emptier than the dark. A place you can’t come back from. All you can do is move forward, your lungs screaming for succour, your mind beginning to race, panicking, wondering when the water might break and whether your mind might break first and then you’re out, you’re breathing, you take a great gasp as your face breaches the surface and even the sick dank air of that forgotten place is the freshest you’ve ever known. 

You pull yourself free of the murk. The tunnel begins to rise, and as you climb, you feel the breath of root-tips and plants against your face. Emboldened by the knowledge that the surface is near, you speed up, the air beginning to grow sweeter around you. A faint light ahead. Not a will-o-the-wisp but something real. Hope blooms within you and you pull yourself forward until finally your face breaks the surface and the sweet breath of the night is the kindest kiss you’ve ever felt. 

With a few last surges of effort, you pull yourself free. The tunnel entrance is barely visible behind you, half-hidden behind a bush-ensconcelled knoll. Gravestones are visible around you in the faint moonlight. You realize where you are and the knowledge that you’re free of that pit resonates in your mind, collapsing in on itself until at last you’re brought to your knees, where you vomit and cry and scream the fact of your survival to the waiting night.

This is how it feels to be Stephanie Norwood.

The media circus is unlike anything you’ve experienced. You are branded as the survivor of a serial killer, one who escaped a basement of bodies through sheer determination and will. As if it’s the fault of the dead that they didn’t. You are asked to be on television and the radio. You meet with politicians and represent survivors whenever they are discussed, though no one actually listens to you when you try to identify the failures of policing that led to this juncture.

Your own work is immediately passed, and you are granted your doctorship without much further work. A revised version of your dissertation including a chapter about your search for the Bric-a-Brac Man is immediately optioned for publication, as well as film rights. Money is no longer an object.

What little vindication you feel is muffled by the knowledge that the Bric-a-Brac Man is still out there, and by the fact that the media elides the paranatural elements of the Bric-a-Brac Man’s killings. He is portrayed as cannibalistic, but all mention of the flesh-sacs in the basement and the prolonged timeline of murders is hidden. You cannot rest, for there is no justice or closure. The scars along your fingertips throb in the rain and remind you of your failure. 

Then one day you arrive home to find the postcard.

It’s tucked below the sisal WELCOME mat, and you almost miss it at first. Then you bend and pick it up, and even in this simple action, you know who it’s from. The face of the postcard is the Dalí painting with the melting clocks, only the clocks have been replaced with faces. His face. The face you don’t know but you do, because you’ve seen it in your dreams. The one with the floating smile. You turn the card over and see a few words, scrawled in a creek of jagged ink. 

so hungry im tasting blood whose blood i dont know yet but ive got a good idea yes so ill be seein ya soon yes i will yes I will yes

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