Libby and her twin sister, Jenna, stood at the crossroads behind the old, red-bricked Freemason’s building eyeing a stagnant puddle crusted with scum and spongy debris. Beneath it swam things unnatural to the earth, black-eyed, slick-bodied beings with an insatiable hunger for more light than dark. Libby shivered just thinking of their aberrant touch and noxious whispers, how they slipped against her cold flesh and raked their sharp talons down her legs. Instinctively, she screamed; but underwater, death was silent.
Jenna shook her into the present. “Crossing over isn’t for the frail,” she said. “Why don’t you try going in head-first.”
It was true what they said about twins, knowing each other’s thoughts. By the crook of Jenna’s lip, Libby knew what she really meant was, Stop being such a sissy all the time.
“If you can envision where you want to go,” Jenna continued, “you can control where you end up. Yesterday, I traveled to the well behind Jason Wade’s house and watched him through his bedroom window.” She jigged her brows and smiled wide.
Libby said it as if interested, but in all truthfulness, she wasn’t. She never wanted to tread through another water gateway again, cute boy’s bedroom or not. Even if it meant going home. The underworld, made not of fire and rock, but of a cold, wet darkness, had a sickening effect on her, as though it wanted to keep her there, pull her under. What if one of the things wrapped around her ankle too tight? What if it clutched at her middle and squeezed her throat closed? What if it held her under until she too became a black-eyed thing?
“C’mon, I’ll show you,” Jenna said, seemingly clueless that there was anything in the water at all. She grabbed hold of Libby’s hand. “To 3520 Ashbury Drive.”
“To 3520 Ashbury Drive,” Libby repeated, trying to conjure the image of their blue house and front porch, the large maples out front, and the mailbox with a foxtail for a letter flag.
Jenna pulled on her arm, and the two of them ran and dove into the dregs of the puddle, headfirst. The black eyes were swift, a flash of silver in the dark, sharp teeth gleaming behind wicked grins. Jenna weaved through the current as if unaware or unthreatened by them. One passed so close to Libby, she heard it whisper her name. That they knew who she was, chilled her more than death itself.
Another black-eyed thing reached out for her and curled a scaly limb around her wrist, binding itself to her. Libby flailed her arms, desperate to break free of its hold. She slipped from Jenna’s view. Libby swiped her hands through the waters, half searching for Jenna, half in a panic to escape the clutches of the black-eyes.
Jenna called out to her, as if from a distant room. Libby screamed, but it was without sound again and more of a cracking of her spirit. A forceful hand jerked Libby backwards. Within seconds, she surfaced from the swimming pool in her backyard. Jenna dragged her to the edge of the pool. While catching her breath, Libby glanced around the yard and noticed how everything looked as it had four days ago.
Jenna sighed. “See? I told you.”
Libby knew what she meant was, Why don’t you ever listen to me?
“How many times have you done this?” Libby asked, hugging the sickness that still tightened around her stomach.
“I don’t know, ten times.” Jenna patted her on the back. “You’ll get used to it.”
Libby thought otherwise.
The two of them walked across the yard towards the house and stood on the front steps of what used to be their home. Libby supposed it still was and always would be. It had only been four days since she and Jenna crashed their car on their way to the school’s fundraiser to help pay for new computers for the school lab. Libby told Jenna to slow down, that the wet roads would be slick after the long, hot summer.
“God, you’re such a stress-case,” Jenna had said. “I swear, you worry like an old bat. All you need now is a floppy hat to match your flowered dress.”
Libby never wore dresses, had only hoped to attract the attention of Adam Elwood, but she wound up dying instead and dressed for the occasion. Had blood not spilled down the neckline, the coroners could have just dusted off the shards of glass and smoothed the hemline flat.
Despite the tragedy, the school fundraiser was the most successful to date. It even kick-started a charitable foundation in honor of Libby and Jenna’s volunteering. More importantly, Annalee, the little girl whose car they skidded into, had survived, though still a tiny heartbeat on the 3rd floor of intensive care. Their mother, Sharon, often visited Annalee in the hospital. This, Libby believed, was the source of Jenna’s indifference and what kept her in the world of the living.
Standing outside the front door, Jenna and Libby listened for their parents inside. Movement shifted behind the front window. The shadow of their mother.
“Mom’s home,” Jenna said.
The nausea that rolled over Libby after treading through the dark waters pitted into her gut again, wrenching and twisting with the anticipation of seeing her parents, a moment as endearing as it was horrific.
“Ready?” Jenna said.
Libby nodded, then followed Jenna, stepping straight through the front door. That ghosts weren’t bound by walls or doors baffled Libby. She assumed it was a fabricated element of fiction, along with the notion that ghosts existed at all.
They walked into the living room where a long, dark hallway joined the bedrooms. The two of them steered for their room, curious to see if their parents had made any changes to it. In their eyes, nothing had been touched, but the room had a curious new feel to it in a way that was hard to pin down. Something in the lighting, Libby thought, turning to look out their bedroom window.
In the hallway, both girls heard footsteps approach. Sharon walked into their room with a load of laundry and froze stone-still, eyes glued to the empty, unmade queen bed she and Jenna shared together. Jenna ran to their mother, tried to hug her, but she stumbled through Sharon’s arms and fell onto a stack of books. The books skidded across the hardwoods.
Sharon screamed and ran from the room. Libby fled, tearing her way through the cold, dark water and the black-eyed, hungry things, back to death’s plane—a place no better.
Death’s plane paralleled the world of the living in many ways, having the same landmarks, houses and buildings, but it didn’t contain the buzz of people and machines, only the sharp reflections of regret and the coldness of loss. And only in death’s plane, did the subtle glow of light appear in the horizon, like a gateway into another world. More light than dark.
While it seemed to fade in focal view, it was always there at the edge of sight. Libby knew it was a gateway, knew she was supposed to go through it, but fear of what awaited her on the other side always held her back. There was nothing to guarantee the light led to a better place, and it didn’t matter anyway. Libby couldn’t leave without Jenna, and Jenna was in no hurry to leave the world of the living. Jenna wanted to stay in death’s plane so she could keep crossing over. But the light at the horizon ebbed, like daylight in the fall. Libby feared that one day, the gateway might disappear entirely. Would it be too late then? What if there was a time limit on saying good-bye?
Jenna stayed in the living world for as long as she could. Though Libby didn’t care for death’s plane, she dreaded the living world more—it had a way of driving ghosts out of it.
Once, she and Jenna had stumbled across protected ground when their mother visited a woman from the church. Neither one of them noticed the rosary hanging over the woman’s front door. When they followed Sharon into the house, the beads rattled, and the chain fell behind them.
The woman screamed. She seized Sharon by the shoulders. “Spirits are following you! You must go to the First Congregational and do what the priest tells you!” She grabbed an incense bundle on the fireplace mantel and smoked each corner of the entryway.
The living world shrank into a tight, heavy darkness. Pressure constricted around Libby’s middle until she couldn’t breathe. Her body fell through a white, blinding space, a deafening vacuum, until she and Jenna found themselves back in death’s plane and standing over their own graves.
Libby fought to contain her tears. “We can’t go back.” Don’t make me go back.
“Libby, even as a ghost, you’re still a stress-case.” You always slow me down. You’re a total drag.
Jenna turned and walked to the pond outside the front doors of the West Hills Funeral Home. She waded to the middle of water’s dark glass, then slipped her head under.
The gateway glowed over the hill next to St. Mary’s statue. Jenna either couldn’t see the light or didn’t want to admit it was there, Libby thought. All the while its pull on her grew stronger.
Days later, Jenna still hadn’t returned from the world of the living. Libby suspected where her sister had gone. With much hesitancy, she searched for a body of water to travel through.
Behind the school, an irrigation ditch ran the lengths of cabbage fields beyond. Libby kneeled at the edge, sinking her feet into sodden dirt. She lingered in fear of the black-eyes that waited for her, anticipating a feast on her spirit. At the thought of Jenna scaring her parents again, she closed her eyes tight, breathed in deep, and she pushed herself down into the cold.
The black-eyes pulled her in deeper, threading her into the web of icy currents. Darkness folded around her, squeezing against her breath. Libby twisted away from them and paddled her way out of their grasp as she’d seen Jenna do. The black-eyes glided past her, tearing and cutting into her flesh. Her skin stung from their razor-thin scratches. Her breath burned in her lungs, but she kept swimming, kept the vision of 3520 Ashbury Drive ripe in her thoughts as she plowed her way through the pith of the cold dark—she had to find Jenna. She had to convince her that they were running out of time.
Libby emerged, heaving and exasperated, from the waters in a rain-flooded sinkhole behind their neighbor’s house. Nausea twisted at her middle. Hollowness tunneled through her and lodged into her chest like a giant splinter. She stood and glanced to the side, feeling the eyes of a stalking cat on her. Crows squawked at her from the limbs of an old maple tree—life had no tolerance for death.
Libby crossed the yard and headed toward her house. She passed through the fence without obstruction and then through the back door. Sharon collected dinner plates from the cupboard. She wore all black: skirt, shirt, stockings, and shoes. A silver cross draped long around her neck. She placed the plates on the dining room table. Jenna watched her from a dark corner.
Sharon set a third plate down and stopped abruptly. There was only the need for two now, for her and Alan. A scowl of anger crossed into her eyes, so terrifyingly dark, Libby wished to disappear from the living world forever.
Sharon grabbed the plate from the table and flung it against the wall. Tiny slivers exploded across the room, sharp, jagged bits seeking soft flesh. Alan rushed into the dining room. Sharon crumbled to the floor in his arms.
Jenna bolted from the house crying. She hates us!
Libby dove into her swimming pool in the backyard and swam hard, clawing and kicking her way through the dark cold. This time, the currents were a herculean gravity that dragged her down into the chasms of the underworld. The black-eyes screeched around her. Libby fought fire against fire, unleashing her own rage and every shard of anger she could summon. How it all poured out, like arterial blood spill, her soul becoming more dark than light.
The glow of day illuminated above and streamed down through the darkness. Libby rose and broke through the water’s surface. She clutched onto the nearest object she could find, a mossy trunk and slick boulder. She scanned the familiar area, one of her favorite places, the small creek in the woods not far from her house where she and Jenna spent most of their childhood playing among the fallen trunks and forested ravines. At the horizon, the gateway glowed, a constant reminder that she was not where she was supposed to be.
A breeze lifted behind her. Libby turned to someone standing before her. Not Jenna, but a dreamer, a little girl hovering over the needle-laced floor of the forest. Libby knew it was a dreamer because the living in death’s world had very bright auras, almost too painful to look at.
The little girl gripped a doll tight in her arms. Libby recognized her then, had once watched her while she slept. It was Annalee, the girl whose car they’d hit.
“Who are you?” Annalee asked.
“My name is Libby. What’s your name?”
“Annalee, and this is my doll, Rose.”
“Hi Rose,” Libby said.
Annalee smiled. She gave a short wave to Libby, and disappeared. Libby thought about following her, becoming her invisible friend and forgetting all about Jenna and her parents, but the fading gateway in the distance was an anchor on her soul.
Where Annalee disappeared, Jenna emerged through the bows of spruce. Her face was pale, as if frozen. In contrast, her eyes had darkened, like the black-eyes—moonlight on deep water.
“You’ve passed through the water too many times,” Libby said to her. “One day, it will keep you.”
“Where did you go?”
“To the hospital,” Jenna said.
“Because mother went there. She sits by Annalee’s side instead of our grave.”
Libby noticed a glint of hurt in Jenna’s eyes. “You shouldn’t cross over anymore. Step through the gateway with me.” She pointed to the glowing light in the distance, hoping her sister would at least acknowledge the existence of it, of another world, one meant for them.
“I can’t,” Jenna said. “I have to go back.” I’m leaving you again.
“We’re dead. The only thing we have left to do is walk through the light, before it disappears.” You’re scared.
Jenna refused to look at the gateway. She shook her head. “I came back to tell you that I’m returning for good this time. I’m going to live with mom and dad. I’ve found a way to bypass the talismans.”
“Jenna, don’t. Please?”
“Good-bye, Libby.” If you loved me, you’d let me go.
“You won’t make it through the waters again. You can’t keep crossing over—Jenna, stop!” I hate you! Don’t leave me!
Libby couldn’t let her go, couldn’t watch her sister leave again. She ran after Jenna, following her into the creek.
Jenna stood behind the couch watching Sharon reading the Bible and a book on exorcism. She still wore black, still had the cross around her neck, but now, the house had taken on drastic, new décor. Gothic photos Libby had never seen before hung where she and Jenna’s school pictures used to be.
Someone had also stowed away all the knick-knack items they had collected over the years on family vacations, holidays, and birthdays. Instead, statues, angels, and marbled saint figurines lined the mantel. Dark blankets draped the furniture, and a circle of chairs crowded the dining room table.
A thick, dense air squeezed around Libby. Something wasn’t right. It was nighttime. Alan should be home from work. Sharon glanced at the clock as if expecting company. Jenna walked over to the window and reached her hand up to a glass-blown ball hanging from the ceiling, one forgotten family belonging. Libby and Jenna had bought it for Sharon on Mother’s Day a few years ago.
Jenna tapped at the ball until it spun around. Sharon lowered her book, slowly, as though not wanting to call attention to herself. She stared wide-eyed at the spinning ball. The aqua glass refracted lamplight and whirled shards of blue ribbon light across the walls of the room.
Libby shouted at Jenna. “Stop it! You’re going to scare her again.”
Sharon put her book down and rose from the couch. “Jenna? Libby? Is that you?”
Jenna’s expression was one of determination. She walked over to the light switch on the wall and flicked it twice for yes.
Sharon gasped and gripped the cross at her neck. She pushed herself small against the living room corner.
“You shouldn’t be here. The church says you have to go.”
Jenna flipped the light once. No.
Libby glared at Jenna. “What are you doing?”
“This is my house, and I’m not leaving,” Jenna said.
“Mother knows right,” Libby said. “We’re not supposed to be here, in the world of the living.”
Sharon rushed over to a bowl of water on the table. She dipped a vial into it and held it in front of her, ready to strike. “You can’t be here. I command you to leave.”
Jenna flipped the light switch one time again.
Sharon cast the vial across the living room and muttered a verse she had seemingly been practicing. A splash hit Libby on the arm. The blessed water burned like blazing stove coils. Scalding streaks splashed over Jenna. She screamed out and flicked the light switch on and off, repeatedly, trying to get Sharon to stop. Sharon scooped her hands inside the bowl and splashed the water all over the room. Libby lunged at Jenna and shoved her to the ground. In their wrestle, they knocked over a vase by the fireplace. It shattered across the hearth and sent Sharon screaming from the room.
“Look what you made me do!” Jenna yelled at Libby. “I hate you! I wish you would leave me alone!” I hate you! I wish you would leave me alone!
Libby backed away from her. It was too late. Jenna was already gone. Libby couldn’t save her. Never could.
Jenna flashed quicksilver black eyes at Libby. “You haven’t forgiven me,” she said. “I killed us, and now you want to punish me, take away mom and dad for good like I took them away from you. You won’t even acknowledge them as our parents anymore, like your entire seventeen-year existence meant nothing.”
“I’ve never blamed you, Jenna. Shar—mom and dad don’t blame you either.”
Jenna caught the slip of their mother’s name and nodded so. Libby ignored it.
“The wreck was an accident. It was fate, but it is time for us to say good-bye. Step through the gateway with me. Please?” I love you.
“No. I can’t.” I love you too, but…
“You might not be able to pass back through the waters again,” Libby warned. “The underworld will keep you, and you’ll be trapped there forever.”
Jenna shook her head. “Mom doesn’t want us to leave. The church does. They are telling her that we can’t co-exist, but that’s not true. We can. We can live here for as long as we want to.”
“We can’t live here because we aren’t alive. We don’t belong with the living anymore.”
Jenna turned away from her and disappeared through their bedroom wall.
Libby went back to the pool in her backyard. She stood at the edge, wondering if she would make it through the waters again. Already, she could see the black-eyes darting beneath the surface, eager to feed on the light of her soul or the heat of her rage, but she had to try once more. She didn’t belong in the world of the living anymore, Jenna or not.
The black-eyes lunged at Libby before she was fully submerged in the pool. They jerked at her limbs and shoved her body. The vacuum of darkness closed in around her. Libby’s strength buckled, and the ache crushed her chest until she couldn’t breathe. The black-eyes hissed at her, repeating the words of Jenny and Sharon. They clawed at her throat and ripped at her hair. Libby’s only existence lay on the image she’d formed in her mind. She reached out for it, grappling for the edge of daylight. Her fingers curled around something solid and smooth. With one forceful pull, Libby heaved herself forward until she rolled onto the forest floor.
She laid on her back and searched through the trees for the gateway. At seeing it, she sat up and discovered she wasn’t alone. Two people stood between the cedar trees: Sharon and Annalee. Annalee hugged the same doll and wore the same hospital gown and yellow band around her left wrist, but she was no longer bright like a living spirit, like Sharon was next to her. A sharp ache squeezed around Libby—Annalee had passed on. She was no more of the living world.
Libby stood. “What are you doing here?” she asked Sharon.
“Waiting for you,” she said. “I want you to take Annalee through the door.”
If her mother knew about the door, then she probably knew about the underworld and the black-eyes as well. “Where’s Jenna?”
Sharon didn’t say anything, only dropped her gaze.
Libby stepped closer to her, so that her whisper reached only her ears. “She won’t listen to me.”
Sharon gazed at her with eyes too worn and old to belong to her mother. Libby also thought she detected guilt in them, a suffering filled with regret.
“I’m sorry,” Sharon said.
“The exorcism. We prayed, gave our offerings and scriptures of the divine liturgy in hopes that Jenna would enter the final phase of purification.”
“What does that mean? What happened to her?” Libby feared the underworld had pulled Jenna under like they tried to do with her.
Sharon shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“What if she’s trapped in the underworld and can’t get out?”
Sharon let go of Annalee’s hand and took a step back. “Nothing lasts forever, Libby. Jenna will find her way. She always does.”
But Jenna believed in forever, Libby thought.
Sharon crossed her hands over her heart. “I love you, my dearest Libby. Take good care of Annalee.”
“I love you too…Mom.”
Sharon smiled. Libby turned to the gateway, seeing how it had moved closer and was now as bright as a summer sunset streaming prismatic bands of pearl and gold.
Annalee took hold of Libby’s hand and peered up at her. “I’m scared to go.”
Libby gently squeezed Annalee’s hand. It was small and warm. “Don’t worry, I’m here.” Me too.
Erin Cole writes dark fiction from a small attic in Portland, Oregon. She is a member of the Horror Writers Association, placed in the Writer’s Digest, Kay Snow, and Writers of the Future Writing Competitions, and has work in over 60 publications, including anthologies ‘Below the Stairs,’ ‘The Deep, Dark Woods,’ and a novella, ‘Feral Things,’ with Damnation Books. Visit her at erincolewrites.com