Old Lady Prideaux’s Terrible Menagerie

A horror and mystery short story about an ex-cop and his very weird neighbor.

The crone lived in a house dingy and decrepit and decades past the point somebody should’ve burned it down. For years, I’d stared out my front window at that shack, hoping she’d move or die — or that some street tough from the city would get the idea she hoarded loot and make up his mind to rob the place. She’d fight him off — that bitch was mean — and there’d be no way the thug would get out but to shoot her dead.

I could exhaust all my fingers and toes counting the times she’d hollered at me from across the street, telling me to keep my lawnmower quiet or to not go pulling into my driveway so late at night on account of it frightened her cats. One time she’d chalked “BASTARD” on my front door after I told her she needed to paint her house because it was ruining my property’s value.

And it was. The house sat right across the street from mine, and a few feet further up the low mountain, one of many such thickly wooded humps of earth that make up the landscape of this town. Those few feet meant her front windows sat higher than mine and that meant I had to see awful yard and the rotting wood lattice rising from it whenever I gazed out of my living room. I had to see her goddamn ass at eye level when she squatted or kneeled to pull some weeds from among all the other weeds that together made her front garden.

The lady was stone crazy and her favorite thing in all the world was inflicting that awful lunacy on me.

So that’s why I had to laugh when Nelson Neblett, one of Sheriff Trembley’s new deputies, stood with his hat in his hands in my living room and asked, “Clinton, you ever seen anything weird going on over there?”

I said, “Nah, deputy, just that crazy old bitch and sometimes her crazy son-in-law.” Her daughter had died of cancer a while before I moved into my house, but not before the girl married and got a husband, who became a tad too attached to his new “mom.” The daughter’d been dead thirty years at least, but the husband still visited old lady Elnora Prideaux at least twice a month. Probably asking for money.

“See, Clint,” the deputy said, “it’s just that we’ve got some complaints from the other neighbors. Lights in the night coming from over there. Sounds, too.”

“Sure,” I said. “That ain’t nothing new. Elnora plays her music and I think — God knows why — but I think she sets off fireworks sometimes in her back yard.”

Deputy Neblett stared at me. “Fireworks?” he said. “Man, what’s an old lady like her doing that for?”

I shrugged. “Shit if I know. Regardless, I never took none of it for ‘weird.’ Least not weird enough to call you boys.”

Neblett looked down at his hat, then back at me. Sheriff Trembley needed to hire some kids with balls if he wanted anyone to take the force seriously. “See, here’s the thing, Clint,” Neblett said, “We’ve been getting these complaints but each time we send someone out to look — even the time we had a car parked overnight — we didn’t see or hear nothing. Maybe the neighbors is just getting sick of her and blowing it out of proportion. I hear she ain’t the most pleasant woman and her house sure ain’t nothing to look at. But Sheriff Trembley says we gotta least keep up appearances of listening to those folks’ complaints.” He stopped and swallowed. “Now you say you seen something, even if it ain’t what you might call really ‘weird…’”

“Yeah?” I said, hoping he wasn’t about to ask what it sounded like he was about to ask.

But he did. “Mr. Varn, we was hoping, on account of you used to be in the police force here — ”

“Used to be sheriff,” I said.

“Right. On account of you used to be sheriff, we thought maybe you’d like to help us out.”

“I’m retired.”

“Oh, I’m aware, Mr. Varn, and I’m sure it’s mighty pleasant not needing to work no more, but we thought maybe you’d see it as your civic duty. Sort of once a cop, always a cop, you know?”

I thought about it a minute, not liking at all where my thoughts took me. But Neblett was right. “Shit,” I said.

“You’ll help us?”

“Yeah, Deputy Neblett, I suppose I will.”

Neblett left without taking the beer I offered him. The kid might not even have been old enough to drink — which in my mind meant he wasn’t old enough to carry a gun, either. I cursed Sheriff Trembley and decided to drink Neblett’s beer myself.

And that’s how they got me keeping an eye on the old lady. I’d sit in my living room, reading a book or watching TV, but facing in such a direction that I’d be sure to catch any strange goings on coming from her shack. Of course, that meant looking at the damn thing a good deal more than I’d have liked, but Trembley knew how to play to my sense of duty. “Once a cop” was accurate — at least for me.

But, Jesus, it was boring. Three evenings I spent watching, a book of civil war history in my lap or else some crap on PBS playing — and with always an eye on that terrible house. For three evenings almost nothing happened. I saw her once come out and look around, like she was expecting a package that hadn’t arrived, and another time she crawled around in the garden, picking the small weeds out from around the larger ones, but I sure as hell didn’t see anything weird.

I was getting ready to call up Trembley and tell him I’d done all I could, that staring at Elnora’s abode was starting to make me feel like a pervert, when she finally got to something truly strange.

It was nine o’clock at night when I put down my book. I’d noticed a light coming from her house. I stood up, leaving the TV on, and crossed the living room for a closer look. The light came again thirty seconds later, a bright flash from the twin front windows, a single pulse of yellow, like a spotlight turned on then off.

An officer of the law is taught to be observant and, in my day, I’d been a fine example of an officer of the law. But standing in my front window, staring at my neighbor’s house, I felt like a goddamn fool. This was an old lady a bunch of fussy neighbors had complained about. Hell, I’d complained about her on more than one occasion, but that didn’t mean the police needed to look into it. Deputy Neblett and Sheriff Trembley knew how to play me, how to manipulate me into doing just such an asinine thing as spying on an old lady.

Then the light came again and I forgot all about my moral concerns.

This area floods occasionally. The rain comes down in the hills surrounding it and flows into town, gathering mass and mud, until the streets are tiny rivers. Nobody tends to get hurt, but if your house isn’t propped up off that soggy ground, you’ll pay for it with all kinds of water damage.

So, like most houses around here, Elnora’s place hovered a good eighteen inches above the dirt, supported by metal poles sunk deep into the earth. Besides keeping it safe from the floods, this meant her house, like mine, lacked a basement. There weren’t any windows along the foundation or cellar doors. Instead, there was only a lattice of wood, once whitewashed but now chipped and grey and brown.

It was from behind this, deep below the floor of Elnora’s house, that the light poured. At first, I thought it was fire. The light wasn’t steady and the colors flowed from red to orange to yellow and then blue. I turned off my television and killed the rest of the lights in the living room. I wanted to be able to see what was happening without the pollution of my own glare.

The lights wavered under there, bright enough to illuminate most of her lawn. They sure as hell weren’t fireworks and, the more I watched, the more I realized they weren’t from a fire, either. At least not the kind of fire that gives off smoke and consumes wood lattice. No, these were just lights, like the shifting glow of a fake fireplace.

What the hell was that crazy broad up to?

After ten minutes, without any secession of the light show, I decided to go find out. I went outside, onto my front porch, locking the door behind me. I walked slowly across the street. The night was hot, but none of the heat came from the display under her house.

The windows of her house were dark. The first pulse, the one that had come from behind that now dark glass, must have been only a preface to the display going on under Elnora’s house.

And what a crazy, confounding display it was. I stood on the narrow strip of dirt between the street and Elnora’s front lawn. Even from this distance — less than a lawn dart throw to the side of her house — I couldn’t feel any heat on my skin. I tried to look in the front windows, not wanting Elnora to see me prowling in her yard, but they remained dark. I was sufficiently illuminated, however, to be sure the old broad would have no trouble seeing me from behind those black panes of glass.

I crept closer. When I stood roughly my own height away from the lattice, nearer the side of the house than to Elnora’s front door, I dropped to my hands and knees and crawled across the grass to peer through the holes in the wood, into the undercarriage of the house.

The dirt underneath was packed hard, its smoothness unbroken by rockets, sticks, or trash. But it was far from empty.

At regular intervals, starting on the left hand side of the house and continuing in even rows, front to back, nearly two thirds of the way across the foundation, were bowling ball sized crystals. From these the light poured. The shifting colors I’d noticed earlier came from the differences in hue of each crystal and the way the light from each ebbed and flowed. The glare was too bright for me to make out any detail on the objects, but from this distance they looked like goddamn snow globes or the seeing stones witches keep in fairy tales.

Toward the back of the house, on the left side, the lattice had been pulled way in a strip a few feet wide. Crouching, I ran around the corner of Elnora’s place and bent down to stick my head through the opening. I recognize the stupidity of doing so, but at the time I was fascinated by what I saw. You live across the street from such a miserable and boring woman for as many years as I have and nearly anything out of the ordinary will catch your interest. Shit as strange as this, though, cast all consideration for personal safety from my mind. Elnora Prideaux was up to something exceedingly odd indeed, and there was just no way I’d pass it up — even if I hadn’t been obligated to take a peek by my agreement with Deputy Neblett.

Having my head poked through the hole didn’t get me a great deal closer to the crystals. If I wanted to see them in any detail, I’d have to push the rest of the way through.

Which I did, and crawled until I was only a couple of feet from one of the glowing globes. Up close, I saw it wasn’t a sphere as I originally thought. No, the crystal was shaped, carved or molded with great care. That the precision had gone toward fashioning a shape so macabre, however, had me wondering if the old lady was even more out of her goddamn gourd than I’d previously thought.

The crystal bore the distinct likeness of a human head.

I stared, unsure of what to do. Deciding I needed to investigate further, I crawled along to the next crystal and found it to be the same. Elnora had four rows of glowing human heads, five in the first three rows and two in the last.

I had turned to leave this odd display and return to my house to call Deputy Neblett or Sheriff Trembley when one of the heads moved. I stopped and looked again. It could have just been the shifting light.

But no. As I inched closer, the head, the second of two in the back row, turned slowly toward me. The dirt around it cracked and tumbled, and dust puffed into the still air.

I stopped breathing. My heart pounded against my ribs. The head turned until it faced me. Still unable to move, I watched as its mouth opened and closed. The dents where eyes would’ve been shrunk down. It squinted at me. Then the mouth came open again into a wide scream.

Yet there was no sound, just the smooth depression in the crystal, held in an O.

My wits returned. I crawled as fast as I could to the opening the lattice and out onto the lawn. I stood to run before I’d made it all the way out, scratching my back against the lower rim of Elnora’s house. I sprinted, across her property and onto the street, onto my yard, up the stairs, and, after madly fumbling for my keys, back into my house.

I pushed the door closed behind me, locked it, and shoved the dead bolt into place. I panted, leaning against the door, before getting up the nerve to take another look at Elnora’s house.

The glow was quickly fading. But before it went out, the lights in Elnora’s house came on and she opened her front door, peered out into the night, and then slammed it shut.

I picked up the phone and dialed the police main line, thinking I should call Trembley direct, but not not knowing his number, not having time to look it up.

Because the young recruits get stuck with the crap shifts and because it was getting on ten o’clock, Deputy Neblett answered.

I shouted at him. “You get your damn ass over here, you hear me? That crazy bitch is up to something way beyond lights and fireworks.”

“Clint?” Neblett said. “That you, Clint? What you hootin’ and hollerin’ about? You see something over at that house?”

“See something? Jesus, did I ever see something.”

“Well, go ahead and tell me, Clint. But don’t go screaming like that. I can hardly hear you ’cause of it.”

I took a deep breath. “She’s got heads, Neblett. Big crystal heads. In rows, under her house. They’re the things doing all the glowing and fussing up the neighbors.”


“Rows of ‘em.” I tried to remember how many. “Four rows, I think. Five heads in all but the last one, which had just two.”

“You’re saying old lady Prideaux has heads under her house, Clint? Because, Clinton, that sounds mighty crazy — ”

“Shut up and listen, deputy. Elnora Prideaux has five rows of crystal heads, sticking up out of the ground under that damn shack of hers, and the things got to glowing tonight. That’s how I found them. Crawled right under there — ”

“You crawled under her house?”

“Right under it. And those heads moved. At least one of them did. Turned and looked right at me and tried to talk.”

“Oh, now, Clinton, you’re not making any sense. They aren’t real heads, you said so yourself. Fake heads don’t talk — unless they’re robot heads. Were they robot heads, Clint?”

I wished I had a beer. I wished I had something a good deal stronger than a beer and that I was talking to Sheriff Trembley instead of the great, inane Deputy Neblett. I had to settle for taking another deep breath. “I’d recognize if they were robot heads, Deputy. If they had little lights and speakers for mouths and shit like that, I’d have recognized it. These were crystal heads. Do they make robots out of crystal?”

“I don’t know what folks make robots out of, Clint. But I suppose they might.”

“They weren’t robots, Deputy.”

He started to say something, but stopped. I heard him hum into the phone. Neblett probably didn’t realize he was doing it. I let him finish. “Clint?” he said, eventually. “I think Ms. Prideaux may be up to something over at that place of hers.”

“Yes, Deputy Neblett, I imagine that is true.”

“So here’s what I’m going to do, Clint. I’m going to hang up the phone with you right here and I’m going to have a talk about it with the Sheriff. He’ll know what to do. Then I’ll call you back and tell you what we’ll be doing about it.”

I rolled my eyes. “I look forward to your call, Deputy.”

“Talk to you soon, Clint.” He hung up.

“Sure thing, Deputy,” I said into the dead line. Who knew how long it’d take Trembley and Neblett to figure out a plan? And what were the chances that, when they did, it’d amount to a knock on Elnora’s door and a kindly request to look under her house, if you don’t mind, ma’am? I’d have been keen to wait for them to get their shit together, except that Elnora was spooked. She’d come to the door and looked outside. She knew something was up. And that meant, if she had any sense left in her ancient and dusty brain, she’d clear up that craziness in the dirt beneath her floor and say to those officers when they showed up, “Oh, I don’t know what you’re talking about, boys, but it sure is hot out, so why don’t the two of you come in for some lemonade and gingersnaps?”

I had to go back over there and I had to do it soon. Neblett was probably wrong about those heads being robots. Who kept robots under their house, anyway? But that didn’t answer the question of just what the hell the heads were, or what made them to glow. I’d been a cop in this town for all of my adult life. The force doesn’t leave you, even after you retire. And what do cops do but poke around in people’s business, making sure that business doesn’t harm the other folks that cop is sworn to protect?

Who knew the shit Elnora might be into? Could be she likes to keep crystal heads under her house the way some people like to leave their Christmas lights up all year. Could be those things were worth some money, were antiques from the Old World, and batty old Elnora figured having them buried in the dirt was the best means to keep them safe from kids who might break into her place looking for some easy cash.

I could accept all that, because when you’re an officer of the law in a small town like this for as long as I was, you get used to folks doing the wackiest shit imaginable. It goes with the territory. Around here, people talk about the city like it’s where the odd ones go, while the sensible, salt-of-the-earth types stay around because they know how good the simple life is for the health and disposition. But spend a lifetime policing those salt-of-the-earth types and you get to know the truth: most of them are more crazy than the city folks could dream of being — and their craziness runs deep into the family stock.

But even knowing all that, I couldn’t leave Elnora alone. Crystal heads is one thing. Crystal heads that move and try to talk is quite another.

This time I took my goddamn gun.

She’d turned off her lights. No glow came from under the house. I went back outside. This time, however, I walked a hundred feet down the street before crossing over to Elnora’s side. Once across the road, I kept going up the hill, until I was within the line of trees. Then I trudged in the direction of Elnora’s house, gun held down at my side. I wanted to approach her place from the rear. I didn’t want her to see me coming. The woods stank of wet leaves and rot and somewhere a bobcat screamed.

I gave up a lot when I retired: the camaraderie of the force, the authority of a badge. I enjoyed my time as sheriff and, on lonely days, I missed the thrill when the station phone rang — even if it only brought news of a kid shoplifting or a drunk woman yelling at people from the middle of Main Street. But one thing I did not miss, one thing I could easily do without, was trudging around in the woods at night. I hate the cold and the damp and I hate hearing animals I can’t see.

I stopped when I saw the back of Elnora’s house through the trees. Still no light came from it, whether above or below, and so I hunched down and scampered across the grass. A tipped over birdbath lay near a strip of wooden fence that stretched only ten feet back from the right side of the house before ending in a series of progressively smaller broken planks. She had a shopping cart next to the steps that lead to her back door and a plastic liner for a pond resting near a shallow hole that someone had started digging but never finished.

Right in the middle of it all, a dark lump a little higher than my knees, lay the entrance to a storm cellar, its double doors closed but not locked or chained.

None of us who lived out in these parts had storm cellars. The ground was too full of rocks and roots to make digging them sensible. So what was this entrance doing out here?

I crouched even lower, trying to make myself small enough that the squat entrance would block the sightline from the back windows. If I was going into whatever lay beyond those doors, I didn’t want Elnora to see me do it.

One of the two doors had warped with time, leaving a half inch opening between its bottom corner and the frame. I transferred my gun to my other hand and slipped my fingers under the wood. The door came open easier than I expected. I lifted it enough to stick my head in.

I saw nothing but darkness beyond. I put the gun in my belt and took out the tiny emergency flashlight I keep clipped to my wallet. Turning it on, I could make out a set of steps descending to a dirt floor. I shoved the door open the rest of the way and climbed slowly down the steps into the darkness.

My questions about why she’d go digging a cellar were answered as soon as I reached the bottom. This wasn’t a manmade shelter at all, but a cave, with the storm cellar opening covering its natural entrance. The floor was stone and packed dirt, the walls rock. They had the smooth, organic look of limestone deposited across countless eons by dripping water. My minuscule light only illuminated small parts of the cave at a time, forcing me to stumble forward, sweeping the flashlight from side to side in hope of seeing any obstacle before wandering into it.

The cave appeared to run in the direction of Elnora’s house. I followed it, wondering if I’d end up underneath her place — and thus under the glowing heads themselves. I had no idea what I’d find. My heart beat faster and I began to sweat. The air of the cave felt slick going down my throat and into my lungs.

The cave was shorter than I expected. After only a dozen yards, it came to an end, the walls narrowing until they merged in a cluster of bulbous stone, with my head only half a foot from the ceiling.

I turned around, looking back in the direction I’d come. But I’d closed the cellar door behind me when I climbed down, so no moonlight made it inside. I glanced back to the wall, shining my light over its surface. Why have a empty room like this? Was it only to provide shelter? I couldn’t believe that. Not with what I’d seen under Elnora’s house.

My hunch was right. Rising no more than two feet from the floor in the spot where the walls converged, rocks had been stacked to cover an opening. I walked toward it and bent down, playing my light around the stones. Behind lay a corridor continuing toward Elnora’s house.

I grabbed a rock and pulled up, only to stagger back, almost falling over. It weighed next to nothing. What I’d taken for rock was actually painted foam. It was a prop, a goddamn fake stone. I laughed. Elnora was an old bitch, for sure, and so it only made sense she’d hide her passageway behind something she could move herself.

Clearing the entrance took no time. Once through, I pulled all the foam stones back into place behind me. When I pointed my light along the length of the tunnel, I saw that I was no longer in a natural cave. Wooden planks held back the earth around me and, half a dozen yards ahead, I could see that Elnora in fact did have a genuine basement.

I inched forward, not comfortable with so much dirt and rock pressed in close around me, until I made it to the tunnel’s end. And it was there, lying on the floor and staring up into the subterranean room, that I realized that heads above ground meant bodies underneath.

In neat rows, along the ceiling of the basement that looked to be exactly the size of Elnora’s house, hung people. Some men, some women, all filthy with torn clothes and bare feet. Their shoes made a pile in one corner.

I stood up and ran to the nearest body, a woman, her arms limp at her sides, and dressed in a powder blue sun dress. Her head vanished into a neat hole cut in the dirt of the ceiling. I shined my light in after it. Starting just above her shoulders, the skin grew pale, then white, and then faded away to nothing, replaced by the same clear crystal I’d seen above. I felt ill.

A look at the other bodies revealed more of the same: crystal above the neck, flesh below, with ragged clothes and no shoes. What the hell was this? Where had these people come from? Elnora couldn’t have done it all herself. Even lifting one of the smaller women up to the ceiling would be too much for her — as would dragging them under the house and lowering them from above. Elnora had help.

I’d decided that it was time to head home and place a call to the station when I heard the bang of the storm cellar doors falling open and the noise of someone coming down the steps. I looked around. The basement room only had a single exit: back through the tunnel and into the cave. I had to find somewhere to hide.

I ran over to the pile of shoes. There were countless more here than could be accounted for by the folks hanging from the ceiling. How many had come before them? And what happened to the bodes discarded to make room for these new ones?

I dug into the pile, pushing shoes out of the way until I’d made a space large enough to hold me, and then pulling them back over myself. When this was finished, I pushed out with my fingers, making an opening so I could see the tunnel entrance. I prayed whoever was coming wouldn’t inspect the shoe pile closely. Anything more than a casual glance would give me away.

I had to wait only a minute or two before a light appeared at the tunnel entrance, followed by the son-in-law holding a flashlight, and then Elnora Prideaux herself. They stood and dusted themselves off. Elnora setup a portable lantern she’d brought. The light was bright enough to make seeing them easy, but not so bright that they’d have a good look at my hiding place.

Elnora whispered something to her companion and he nodded. The two walked slowly along the rows of bodies, inspecting their inventory. Elnora passed within six feet of me, but didn’t look in my direction.

When they were done, she and her son-in-law meet back at the middle of the room and again conferred in whispers. The only word I could make out, one they both used several times, was “ripe.”

The man — I never had learned his name — pulled a piece of chalk from his pocket and bent near the floor. He began to draw. From such a low angle, I couldn’t make out much of it, but he started with a large circle and then filled its center with details. Elnora stood and watched him, arms crossed over her chest.

It took him ten minutes to finish. Then they knelt on opposite sides of the circle, just outside the line of chalk, Elnora closest to me. She coughed and started singing. A moment later, her son-in-law joined her.

The song was somewhere between a hum and a chant, and made me think of Gregorian monks — though neither of these two sounded as good. If there were words in the chant, I couldn’t understand them. The town has a lot of Germans, but this wasn’t German. The language was older, the sounds more guttural and primordial. I suddenly felt cold under the shoes.

I quickly forgot my discomfort, however. A good fifteen minutes into their song, the ground started to shake. My immediate thought was that the vibrations would dislodge my obscuring pile and I’d be given away. But neither Elnora nor her son-in-law were paying any attention. Both had their heads down and I could see that the man had his eyes closed.

Then the floor fell away. Starting in the center of the chalk circle and growing outward, the ground crumbled and collapsed. A great pit opened and a smell wafted out, like mushrooms and stagnant water and rancid meat. I covered my mouth, forcing down a gag.

Elnora and her companion sat still, chanting, eyes closed, their faces directed at the pit.

It was then that events occurred that forever changed the way I looked at the world and at my ignorance of its true nature. There is a great deal about this existence that we don’t understand. I lived through the sixties and seventies and paid enough attention to the counter-culture to pick up on that. The notion had always made me shrug, however. Who cares, really, whether we’re here or just projections of the Buddha? What does it matter if truth is eternal? I had a job to do and bills to pay and a house to take care of. I had a life to live. You want to turn on, tune in, and drop out, that’s fine by me.

But now, watching what came out of that pit, I had to admit that maybe the hippies had a point. If this was what the world had to offer us, it stood to reason that we should try to figure it out. I mean, I’d lived decades with this thing perhaps only a field goal length away from where I ate and shit and slept.

Arms came out of the pit. They were the colors of human flesh, some black, some white, some yellow or red. They were mottled with birthmarks and sores and all were scrawny, without any fat. But they weren’t all human arms. Elnora didn’t just keep people down in that hole. No, among the regular, unmonstrous arms and hands slapping and clawing and pulling at the edges of the pit rose new arms, at least ten feet long each and riddled with elbow joints, one every six inches or so. Some elbows bent in one direction, some in another, causing the arms to writhe and twist like snakes. At the end of each was a large sucker, its circumference rimmed with fingers, which reached out, stretching toward the bodies in the twin rows.

One of the suckers grabbed hold of the foot of a man hanging from the ceiling. The fingers crawled over his toes and up his ankle, the sucker swallowing as it went. I could see the arm bulge as it consumed its meal. When it reached the man’s knee, his other leg started kicking and his hands flew up to his neck. He pushed against the ceiling, trying to free himself.

He was alive. That awful truth descended on me.

These crystal-headed people still lived.

I stood up, shoving away the shoes, and pulled my gun from my pocket. I waved it, my back against the wall, and shouted at the two figures crouched by the circle to stop, to make it all stop. Neither looked at me. Neither moved.

The pit’s other enormous arms found their own bodies to attach to and devour. I saw with horror that the arms were not swallowing the whole of each person, but stopped when they reached the crotch. It was then that the arms began sucking, their flesh undulating in great waves. As they nursed on their victims, the crystalline discoloration of the flesh flowed slowly down the captives’ necks, across their shoulders, and down their chests. Everything — flesh and clothing — lost its opacity and turned clear as glass. Where the crystal was exposed, light poured forth. This was the glow I’d seen from my front windows — this was the display that had brought Deputy Neblett to my door.

I took a step toward the old woman, my gun aimed at the middle of her back. “You crazy bitch,” I said to her. “What the hell are you doing, you old crazy bitch?”

This time she did notice me. Elnora turned her head and stared at the gun. Then she lifted her eyes to my face and gave the barest hint of a smile. “Oh, Herbert?” she said. “Herbert, darling, would you take care of Mr. Varn?”

Elnora’s son-in-law, Herbert, pushed himself off the ground. “Uh huh, Ms. Prideaux,” he said. “I got him. You keep on.” He started around the circle toward me.

I moved my gun from Elnora to him. “Don’t move,” I shouted. “You stay right where you are.”

He laughed. “Oh, mister, you in big trouble.”

The arms continued to suck. On the body across the room from me, the crystal had descended nearly to the waist and the glow flooded the basement as bright as a noon day. Soon the glare would make it difficult to see at all.

Herbert kept coming, ignoring the heaving arms and their victims. He had to duck under a fat appendage as he rounded the side of the pit.

“Stop,” I said.

He didn’t. I shot him, the bullet taking Herbert high on his chest. But he didn’t fall. He didn’t even stumble. And the wound failed to bleed. Instead, light erupted from the hole in his shirt.

I stumbled backwards until I felt the wall pressed against me. Elnora was still kneeling and Herbert was only a couple yards away. I fired again, aiming for his head this time, and the bullet struck where I wanted it. But again there was no physical reaction from Herbert and again the wound didn’t bleed. Where the bullet hit, Herbert’s flesh cracked and fell away in a spiderweb pattern covering the whole of the right side of his face. Under the flesh was only more crystal and more light.

The arms had nearly completed their meals. The glare from the captives hurt my eyes. I rushed past Herbert and at Elnora, still kneeling before the rift, and kicked her in the middle of her back. She flailed, trying to steady herself — but she was small and frail and I wasn’t. Elnora Prideaux tumbled, screamed, and fell into the pit.

Immediately, one of the arms detached from the body on which it had fed, and whipped around to follow her down. I heard no thud, no sound of impact, nothing that would indicate Elnora had hit bottom — just a sudden end to her scream and a cacophony of clicks, like thousands of fingers snapping at once.

Herbert called her name and fell to his knees. He looked down at the pit, staring into the black where his mother-in-law had gone. I ran at him, hoping to repeat the attack that had been so effective against the old woman.

Herbert saw me coming and spun to meet me, his shoulder catching me in the stomach as he rose. I grunted, but managed to grab his head. The crystal side was slick and he twisted in my grip. I shoved, digging my feet into the dirt of the floor, driving him backwards toward the pit.

Herbert fought me and, for a moment, I thought he would succeed — but then the will left him. He stared up at the ceiling and let his weight carry him down. As he fell, Herbert smiled. “I’m coming,” he said. “Mother, I’m coming.” I didn’t know if he meant Elnora Prideaux — or the thing in the pit.

Herbert vanished into the dark and the arms, sated, broke from their meals. They writhed briefly in the air before following him back into the hole. The light from the bodies faded.

I sat down, coughing. Some minutes later, I managed the courage to look over the edge. But there was nothing: only emptiness with no bottom.

I left the room then, crawling back through the passage into the cave and climbing the steps until I was again in Elnora’s backyard.

I walked across the street to my house, let myself in, and picked up the phone to call Sheriff Trembley.

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