Nostalgia is a hell of a thing. When I was a teenager, I ran away from home because I was terrified that if my parents ever knew that I liked other girls, it would mean an ice pick lobotomy at the nearest asylum. But, despite enduring the very real risk of losing a good-sized chunk of my brain, I still have sepia-toned memories of growing up in a 1950's traditional household with a white picket fence in a conservative small town.
Of course, my own experience wasn't the only horror hidden behind the cheery conformist façade. A recent walk down memory lane has reminded me that there were worse – and stranger – things than homophobia going on in my sleepy little home town.
I'm from a place called Periwinkle Pines, named for its many majestic pine trees and dazzling abundance of periwinkle wildflowers. Its population was under four thousand back then, nearly half of which were kids. Most families had three or four kids minimum. As an only child, I already stood out.
I never knew exactly why I was an only child, though. I did ask at least once if I could have a little sister or brother, and my mother told me that I was already a miracle and that it would be greedy to ask God for another.
When I got older, I logically assumed that meant that she and dad had difficulty conceiving and just got lucky with me. But in a religious, dare I say superstitious, small town where there's not much else to do besides gossip, plenty of people had their own ideas about how my parents had accomplished their 'miracle'.
It didn't help that I seemed to have a touch of fairy glamour to me. I was always a little tall, but never lanky or so tall as to seem abnormal. I was smart and funny, kind and charismatic, and a little more assertive than girls were expected to be in those days. Somehow, I always got away with it though. I was also beautiful, with raven hair and violet eyes, the only violet eyes anyone in town had ever seen. When I hit puberty, I quickly developed what my mother demurely referred to as a 'matronly figure', though these days my Millennial girlfriend enthusiastically describes me as 'thicc with great big anime tiddies!'. I consider either of those equally acceptable.
Of course, the clincher in the 'me being a literal miracle' theory was that I actually had supernatural powers. Not big ones though; not at first. It was mostly mild telekinesis, able to move small items like cards just by thinking. But I could also make unlikely things happen, if I tried, or slightly change the properties of objects, if only for a short while.
My parents didn’t know about this either, of course. When I realized I was literally magic, I was fortunately old enough to realize it was something I had to keep secret. I’d either be burned at the stake by the townsfolk or hauled off to be studied at some black-ops site. It was definitely scary to be gifted like that, but I’ll admit that it also made me feel kind of special.
But how did I keep such a monumental secret, you ask? Why, by taking up stage magic for a hobby and calling myself the Miraculous Miss Mason! It was a ‘hiding in plain sight’ sort of strategy. It had the benefit of allowing me to not completely hide my gifts from the world, while also providing plausible deniability for any slip ups.
Maybe it was reckless, but I loved attention, and for years no one seemed to seriously suspect I was doing real magic.
At least, almost no one.
One day, just after school, I tried sneaking under the football bleachers in the hopes of watching cheerleading practice; which I admit was a creepy thing to do and I shouldn't have done it. When I got there though, I found that the Darling twins, James and Mary, had gotten there first to smoke.
I wasn't super close with the Darlings, but we were on reasonably good terms. Like me, they were the result of a rare single pregnancy and had no siblings aside from each other. They even had the same raven black hair as me, but their eyes were a brilliant baby blue.
They had also, inadvertently, helped to confirm that I was only interested in girls. I thought Mary was cute, but not James, even though their gender was pretty much their sole distinguishing feature.
"Oh, hiya Veronica!" Mary waved at me. "What are you doing back here?"
"Hey, Mary. Hey James. Is it cool if I join you?" I asked as I pulled out my pack of Satin Stag cigarettes. I always had a pack on me in those days, and I had planned to smoke anyway so that I'd have an explanation for why I was there in the first place if I got caught.
"No, of course not! But I thought you didn't need to sneak smokes since your parents were okay with you smoking at home," she said as her brother offered me a light.
"They don't, but I promised my mom I'd try not to let anyone see me smoke in public. She doesn't want to get hassled over it," I explained, completely truthfully.
"Wow. You're so lucky your folks are so cool. I wish we had that kind of a relationship with our mom," Mary said enviously, taking a furtive glance around to see if anyone else was in earshot. "She acts like a sweet little housewife, but whenever James and I misbehave, she sics our dad on us like a bulldog, and she acts like because she's not the one hitting us her hands our clean. Honestly, I'm not even sure which one of them I'm more afraid of."
"Mary Darling, it's not nice to speak ill of our parents in polite company," James chastised her gently, nervously looking me over to assess my reaction.
"Who says I'm polite?" I shrugged, blowing my smoke in his face. "Mary, if you want to vent about your folks, go right ahead. I won't tell anyone. Promise."
"Thanks, but James gets it worse than I do. He won't admit it, but he does," Mary said. "I know this is kind of an awful thing to say, but James is the only other person I really care about. I just hate it when daddy hurts him, and I think Mommy knows that, and sometimes hurts him just to punish me, and… I really, really fucking hate her for that."
Her voice became quiet yet bitter with that last sentence, and I got a glimpse of something very dark percolating inside of her.
James saw my expression shift from concern to fear and immediately went on damage control.
"I’m terribly sorry Veronica, you shouldn’t have had to have heard that. Mary’s really a very sweet girl, really she is, but she does have a bit of a vindictive streak that she can't always keep under control," James explained.
"Yeah. Mommy doesn't know about my 'vindictive streak'… yet," Mary smiled.
"Wow. I had no idea your parents were like that," I said sympathetically, debating on how much of my own situation I should share with them. "My relationship with my parents is a… a little more complicated. They're nice, they really are, and they love me, but… they want me to start looking for a boyfriend, get married as soon as I'm out of high school, and start popping out grandkids. But I… I want to be a performer. I'm planning on moving to Sombermorey after graduation and finding some work on Wonderstruck Boulevard. I figure, after a few years of that, I might be ready for Broadway or Hollywood. My parents don't know that, and I'm worried that if – or, I guess, when – they find out, I'm afraid they might take… drastic measures to make sure I have the life they think is best for me. So, in a way, in a different way, I know what it's like to be afraid of your parents. It sucks. It really, fucking, sucks. Pardon my French."
As I puffed my cigarette, Mary and James exchanged glances with each other, seeming to speak in the near-telepathy of intense familiarity that a lot of twins seem to have, reaching some sort of understanding.
"I'd think you'd be a wonderful performer, Veronica," Mary smiled at me. "You're so pretty, and that magic act you did for the school talent show was amazing! No one was surprised when you got first place."
"As a matter of fact, I do recall hearing some people say that, if they didn't know any better, they'd have thought you were doing actual magic," James remarked with a provocative raising of his eyebrows. "That's a rather curious thing to say, don't you think, Mary Darling?"
"Not at all, James Darling. Everyone knows there have been witches in Harrowick County since Sombermorey was founded nearly two hundred years ago," Mary replied, though she was looking at me when she said it. It was obvious that their conversation was just for my sake. "Lots of people think that some of that old magic's come down to us over the years. It's not too much of a stretch from that to think that a beautiful raven-haired, violet-eyed girl who shuns all suitors and makes playing cards dance on her fingertips might have a touch of the uncouth to her."
"Uncouth? How dare you," I smirked, tossing my head in a haughty laugh.
"She means uncanny; eldritch. That's the word," James clarified. "Something from outside the known world that's alien and existentially disturbing. To most folks, at least."
"But… not you?" I asked cautiously.
"Mary and I have always had an avid interest in the fantastical," James told me. "And it's an interest that's paid off, if you can believe it."
"Paid off?" I asked curiously.
"Yes, like your magic act, only we've kept the fruits of our labour a little more… discreet," Mary replied. "It's not the kind of thing you show off to just anyone. Even our parents don't know."
"You though, Miraculous Miss Mason, might appreciate it more than anyone else in this sorry little town," James suggested with a coy smile. "And it seems that you might know about a few things that we would appreciate.”
"If you'd like, Ducky, we could head back to our house and we can show you what we mean, and then maybe you can teach us how to do a magic trick or two," Mary offered. "And you don't need to worry about my brother trying to get fresh with you. I promise I'll be there the whole time."
That was a concern, since I didn't really know James well enough to want to be alone with him, but Mary's presence wasn't actually much reassurance. Everyone knew the Darling twins were of the same mind on everything, and stuck together through thick and thin. If anything, it was easier to imagine Mary being an accomplice to any mischief James might have in mind than trying to help me.
Despite that, they had piqued my curiosity. If they knew anything about the supernatural, anything at all, I had to know what it was.
"Alright then," I nodded, putting out my cigarette. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt if I stopped by your place on the way home."
The two of them grinned identical grins in perfect synchronicity with each other, and I immediately began to question my choice.
The twins walked me to their house, which was about ten minutes away from the school. Mary stood in between me and James, ostensibly to honour her earlier promise, but I got the feeling that she didn't like her brother being alone with other girls more out of jealousy than any sort of feminine solidarity. The way she had spoken about him earlier, and the way she looked at him like he was fricking Elvis, it just seemed really messed up.
"Tell me, Ducky, do your friends call you Veronica? Or do go by something a little less fancy?" Mary asked, her arm linked with mine like we had been best friends for ages. It was a bit intrusive, honestly, but I've never been one to turn a pretty girl away.
"Everyone calls me Veronica. It's sophisticated, which suits me," I replied. "Besides, it doesn't really shorten that well. Very is an adverb, not a nickname, and Ronnie is a boy's name."
"What about Icky?" she suggested.
"No, that's even worse. It sounds like a clown's name," I laughed.
"Oh, this is it! Home sweet home; Twenty-Three Cherry Street," Mary said as she brought us to an abrupt stop. It was a typical mid-century suburban home, one story and under a thousand square feet, just like mine. It blended in perfectly with the houses around it, and it didn't surprise me that even the Darlings nearly walked right past it when they weren't paying attention.
"Father shouldn't be home for a couple of hours at least, but I'll check just to make sure mother's napping," James announced.
"Mommy's usually asleep around this time, thanks to her 'little helpers'. She expects me to get dinner started, but she takes all the credit when Daddy gets home, unless something's wrong. Then that's my fault," Mary whispered bitterly as her brother quietly peeked his head inside the house. "At least James appreciates me. If I didn't have him, I think I would have snapped a long time ago."
I wasn't sure how to respond to that. I was getting a very strong vibe that her relationship with her brother wasn't entirely healthy, but at the same time, I understood it. Back then, I didn't have anyone I would trust with my darkest secrets, or my most intimate desires. But if I had, maybe I would have thought as highly of them as Mary thought of James.
James nodded at us from the front door and waved us in. Mary took me by the hand and led me through the front door. We passed through the living room, where I saw their mother lying in a contented stupor on the couch as a soap opera played on the black and white television.
My mother's 'little helpers' were amphetamines so she could keep the house spotless and still greet my dad with a martini and a blowjob (figuratively, at least when I was around) when he got home. As much as I hate to admit it, I had internalized that enough that I was a little disgusted to see a woman napping in the middle of the afternoon in a less-than-perfectly kept house.
"Sorry about the mess. It's our fault, even though we've been at school all day," Mary whispered to me. James shushed her and led us into the back hall and to their bedroom.
"You two share a room?" I asked, a little surprised. I knew that I was privileged to have my own room since most houses in town only had two or three bedrooms with an average of five or six people living in them. But, it had always been my understanding that the kids' rooms were segregated by gender.
"Of course we do, Ducky; we're twins," Mary shrugged. "We spent almost nine months squeezed together inside our mom, so sharing a bedroom is no big deal."
"Besides, it's more spacious than you might think," James grinned. He opened the closet door, theatrically gesturing to its interior. "As you can see, Miss Mason, here we have a perfectly ordinary bedroom closet."
I nodded in agreement, politely waiting to see where he was going with this. He shut the door again, this time placing his hand on the wooden panel and closing his eyes in concentration. I skeptically arched an eyebrow, but when I glanced over at Mary, I could see that she was eagerly anticipating the results.
When James lowered his hand again, she jumped to the other side of the door, theatrically gesturing as he opened it. Where before there had only been clothes on hangers, now there was a long, damp hallway carved out of dark green stone with a vaulted ceiling, like it belonged to some ancient haunted castle or monastery.
"Ta-da!" Mary said, grinning from ear to ear.
For a moment, all I could do was stare in disbelief. My rational mind told me it had to be an illusion of some kind, but I had no idea how such an illusion would be possible. I could feel the air that was coming out of the hall, and it was markedly different than the air from inside the house. It was colder, staler, more humid, and carried a noticeable scent of rot with it.
I very cautiously approached the doorway and stuck my arm through and waved it around, and the hall seemed as real as it looked.
"What is this?" I whispered, my voice tinged with a mixture of terror and wonder.
"It's our playroom; our secret playroom," Mary explained. "Mommy and Daddy don't know about it. Our Great Uncle Lawrence made a door to it here, and showed us how to open and close it ourselves."
"You see, our Uncle Larry had a little something extra to him, something otherworldly, from outside our reality, something… eldritch," James said. "My sister and I have it too, and as a result, we're not exactly… normal."
"No, not in the slightest," Mary agreed, still beaming. "Would you like to come in?"
I swallowed nervously. I was curious, sure, but I was really weighing the risks of going inside against the risks of upsetting my very peculiar hosts.
"That's… outside of our reality?" I asked meekly. They both nodded proudly.
"Please, come in. We promise, you won't be disappointed," one of them said. I don't remember which. Or rather, I remember both of them saying it simultaneously, but for some reason, that's the one part I'm sure I'm remembering wrong. They couldn't actually have been that creepy in real life, right?
I should have politely declined and made up an excuse to get out of there. Or I should have said hell no and ran away as fast as I could.
At the very least, I should have asked them to explain that smell.
Instead, I just nodded. I let Mary take me by the hand and pull me in, and James shut the door behind us. From the other side, the door still looked like a closet door, completely out of place at the end of the mystical hallway.
"Is that the only way out?" I asked.
"For now, but I've been tinkering with a device that I'm hoping will let me move the portal to other doors," James replied.
I peered down the hall, but I couldn't see very far in the dim light. I could see a few lanterns hanging from the ceiling, and a few rectangular doorways carved into the walls, but that was it.
But the smell of rot was far stronger now.
"How far does this go on for?" I asked.
"As long as we want it to, Ducky," Mary answered. "Space here isn't like space back home. We can make the rooms appear in any order we want, and we can even 'redecorate' this whole place with new themes if we focus hard enough. I'm getting really good at it. With enough practice, I think I can even give this place an 'outside'. As soon as James and I don’t need our parents anymore, we’re going to move in here and play house forever, so I want it to look nice for us."
"So? What do you think, Veronica? Are you impressed? Is this enough for you to swap trade secrets with us?" James asked hopefully, as he put his arm around his sister.
I wasn't sure if 'impressed' was the right word, but they had certainly exceeded my expectations. An infinite, transmutable pocket dimension outside of space and time certainly put my magic tricks to shame. Allying myself with them and sharing in their knowledge of the preternatural was a tempting opportunity, and I think I would have said yes, if it wasn't for one little thing.
"Why does this place smell like death?" I asked softly. The twins exchanged glances, and James gave his sister a reticent nod.
"Yeah… I guess it's better to get that out of the way sooner rather than later," Mary sighed. "This way, Ducky. Just, try not to scream, okay?"
The twins led me into a nearby room, where the stench was the strongest, almost overpowering. The smell was rising out of a pit in the floor, and I knew I was going to be sick with it. My stomach lurched in a mixture of disgust and fear, since I knew there was nothing innocent that could explain such a god-awful stench.
I knew there'd be carcasses in there, nothing else could explain the smell, but I was still desperately hoping that there wouldn't be any human corpses. How could there be human corpses? It was impossible. The Darlings were teenagers, no older than me, hardly more than children, and I had known them for years. No matter how bad it looked, no matter how bad it smelled, I refused to consider the obvious explanation until I saw it with my own eyes.
Piled up in that pit were dozens of human corpses, the most I had ever seen in one place by a ludicrous margin. All of them were mangled and mutilated, all of them in various states of decomposition, all of them swarming with maggots and flies. Limbs were twisted at odd angles with broken bones jutting out or hacked off entirely. Burns and lacerations were ubiquitous, and at least one person’s skin had been flayed off altogether.
One body had been eviscerated and stuffed full of god knows what, one had had its skull impaled with a golf club, another had its face sawed off, and it just got more and more gruesome from there. It was so bad that some of the bodies were barely recognizable as human beings anymore, but most were undeniably men, women, teenagers, and even children.
My father never told me what he saw when he helped to liberate prisoners from Axis concentration camps at the end of the War, but I can only assume it was something like what I saw in that pit of atrocities.
I didn't scream. I ran out of the room and vomited, but I didn't scream. Screams are for terror, not horror, and I was too horrified at what I'd seen to be terrified for my own life.
I looked up at the Darling Twins, who were watching in patient anticipation of my reaction, not one shred of remorse on their faces.
"People… people have been disappearing over the last few years, all over the county, but especially from town. It was you?" I choked out through tearful sobs.
"All but one. I really wonder about that guy sometimes," Mary nodded.
"Why?" I demanded.
"Well, wouldn't you wonder? Did he just run off? Did someone else get him? Did -"
"Why the murders!" I screamed.
"Well, we've both fantasized about killing for as long as we can remember," James answered. "This place gave us somewhere we could do it safely and we… we just couldn't resist."
"Both of you?" I asked, looking at Mary in dismay.
"It's like James said; I have a vindictive streak," she grinned.
"Look, Veronica, we like you, which is why we're being upfront with you about this," James explained. "Yes, we lure people in here to be tortured, killed, and then chucked into a pit because that's how we get our rocks off. We’re monsters, and we’re fine and dandy with that.
“But you, Miraculous Miss Mason, you're more useful to us alive. So, we're willing to let you use this place for whatever you want, in exchange for you putting on a 'private magic show' now and then. That's not such a bad deal, is it?"
"And we'll even seal off the morgue so it doesn't stink up the rest of the place," Mary offered. "I've been meaning to do that anyway."
I stared in horror at the smiling twins, their eyes twinkling like dying stars in the abyss. They made no threat about what would happen if I refused their offer, since none needed to be made. Fighting them would be far too dangerous. They outnumbered me, they were clearly more skilled with violence, and I still didn't know exactly what they were or what they were capable of. I did have a clear shot to the exit, but they could see that as well as I could. They were toying with me. If I ran, I was prey, and I wouldn't get far.
So, I decided that maybe I should give them what they wanted.
"You, you want a private magic show?" I sobbed. Struggling against the moral and physical revulsion I felt, I forced myself upright and pulled out my deck of trick cards. For my own safety, I had never shown anyone else the full extent of what I could do with those cards, but the Darlings had just earned themselves an exclusive premiere.
I shuffled the deck with a practiced flourish, and I saw the twins' faces light up in wonder as each card was illuminated with a magical aura. I tapped my index finger on the back of the deck, and as I raised my hand into the air the cards rose with it, fluttering around and around on their axis, their faces changing with each rotation. I spun my arm around and around, creating a swirling vortex of playing cards between me and them.
"Think, think of a card, any card, just, just don't tell me what it is," I stammered. "Have, have, have you picked one?"
They both nodded, eager to see what sort of trick I would do.
"Are these your cards?"
When I said this, the vortex, instantly uncoiled into a long, lashing whip of cards, slashing each twin across the face as it did so. As they screeched in pain, I turned and bolted for the exit, the card whip still trailing behind me and lashing about like crazy, keeping the Darlings at a distance.
"Veronica, get back here!" Mary screamed at me. They weren't chasing me though. Instead, the stone walls around me began to shake and rumble, groaning as they closed in around me, threatening to crush me or at the very least cut off my escape. The lanterns fell from the ceiling, just barely missing me as I ran past. And, out of the corner of my eye, I just barely made out some dark, shapeless form crawling out of one of the foreboding doorways.
In spite of all that, I made it. They may have had control over everything within their playroom, but the door to their bedroom was still part of our reality, and I threw it open easily enough. Once I was out, I retracted all my trick cards back into my pocket and ran out of the Darling House, waking up Mother Darling as I did so and not stopping to answer any of her questions. I didn't stop running until I made it back home.
I wish I could have told my parents or the police or somebody about what I'd seen in that room, but I knew it was pointless. I couldn't prove anything. If anyone were to investigate, they'd just find an ordinary closet in the Darling Twins' bedroom, and I'd probably end up getting that lobotomy I had been trying so hard to avoid. I wish I could have brought some justice to the Darlings' victims. I wish I could have stopped them from killing again, but there was nothing I could do.
The Darlings and I just avoided each other for the rest of the school year, and that summer was when I ran away from home. I ended up not going to Sombermorey after all, instead getting a gig in a circus which I'm now the Ringmaster of, but that's not actually relevant to this story. What matters is that I never went back to Periwinkle Pines or saw the Darlings again, at least not until a few nights ago.
I'm in my seventies now, even though I look barely half of that. I'm the Miraculous Miss Mason, after all, and I've only gotten more miraculous as the years have gone by.
The reason I had never gone back there is that I had always been conflicted about running away from home and breaking my parent's hearts, and I didn't know how I would react if I ever ran into them. But this time of year always invites reflection, and this year more so than most, so I decided to finally go back.
The town hadn't grown or changed all that much, but my old house was gone. I hadn't really expected to find my parents there anyway. If they're still alive, they'd be almost a hundred by now.
My walk through town did, however, eventually take me to Cherry Street, and it was in a surprisingly sorry state. The road itself was barricaded with multiple signs warning vehicles and pedestrians alike to stay out. The entire neighbourhood looked like it had been abandoned and neglected for decades, with the sole exception of the Darlings' house.
It was in pristine condition, not to mention strung up with Christmas lights, the sole beacon of cheer and warmth on that derelict street. As I approached it, the living room light came on, even though no one was inside it. A moment later, I spied a young woman in a Christmas sweater and poodle skirt stepping out of the back hallway and coming towards the window.
It was Mary. She looked even younger than I did, around twenty or so, but I had no doubt that it was her. And, by the expression on her face, she recognized me too. She turned around and shouted, and I saw James come out in a matching sweater.
The two of them stood there together, smiling at me through the window. It was the same creepy grin I remember from all those decades ago. James waved at me, and Mary gestured for me to come in and join them.
I ran from them, their house, that street and the entire town without looking back once.
Written by The Vesper's Bell