Jeff staggered back from the closet. He then charged back into the fray of the rotting fragrance and slammed both doors shut. He ran into the bathroom and hid behind that door as well. He tried to breathe easily, to take in the uninfected air from this room, but he could smell, and even feel, that appalling scent all over him.
His first instinct was to go upstairs, get Stuart, bring him down here and shove his nose in his mess like a bad dog. But he remembered how that had gone the first time, and if he really had evidence of Stuart as a murderer, especially if the man had a gun, he would have to be as insane as the writer to just confront him with it.
No, God help him, he'd have to do this himself. And he'd have to be careful, too. Although the writer wasn't easily distracted while he was writing, it wouldn't do to make a racket underneath the house. Especially if Stuart thought someone was on to his secrets. The thought that passed through his mind, but that he did not want to acknowledge, because it was preposterous, was that he would have to be careful or the house itself would warn the writer.
There was a flashlight on a shelf in the laundry room, Jeff knew. He'd seen it every day since he moved in. He couldn't remember if he'd closed the door to the laundry room or not, sealing the writer upstairs and the smell down here, but that would be best.
He forced himself to tromp to the top of the stairs as if nothing was wrong and he saw that he'd left the door open. He'd need to go into the kitchen to get something, he realized, or else it would seem like he had come upstairs just to close the door, which was weird. This was all supposing Stuart even gave a damn, but he couldn't take the risk.
Jeff crossed the kitchen and got himself a beer. The sight of the food in the fridge, even the thought of the beer turned his stomach, but he turned, away from Stuart so he wouldn't have to look at him, and moved back to the stairs.
“Hey, kid,” Stuart called out to him.
Christ he knows, he knows, he knows, a high pitched voice chanted in Jeff's head.
“Can you bring me a beer, too?”
“One of yours?” Jeff asked automatically, blessing himself for being so natural. Stuart occasionally liked to break things up by having a Coor's.
“Nah, I'll have one of yours.”
“'Kay.” Jeff got the beer from the fridge and walked it to the writer, who didn't look up when the can was placed on the table.
“Thanks,” was all he said.
He doesn't know! Jeff reassured himself as we walked back to the stairs again. But he knew he could not be sure. Stuart was too unstable to judge by any normal standards.
Jeff closed the laundry room door behind him, grabbed the flashlight and walked slowly down the stairs. The light was the kind that used a box-shaped battery, and the weight was reassuring in his hand.
The smell was worse now, of course. Not nearly as bad as it was when he'd opened the closet, of course, but it was enough to turn his stomach and make him dread what would come next.
He knew from books, Stuart's among them, that crime scene techs and coroners and the like used tools like mint-scented face masks, or a dab of VapoRub beneath the nostrils to combat the stench of death. Jeff had nothing like it in his toiletries. He settled for a liberal application of mouthwash on his upper lip. The then tied a t-shirt over his nose and mouth, figuring it couldn't hurt.
A massive impulse, for preservation of life, health, and sanity, forbade him to return to the closet, but he did. With his mask the smell in the room was not noticeable, and with the closet open, it was still much better. It was, however, bad enough that he could remember what it was really like, which was almost as bad.
He gave the second door a light shove and it popped open again. As he climbed into the closet he was again reminded of the idea of passing into another world. “I suppose I am,” he muttered to himself, “Into the fucking looking glass,” and he was surprised and even impressed by the hard resolve that he heard beneath the fear in his voice.
There was no instant of stench as he passed into the crawlspace as there had been when he'd opened the closet. Instead, the ruthless smell just kept coming, seeping through his mask and beginning to overpower the mint scent beneath his nose. There was no escape from the overwhelming, nauseating stink. There was, he could see, raw, gray soil beneath his hands and feet.
Until now he'd been using the ambient light from his bedroom, but now he turned on the flashlight. And, of course, there it was.
Just as he hadn't been surprised by the snow, he was not surprised by this, but the sight of the stone post, reaching almost to the floor joists above it, fired an icy dart of fear into his guts. It didn't hit his heart, it hit lower, his diaphragm maybe, and he began to shake. He shuffled back against the stationary part of the closet panel, placing his free hand against it, needing to feel something more stable and solid that he felt.
He had no thoughts now, simply a survival impulse that told him to run, as fast and as far away as he could. There was something else, though, of course there was, with this bastard post and the bastard upstairs, the goddamn thing wanted him to come closer, and Jeff knew that he was going to.
He was afraid to see Mac's body, but he knew where he'd find it. He kept the light on the post and began to move forward. The stone stood perhaps only 20 feet from the closet, over nothing more than packed dirt. As he crawled, he could see that this post was the most clearly marked of all the ones he'd seen. The sigils and runes carved on the outside of it were fresh, still powerful, as fresh as when (HE) the Shaman had streaked them with blood and he knew that if he looked too closely he would see bloodstains in the cracks and that if he got that close to the goddamn thing he really would go completely and totally insane and then—
The runaway train of Jeff's thoughts was derailed by the feel of his free hand landing on something soft and wet. He made an infant sound and snatched his hand back. The movement upset his balance and he fell onto his side and he felt something splatter his face.
He scrambled, unseeing, panicked as a trapped insect, scraping his exposed skin on the dirt. He shivered in revulsion but he did not hesitate as he used the light to reveal what he'd touched.
There were bodies. Dozens of them. No, there were hundreds, a cold, observant internal voice told him. They started about ten feet out from the post and grew more and more dense, forming a barrier of flesh and blood and bone and hair.
He could see tell tale markers. Here was the black and white striped tail of a raccoon, there was a clump of feathers that looked like it had once been a seagull, and of course there were rats and rabbits and shrews and mice and...and there, shining in the light, was a dog tag.
Jeff looked away and scrabbled at the shirt over his face. He got it away in time to keep from soiling it as bile spewed up out of his mouth. He wheezed and coughed, sobbing in the dark and that was all that kept him from screaming.
Feeding. The thought came without warning to his head and he realized that's what it was doing.
Again, he did not hesitate. The primitive part of his mind knew that if he hesitated, he'd never escape, or at least, not all of him. He had to know.
Because the perimeter of flesh was so close to the post, it did not take long to evaluate it. Even with almost two months to rot away, there would be plenty of evidence of Mac if he were here. Jeff couldn't bring himself to get closer, but he shifted from side to side to see what was behind the post's shadow. He saw something long and brown that could have been a large nutria or a terrier. There was a skunk. Another raccoon. He saw more pets, cats and dogs with metal tags, decorated with the phone numbers of owners who loved them, who missed them, their collars multi-colored reminders in the brutally revealing light from his hand.
In the center, closest to the post, there were no bodies, just a dark, clotting ooze. The post stood in the midst of it, proudly, looking much higher than it possibly could be in the crawlspace. Jeff's imagination played awful records for him, the lapping of waves of gore against the post, or the slurping sound of it consuming all that blood and viscera.
At the far side, there was a carcass that was mostly skeleton and Jeff only focused on it because the size would have been right for a man. But it was not. It was the wrong shape, if nothing else, and dark fur clung to its ribs in places. He began to whimper and he tried to shove the realization down before it ate his mind.
Mac was not here. That was what mattered.
But it wasn't all that mattered. As Jeff scraped his way back to the closet he found that, against all odds, he did notice the smell less. He sent his mind scurrying off in all directions, thinking about Stuart's books, his own book, his mom, the dinner he would have wit her tomorrow, all trying to keep away from the sledgehammer blow of the one thought that followed after him, from the far side of the post.
It was no good. As he stumbled out of the closet and closed it behind him, no longer trying to be quiet, he threw himself on his bed and crammed the comforter in his bed to block his screams, sure that if they started they would never end.
There was no stopping something so powerful, so hungry, so fucking empty that it could summon and then devour...
That it could call and consume a bear.