The day passed quickly, as did the night. Bess dreamed of better times with her sister.
Before Bess could really fully register the impact of his death, it was nearly time for Jacob’s funeral to begin. Bess dressed in her frilly black frock—the same one she had worn to the Christmas party a lifetime before—and remembered how it had made her feel fat and homely next to Tess. She wondered how she could have ever spent so much time and energy loathing herself and making comparisons. While she was still far from beautiful, she noticed how the fabric fell snugly against her hips, and how the skirt fanned out and gave her the appearance of a more balanced figure. She slipped a black headband into her hair and joined her parents as they walked slowly to their car.
Once they entered the church, Sarah joined the army of black-dressed women carrying dishes to Anne, and Bess saw her deposit it into her arms with a few soft words of condolence. She wondered how many of the dishes would actually be eaten before the Polleys left town, and how many would be dumped into the bottom of the trashcan, covering its rounded bottom with smears of congealed tomato sauce and runny cheese.
Anne, for her part, accepted all of the dishes with a gesture of gratitude. Zach sat solemnly at her side. He did not act rudely toward the dish-bearers, but he did not thank them, either. Bess did not blame him.
The burial would be private, but the Polleys had asked anyone who had known Jacob well to say a few words about him. His friends, Paul and John, stood up and tearfully recounted how Jacob had been one of the people they loved most and, in John’s words, “the best snowball fighter ever.” The church had hummed with soft, sad chuckles.
Bess had debated going up to the front, but she thought better of it. Tess was really the one who had known Jacob best. She was the fun one, the one who suggested pillow fights and blanket forts and eating far too much ice cream for dinner. Bess was the one who was there to ensure that they didn’t eat too much ice cream or hit each other too hard with their pillows. She was, in effect, the watchful schoolmarm.
Tess should have been sitting beside her. She should have been able to get up and give a stirring tribute. It would have made the audience laugh, cry, and remember all of the things they liked most about Jacob. But, instead, they had to listen to grasping tributes from many who had hardly known him, and who simply craved the burst of attention that rushing to the front of the church would bring.
After several of these, the Polleys stood up to give the audience a swift, wavering thank you. They returned to their seats nearly in tears, and Pastor McCullen stood to dismiss them and say a prayer of blessing over the congregation.
Bess did not know how blessed she thought they truly were. As they exited, she eyed the crosses, the Bibles, the verses written in script on the walls, and she wondered how they could be blessed and, at the same time, be held under the thrall of such a monstrous force.
As it stood, the blessing seemed to fade as soon as the mourners rose from their seats. They did not fight as they had at the press conference—this was a funeral, after all, and respect was necessary—but the sidelong looks and frozen faces were still present.
She let her parents guide her through the sea of black, and she saw Officer Marsh emerge on the left side of the parted mass. He saw her, too, and for a moment he opened his mouth as though he were about to say something, but nothing came out. There was a glimmer of sympathy in his eyes, but Bess fixed him with the same hard stare she had adopted during his last visit to her home. He closed his mouth, and his face settled until it matched the blank expressions of those around him. He nodded stiffly as he passed her and passed through the church’s wide front doors.
She walked out into the bright sunlight, thinking only of getting home, changing, and continuing to look for her sister. As she unconsciously looked out into the distance, she saw it.
It was the creature, crouched low in the trees on the far side of the street. Nobody else seemed to notice it. Bess thought that, had she not already encountered it before, she would have thought it was a trick of the light, or perhaps not even seen him at all.
It was looking at the people spilling out of the church, and it occurred to Bess that this was the farthest she had ever seen the creature away from the river. Her heart began to beat a faster, more erratic tune.
It was gazing at her, watching her, using its dark eyes to trail her and her parents to their car. For a moment she thought it might run out and attempt to grab them, but it stayed hidden within the safety of the trees and shadows.
The wound in its left eye was still visible, though the oil-blood had stopped leaking from it. If the creature had difficulty seeing because of it, it gave no indication. Bess, summoning a courage that she did not know she had, stared at it until she opened her door and slipped into her seat. She looked away to ensure that her dress had not gotten caught, and when she looked back, the creature had vanished from sight.
She was not so naïve to believe that it was gone for good. It had come to the church for a reason. She knew that it would not venture so far beyond its home, wherever home was, unless it knew that it had a reason to do so. She suspected that its reason for leaving had something to do with her. But, if it wanted to hurt or kill her, why had it not attempted to lure her away again? It could have probably even moved swiftly enough to capture her as she was walking and spirit her away back into the trees.
It had done none of those things. It had only watched her walk, looking at her without expression, never once blinking or turning away. The encounter made Bess feel uneasy, as if this was part of a plan she knew nothing of. Had it already killed Tess? Did it know of the connection between her and her sister? Should she attempt to follow it?
Her heart began to speed up. It would not be a good time to draw attention to herself and her quest. Running after a monster would only serve to make her parents, Marsh, and the rest of Mariner believe that her sanity had been compromised in the wake of her sister’s disappearance. If they did, she would never be allowed to stay in Mariner by herself, and she would potentially lose the last of her precious time. She did not want her parents to force her to go with them to Concord, and then to return to the revelation of Tess’s death.
The sight of the monster filled her with a renewed urgency.
Ask them now.
She stared out of her window at the shadows as her parents slid into their own seats.
“Mom?” she asked tentatively. “Have you thought about whether or not I can stay here tonight?”
“I don’t know, Bess.” Her father answered. “It would make us feel better if you went with us. I get a little bit uneasy when I think about you staying in the house alone.”
“I promise I’ll be good, and I won’t stay up too late or eat too much.” She tried for a little bit of levity in an attempt to loosen them up, but they didn’t respond. She tried a different tactic.
“I just want some time to rest,” she said. “I’m tired of being interviewed and picked apart again and again. Officer Marsh acts like Tess is at fault for her own disappearance, and that I am, too, for that encounter with that man on the ice. I don’t want to go through hours of that again.”
This was true, and Bess figured that she was telling only a half-lie. She crossed her fingers at her sides and thought of the symbols she had seen in the church. Though she felt foolish, she was willing to take all the grace and luck she could receive.
Please. I’m running out of time.
Sarah turned to look at Will. “I’m not opposed to it. This has been really hard on her.” She spoke as if Bess was not there. Bess did not mind, because her tone was gentle.
Will gave no indication that he had heard her. He kept his eyes on the road as he carefully steered past a lingering patch of ice. Just when Bess was about to address him directly, he met her eyes in the mirror.
“I’m willing to let you stay home, Bess. I certainly don’t want to cause you any further stress or guilt. But, if we leave you here, there are going to be a few rules.”
Bess nodded. “Anything.” Almost anything.
“You need to stay inside the house from the time we leave until the time we get home,” Will said firmly. “You will not go out to search for Tess. You will not go to the grocery store or the civic center or anywhere else in town. You will keep the windows and doors locked at all times. If someone tries to enter the house, you will call Officer Marsh.”
Bess nodded. “I will.”
“And call us before you go to bed,” Sarah added. “And maybe once or twice tomorrow before we come home.” She laughed. “That’s not too much, is it?”
There was a time when Bess would have considered this overbearing. Now, however, when she considered the nervousness in her mother’s laugh, and the red in her eyes that had never quite gone away entirely, she considered it quite reasonable.
“No, it’s definitely not too much,” she responded truthfully. “I’ll let you know if I have any problems, but I think the whole thing will turn out to be nothing more than a quiet night at home.”
Her parents nodded and, having settled the matter of their daughter, began to talk about hotel arrangements and interview schedules. Bess looked out the window again.
She did not know whether she should continue her search tonight, or wait until the early morning and venture out before her parents returned home. Either way, she would need to prepare.
She thought of the monster again, and wondered if she should have followed it when she’d had the chance. She convinced herself that it had not been a lost opportunity—she had not wanted to make a scene then, and she did not want, now, to enter another trap. She would wait, and she would search its home later on. She would find it when it didn’t expect her.
The creature watched the girl as she crossed the pavement. She locked eyes with it, but it did not care if she saw. She did not know its plans.
When it had first seen the girl at the river, it had assumed that she was simply another wanderer in the wrong place at the wrong time. But then, later, the girl had come to the river again. She had attempted to follow it back to its home, and had gotten away when it chased her.
This was what the creature had fixated on. It bore no malicious will toward the girl in particular. It thought very little of the people who lived in the town, except as sources of food. Even then, it sometimes felt something like an echo of remorse when it killed. At the very least, it did not take much pleasure in the act. It had not enjoyed the screams of the woman in the cave when it had killed the boy. But its hunger had been overpowering, and it was focused on its own survival. If that meant hunting creatures weaker than itself, than the creature would not sacrifice itself out of some misguided sense of nobility.
It had decided that its next prey would be the girl. She had seen it and, despite its best efforts, she had returned to the town alive. While she didn’t appear to have told anyone about its existence, the creature wanted to ensure that nobody would come looking for it. It had no taste for self-styled heroes who would attempt to hunt it like a twisted sort of trophy.
It had journeyed inside the town—farther than it had ever gone in its short life—in the hopes of finding the girl. It wanted to get her alone. It would not be effective to attempt to capture her while there were other people around who could help her.
When the girl’s family drove away from the church, the creature followed them. It did not take long for any of them to reach the Andrews’ house. The creature stayed a ways away, hidden, but in the stillness of the street he could hear parts of their conversation.
“When your father and I are gone…”
“…alone for the night…”
Much of it fell on the creature’s ears without meaning, but it was able to recognize the words it had learned were important.
The girl would be alone in her home tonight. She would have no one around to protect her, and she would not be expecting it. Once it had taken her, she would be unable to tell others about it, or to fight against it herself. After it had fed on the woman in the cave, it would kill her, too. Then, everything would go back to the way it had been. The people in the town would slowly forget what had happened, and the creature could go back to indulging its purpose and desire—to feed without interruption or strife.
It watched the girl walk inside her home. Tonight, after the sky had darkened, it would drag her out.
Bess had mixed feelings about her parents’ plans with the Polleys. She had seen her mother speaking softly to Anne at the funeral, and her father had stayed behind after the service to say hello to Zach. But she had not expected them to invite her parents out to their home for an early dinner before her parents left that evening. The invitation had not been expanded to include Bess, and she was secretly grateful. Had they invited her, she would not have known how to decline. And, had she gone, it would have been very easy for her parents to bundle her into the car to take to Concord.
Sarah was debating bringing over a bottle of wine. While she and Will would be driving after their visit, she had announced to Bess that one drink each—or maybe a second if they were careful and slow—could not hurt them. Bess wondered how much they would really end up drinking.
Probably a lot, she thought. After all, they’re only getting together because they have one thing in common, and that thing happens to be something that would make you want to get very drunk very quickly.
She wondered if the Polleys still had Jacob’s bedroom in order, and a faint feeling of nausea washed over her.
Bess collected herself. It made her happy that her parents would have some sort of encouraging audience for their grief—and the Polleys would too, considering that they were the ones who had just had a funeral for their own child. All of them deserved to have some happiness, however faint, for a few hours.
She would also have more time to plan and to think. She had decided against going out to search for the monster at night. After what had happened before, she thought it would be safer to wait until daylight began to creep over the horizon. She would be safer then.
But the shadows still stretched along the walls, and Bess hated the idea of not having her parents to run to in case something went wrong. She wasn’t planning to continue her search for Tess until early the next morning, but the fact that she would be on her own for the night—even in her safe house—made her anxious. The monster had come further into town than she’d expected it to.
And, of course, she was the only one who knew it was there. And what it was after.
As her parents packed appetizers and bottles of wine, Bess looked over the map. She knew now that the creature would not be keeping Tess in the open woods where someone could possibly find her. It seemed to leave its victims in public spaces only when it was truly finished with them.
She had been able to narrow down a few other options. The abandoned houses on the other side of town had been tapped for a restoration, and so her sister would not be there. Her neighbors’ sheds would be too small and too open. Marking these locations off of the map had given her a momentary feeling of accomplishment, but she was still no closer to finding Tess’s location.
A cave seemed the most likely option, but she did not know which one might be the X on her map. While most of the caves around Mariner and the Merrill were fairly small, they were still big enough to hide someone. Tess could be in any one of them.
She sighed in frustration and put the map away. She would think on it more tonight. There had to be something that she was missing, but she just hadn’t figured it out yet.
As the map disappeared under her bed, she tried to cheer herself up. She could rest for a little while—she would have the television all to herself, and she could have whatever she wanted for dinner.
But the television played only soap operas and news about the disappearances, and making anything special for dinner without Tess by her side struck her as simply pointless and sad. She thought back to when they had made their terrible, wonderful tea, and a fog settled over her heart. She wouldn’t have been able to replicate the memory even if she’d wanted to.
All too soon, it was time for her parents to leave. Bess kissed them goodbye and promised to call them if anything unusual happened. She promised to behave. She knew she wouldn’t.
She closed the door behind them and checked the lock. She was alone, but at least she was safe within her house. The lock made sure of that.
Still, an anxious voice continued to echo inside her head, and the shadows were long.
I need to find her.
Is the morning safer?
What happens if I’m too late?
She needed to find a way to distract herself.
Her mother had left a little bit of the beef casserole in the refrigerator, and Bess pulled it out and piled most of it onto a plate. It was cold, and a little bit stiff, but it would do.
She opened a window, determined to receive a little bit of fresh, cool air. She sat herself in front of the television and turned it on. The screen flickered to life, revealing another episode of Biloxi Beach Memoirs. In this episode, the once-content newlyweds had decided on an annulment. However, as they were getting ready to sign the papers, the groom began having second thoughts. What followed was an elaborate plot to get himself back in the bride’s good graces.
The images flashed across Bess’s face and into her mind, but she had trouble focusing on exactly what was going on. She finished her casserole and set the plate on the wooden floor. It made a slight clinking noise as it connected, and she flinched.
The next episode revolved around two sisters. One of them—the beautiful, charming one—was about to marry the man of her dreams. The other sister—homely, scheming—was jealous, and decided to try to steal the man away for herself.
Bess and Tess had never fought over a man. Tess’s tastes ran toward all-American, Robert Redford types. Bess wasn’t sure what type of type she had. Perhaps tall. Perhaps funny. Maybe with glasses.
The general concept of the episode, however, spoke to her. One sister was beloved, one sister was not. One sister was beautiful, and the other was ugly. One sister was Jacob, the other Esau.
Bess knew that she was loved by her parents, and even by Tess. Tess could have used her natural position above her sister to make her life unpleasant, but she had instead appointed herself as a kind of fairy godmother and protector of Bess.
But some part of her could not help but identify with Esau, the hated. She had hated the way the neighbors turned their eyes to Tess, speaking to her only when the better option was taken. She had hated the way she was seen as a sort of extension of Tess, something that wasn’t really wanted but came as part of the package. She had hated the appreciative looks she never got, the attention that never quite made its way over to her. Sometimes, she had even hated the way Tess led her along, telling her what to do and trying to brighten her up around the edges.
And she had hated the way she let herself follow Tess through life and never demand that she get what she wanted.
She knew part of the reason why she had become so devoted to finding her. For once in her life, she wanted to be the leader, the beloved, the hero. And so she had pushed and searched and run away from a monster twice, and was still left with nothing but an empty dinner plate and her birthright as the eldest.
The hatred she had felt had begun to fade over the last couple of days. Part of it was that she had been focused on, and distracted by, far more important matters. But she had also begun to remember everything that had made Tess her best friend.
She watched the sisters fight on the small screen. Despite everything, she and Tess had rarely fought. Tess had loved her, had never flung the fact of her superiority in her sister’s face. Rather, Tess had held her when she cried, made pancakes with her when she was anxious, and tried to guide her through the treacherous waters of life even when she herself struggled to navigate them.
And Tess had loved her. And she had loved Tess.
She knew that she loved Tess. She wanted her home, wanted to find her and bring her back to the safe little bubble that had been their life together. The person she had been faded from view. She no longer cared about what their pre-prescribed roles were.
She loved her, and loved her deeply, and she would find her and return her to the world.
And, if that was what she was meant for, then it would be enough.
And she suddenly felt within herself a conviction that she would find her sister. She would find her when the sun washed over the sky and drove the monster back into the shadows. It would be the next day, after she had rested herself in preparation.
She turned off the television and placed her plate in the sink. Her heart pounded with a kind of joyous anxiety as she prepared for bed. She thought of Tess’s long, bright hair as she showered and placed her own toiletries next to her sister’s. As she brushed her teeth, she thought of Tess’s biggest smile, the one that always made her smile back. When she put on her pajamas, she thought of Tess’s frilly nightgown, and Tess would twirl the skirt and preen like a Gothic heroine in order to cheer her up.
The room was silent as she laid her head on her pillow, and she thought of all the late-night conversations she had yet to have with Tess. They would talk about their hopes, their dreams and, later, their spouses and their jobs. She could picture her and her sister, years from now, still sharing their bedroom during visits and reminiscing over childhood memories.
Tess would be home soon, and then they could start on with the rest of their lives.
A small smile curved across her face as she rolled over, and she hardly noticed that the shadows on the walls had stretched all the way to her windows and nearly blocked out the stars.Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in