The story so far:
Southern Gothic: Romance Chapter Five by Ace
The house burned. Rage consumed it as completely as the flames that ate through its walls. Years of mistrust, shame, and anger fermented in the old woman's failing memory --the house fed off the emotions that she had never quite managed to conquer. The closet hatred that she had been so ashamed of, the thirst for revenge that she stifled so many years ago-- it all helped to give birth to the life in the walls. There was no sentience. The house flashed from one emotion to the next with no control, with no buffer of self awareness about what or how it was feeling. When it had felt the intruder moving in its walls, it found a way to react. Its hatred was self-consuming, but it would take its enemy down with it...
Leigh and Andrew cleared the top of the stairs. The ceiling here was already swimming in a thin layer of smoke that was seeping from a wall far to their right down the hallway. In the few seconds that they watched, the smoke deepened in colour, and the wall began to blacken from the floorboards up as it was consumed by the blaze in the kitchen below.
There was a crack like a gunshot from downstairs that jolted them back to action. There wasn't much on their side of the hallway away from the spreading fire-- a windowless bedroom that was little more than a closet, and the bathroom.
The bathroom was small with hardly enough room for two people to move without bumping into each other, but that hardly mattered. They hoped they wouldn't be in there for long.
In the center of the blackened wallpaper, a flame ignited. The paper curled away as it burned, and a tiny fragment broke away, drifting toward the ground. There was a sound like a sigh, and the slightest movement in the air. The spark looped in the air, drifted away from the wall and landed the frayed old hallway rug. There was a second sigh--the tiny fragment glowed like an ember, and the musty rug lit. The grubby tassels went up like dried leaves and a trail of flame raced down the hall toward the bathroom...
"Run the taps," Andrew yelled. He went straight to the window and shoved it open so hard that the window pane cracked. Behind him, Leigh opened the taps on the antique claw-footed tub and the sink. The splash of the running water was completely swallowed up by the stampede sounds of fire. Andrew leaned out the window, surveying their options. There were few. He sighed, gritted his teeth.
"This isn't going to be easy and it's definitely not going to be safe!" he called back over his shoulder. "Okay, first do you have any--" he turned and saw that Leigh was two steps ahead of him.
She had pulled out several threadbare towels from a stash under the sink, soaked them in the filling tub, and used them to stuff the cracks around the door as best she could. Smoke was beginning to seep in along the top of the door jamb. She grabbed yet another towel from the pile on the sink and reached for the tap.
It took Andrew's brain half a second to process what he was seeing.
"Leigh, no!" He lunged forward, seized her wrist and hauled her away from the faucet. Leigh lost her balance, fell into him and they both landed heavily on the tile floor in a tangle of limbs. After a moment of confusion, Leigh managed to lever her head up, and gave Andrew a look of annoyance and incomprehension. But he was looking past her with a grim set to his mouth. She turned her head to see behind her.
Elsewhere in the house, the fire was burning with frightening speed and intensity. The water pipes were being heated in the flames and out of the faucet, right where Leigh had nearly put her hand, boiling water was pouring from the tap. Even in the growing heat of the room, Leigh shivered, shaken by her close call.
The unplugged gap along the door was leaking a steady stream of smoke.
Andrew gently but firmly pushed Leigh off of himself and climbed to his feet, using the toilet for support. He grabbed a towel from the sink, wadded it up and tried to use it to turn off the taps. The metal knobs were blazing hot and the ancient terrycloth just not thick enough. He pulled his hand back with a hiss, dropping the towel into the steaming tub.
Directly above their heads, the nearly forgotten trunk once again began its assault.
BANG! BANG! BANG!
Andrew pulled Leigh to her feet, and they backed together toward the window. Steam coiled and swirled up to the ceiling--yin to the smokey yang. Through the mingling vapours plaster fell like perverse snow in the stifling heat.
The ceiling cracked.
The ceiling sagged.
Down it came. It broke through the plaster almost silently, fell like an angel damned. One corner of the trunk carved its way through the edge of the tub, slicing through the metal like a machete through potter's clay. The stricken tub rang like a gong. The trunk hit with such force that it embedded itself into the tile-covered floor, sending black and white ceramic shards flying like shrapnel. Leigh, shielded from the blast of broken tile by Andrew's body, was the first to see the new danger.
"Up! Get up!" She tugged at Andrew's arm. "Get on the toilet! Hurry!" She had only a second to register the blood on his face, the spreading speckles of red on his white cotton shirt as she grabbed him and lifted him bodily onto the wooden lid of the toilet seat. There wasn't time to be sure of his footing--she scrambled on immediately after him, bracing herself against the wall, and clutching a handful of Andrew's shirt to help him stay balanced if necessary.
Boiling water swept over the bathroom floor like a rising tide in Hell.
Leigh stuck her head out the open window, gulping the wet morning air. Heat radiated from behind her as she scanned for any safe way to the ground. To the left was the roof over the porch, but it was too far away, and the fire was raging just behind the front door. Not an option.
She looked for a drainpipe, but there was none to be seen. No ladders or clothesline conveniently within reach either. Nothing to make this any easier. She looked straight down. It was a two-story drop. If Andrew lowered her out the window, she'd only have to fall about nine feet instead of fourteen feet. If she was lucky, she'd avoid serious injury and be able to find something to help Andrew get down. If she wasn't lucky, he'd have to jump. Better to break a leg or two than to burn to death.
She released his shirt, and awkwardly swung a leg over the window sill.
"Grab my arms-- you're going to have to lower me down."
She looked up into his face. He was pale under his sweat, and his eyes appeared a bit dazed, but his voice was strong, if incredulous.
"We can't leave! There's someone trapped up there! We have to help them get down!"
Leigh's brain struggled to make sense of his words. Andrew gestured to the gaping wound in the ceiling and in a flash she understood.
"There isn't anybody there. It was just..." But how to explain a seemingly possessed cedar trunk? She couldn't. "There really isn't anyone. Trust me. We have to get out of here."
He opened his mouth angrily, but Leigh didn't give him a chance to respond. She swung her other leg out the window. He grabbed her wrists, fear and anger battling on his face. The last thing Leigh saw as she went out the window was the trunk, still and ominous, the door behind it smoldering with black smoke leaking through every available crack.
Leigh grit her teeth as Andrew lowered her down, her body scraping painfully on the edge of the sill. She tried to turn her head, to gauge the distance to the ground, but her outstretched arms prevented her from seeing anything past her own shoulder. Above her, Andrew grunted.
"Tell me when you're ready! I can't hold on!"
"Just a second!"
She wildly tried to find any way to prepare herself, to help control the fall, but the wet brick offered no foothold, and with her arms locked above her head, she was completely vulnerable.
She took a deep breath and was about to tell Andrew to let her drop when his grip slipped. She heard him cry out--he let go of her left wrist, tried desperately to hold on to her right with both hands, but the momentum of her body as it began to fall easily pulled her out of his sweat-slick grasp.
She didn't have a chance to gasp. She kicked out instinctively, twisted her body like a cat, trying to see the ground as it rushed up to meet her. She didn't have the height to complete such a maneuver and hit the ground hard on her side, blasting the air from her lungs and bouncing her skull off the sodden ground.
Blackness fought for dominance in her vision. She struggled for breath, trying vainly to fill her lungs. Panic and pain blocked out everything else--she was dimly aware of Andrew screaming, but he seemed a world away, unreachable. She frantically pushed herself up, tried to make space in her torso for air, her body wrenched in gulping spasms. The darkness yawned before her, and just as her body began to sink into unconsciousness her diaphragm relaxed, and she was able to finally draw in a hideous rasping breath.
Relief was short-lived. Her vision returned as the blackness receded, but so did the full extent of the pain. For a moment, she could only huddle there, sucking air between gritted teeth. She became aware again of Andrew's voice, heard him screaming her name. Fighting back nausea, she lifted her head, and saw him half hanging out of the window, framed by black smoke that poured out around him.
There wasn't time for pain. There wasn't time to hurt. She had to help him, but there was nothing she could do, nothing she could use. Still unable to speak, she gestured with her arm, pleading with him to jump. He nodded, set his jaw, and pushed away from the wall. He watched the ground rush toward him, legs tensed for impact...
The world exploded.
In a fraction of a second, Leigh saw it. Andrew hit the ground and at the very same moment the whole wall around the window disintegrated. The shock wave knocked her back to the ground. Bricks and wood were blown back over her head, hitting trees behind her and raining down a fine dust of mortar and splinters. Her side was in agony as she raised herself onto an elbow, searching for Andrew.
He was laying only a few feet away, nearly within her arm's length. Even as her heart sank in panic, he groaned and pushed himself up to his knees. Sick with relief, Leigh crawled to him, placed her hand lightly on his back -- she was afraid to do more until she knew how seriously he was injured. Andrew opened his eyes, saw her and smiled. He pushed himself up to a kneeling position, breath hissing between his teeth. Leigh pulled back in alarm, but he caught her hand in his, squeezed it, and gently raised it to his lips.
For the first time since she had fallen, Leigh found her voice.
"Are you hurt? Hurt badly, I mean?"
Andrew chuckled silently. He flexed his fingers on his free hand, rolled his shoulders and slowly arched his back. He winced, shook his head.
"Everything will be far worse tomorrow, but for now, I think I'm okay." He caught sight of his blood spattered shirt, reached up and felt the drying blood on his face. "I probably should get these looked after and cleaned up as soon as possible. How are you? That was a nasty fa..." As he spoke, Andrew raised his head, looking back up at the ruined bathroom wall. Leigh felt his hand stiffen around hers. She looked up too.
In the smokey wreck of the wall, wreathed in smoke and flame, was the trunk. It perched on the very lip of the floor, the front of it jutting out into open space. Andrew and Leigh stared at it, transfixed.
Then they heard the sound. They felt it before they heard it. The the grinding, ripping sound of slow, serious destruction. What was left of the wall spanning the side of the house past the porch had been weakened, its stability destroyed. Now--bricks windows and all-- it was pulling away from the house. Slow as a glacier, it tilted. Leigh had a glimpse of the trunk high above them, looming like a squat wooden angel of death. She felt numb. She couldn't move. She couldn't even close her eyes against the death that hung over her head. She simply squeezed Andrew's hand and was comforted when his tightened in response.
The heart of the house was a furnace-- the hatred burned away everything that could be consumed. Soon there was little left to feed it, and it tried to feed off itself. But under the fury and the malice, there was something patiently waiting. Something that could withstand the heat of self-destructive passions, something that would be left when all was turned to ash. As the wall began its deadly descent, that something stirred... reached out...
There was a dry grinding sound barely audible under the crackle of the flames, accompanied by the sharp snapping of wood. Near the base of the wall the mortar cracked, split --the wall broke under its own uneven weight. The bottom piece, only about four feet in height, continued its descent towards Andrew and Leigh, striking the ground well short of their legs. The much larger portion, it's center of gravity altered, fell back as though on a hinge. Where it struck, the house collapsed -- fire, age, and decay extracting their heavy toll. Embers flew high in to the air, rained down like fireworks; sparks seeking fuel, only to be extinguished on the rain soaked lawn.
Without letting go of Leigh's hand, Andrew gently embraced her head to his chest. He gently kissed her hair, her forehead, holding her gently, but firmly, as though afraid she would disappear out of his arms. Leigh rested against him, her shaking slowly subsided as she communed with the calming sound of his heart. Together they sat in the rain, listening to sound of sirens growing louder in the distance.
It was hours later. Andrew and Leigh had both been discharged from the hospital quicker than might normally be expected--quicker due to the increased efficiency hospital staff exhibit when treating one of their own, and also because of their relatively minor injuries. The worst was Leigh's bruised ribs--there was nothing to be done aside from rest and painkillers. The ceramic shrapnel was quickly fished out of Andrew's skin on his face and torso. The cuts were quite small and shallow--he was expected to heal completely with little or no scarring. Both of them were treated for minor burns that neither of them remembered receiving, such was their level of adrenaline during their escape.
Now they stood next to the smoking ruin of the house. The firefighters had been shocked by the intensity of the blaze--how quickly the fire spread through the rest of the house, and also how quickly it seemed to burn out by its own devices.
Leigh wasn't sure why she had wanted to come back so soon. It was obvious that there was nothing that could be saved. The house had burned utterly to the ground. She stood, surveying the charred black timbers. Andrew kept back, giving her a moment to herself. She wasn't thinking really, certainly not about what they'd just been through. Her eyes cast around lazily.
The sun broke through the clouds, illumination the ruins-- and she saw it. She didn't know how she could have missed it. Only a few paces away from her, perched on a pile of ashy rubble, was the cedar chest. Completely undamaged by fire or smoke, it appeared to glow in the direct sunlight.
Leigh struggled into the wreckage, oblivious to Andrew's startled cry behind her. She picked her way through the damp, still-steaming ruins until she stood right before the chest. There wasn't a scratch or smudge on it, nothing visible even this close. Not even hand-prints to explain how it had been left in such a strange position. The rich red wood looked soft to the touch, like velvet. She reached out, entranced, to touch it...
The lock on the chest suddenly glowed an angry red. Leigh pulled back, alarmed, and the lock lightened, white-hot. There was a sound of metal under stress, a brief ping!-- and the lock blew off, the metal alloy unable to cope with the extreme heat. The lid raised itself an inch--two inches-- and stopped. Leigh waited, but it made no other movement. She reached gingerly toward it, pushed the lid up and away from her, careful not to get near the smoking ruin of the lock. Leigh leaned carefully over the open trunk and gasped.
The evening sunlight caressed the gleaming white fabric folded lovingly at the bottom of the trunk. With trembling hands, Leigh carefully lifted the bundle out. She picked her way back through the rubble to Andrew, who waited for her with a mixture of anxiety and curiosity.
"What is it?"
Leigh didn't answer, at least not in words. She shifted her grip on her precious find and gently shook it out. The ocean breeze caught the fabric is it unfolded--Leigh's grandmother's perfectly preserved wedding dress seemed to dance on the wind. The light satin floor-length gown was simple with no embellishments but the cloth and cut were flawless. From a final fold in the dress dropped a smaller and even lighter bundle. Andrew caught it and carefully unfolded it, revealing an airy lace over-coat with long sleeves, ending in elegant falls around the wrists. The garment had tiny silvery clasps that closed the coat up to the the neck, modest and lovely. Together, they would be perfect for a summer Southern bride.
He didn't say the words yet. He could have, but he didn't. Leigh didn't mind. The wonder and the joy in his face, they told her that he would ask, one day, when he had the chance to plan his own perfect moment for her. Nothing needed to be rushed. She took his hand, stepped lightly up to kiss him, long and full on the mouth, then hand in hand they walked off away towards the town.
Behind them, in the forgotten ruins, the battle was over. The flames, the hate, the fury had died. It was almost peaceful in the wreckage now-- a peace that echoed faintly with tiny acts of mercy, of generosity. The sound of neighbors' laughter, of children at play. Sacrifice for others, love of family, pride of self. In the burnt out timbers, there was a sound like a sigh and the last hidden ember went out. The trunk shuddered, and dissolved into dust-- blown away like a kiss in the wind.
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