The swamp smells of pennies as I step out of my car and stare at my fiancée’s house on the end of the dirt driveway. My phone and my GPS struggle to get any kind of service out here.
Dana opens the door and grins. “Annette!” She calls as she rushes out to meet me.
“You meant it when you said you live in the middle of nowhere huh?” I ask as I grab my purse and one of the boxes of my things.
Dana grabs another two boxes from my backseat and kicks the door closed. “I like my privacy,” she says and leads me inside.
The walls are builder-grade beige with not a single personal item on the wall. Even the furniture is bare and beige without any personality, a clash to the woman with blue braids and dark skin standing in front of me.
“You’ve been here how long?” I ask.
“A while,” she answers, “What’s wrong? You don’t like it?”
“No, no it’s fine! Just not quite as colorful as you.” I say as I put my box down. “And, you know, in the middle of a swamp. Doesn’t that bother you?”
“I’ve got no eye for decoration and it’s private. All I have to worry about is keeping my door locked. Who knows what sort of monsters are out there, right?” She grins.
“It’s a nice place I guess.” I say.
“Needs your touch, don’t you think?” Dana asks, wrapping her arms around my waist and pressing against my back. I wince when the keys in her pocket dig into my back.
“I think you oughta give it that Annette treatment, maybe splash some paint on the walls.” She whispers against my neck.
I laugh and lean into the warmth of her embrace, shifting enough to get the keys out of my back. I love seeing our skin overlaid, melding together into a river of all that is dark and beautiful in my world. The engagement ring on my hand glimmers like a star against the sky of our skin.
“Is that all of your stuff?” She asks.
Dana kisses my cheek then flops onto the couch. I set the box in my arms down and put our framed engagements pictures on the only side table in the room. Tracing my finger over our printed smiling faces, I admire the handwritten ‘Dana & Annette Forever’ at the bottom of the picture. Her braided, dyed blue hair is pulled back from her face, but my wild brown hair flies everywhere, taking over the picture.
I reach into the box for the next picture, but snag it on the side of the cardboard. I grunt in pain as it cuts my finger open.
“You okay?” Dana gets up and looks over the small cut.
I freeze when she squeezes my finger and forces a few more drops of blood from it. Then she pulls my finger into her mouth and sucks.
I jerk away. “Where’s your first aid kit?” I ask, curling my hand against my chest.
“You know human salvia has some healing properties.” She says then walks out of the room.
She returns with a small first aid kit. I wash my finger and put antibiotic on it before wrapping it with a bandage. Dana’s eyes hinge on my every movement, never leaving the cut on my finger. I clear my throat, and tuck my bandaged finger into my pocket.
Walking through the old house and past Dana I find the kitchen just off of the living room. It’s a simple galley space crammed with all kinds of cooking devices. I live off of mac and cheese and take out, but Dana is incredible at cooking.
“Hungry?” Dana asks, following in behind me and leaning over my shoulder.
I take a step from her. I remind myself I agreed to marry her and move here to get away from the city. I shouldn’t be second-guessing myself now. “Sure.”
“Let me make us something nice to celebrate you moving in.” Dana offers, “I was thinking pork medallions in herb sauce.”
“You know I don’t eat meat,” I remind her.
“But you haven’t had my meat,” she says, “Come on, just for tonight. It’s a special occasion.”
“No Dana.” I say, going back into the living room and picking up another of my boxes.
The silence lingers before I clear my throat. “Where is my office?” I ask.
“Back in here.” She calls from the kitchen.
I follow her voice and notice a door to the side of the kitchen. The door knob looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. Instead of a normal handle, it’s a strange flat black box with a red light that flashes from inside. I brush my finger against the surface and it buzzes under me.
“Not there Annette.” Dana’s voice right behind me startles me.
I jerk my hand back. “Why not? What’s in there?”
“It’s just the basement.” Dana says and crosses her arms.
“Is it dangerous?”
“It’s fine. I keep a lab down there.” She says.
“You work from home?”
“These are more personal experiments and they’re very delicate so you need to promise me you won’t get down there. You could get hurt. You can go anywhere in the house but that room.” She looks at me, and I can’t remember ever seeing her look so serious, not even when she asked me to marry her after our whirlwind romance.
“Geez, you make it sound like a matter of life and death.” I laugh.
When Dana doesn’t laugh with me, I sigh. “Fine, I promise I won’t go into the basement and ruin all your experiments. Happy?” I ask.
She gives me a soft kiss. “That’s the only thing I ask.”
“It’s not going to just randomly open right? That door is weird.”
“It only opens with my key.” Dana says as she pulls a necklace from around her neck and holds it out for me to see.
The pendant is dark black with a red cameo of a woman’s face in the center. The woman’s face is finely detailed, down to the parting of her lips in what could be a smile or a grimace. I keep waiting for the red woman’s eyes to open and stare at me. Every part of is matte, not reflecting a bit of light.
I tear my eyes away from it. “If that’s not where my office is, where is it? You promised.”
“There’s a room for you.” She says, running her fingers through my hair and touching my cheek. “Come on, it’s right here.” She leads me to a breakfast nook area across from the basement door.
“It’s even got a nice window for you, and I put in one of my old desks.”
I look over the bare bones space. It’s not perfect, but it’s the first time I’ve had a space of my own. “Thanks.”
Dana goes into the kitchen and I hear the hiss of meat hitting a hot pan. It smells amazing, but I’ve been vegetarian for years and not even sweet talk from Dana will change that.
I bring my art supplies into my new workspace one by one. Every time I pass through the kitchen I can’t help but glance at the door leading down to the basement. I don’t know what kind of work Dana does; she never talks about it. It’s all very hush hush.
I put out my canvases and my brushes in place on the desk, I ask Dana, “What are you cooking? That doesn’t smell like pork.”
“The vegetarian is telling me what meat should smell like?” she teases.
I wrinkle my nose, but let it drop even as I look over my shoulder at the meat sizzling in the pan. I might not eat meat, but I’ve never seen pork that pink before. I hope she doesn’t get sick from eating contaminated meat.
I lay out all of my art supplies and put them up. It’s the first time I’ve had my own art studio and the chance to take a gamble on my dreams.
“Hey, why don’t we try one of those new vegetarian recipes for dinner tomorrow?” I call to Dana as I return to the kitchen to open up a bag of salad.
“I only cook meat,” she says.
In silence we both finish preparing our separate dinners before finally sitting down together. I poke around at my salad as Dana eagerly devours her pork.
“The house is beautiful Dana,” I say when the silence gets to be too much for me.
She nods, licking her fork clean. “I’ve had it for a few years, had a lot of time to customize it to exactly how I wanted.”
“I’ll try to keep from getting my crap everywhere.” I say, glancing at my desk.
“It’ll be fine.” She assures me before reaching across the table to take hold of my hand. “Annette, I wouldn’t have invited you to move in if I didn’t want you here.”
“You aren’t going to get really anal about how the dishwasher is loaded or anything, right?” I ask with a grin.
Dana rolls her eyes, and squeezes my hand. “No, there’s nothing to worry about. Just the one rule: no going into the basement.”
“Piece of cake. You know I’m no good at any kind of science experiment type of thing anyway.” I say.
She nods and lets go of my hand to take the dishes to the sink.
I put our leftovers into the nearly empty fridge before heading up into our bedroom to put my things into the closet. A few minutes later Dana comes to help me.
Hanging my towels on the old iron towel-hanging bar, I jump when it cracks from the wall and nearly slams down on me.
“What was that?” Dana rushes in the bathroom.
“The towel bar! What is something that heavy doing on the wall?” I ask.
She shrugs. “I like the looks of it.”
I shove the heavy bar under the sink. “We’ll pick out a new non-lethal one, alright?”
For a moment I think Dana’s going to argue, but she then nods.
It’s nearly 2 am before I’m fully moved in, and we both fall exhausted into bed.
When I wake, Dana is gone. I roll out of bed, and down the stairs to the kitchen. The fridge has several new plastic containers of meat sitting in the drawers. I settle on an apple for breakfast.
I wash my hands, then sit in my new office to look over the notes my newest client sent me. I need to be able to crank out at least the main outline of this painting today. My painting has just started to pick up with people wanting portraits. Today’s project is a wedding photo I’m turning into Cinderella and Prince Charming.
I’ve just started to clean up my sketch when:
I hear something beneath me, and jump straight up. “Dana?” I call.
Wiping my paint-coated hands on my shirt, I step towards the basement door. There couldn’t be anything down there making that noise could there? My heart hammers in my chest, and I can feel nausea crawling from the pit of my stomach all the way to the ends of my fingertips as I reach out and touch the lock box.
The front door opens. I jerk my hand away and stumble back for my workbench, sitting down just as Dana peers into the kitchen. “Hey, you’re up.” She calls, coming over to give me a kiss on the cheek.
“Surprise. And it’s before noon.” I point out, glancing back towards the basement door before looking back at Dana, “I thought you were at work.”
She smiles, “I just had a few things to finish up.”
I bite back telling her about the thumping noise. “I’ll be here working.” I say and get back to painting.
Dana leans over my shoulder, watching me work. She kisses my cheek and says, “You have delicious fingers.”
“Well, they’re busy right now, so if you want a sample later you need to let me finish this.”
Dana grins, and kisses me again before I hear her open the basement door. I see a glimpse of a light turning on before the door closes and locks behind her.
Leaning against my chair, I take a breath and rub my temples. “Don’t you dare get cold feet now,” I mutter to myself.
I’ve never moved in with any of my other girlfriends, and even though Dana and I have only been dating a few months, she could be my happily-ever-after. I’d spent so long thinking I’d never find a woman who’d want me, and then Dana showed up like the answer to a prayer.
She’d pushed for us to move in together, but I wanted a ring first. Lesbian or not, I’ve always believed in waiting for commitment before bringing your junk drawers together. I glance at my ring: simple white gold with a ruby cutting across the center like a slit throat.
Dana supported me quitting my job to paint. She wanted to get married as soon as possible. It was time to settle into a relationship, not get lost in paranoid daydreams and gut feelings.
I put my headphones let my music flood through the channels of my mind. I fall into the precise movements of my work, letting no thoughts drift across the blank canvas of my mind.
I come out of my concentration when I hear the basement door open and close.
Dana leans over my shoulder, “Wow, you have been busy.”
I lean back to admire my work. It’s not quite enough done for the day, but I’m close enough to finish it in the morning. Dana starts dinner, and I ignore the smells of meat cooking in the kitchen. Nausea crawls like a second skin over my body, and I head on up to bed, mumbling something about feeling sick.
I stare at the ceiling, hearing that thump from the basement echo around my head over and over, playing on repeat until I finally fall into an uneasy sleep.
“Hey Annette, wake up.” Dana whispers against my ear.
I groan and roll over, opening an eye and looking at her. “What?” I mumble.
“Work just called, I’m going to have to go to a conference to cover for a colleague. I’ll leave you all my keys, and I’ll be back tomorrow night, okay?”
I yawn. “Mm-hm.”
Dana gives me a kiss and then her weight shifts out of the bed. She takes the cameo pendant and puts it around my neck. It hangs like a weight against my throat.
“I have to wear it?” I ask.
“Keeps it safe.” Dana tells me.
I nod as I close my eyes again and drift off for a few more hours.
“Remember, no basement alright?” She calls before I hear the door close behind her and she is gone.
When I wake up with the afternoon sun streaming into the room, the cameo key is cutting my breast.
I get out of bed and stumble towards coffee. Settling in with a hot cup, I look across the kitchen where the basement door immediately catches my attention. I stare at it, holding my breath, but the house stays silent.
I shake my head. “No. You’re going to mess up her stuff if you go down there.”
I tuck the necklace under my shirt. Finishing my breakfast, I return to my painting, trying to focus on anything but the weight of the key against my chest. The basement door burns against my back. To escape that overbearing heat of curiosity, I open a window and let the early spring breeze blow through the kitchen.
Pulling out the picture of the couple I’m painting, I start on the details of their faces, painting eyes, noses and mouths onto the canvas waiting for me. The finishing details take a few hours and the sky’s dark and cold by the time I put down my paintbrush and stretch.
Getting up to go start dinner, I stop in front of that strange door. Every fiber of my body curls into a solid, unmoving muscle as I stare at the door and feel the weight of the key against my skin.
I press my ear against the door. I try to hear anything, but nothing stirs in the basement. Biting so hard at my lip that I draw blood, I pull the key from my neck. There shouldn’t be secrets between wives, right? Just a quick look won’t hurt anything. She’ll never know I was there. I take off the necklace.
The cameo swings in my hand like a pendulum before I press the red woman against the black box. A lock clicks and the door swings into empty space. I wrap my fingers around the cameo as I descend the stairs of the basement. My fingers run over the walls, trying to find any sort of light switch, but nothing sticks out.
The heavy smell of copper, metallic and rancid, wafts through the air. I try not to gag. Stairs creak under my steps and I try to move as carefully as possible.
I hit on a light switch and hold my breath as I turn it on. The overhead fluorescent lights hum and flicker a few times before turning on. I wince at the first glimmer of light rushing across the space and burning against my eyes.
At first all I can process is how much dark red and black is smeared across the floor. Then my eyes hit the headless, limbless torso sitting in a tub filled with blood, and my heart freezes in mid-beat, and the cameo falls from hand.
It rolls across the moist floor before thudding into a thick puddle.
The torso in the bathtub is female and cut open from sternum to pelvis. The dark skin hangs open showing nothing but hollow inside.
I forget how to breathe. Strange tools line the walls, all of them splattered with dark red and brown. Plastic containers, like the ones in the fridge are tossed into an industrial sink. In the corner bones sprawl out across a table, all of them have sharp bites from instruments cutting into them.
I grope for the cameo, sticky and wet in my hand before I crawl up the stairs, dry heaving with every step. When I finally reach the top step, I have to grab the door to pull myself forward and out of the basement. The door slams behind me, and I slump to the ground gasping for air.
I swallow back all the bile trying to claw its way up my throat and out of my body. Rushing to the sink, I scrub my hands, and the key, but the red stains dark against my palms, and against the veneer of the keys. I drop the cameo key in the sink and grab my car keys. I’ve got to get out of here.
“I’m home early!” Dana calls and I hear her walk in the front door.
I scramble to pick back up the necklace and try to scrub the blood of it. Spots of red linger against the black veneer as I drop it on the kitchen counter. I hold my breath and force a smile onto my lips.
“You scared me,” I say. “You weren’t supposed to be home until tomorrow.” I keep my hands behind my back.
“I just missed you too much.” Dana walks inside, dropping her bags by the door and pulling me to her side to give me a kiss.
Somehow I don’t puke. “You should go get a shower and relax after your travel.”
Dana takes a step back and looks over me. “I’ll make dinner first.” She steps into the kitchen.
When I hear the sizzle of meat hitting a hot pan, I gag. What part of the body is Dana about to eat?
I sit back at my worktable. My grip shakes and my brush strokes are uneven, sloppy across the blank canvas in thick black streaks through the red and orange background.
Dana sits down and starts to eat. I can hear every wretched bite and chew. I let myself drift into my painting until her hand falls heavy on shoulder, squeezing hard.
“You used my key.” She says.
My entire body goes numb and I push back from her, getting to my feet as my voice freezes in my throat.
Dana holds up her necklace, and runs her finger over the red woman. The thick blood splatters cling to her fingers. Our eyes meet, and in the instant all I can think of is how we first met at a coffee shop, how Dana always seemed so perfect.
“How many?” I wheeze out.
Dana smiles. “Oh, not nearly enough.”
Bile presses against my throat, and everything starts to spin around me, but I force myself to stand. I pull my arm back, then slam my hand into her ear. I feel her ear drum rupture and she screams in pain as I bolt.
She grabs the back of my shirt and jerks me backwards. I slam into the counter, and try to find any weapon, but all I can grab is a plate. Her grip doesn’t waver as her fingers crush around my throat. Air leaks out of me and my world goes spotty before I smash the plate over her head. For just a moment, her grip loosens. Just long enough for me to take a gasp of air and pull away from her and run into the living room. I tug at the front door and realize that it’s been locked from the inside.
Stumbling up the stairs I feel her breath against my neck as I pull myself into the bedroom. We struggle with the door before I plant my feet on the doorframe and pull with every bit of strength. It closes and I lock it.
Ramming her shoulder into the door, it rattles, but holds steady for the moment. I try to jerk the bedroom windows open, but they have all been nailed shut.
The bedroom door starts to give in, cracks running along the laminate wood, and I rush into the master bathroom, just as the bedroom door shatters open. I catch a glimpse of Dana with something sharp in her hand.
I lock the bathroom door and crawl into the bathtub, gasping for air and trying to ignore the images of my life that keep flashing by. I take a deep breath as Dana hits the bathroom door and the frame cracks under the force.
I reach for a towel to wipe the tears from my eyes and spot the ripped drywall from the towel bar. Forcing my petrified muscles to move, I pull the iron rod out from under the sink. The door splits, and I raise the bar in my hands.
Dana bursts into the room and for me with a stained butcher knife in her hand.
Blood erupts from the side of her head and she slumps to the bathroom floor and doesn’t move. I poke at Dana’s shoulder, but she doesn’t move. I don’t check if she’s still breathing. Instead I pull a few of my scarves from the closet and tie her hands together and then around the toilet before kicking the knife away.
I stumble down the stairs and grab my car keys before tripping through the muddy driveway and climbing into my car. It jerks to life and squeals through the swamp, bumping and jolting like my heartbeat.
Only when the copper-scented swamp is in my rearview mirror can I reach 911. I meet them at the station. I’m never going back to that house.
By the time I’m allowed to leave, the sky is bruised by sunset. Sitting in my car, I stare at my hands and the glinting red ring still on my finger. In the glimmering gem, I swear I can see the woman from the cameo wink at me.
Screeching out of the parking lot, I drive to the edge of the swamp and pull onto the shoulder. I pull the ring loose from my finger and walk into the moist earth. Tossing with all my might, I let the ring hurl through the air, a lost meteor come crashing back to earth until the swamp swallows it whole.
I stare out towards Dana’s house before walking back to my car. My naked hand feels lighter, but the weight of rubies still hangs heavy in memory against my body.
Andrea Judy is a writer who makes her home in Atlanta, Ga. Passionate about language, she writes in multiple genres and has had poems and short stories appear in various literary magazines and several anthologies. She also studies and writes about fandom and video games. Her first digest novel, The Bone Queen, was published in October 2013 with the sequel, Blood and Bone, released in February 2015.