by Steven Cuffari
Their dream house was custom-built and well-furnished. A chandelier from Paris, leather sofas from Milan, great paintings from New York. They left some of the finer details of its completion for themselves in order to feel more connected to its construction which had just been finished.
A few days before their official housewarming party, they were attending to some such details. Michael was painting the molding of their master bedroom, while Amanda was applying varnish to its door, made from the soft wood of the South-American ombú tree. When they originally sourced the wood, they had been warned that it was not suitable for woodwork. Some locals had even gone as far as telling them that it was a huaca, or “sacred object,” and that it was not to be disturbed, lest they would be cursed. Even so, they insisted on it, having fallen in love with the tree that had become a symbol of their honeymoon in Argentina.
Amanda sighed and put down her brush. “Ugh!” she groaned. She sat down next to Michael, wrapped her arms around him and kissed his cheek.
He stopped what he was doing and kissed her lips.
“Mikey, let’s go lie down. I think we’re finished for today.” She began to kiss his neck.
Michael smiled, got up and led her to the bedroom.
After they made love, they went to the kitchen and went over the plans for their housewarming party that weekend. They would be preparing everything from scratch.
“So, I’ve got Mary coming on Saturday to help,” Amanda said.
“Oh, that’s great.”
“Yeah, but about the food. Sam is vegetarian.”
“She’s your cousin. So we’ll need to revise the menu a bit.”
“Okay. And speaking of Sam, do we have enough scotch for Uncle Eddie?”
“Sure do. I got an extra bottle of Macallan Cask Strength today.”
“Alright. Then, let’s try to finish this up tonight.”
“The foie gras and the truffles are worrying me. Carmichael’s is out and they’re the only ones who carry it. They said they’ll have some tomorrow afternoon.”
“Ugh. The apps depend on those. This is getting stressful. I say we crack that South African Cab now.”
“Agreed. You get it, while I put on some DMB. Let’s finish this tonight!”
They worked all night and went through three bottles of wine. By the time they were done, they were very drunk and couldn’t keep their hands off each other. They ended up in the bedroom and began to make love raucously.
At one point, Michael opened their sex drawer and reached for their vibrator. But instead of finding the vibrator, all he found was a toothbrush. He pulled it out and showed it to her. They looked at it, then at each other and then burst into laughter.
When they were both done, Amanda went to the bathroom to freshen up before going to sleep. Michael put on his underwear, turned on the TV and waited for her. She came back out with the vibrator that they had misplaced.
“More?” Michael said, smiling.
“No, I found it in the medicine cabinet.”
“Weird. I didn’t put it in there.”
“Yeah, neither did I. That is weird.”
“Anyway, it’s late. Let’s go to sleep.
Amanda put the vibrator back in its rightful place and got into bed. “Good night, baby,” they said.
The next morning, they went their separate ways for the day. Amanda went food shopping while Michael gardened, pruning the bushes that surrounded the house. The chainsaw he used was loud, and he had to wear protective gear for his ears. Over the muffled grinding of the motor and the whirring of the sawblade, he heard Amanda screaming for him to come help her. He stopped the saw, threw it down and ran inside.
“Amanda!” he shouted. But she didn’t answer. He frantically searched the house for her, but she was nowhere to be found. So he called her cell phone.
“Baby, where are you?” he asked.
“Still shopping,” she replied. “Why? What’s the matter?”
Michael was relieved. “No. Nothing. Never mind. See you later, baby. I love you.”
Later, Amanda came home and began to prepare that night’s dinner. She boiled water for pasta and cut vegetables for a salad. She turned on one of the ovens to broil some filets that she had picked up. The kitchen became filled with heat and savory aromas. Amanda was dicing onions and started to zone out when she felt Michael put his hands around her neck from behind. His fingers tickled her. “Michael, that feels good, but I’m cooking.” When she turned around to face him, he was gone. “Michael?” she said, calling out into the large empty kitchen. “I’m cooking right now! I don’t want to play around!” She huffed and took off her apron, throwing it down. She walked slowly toward the dining-room door, and it burst open. She let out a bloodcongealing scream.
“What smells so good in here?!”
“Michael!” she shouted.
“What’s the matter!” he shouted back.
“You scared the shit out of me!” Her face blushed as she cursed.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Weren’t you just massaging my neck?”
Michael looked confused. “No, I was just outside in the shed.”
Amanda looked him in the eye, searching for a hint of deception. “I must be going crazy.”
“It’s alright, babe. Don’t be stressed out. We’re done planning the party. Everything’s going to be great. You’ll see.”
“Yeah, I know you’re right. I just can’t help it sometimes.” She kissed him and went back to the food. “Ugh, I’m so hungry.”
“Did you get the truffles and foie gras?”
“I did,” she said with a smile.
“It smells great in here,” Michael said, floating over to the stove, his nose hooked on the smell wafting through the air. “What’s for dinner then?” He put his arms around her, and she told him what was on the menu. After dinner, they made love and then went to bed.
That night, Amanda had a dream and she woke up flailing and screaming.
“Honey, are you okay?” Michael said, woken by her thrashing.
“I just had the most horrifying dream.”
“Oh, what was it baby?”
“I was in a dark forest of ombú like the one we saw in Argentina. I was lying on some kind of altar made from a tree stump. I struggled to get free but I couldn’t move. People began to gather around me dressed in horrible animal costumes and masks. They were chanting in a strange language. Then a man, who was like their leader or something, came up to me with a long, ornate knife. He stood over me, and his eyes, his eyes were crazed. And then he raised the knife and just as he brought it down, I woke up.”
“Wow, that’s a crazy dream.”
“Something bad is going to happen. I’m sure of it.”
“Don’t be silly baby.”
“Do you remember what they told us in Argentina about the ombú? That if we used it in our home, we would be cursed? I have a feeling that the dream was about that.”
“No, you’re just stressed out. Remember what Doctor White said. You need to get more sleep.”
“Take one of my pills. They’re in the medicine cabinet.”
“No. I don’t know.”
“Let me at least get you some water then.” Michael got up and returned with water from the bathroom.
“Are you sure you don’t want one?”
“I don’t think so,” she said.
“Well, I’ll just leave them here.” He placed them on the nightstand. “Come on, let’s try to get some sleep.” He wrapped his arms around her and held her until they were both asleep.
The next morning, Amanda woke up alone. She got out of bed and looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. I need a spa treatment, bad, she thought. She went back to the bedroom and saw the bottle of pills on the nightstand. She contemplated taking one, but instead, she put on one of Michael’s shirts and went downstairs for breakfast.
He was already sitting at the kitchen table sipping coffee and reading the Wall Street Journal.
“Good morning, baby. When did you get up?” she asked.
Michael put down the paper and coffee and rubbed his face. “Actually, I didn’t really get much sleep.”
Amanda frowned and rubbed his shoulders. “Oh, what’s the matter?”
“I don’t know. After you told me about your dream, I had a dream of my own.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said.
“No, no. It’s not your fault.”
“Did you try taking a sleeping pill?” she asked.
“Yeah, but it didn’t help. I can’t get this feeling of dread out of my mind. That dream…”
“What was it about?” she asked.
“I don’t know if I should tell you. I don’t want to scare you.”
“You can tell me. I’m a big girl.”
“Okay.” He took a deep breath and then spoke. “It was actually the same dream that you had, just a little different.”
“Really? Oh my god. Don’t tell me that!”
“See, I told you. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“No, no. Now you have to tell me.”
“Alright. If you say so. It was night. I was in that same crowd of weird people that you were. They were chanting, and it seemed like they were gathering around something, but I couldn’t see what it was. It felt like they were waiting for someone to come. I began to push through them to get a closer look. Finally, I came to the altar.” He stopped and took a long sip of his coffee.
“There was a woman there. I felt something take over me. I felt as though I became insane, not myself. There was an evil, murderous feeling in my heart. I found myself standing over her with this intense blood lust. Then I realized that I was the one they were all waiting for. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but I knew what they wanted.” He took another long sip of coffee.
Amanda was enthralled. “And?!” she said again.
“And I wanted the same thing. I pulled out a knife, raised it over my head and was about to thrust it into her chest when I looked down. And it was you. That’s when I woke up. I was sweating. My heart was beating a mile a minute. My hands felt sticky and thick like they were covered with blood, but they were clean. Still, I got out of bed and washed my hands over and over. I couldn’t go back to sleep. I can’t get it out of my head.”
Amanda’s mouth was agape. “It was just a dream.”
“That’s not what you said last night.”
Amanda couldn’t argue. For the rest of the day, they didn’t speak and that night, they slept for the first time with a space between them.
They woke up the next morning feeling oddly refreshed, their nightmares far from their thoughts.
“Happy housewarming baby,” Michael said.
Amanda smiled and planted a big kiss on his lips. “I love you.”
Michael blushed a little and kissed her back. Amanda laughed. “I’m so happy that I’m spending the rest of my life with you.”
“Let’s just get through tonight first.”
They took each other’s hand and went downstairs. Somewhere half way through the preparations, Mary arrived.
“Hi, Mary!” they said.
“Hi, guys. I’m ready! Just let me know what you want me to do. I’ve helped my mom make big meals before. So whatever I can do…”
“Great.” Amanda handed a huge knife to Mary. “Start chopping.”
A few hours later the house was filled with twenty-five some-odd family guests. When dinner was ready, Amanda called everybody to sit down at the table. Young Mary was going around pouring champagne into everyone’s glasses.
Amanda stood up and raised a glass once they were all seated. “Michael and I are so happy that all of you could make it to our housewarming. We love you all and hope that this is just the first of many family gatherings we’ll have here.”
Michael joined his wife in the toast and said, “And hopefully around this time next year…” He paused to look at Amanda and kissed her lightly. “We’ll have an even bigger family. Cheers!”
Everyone clinked glasses and began to chatter.
“I hope you’re all hungry!”
As everyone began to eat, Amanda went to the kitchen to check on Mary.
“How’s everything going in here?” she asked. When Mary turned around, Amanda gasped. Her face was gaunt, and her eyes seemed sunken in. She looked like a revenant. “Are you okay? You look sick!”
She moaned. “No, I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”
In the dining room, Michael was mixing drinks for everyone. He had forgotten to ask Amanda where she had placed the scotch for Uncle Eddie. He went into the kitchen to ask her. “Hey, honey, I–” He was startled by the horrifying look on Mary’s face. She was getting worse and breathing heavily. Her voice was deep and raspy, not her own.
“No, no I’m fine,” she insisted.
“What’s going on?” asked Michael. “Are you okay, Mary? Maybe you should go home.”
“Why do you keep asking me that?!” she screamed, lunging at them. She lost her balance and collided with a tray of glasses, sending it crashing to the floor.
Uncle Eddie then came in shaking a glass of ice, looking for scotch. The crash brought in Amanda’s brother Kyle and Michael’s two cousins Peter and Danny. They asked if they could help.
“Everything’s okay,” Amanda began. “She’s just a little–” Her sentence was cut short by Mary who was pointing a knife at her neck.
Mary growled and grabbed her, holding the knife close enough to draw blood. He eyes seemed empty, and she spoke in an unnatural, gravelly voice. “I am taking this one. She is the one the master wants!” And with that, she dragged Amanda through the house.
“Get everyone out of here, and call the police,” Michael said to Kyle.
Michael followed Mary and Amanda, carefully keeping his distance.
Amanda tried to remain calm, but tears escaped her eyes.
Mary brought her to their bedroom and began to chant unintelligibly until her eyes rolled up.
Michael saw it as an opportunity to attack, and he lunged at them, but was blasted back by some unseen force field. A lightening bolt cracked and rumbled inside the room, and it began to rain.
Peter and Danny rushed over to help Michael off the floor, and Kyle and Uncle Eddie came in behind them.
The room began to fill with an ominous blue light, and a vortex began to swirl around them.
They watched in horror as another lightening bolt crashed before them, and suddenly Amanda and Mary were gone. The rain stopped, and the smell of burnt, wet wood was all that remained.
Michael fell to his knees and cried. At the same time, the police were calling at the door downstairs.
Later, the officers took everyone’s statements.
“The best we can do is file a missing persons report.”
Michael was too shocked to be angry at the ineffectuality of the police. After they left, he and the others sat solemnly in the living room.
“What are we going to do?” asked Kyle.
“What can we do? What even happened? It was all so fast,” Michael sobbed, trying to control himself.
“I think we all know what happened,” said Uncle Eddie. “We have to figure out why.”
“Amanda was convinced that it had something to do with the ombú wood we used for our bedroom door.” Michael said. “In Argentina, we were told that we would be cursed if we used it. But that’s ridiculous, right?”
“More ridiculous than my sister disappearing in an indoor thunder storm?” Kyle said.
“I think we should go upstairs and take a closer look at the scene,” Uncle Eddie said.
“That makes sense,” said Danny.
Michael agreed and wiped his tears.
They went upstairs, and as they neared the top, they heard the sounds of wind and thunder coming from behind the bedroom door. It glowed with a blue light.
“It’s back,” said Michael. “Should we go inside?”
Kyle shrugged and nodded.
“What else?” Uncle Eddie said.
Michael took a deep breath and opened the door. A vortex appeared before them, and it began to pull them in. They tried to resist it. The wind became deafening.
“Holy shit!” shouted Peter.
“Now what?!” Michael shouted.
“Well, if Amanda went through there, then maybe we can find her,” shouted Uncle Eddie.
“Or maybe we’ll die!” shouted Michael.
“It’s your choice!” shouted Uncle Eddie.
Michael looked at Kyle.
“She’s my sister, man!” he shouted.
Michael looked at his cousins, and they simply nodded their heads. “Let’s go then!” Michael shouted.
They let the vortex pull them in.
Before they knew it, they were tumbling out into a forest.
“Holy shit,” said Danny, holding his head.
“Is everyone okay?” asked Uncle Eddie, standing up.
They each affirmed it and dusted themselves off.
Michael was amazed at what he was seeing. “Oh my god. This is the place from my dream…”
“What? What dream?” asked Uncle Eddie.
Before Michael had a chance to respond, Kyle shouted. “What the fuck! Where the fuck are we?!” He was dazed and disoriented. “We’ve got to get out of here!” He bolted.
“Kyle, no, wait!” they shouted and chased him through the trees.
When they caught up to him, he was breathing heavily leaning against a tree. He stared blankly at them.
“Kyle, are you alright?” asked Danny.
Kyle roared, swinging his arms wildly. He hit Danny on the neck with a fist, knocking him down.
Uncle Eddie instantly reacted and wrestled him to the ground, but screamed in pain as Kyle bit him on the face. He clutched the bleeding wound, and the others came to his rescue.
“Kyle!” shouted Michael. “Stop!”
But he continued to growl, fighting them.
“What should we do?!” shouted Danny, still shaky from the blow.
“Knock him out!” shouted Uncle Eddie.
Michael pulled back his right hand and punched Kyle across the face with all his might. He was out cold.
“Are you okay?” Michael asked, panting, rubbing his hand.
Uncle Eddie was still bleeding. He ripped his shirt and covered the wound. “It’s nothing. I’ll be fine.”
“What now?” asked Michael.
Uncle Eddie paused and thought for a minute, holding his face. “We need to do what we came here to do and find Amanda. I think we should split up.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Michael. “And what about Kyle? We can’t just leave him here alone.”
“You’re right,” said Uncle Eddie. “Even more reason we should split up. One of us should stay here and the others look for Amanda.”
Michael scowled skeptically at Uncle Eddie.
“I think he’s right,” said Danny.
Peter nodded in agreement.
“Alright then. Let’s go,” said Michael reluctantly. “Who’ll stay with him?”
“I will,” said Uncle Eddie.
Just then, Kyle started to come around. “Michael,” he croaked. He tried to get up, but they held him down.
“Kyle, shh. Take it easy,” Michael said.
“No, you don’t under– He’s not– It’s thousands of years ago.”
“Kyle, shh. Slow down. What are you trying to say?”
“I– He’s trying to come back. Be free.”
“What? Kyle, who are you talking about?”
“He’s not making any sense,” said Michael.
Kyle continued to struggle for a moment and then passed out.
“I’ll take care of him,” said Uncle Eddie. “Go find her.”
Michael and his cousins walked until they came to a clearing in the forest. They ducked for cover behind some bushes when a crowd of people came into sight. They were wearing animal hides and masks, chanting and surrounding an altar made from the wide stump of an ombú.
“It’s exactly like my dream,” he whispered. “What should we do now?”
He turned around to face his cousins when someone grabbed him and pushed him to the ground, holding him there.
He struggled, but didn’t shout, not wanting to rouse the attention of the others. He managed to turn around and was shocked when he saw the faces of his attackers.
“Danny! Peter! What the fuck are you doing?!” he growled. “Get off of me!”
Just as he realized that they had that same vacant look in their eyes that Mary and Kyle had had, something hit him over the head, and he was unconscious.
When he finally awoke, his vision was blurry, and he was being led through the crowd to the altar. As his sight came into focus, he began to speak to the worshippers, but not with his own voice. They cheered and chanted, ecstatic. His blood ran cold when he saw Peter, Danny and Mary among them.
The throng hailed him as he raised a long knife above his head, and he smiled. On the outside, he was as jubilant as the rest of them. But on the inside, he screamed in horror as he looked down at Amanda groaning and writhing beneath him.
His stomach sank as he plunged the knife into her chest. And just as it pierced her heart, everything went black.