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After the Deaths of Mr. and Mrs Henderson, 74 and 81, respectively

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Anna already knew what she was looking for and where to find it.

Tentatively, she got down on her knees in her grandparents' back yard, now vacated, and pushed aside a corner of shrubbery with pale, smooth hands.

Yes, there were thin lines in the wall, making the shape of a rectangle. It was just the right size for a small adult to crawl through.

Very quietly, Anna pressed her ear to the wall and knocked.

Yes, it definitely sounded hollow.

Anna nudged the little rectangle. It swung ever so slightly forward.

She pushed it halfway open.

The first thing she noticed was the unbearable stench that hit her like a freight train. The second thing she noticed was that someone swore very quietly.

Anna gulped. The voice did not sound all that intimidating. Perhaps it was a homeless person. Whoever it was, they did not speak any more, but Anna could hear very loud and harried breathing.

She inhaled very quietly. "I don’t know who’s in here," she breathed, "but I am going to close this hatch. I am going to go away."

The breathing from inside stopped abruptly.

Anna began to let the swinging hatch close, but before it could shut completely, the voice coughed.

"Are you a cop?" it asked hastily, in an urgent whisper.

Anna blinked. "I," she repeated firmly, "Am going away."

"No," the voice said hurriedly. "Here, don’t be scared. Really. I’m not going to hurt anyone. Except maybe whoever rats on me." Here the voice gave a small laugh.

"I’m – No, I’m going. I am leaving," Anna said decisively, moving the hatch.

"Oh, don’t!" cried the voice, still hardly above a whisper. "It’s so hard to get it open again, and – Look. Here. My name is Jeremy, I live next door," the voice said, "And I don’t know who you are, but you sound like a nice girl, and I’m a nice guy, and this was the only place I could find."

"What?" Anna asked shakily. "Place for what?"

There was a pause. "I’m smoking," Jeremy hissed.

Anna did not know quite know how to respond.

"I’m smoking pot," Jeremy clarified, as if this would make Anna trust him more.

Anna made to close the door again.

"Please," Jeremy said desperately. "I hate opening the door. Come on, look, I’m just a guy, and I just want to wind down, and – Here!" he said. There was a brief scuffling sound, then a skidding noise, and then, much to Anna’s surprise, a gym membership card slid through the hatch.

"Read it," Jeremy insisted. "Jeremy Notting. There’s my birthday, too. If I were some kind of serial rapist," he went on, exasperated, "Would I be 17? And would I have, of all things, a discount gym card?"

"Rapists work out, too," Anna said, but she was less terrified of this Jeremy than before. "And, well, all right. It does say you’re young."

"See," Jeremy said, satisfied.

Anna paused. "Listen," she said quietly, "I don’t know what’s in here. It's my grandparents' house, right, and... there’s this window, and you can't see what it's here, and it’s so weird, and – can I come in?"

"By all means," Jeremy said, sounding pleased.

Anna crawled in through the hatch, though not before making sure she had her cell phone in her trouser pocket.

"Stay by the door," Jeremy said quickly, as Anna made her way inside.

"Why?" Anna said suspiciously.

"You’ll see," Jeremy said nervously. Anna heard another scuffling sound, then felt something brush her hand. She took a deep breath.

"Easy, that’s just me," Jeremy said. "Hold my hand. No, really, I’m going to take you in. Don’t stand up. You’ll see why in a second."

Tentatively, Anna clasped Jeremy’s hand in hers. It felt calloused, as if this Jeremy had spent far too much time on the monkey bars as a child. Slowly, the two crawled along the length of the floor, which seemed to stretch out for miles. Then, Jeremy stopped.

"Take a seat," he said. "You can lean against this patch of wall, but don’t fidget."

Anna cautiously leaned back. She found that she was very close to Jeremy, but followed his directions and did not move.

"Why does it smell so bad in here?" Anna whispered. "It smells like…"

"Weed?" Jeremy offered helpfully.

"No," Anna said. "Like… rotting leftovers, only worse. Like a hospital without disinfectant."

"I thought it wouldn’t be weed," Jeremy sighed. "I got used to the smell."

"Look, if you don’t mind," Anna said hurriedly, "I’m going to take out my phone. And I’m going to shine the light on you. To make sure."

"Go for it," Jeremy said. "But, er, do me a favor and just point it at me. Try not to look at anything else. I’m over – here," he said, moving Anna’s hand towards his face.

"Okay," Anna said uncertainly. She lifted her cell phone to about where Jeremy indicated, turned it on, and, to her massive relief, found that Jeremy was indeed a boy in his late teens. He had dark, red hair that flopped over his forehead on one side and stuck out at odd angles on the other. His ear was pierced and his lips were a little too thin, but he certainly didn’t seem like a serial rapist.

Jeremy smiled a strange, slightly unsure smile. "Now let’s see you."

Anna sighed. She flicked her phone so that it faced her, and it illuminated her stringly, light brown hair and sallow skin. She hadn’t taken a shower for about twenty hours, and it made her feel disgusting.

"You look pretty," Jeremy said.

"I do not," Anna protested.

"Coming from me, you look pretty," Jeremy affirmed. "Can you turn the phone light off?"

"All right," Anna said. She noticed that she had been clenching Jeremy's hand. She didn't let go. Anna was not sentimental. Anna was very easily scared.

"Tell me why I can’t look around," she said.

Jeremy groaned. "Okay. Okay. You want to see where we are?"

"Yes."

"All right. Be prepared. I've got a lighter, it ought to give you a sense of what this place is like. Hold tight," he advised. With his other hand, he fumbled for his lighter, and then, with a deft flick and a small clicking noise, it lit up.

The entire room was covered in crusty, red string. String resembling fishing lines hung from the ceiling, and rotted, dried bass fish hung limply from them. This was evidently the source of the smell. String went from one end of the wall to the other, entangled in the scarlet, crusty stuff, which congealed around almost every visible stretch of wall. The most horrifying thing, however, was the wall that Anna and Jeremy faced. More skeletal, rotting fish were pinned to the wall, and their heads all pointed towards the center, where the string stopped and a faded, scratched photograph of a women was nailed to the wood.

"I thought it was a hallucination when I first got here," Jeremy said quietly, gripping Anna’s hand, "But when I came back, it was here. The fish," he said, shuddering, "I don’t know, at least it’s not bodies, but the fish… They’re horrible."

"It’s like a shrine. It looks like one. I think," Anna said shakily, trying to make sense of this, "someone must’ve tried to use this room as a hatchery? The fish. That would… yes, it would make sense."

Jeremy bit his lower lip. "The woman?"

"Could be whoever owned the hatchery," Anna offered, faltering. "Or their wife. Something."

"Anything," Jeremy said.

"I’d say I want to get out," Anna said quietly, "But I don’t want to crawl through -"

"The fish," Jeremy said hollowly.

Anna looked at Jeremy. "How long have you been in here?"

"Oh, only a half hour or so," he said, trying to sound jovial.

Anna squeezed his hand. She took in his tousled hair, greasy skin, and smudged clothing. He seemed a little too bony to be natural, his cheekbones jutting out at a strange, crisp angle and his face lacking any clean glow. His hair was stiff, not from any product, but from grease. His eyes were sunken, and though they were red, Anna knew enough that this couldn’t be all the work of a half-hour of drugs.

"How long have you been in here?" she repeated.

Jeremy looked at her. His eyes seemed glassy.

"Two days, I expect," he said in a barely audible whisper, visibly shaking.

Anna inched closer to him. "Are you sure you’re all right?"

"Fine," Jeremy said stolidly, "Fine. I have weed, after all," he said weakly.

Anna blinked. She saw what she assumed to be the remains of Jeremy’s drugs, a few singed stubs of paper and cannabis lying pathetically in a pile next to him.

She surveyed the room, with the decomposing carcasses dangling, still and silent, from the ceiling. It was a forest of emaciated, dead creatures, hung in clouds above her head. The string, though mostly dry and crusty, seemed wet and sticky in some places. The eyes of the myriad fish were intact, little pearls embedded in their rotting bodies, all glassy, all shining, all looking her way.

"I don’t want to go through them, either," Anna said quietly. She lay her head on Jeremy’s shoulder, and held his hand, and they waited.





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