Like the Prose: Challenge #18 – Write a gothic horror story in a contemporary setting. (Please note. This is a very rough draft. I had a concept, a main character, a plot, but I was having a bad writing day, a bad migraine, and couldn’t make it flow. It’s something I’ll come back to. I’m posting it anyway, for completionist’s sake.)
It ended in fire of course, but then, these stories always end in fire. At least the great mansions in them always do. That is, when they don’t tumble into the sea or crumble into the mines upon which they rest.
In the case of Adelaster, however, there was no sea, despite the fact that the great, gloomy structure was situated on a private island, and there were not mines, so it had to be fire.
Standing on the mainland, I could see the flames turning the night sky as orange as the setting sun… ah, but I digress. My name is Hugo Gleason, an unlike those who travel to the island to steal video footage or illicit photos of the denizens thereof, my time there began with an invitation.
Well, that’s not precisely accurate.
It began with a job hunt.
In any case, I arrived at the island mansion as the latest tutor to a fifteen-year-old girl, the only daughter of the renowned neuroscientist Elizabeth Lassiter.
The child herself met me at the door wearing a toque to cover her bald head and chattering at breakneck speed. “So, you’re Hugo, huh? I’m Emmaline, but you can call me Emma. Mom says you have a degree in folklore. Does that make you kind of like Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer?”
“I do have a degree in folklore,” I confirmed, “but I’ve never met an actual vampire. Maybe we can find some here if we look. It seems like the kind of house that might have secrets.”
The girl’s face flashed a haunted expression, then cleared. “Yes, there are secrets. But I don’t think we have vampires. Maybe we can go looking. I haven’t ever checked out the old chapel on the north shore.”
“I didn’t know there was one.”
“Jessie can get you a map, if you like.”
Jessie, I knew, was the island’s caretaker. She’d been my pilot on the boat ride over, and she’d explained that there was a cleaning staff and a kitchen staff, and she was in charge of everything else. “IT, basic handyman kinda stuff, that’s all me. I even take care of the dogs.”
“We keep a collection of border collies on the island. If you’re so inclined, I’m sure you can choose one for yourself. I’ve got two that are mine, specifically, and Morris, the head chef, has a dog named Jasper that sleeps in the kitchen while he works.”
I had always enjoyed the company of dogs and told her as much.
“Well, that’s great, Hugo; you’re gonna fit in just fine,” she’d responded. “Just… don’t worry if Emma seems a little strange from time to time. She’s a special kid. Been alone a lot. Sometimes it gets to her.
But that had been on the ride over, and now I was faced with Emmaline – Emma – herself. “I’ll ask about the map,” I promised.
“Cool, cool. Let me show you to your room now. You’ll meet Mom at dinner, and she’ll give you all the rules and regs, but it’s Friday and we won’t start real work until Monday, so you’ll have the whole weekend to get acclimated.”
The girl turned and headed up the left-hand stairway and I had no choice but to follow. (My bags, Jessie had informed me earlier, would be taken to my room before I ever got there.)
Over the next several weeks, we established a routine. Jessie, Emma and I would breakfast together and then take the dogs for a walk, then Jessie would go off to her work and Emma and I would focus on her studies. Her best subjects were English and literature and her imagination was incredibly vivid, but she was hardly shabby at math or history, either, and we incorporated technology into all of our courses. Science was her mother’s forte. Twice a week, Emma would spend the afternoon in Dr. Lassiter’s lab working on things I knew not of.
For the most part, it was a typical tutoring assignment. My weekends were my own. I had access to a boat if I wished to go back to the mainland, I had, in fact, adopted one of the dogs, I got on well with the doctor and my young student, as well as Jessie, but I also noticed a few oddities…
The dogs, for one… I knew they were all the same breed but even within a litter there should be some variation in markings. These were all nearly identical. My own Tiberius (named, I admit, for Captain Kirk) was virtually a twin to Jessie’s pair though hers were at least two years older than my pup. It was spooky.
And then there was Emma.
I knew she was homeschooled because she had a health condition, but because of her hair loss I’d assumed it was some form of brain disease or cancer. When I questioned her, she was vague. When I asked the doctor, she brushed me off. “You’re a tutor,” she would say. “Teach.”
And so, it went on, but Emma grew thinner and frailer.
Our morning walks with Jessie soon required that she use a wheelchair. I didn’t mind pushing her. Neither did Jessie. A pack of pooches joined us. It was still pleasant.
But when her nose began to bleed during an algebra class, I new something was terribly wrong.
Dr. Lassiter was called over the intercom.
Jessie and I helped get Emma bundled into bed.
Before I was told to take a long weekend so the girl could rest, I sat with her at her bedside. “You’ll get better,” I said. “You must. We still have to check out the chapel.”
“Do it for me,” she whispered. “I need to know what’s there.”
I promised her I would.
I left the house, planning to head to the dock and take a boat to the mainland. I hadn’t seen my parents in a while. I thought Emma might like a comicbook I remembered telling her about… maybe I’d get her a few issues.
Sunday night brought me back to Adelaster, but I was told Emma was still unwell. “Take Monday to rest,” I was told. Morris made lasagna… comfort food.
Jessie wasn’t available to take our walk that morning, so I kept my promise to Emma and went north toward the chapel. I was surprised to meet the caretaker returning from the direction I was heading, a shovel in the back of her golf cart.
“You would pick today…” she said. “Well, better you find out from me.”
“What do you mean.”
She turned the cart around, and we went north.
The old chapel felt like something out of a novel. Ivy covered stone. Carved figures of angels. It seemed old and damp and somehow … wrong.
And yet it was also compelling.
And strangely beautiful.
The kind of place a vampire would love.
But I was certain that Emma would be disappointed. There were no vampires there.
“This way,” Jessie said. She stepped out of the cart and led me to the churchyard behind the building. Several old gravestones dotted the area, and then, closer in, several newer ones. Six of them, and at the end of the row, a fresh grave.
“Emma… died?” I asked. “No one told me. There was a funeral already?”
“There won’t be a funeral.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at the headstones.”
And so, I took a closer look at the first row. Emmaline number 1-A. Emmaline number 1-B. Emmaline number 2-A. 2-B. 3-A. 4-A. Suddenly the dogs made sense. And suddenly I knew Emma would be fine when she returned to class.
“I have to leave.”
“Best if you don’t try.”
“Oh, don’t worry, you won’t be murdered or anything. But you won’t work again. Doc’s connections are deep. Best thing to do is show up for our walk tomorrow like nothing happened.”
“But she can’t… a new Emma won’t remember…”
“Oh, she will.”
“I can’t tell you that.”
I managed not to vomit until I was back in my own suite of rooms.
As Jessie had promised, Emmaline was just like new on Tuesday morning.
“I have bad news for you, Emma,” I told her. “No vampires at the chapel. New target?”
“The south tower. Next time there’s a storm.”
“It’s a date,” I promised.
Our days continued. Another six weeks. Another cycle. Another Emma fading out and a new one brought in. How long, I wondered, could this go on?
And the Dr. Lassiter told us at dinner that she’d be going away on a speaking engagement and would be gone for a week. I knew it was time to act.
I knew where the lab was even though I’d never been in it. I waited for the third day of the doc’s trip… just to make sure. Then I headed down there. The code on the door was easy to figure out – Emmaline’s birthday.
I don’t know what I expected to find… gurgling tanks of murky fluid, I guess, like in a horror film. The reality was much worse. Six Emmalines-in-waiting in glass stasis boxes, and a seventh lying in state in the center of the room. Except, I realized, the seventh wasn’t waiting to be a fresh replacement. The seventh was the original.
I approached that one. The girl who wasn’t dead but wasn’t alive. My proximity triggered something because a monitor awakened above her… station… and a video began to play.
This is this the last wish of Emmaline Lassiter, age fifteen. I don’t really want to die; who does, but I know it’s gonna be hard for my mom to say goodbye. So, when it is my time, I want to be very clear: it’s okay to let me go. It’s right. I’ve had a disease my whole life. It’s made me hurt and bleed and lose my hair. I’m so tired. Just… let me rest, please?
And then it ended.
I had never been the most tech savvy of men, but I understood several things. Emmaline the original was alive because Dr. Lassiter couldn’t let her go. The clones were her way of holding on. But when you clone a sick person, you clone their sickness. So, the clones didn’t have a great shelf life. But they were all connected through a neuro transmission system. That’s how the new ones had all the memories. The doc was a neuroscientist, after all.
“Can you do it?”
I heard the doctor’s voice behind me.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have intruded….”
“I expected you to. So many tutors. No one can do it. I can’t can you. You and Emma get along so well, but can you do it? Can you turn her off?”
“It’s wrong that you did this. She wanted to let go.”
“She’s my daughter.”
“You have your work. You have so much….”
“Can you do it?”
“Do you want me to?”
“I can. For Emma I can.”
I pulled the plug. I left the room. And the next morning Dr. Lassiter “returned early” from the trip she’d never been on.
Together, we watched this last Emma die.
And this time there was a funeral.
I woke up to the smell of smoke and the sound of dogs barking and someone pounding on my door.
I went to open it, standing there, bleary-eyed in only my boxers. “Jessie?”
“Get dressed. Get Tiberius. Get downstairs. Crazy bitch is torching the place. We have to go.”
And that was my last hour at Adelaster. A mad rush of smoke and chaos and grief.
It ended in fire. Jessie and I stood on the opposite shore, on the mainland, and watched Adelaster burn with Dr. Lassiter still inside.
She’d be with Emmaline again.
She’d be with all the Emmalines.