My father drove me through the woods in his truck, the wheels shuddering over the dirt road while the air hummed with all the unspoken words between us. The tears wriggled down his wrinkled cheeks only to get lost in his beard. The mark on his wrist burned at the edge of my peripheral vision as if it were glowing.
I sat silent and immobile, a statue, a paper doll, a frozen thing of stone.
When we reached the gate I drew one shuddering breath and let it out, and my father put his hand on my shoulder. His fingers dug into my skin.
“He promised he wouldn’t hurt you, Bee. He promised.”
I shifted. His hand fell limply on the seat between us. He didn’t try to touch me again.
Dad turned off the engine and we sat wrapped in the silence. I heard him swallow hard. I slid my fingers up and down the strap of my backpack. My mouth tasted like dust. The car smelled like old leather and fresh terror.
Nobody knew if the legends were lies, myth, or truth. But they all talked about the Beast that lived in the house. Some said he ate human children, some said he turned into a vicious creature in the night, some said he looked like a demon, with flames for eyes.
A trickle of sweat slipped down my spine.
“You don’t—” My father started to say, but he hesitated. Maybe he’d been hoping I would cut him off, but I didn’t. I just sat, holding my backpack, feeling the crush of responsibility slip over my shoulders and twine around my neck like a noose.
Through the gate I could see the house, watching us with dead eyes. Trees pressed close to the bone-white walls like huddled hags with flowing green hair, and everything was covered with a mist of grayish moss. I’d heard the stories my whole life—we all had—but I’d never been close enough to see the cracks in the windowsills, the dead vines clinging to the roof.
Magic hung in the air like the lingering traces of a memory. I could almost taste it. Voices whispered faintly in the wind, or was that just the trees? The knot in my stomach stirred in response.
My father tried again, and this time he got the whole sentence out. “You don’t have to do this.”
Of course I did. Of course I must. I wasn’t doing this for him. I was doing it because I had no choice. With the mark on his wrist, he was a dead man. Our whole family was doomed. He knew it and I knew it, and he was playing a game of lame pretend because he wanted to sooth his own guilt. Because he wanted to be able to look back at this moment every time it crossed his mind in the future and feel that he had offered me a way out. That he’d been willing to rescue me, but I’d refused.
Instead of responding, I opened the door and climbed out. The gravel crunched under my shoes as I stepped to the ground. I shouldered my backpack and took a deep breath.
The gate squeaked beneath my hand. I crossed the lawn and climbed the steps to the house, feeling the stone shudder beneath my shoes like the house lived and breathed. The door didn’t open on its own, which I had half-expected, but when I put my hand on the knob I could feel the energy humming inside it like a heartbeat.
My father waited at the car. I looked over my shoulder and saw him standing with one hand on the door, his shoulders pulled tight like a slingshot.
All I had to do was step inside. One step inside and the mark would disappear. And I could run home. I could outsmart this house. Couldn’t I? I sucked in a deep breath and rolled my shoulders.
Maybe I believed that. Maybe I didn’t. Why else had I brought a backpack full of clothes, toiletries?
“Bee,” my father called out, and his voice cracked. I paused, waiting for more. Maybe he really was sorry.
Maybe he really didn’t want me to do this …
“Bee, I just wanted to tell you how thankful your stepmother and I—”
My throat tightened. He wasn't going to stop me, was he? I shook my head, and he rubbed a hand over his face and fell silent.
When he’d come home two weeks ago at 3 AM, the sleeve of his work uniform torn, his lip bleeding, and his eyes full of fear, my stepmother had cried. Really cried—wrenching sobs that made her double over and clutch at her sides. She almost looked as if she were laughing. I’d looked at him, and I could smell the magic on him. I’d known exactly where he’d been.
And there was a tiny part of me that knew then too that I’d be the one who would pay the price for his foolishness.
All I had to do now was step across the threshold. Then the mark on his wrist would vanish, and he would be free. Everything would be okay. That was all we’d promised, right?
I pushed open the door and stepped into the house. I held my breath.
Across the lawn, my father made a sound like a sob.
Was that it? Was the mark gone?
“Daddy?” I choked out, not daring to move. “Is it—?”
“It’s gone, honey!”
I started to turn, but I wasn’t fast enough. The door snapped shut like the jaws of a hungry animal. I grabbed the handle and twisted, throwing my shoulder against the heavy wood. I shrieked, wrenching the handle harder.
It was locked.
I clawed at the wood with my fingernails until they bled. I pounded with my fists.
The door didn’t budge. It was strong as stone.
Through the slip of glass, I saw the headlights of my father’s car flick on, and the engine revved.
He was leaving me.
I slid to the floor. My sneakers squeaked against the shiny marble, my fingers slipped down the polished mahogany of the door. I didn’t want to look behind me into the mouth of the house, into the darkness that was going to be my home. Or my tomb. I didn’t want to think of how my father would go home and my absence would be like a ripple in the house, felt for a moment and then gone from their minds. I didn’t want to think about who would miss me at school. Violet. Livia. Drew.
Grief stuck like cement behind my eyes. I wanted to cry, but I had no tears. I never had tears. My eyes burned and my throat squeezed shut, making it hard to breathe. I crouched on the floor and put my hand over my mouth and thought of Drew’s hair, his eyes, his smile.
I might never see any of those things ever again.
Terror—real terror—charged through me like a storm. It pulsed through my body, pushing at my skin, wanting to get out. Like my own soul was fighting to be free of me, like my own self couldn’t stand to be trapped here at this moment. It was a surge of blinding intensity, like lightning. Then I fell, panting, my hands braced on the cool floor.
“Stop it,” I said aloud. “Stop this.”
I didn’t have to stay here. The mark was gone and we were free and I could go home—if I could just find a way out. The idea, planted in my fear-frozen mind, cracked my terror like spring warmth. Escape.
After all, I wasn’t dead.
“Yet,” I muttered, and the echo of my voice, soft and velvet, whispered back to me in the stillness. I closed my eyes tight, counted to five, and opened them. And I looked at the place that was going to be my prison.
The foyer stretched up like a bell tower. A shattered chandelier lay three feet away, crystal droplets spread like frozen tears across the marble. Light slanted into the hall through arching windows, illuminating the rest of the room and striping the broken furniture and torn books with golden sunlight. In the middle of the room, papers and quills lay scattered around on the floor. It was as if a great monster had gone into a rage and shredded the room, and then fallen into a peaceful slumber after exhausting himself.
Behind me lurked a gloomy hallway, lined with doors.
I was stuck in this house. My friends couldn’t help me. Drew couldn’t help me. My father wouldn’t help me.
A sigh slipped through my lips as I stood to my feet.
I was alone.
Alone in the house of the Beast.