Doris introduced one Mr. Sangwine to her children as the last in a trilogy of step-fathers.
It was the end of a summer which had seen Isabella’s turning nine and Zachary’s turning twelve. They were an extraordinarily independent pair of siblings: precocious Isabella’s nose was most commonly found wedged into the spine of a book, and uncontainable Zachary had built up callouses on the soles of his feet from all his outdoor adventuring. Neither paid much attention to the dull men their mother brought around. Not until the sudden appearance of Mr. Sangwine.
The children met Mr. Sangwine for the first time at the courthouse, as their mother giddily signed a marriage contract. He was a spindly sort of man, perhaps six feet and a half, with a long, thin nose and beady brown eyes. He spoke in a nasal voice somewhat high for a man, and did not offer a hand to shake. It was impossible to determine what mother saw in him. Even young Isabella, who’d been taught by stories to believe in love at first sight, suspected her mother was rushing things. For Doris, it was only three days between “nice to meet you, Mr. Sangwine,” and “I do.”
After the ceremony, of which the courthouse clerk and the children were the only witnesses, the children climbed into the front of a U-Haul and were driven to a secluded location in the bayou where Mr. Sangwine had apparently been living by himself.
Fog rolled between the willows, creeping through acre after acre of swampland. Lonely beset by an algae-covered lake was a sinister dwelling, its wood-paneled facade caked in mud. Between the splintering boards of the exterior, thick, jagged teeth of dusty glass rose from warped window sills. It might have been considered a mansion at one time, but it seemed to Zachary that the house should have collapsed long ago. Isabella, meanwhile, did not notice; she was busy studying a text on morse code.
“Oh, Horace. It’s lovely,” swooned Doris on the gravel drive, taking Mr. Sangwine’s gloved hands into her own.
The interior of the house was at least as displeasing as the exterior. Mr. Sangwine had few possessions of his own, and so it was mismatched wood surfaces and beige drywall as far as the eye could see. There were two exceptions to the rule of brown and gray: patches of exposed red brick behind holes in the drywall, and the door to the master bedroom, which was a hulking chrome thing with electric locking mechanisms.
As everyone else carried in armfuls of their things, Isabella took a walk around the house, book in hand. She felt the backs of her shoes sliding a little ways down her heels with each step. The whole place was covered in a thin layer of something sticky, including the walls and the knob on the door to her new room on the second floor. She was, however, pleased to find that hers was the only room in the house with a little reading nook under the window. She contentedly hopped up to it and sat there reading, through dinner time and well into the night.
Just as Isabella’s eyes began to glaze over, she heard footsteps coming down the hall, evidently slow and ginger but rendered quite loud by the sticky residue. Her brother Zachary walked in, wincing with each step. It would be impossible to sneak around in this house.
“Hey, Izzy. I’m gonna go have a look around outside. I hafta know. Do you wanna come with? Maybe we’ll find ya a little gator to keep as a pet.”
“No,” said Isabella, a child who read many words but said few.
“Alright. You suck.”
“I hope a gator gets you.”
Zachary crept back out into the hall and quietly shut the door. His steps were like tearing velcro as they faded away down the stairs to the first floor. Isabella recalled that the screen door to the back yard was right near Sangwine’s and mother’s room. She made up her mind to tell Zachary in the morning that, if he was going to be up to this sort of thing, he ought to climb out through his bedroom window instead.
But the next morning, Zachary was nowhere to be found.
At breakfast, the pot of runny oatmeal Doris made remained untouched.
Isabella refused to eat, for she was worried sick about her brother, and both her mother and her step-father dismissed her claims. Mr. Sangwine explained that Zachary had asked to go out and play earlier that morning, and Doris was adamant that her husband wouldn’t lie. Watching the outburst, Isabella realized her mother looked nearly as sick as she had when Dad died.
Doris’ eyes were glassy pink between pale droopy lids. When she wasn’t staring daggers at Isabella, she slumped over in her chair, softening her gaze on a spot next to the oatmeal.
Mr. Sangwine rested his swollen head on one hand. Although his eyes darted around the room with noticeable frequency, his intense focus on Doris was clear. If Isabella knew how to throw a proper punch, she would surely have flattened his beak of a nose.
She was going to find Zachary.
Isabella checked every square inch of the house. In the unfinished basement was cement, a breaker box, and a few sparse shelves. Next to the breaker was a patch of brick with one brick missing, like a little peephole into the empty, pitch-dark guts of the house. The first floor held little of note except Sangwine’s garish mechanical vault door, and Sangwine politely allowed Isabella to search the room until she was satisfied. No clues in the upstairs bedrooms, nothing. When the sun set, Isabella became a weeping heap, swaddled in her reading nook.
Hours later, there were nine knocks on her bedroom wall.
Knock-knock-knock. Knock, knock, knock. Knock-knock-knock.
Isabella sat bolt upright, eyes wide. It was morse code. “S.O.S.,” the first thing you learn.
She knocked back, “Zachary? Is that you?”
That was Zachary alright, learning the bare minimum and moving on. Isabella leaned in close to the wall and whispered, “What do I do?”
The next knocks were even, knock, knock, knock, trailing along the wall and out into the hallway. Isabella followed them until they reached the top of the stairs. She tapped the wall a few times to alert Zachary, then whispered, “No. I’ll meet you down there.”
Then she went back to her room and crawled out through the window, nimble as a little cat burglar. She dropped to the fog-blanketed back yard, gasping involuntarily at the unexpected feeling of mud between her toes. She lifted the cellar door, and was about to enter, when something caught her eye. At the opposite corner of the house, a soft glow of flame was projected through the thin upper layer of the swirling fog. Sangwine’s room. Isabella approached cautiously and peeked into the window.
First she saw her mother fast asleep. She lay there on her back with her head hanging off the bed, such that her softly smiling face was upside down, and the full length of her neck was exposed. She looked paler and sicker than before, but seemed at least to be more at peace than usual.
Then she saw Sangwine. He was crouched upon the bed, pinning her mother's shoulders with his crooked arms. A horrible change had occurred in him. His head was perhaps double its normal size, and two long black antennae shot out from between his obsidian eyes, absently twirling around. His long hawkish nose, now a black lance-like object, was buried deep in Doris’ neck. As he went about draining her, his bare abdomen became flush and bloated with blood.
Isabella backed away from the window silently and hurried down through the cellar doors. Once there, her face burned hot, and she found it difficult to breathe.
“Izzy,” said a voice clearly, from through the hole in the bricks by the breaker.
“Zach,” exhaled Isabella, eyes beginning to water. “I think Mr. Sangwine is hurting momma.”
“I know. Listen to me. You have to cut the power. I’ve checked all the wiring - I think that’ll open the bedroom door. Take this.” He pushed the missing brick through the hole into Isabella’s expectant hands. “Once the door opens, you need to go up and get momma. If that prick gives you any trouble, hit him in the shins with this and run. Then I want you to get in the car with momma and lock the doors, and she’ll drive you somewhere safe.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll find another way out.”
“I don’t know-”
“Pull the lever.”
Isabella sniffled. “Main power?”
“Yep. Just pull it and run. Come on, you got it. I’m pretty sure at least one of those books you've read said something about being brave.”
Isabella took a deep breath, nodded, and pulled the lever. The soft hum of the generators grew into a solemn groan and then faded into nothing. It was an unnatural silence, absent even of the cicadas. All that was left was the dull moonlight, barely oozing through the fog and the basement windows. Isabella turned to run.
When she turned around, Mr. Sangwine was waiting for her. Blood dripped from the tip of his nose, or pooled in his belly. Antennae were floating about, bony shoulders rising and falling with manic breath.
Isabella held the brick out in front of her and braced herself. Sangwine’s nose collided with the brick, piercing it in fact, but getting stuck before it could reach Isabella's scrunched face. Sangwine squealed in pain. As he tried to pull away, Isabella held onto the brick for dear life and kicked at his shins.
Desperate, Sangwine delivered a supernaturally strong kick to Isabella’s chest, sending her into the brick wall behind her and freeing himself. The crash busted a hole in the wall and knocked Isabella unconscious.
Grinning, Sangwine dragged Isabella out of the wall by the ankles and buried his nose in her neck. As he absorbed her little by little, he felt a wave of euphoria. This was the good stuff: the pure blood of a child.
Suddenly, he felt a pair of hands wrap tightly around the shaft of his nose. It was the boy, Zachary. He’d escaped through the hole in the wall. In two vicious movements, Zachary shoved his heel into Sangwine’s nose and snapped it into an ‘L’ shape, then plunged the sharp end into Sangwine’s own thigh. Sangwine keeled over, writhing in pain on the warm cement.
Zachary scooped up the still-unconscious Isabella, then ran upstairs and through the open metal frame into the master bedroom. Their mother was slow to wake and rather drowsy, but reluctantly conceded to Zachary’s urging that they leave immediately and find a motel.
Isabella regained consciousness as they reached the car and buckled themselves inside.
“Uh oh,” said Doris flatly. “I forgot the keys.”
“No, no, no,” mumbled Zachary, melting into his seat.
Doris was puzzled. “Why don’t we just go back inside and deal with whatever this is tomorrow?”
“That’s why,” said Isabella, pointing through the windshield at the resurfaced Mr. Sangwine. He’d apparently tried to straighten out his nose, but it hung limp. He’d looked hungry all along. Now, he looked murderous. A pair of translucent wings fanned out from his shoulder blades.
Zachary grabbed his incredulous mother by the arm. “We need to run. Can you manage?”
She nodded. The trio hopped out of the car and dashed into the swamp, slicing through fog with Sangwine buzzing in hot pursuit. They put forth a commendable effort, but Sangwine knew the grounds better than they. Eventually, he cornered them on a narrow dock over a pond.
“We’ll swim for it,” whispered Zachary.
“No way,” whispered Isabella.
“Forgive me, my love,” said Doris to Sangwine.
The siblings looked at each other helplessly.
“Horace, forgive my children. They were frightened, that’s all. Soon they will come to accept it, the way I have.”
“Momma!” cried Isabella.
As he advanced, Sangwine tilted his head to one side, large black eyes darting all around. “It’s no good, Doris. Now you’ve all seen what I am.”
“Poor thing. Always having to hide your true face. Never letting anyone in. Ashamed to feel what you feel. Ashamed to want what you want. It doesn’t have to be that way, you know. Not with us. We can be a family, Horace, a real one. It’ll be the best thing you ever did.”
Horace stepped nearer. The children stepped back until their heels were hanging over the edge of the dock, but Doris did not flinch. She circled the man calmly, running her finger around his shoulders.
“I love you, Horace,” she said, embracing him from behind.
“I love you t-”
Suddenly, Doris stepped to one side, grasped Sangwine’s dangling nose, and yanked him across her body off the dock, sending a little tsunami across the pond. Sangwine panicked, struggling to tread water. Doris embraced her children and covered their eyes as the creature’s flailing limbs became still, floating impotently among the algae.
A dark scaly mass emerged nearby.
Isabella gasped. "Gator!"
The alligator chomped down on Sangwine’s midsection. It thrashed about for a few moments, then twisted away with him to finish the job in the depths of the pond. Sangwine's last breaths bubbled to the surface and popped, and the little holes they left were soon covered in algae.
“Good Christ,” said Doris, leading her children back to the house. “I sure know how to pick ‘em.”