Lucille closed her eyes and started counting back for from 100. This was what they told her to do. She sat perfectly still and listened as they shuffled around the room, searching for something without saying a word.
They had ambushed her when she was coming from the bathroom. It all happened so quickly that she couldn’t say how many there were, only that she should’ve have known they were in her apartment from the start. She could smell them when she came home from work, the scent of soil just after a downpour. They hid behind doors and in closets waiting for the right moment.
When she stepped out of the bathroom he grabbed her tight and put his hand over her eyes. Lucille let out a yelp and struggled against his arm wrapped tightly around her torso. She kicked her legs wildly.
“Stop or we’ll kill you,” a woman yelled.
Lucille froze. She knew she meant it. They had killed before. It wasn’t that hard for them. Taking a life was as normal as eating lunch. “What do you want from me?” Lucille asked not even trying to hide the shaking of her voice.
“The Sacred Book,” the man said, his sour breath hot against her ear.
“I don’t have it,” Lucille said.
“You do,” the woman said. “You just don’t know it.”
Lucille’s brother, Cliff, had lived in the underworld once. He vanished aburptly when he was only 12 years old. One minute he was sitting in the backyard and the next he was gone. They searched for him for months before the police gave up. Four years later he appeared on the front stoop in tattered clothes, his face smeared with mud. He didn’t speak for months. No one knew what had happened to him. When he finally did speak he only said that he’d been in the underworld. Lucille knew what that meant. They’d found a book years ago in the woods that taught them about it. It was a large book with dark drawings of figures that looked to Lucille like they’d been stretched like taffy. The book described a world beneath the ground where frightening beings hid away from the sun.
Lucille was afraid of the underworld and couldn’t imagine what it must’ve been like for her brother to live there for so many years. The adults didn’t believe him, but Lucille knew the truth. After that the underworld was the secret they kept between them. Sometimes Cliff would sneak back. He’d bring Lucille articles of clothing from one of the girls that lived there: a scarf the color of sand that smelled like the earth, a skirt made of fabric so rough that Lucille couldn’t image wearing it, and one tattered sneaker. Sometimes, he’d bring stone tools that he told her the beings used to tunnel through the dirt.
Cliff had brought her a lot of things from the underworld, but he’d never brought her the Sacred Book. He spoke of it and how the beings in the underworld followed the rules written in it with the strictest reverence, but Lucille had never even seen it.
When Cliff moved in with her in late June he’d told her that he hadn’t been to the underworld in years. It was strange to hear him mention it because they’d stopped talking about it once the became full-fledged adults. Lucille liked pretending it didn’t exist, but it still occupied a dark corner in her mind.
Then Cliff started acting weird. He would be gone for days at a time without telling her where he was. When he was at home he had a dazed look in his eyes and seemed to be someplace else. He stopped talking to her and would stay in his room with the door closed and music playing so loud the apartment shook.
Cliff had disappeared a few days before the beings showed up in Lucille’s apartment looking for the book. If he’d left a book in there he certainly hadn’t told Lucille about it. He hadn’t told her anything in the past two months.
Lucille believed the stories that Cliff had told her about the viciousness of the beings from the underworld, so even though she was curious about how they looked she dared not open her eyes. She sat perfectly still on the sofa with her eyes squeezed closed as she listened. At one point one brushed past her so close she could feel his clothes tickling her leg.
Lucille’s eyelids trembled. Her heart raced. She sat waiting until she heard them leave one by one. She counted down from 100. Slowly. Calmly. When she opened her eyes her living room looked just as it should. Nothing was out of place. They were like ghosts leaving no trace of themselves. Lucille got up from the sofa and rushed to the front door. As she pushed it closed she noticed a smudge of soil on the door frame.
She left that soil there. The dark brown smear that was no bigger than a blackberry. Each time she left her house she would see it and remember that they were in her home once and that her childhood fears were real.