Underland: The Ballad of In-Between
Cover art composited by: Stace Freeze; Photos used— Eyes: Jose A. Thompson, Unsplash Mirror: Luis Villasmil, Unsplash Labyrinth: Rafif Prawira, Unsplash Snake: TDFugere, Pixabay

Chapter One

It was a rainy summer afternoon in Southeast Texas and boredom was getting the best of Carletta.


“An-dyyy,” the little girl whined.


The boy continued thumbing through the pages of a magazine, making not the slightest move to indicate he’d heard her, ignoring her (as big brothers tend to do).


“Andy…”

Again, nothing but the whipper-flit of page after page.

ANDYANDYANDYANDYANDYANDYANDYYYYYYYYY!”


“WHAT?!” the 14-year-old flung the magazine aside. “WHAT do you WANT, Car?”


“There’s nothing to do.” She pushed her index fingers up along her temples to her forehead, bugging out her eyes and screwing up her mouth. “I’m so bored it’s going to make my eyes pop out of my skull and freeze my face like this.”


Andy cocked an eyebrow. “That’d be an improvement.”


“GRANDMA!”

Carletta, stop yelling, child,” the old woman said, setting a basket of clothes down on the coffee table. “Now, what seems to be the matter?”


“Car won’t leave me alone.”


“Andy’s being mean.”


Genevieve smiled. “You young’ns have been at each other like cats and dogs all morning. I think maybe Grandma needs to find ya’ll some busywork to burn off some of that energy. I’ll tell you what I’m going to set you to do. I’ve been meaning to clean out that attic for sometime now, but my old bones don’t take to that ladder so good anymore. I’ll pay you $10 each for the job.”


The children’s eyes brightened.


“It’ll be a dirty time, though, so ya’ll go on and change into some old clothes first. Probably a century’s worth of dust covering everything up there.”


Andy and Carletta changed their clothes and made way to the trapdoor in the hallway ceiling. Andy reached for the cord and pulled down the door, expanding the ladder stairs.


“It’s so dark,” Carletta whispered.


The boy flicked on the flashlight. “Sure there’s a light up there somewhere.”


He ascended the ladder first, and beneath his weight the old wood bowed slightly. Carletta followed. At the top of the ladder Andy paused to shine the flashlight beam around the room. There, in the center of the room, was suspended a bulb with a pull string.


“Hang on, stay here for a minute while I get the light.”


He pulled the string, and with a soft click the room was bathed in faint light, revealing a historical hodgepodge of dust-covered trunks, seamstress mannequins, plastic-coated furniture, and cardboard boxes.


“Wow. That’s a lot of stuff.”


Andy surveyed the work ahead of them. “Yeah. Guess we might be here a while,” he replied, accidentally knocking over a pile of newspapers as he turned. “I think maybe Grandma’s getting off a little cheap.”


Two hours and four bins of rubbish later, Grandma Genevieve hollered at them from the hallway below. Andy descended and reappeared with two peanut butter and blackberry jam sandwiches and a thermos of lemonade. Moseying over to a trunk, he plopped himself down in front of it to use it as a makeshift table. Carletta pranced over and plopped down almost on top of her brother to join in the feast.


“Move over, geeze. Gimme some room to breathe!”


She flashed him a blackberry smeared grin and slid herself aside two inches.


“What do you think mom’s doing right now?”


“Probably not thinking about us.”


She lowered her gaze to the floor. ”She’s going to come back for us. She’s going to get better, and she’s going to come back and get us, and we’re going home.”


Andy took a good long swig of lemonade from the thermos, savoring its sweetness as though it could counter the bitter thoughts that had been drowning his adolescent mind for weeks. Smacked his lips. “Ah!”


“She is. SHE IS!”


“Yeah. Sure she is, Car.”


A year ago their truck-driving father had packed it up and hauled ass out of their lives, apparently having met some chick in his travels, a chick who wasn’t packing emotional baggage and lacked the burden of babies and bills. Adios and vaya con dios.

I’m outta here. Andy didn’t think the dust had even begun to settle before their mom started losing it. Tears and beers every night. Then she switched it up to liquor. A lot of it. She’d drink so much of it that most nights she passed out by 7, leaving Andy to the task of fixing dinner. He would, of course, make enough for their mom, too, should she happen to wake up from her stupor. If he didn’t he doubted she’d probably eat much of anything at all. Not that she really ate that much anyway.

Two months ago they’d come home from school to find their mom unconscious on the living room floor atop a nest of shattered glass that was once a coffee table.

Car had been the first to find her.


That’s when child services stepped in. Mom was carted off to a rehabbing nut ward and they were packed up and sent to Grandma Genevieve—a woman they’d maybe seen a handful of times since their birth—down south.


And here they were, holed up in some spooky backwoods bayou-looking plantation house, spending a Saturday afternoon sifting through decades of history that was as foreign to them as the region itself.


“What do you have there?”


“I found it. In those papers you knocked over,” Carletta replied, palming a very old, tarnished looking key.


“Let me see it.”


Eyeing him warily, the girl reluctantly handed over her find to her brother.

It was a heavy thing with intricate designs running along the length of it, which he delicately traced his fingers along, and as he did the key seemed warmer, seemed to brighten a bit. Andy held it closer to inspect it in the dim, dust-mote ridden light—its blade looked like some sort of yawning demon-rabbit creature, its bow, a broken heart.


Outside, lightning split the sickly sky as a crack of thunder threatened to let loose all that the heavens could no longer contain. Andy jumped, dropping the key, sending it clattering to the dusty floorboards.


“Ha ha! What’s a matter, Andy-candy? Are you scared of a little storm?”


Smiling sheepishly, he leaned over to retrieve the key. “It’s weird, isn’t it?”


“It’s hideous.”


“Yeah, it is. Bet it fits one of these old trunks up here?”


“You’re such a boy,” she rolled her eyes. “Didn’t you say it’s a ‘volition of privacy’, going through other people’s stuff?” she replied sarcastically.


“Violation. And not in this case. Grandma Genevieve sent us up here to get us out of her hair. And she’s always going on about ‘how important it is for us to know where we come from’ and all that sh—, er, junk. Perfect opportunity; throw us elbow-deep into the dust and dirt of our roots. It’d almost be rude not to check all this stuff out.”


Carletta shrugged. “Hey! I saw one of those record things over there. Can we play some music?”


“Sure,” he agreed, glad to see her get into the spirit of things, and showed her how to operate the player. Carletta set the needle on the record which was already in the player, and it crackled to life, filling the dusty attic with an eerily harmonious chorus of children singing a campfire song:


I want to linger a little longer
a little longer here with you
it’s such a perfect night
it doesn’t seem quite right
that this should be my last with you


Outside, the storm raged. A flash of lightning illuminated the room momentarily, and it was then that Andy noticed a sheet covering something along the far wall. Stepping around a stack of boxes and weaving his way through several trunks, he made his way to it. He tugged on the sheet, dusty and yellowed with age, and it slid to the floor and landed with the slightest flutter, to reveal an elaborate and ornately framed dressing mirror beneath.

Thunder boomed.


Carletta appeared behind him, swimming in a Victorian-era dress. She surveyed herself in the mirror dreamily, imagining herself with luxurious golden locks of hair that fell in cascading ringlets instead of her ultra-short razored cut (the #3 attachment, if you please, courtesy of her brother’s barbering skills. Oh, how she longed to look so grand like the princesses from fairytales.


“It’s such a fancy mirror! Why’s it stuck up here?”


“Probably so it doesn’t get broke. Worth a fortune, I bet,” Andy shrugged, turned around and eyed some trunks in the corner that he hadn’t checked out yet.


Carletta continued posing for the mirror, practicing her best beauty-queen smile, cocking her hips from one side, then the other.


“I think I found it!”

Carletta whirled around, the fabric of her dress grazing the mirror’s surface, which rippled like a silver stream. Her reflection looked on, failing to match her reality, scowling.


“What’s in it?”


“I dunno, I haven’t tried it yet. But pretty sure this is it,” Andy replied.


She plopped down beside him, and Andy brushed layers of dust from the lid, revealing symbols etched into the wood. He pulled the key from his pocket and examined it once more. His hand trembled beneath the weight of it, its grotesque appearance sending icy shivers down his spine. For all its hideous appearance, the trunk’s lock was at least ten times as ugly. Where the key’s blade resembled something of a creature caught in an eternal yawn, the lock’s design was downright pornographic, metal meticulously fashioned to depict a monstrous and demonic horned female counterpart, scaly tail curled around its sinuous naked body in an evil embrace, legs spread, eagerly inviting itself to be devoured.


“Gross,” Carletta remarked, curling her lips in disgust. Andy, eyes wide, brows raised, pursed his lips, avoiding eye contact with his little sister.


“Okay. I’m gonna open it.” He brought the key to the lock and a surge of heat traveled up his arm. Outside the storm rose to a crescendo. Andy felt the key hit home in the lock. He turned it and the mechanism acquiesced with an audible click.

Holding his breath, he lifted the lid. The hinges groaned in protest and a rush of cool air blasted forth from within the box. The children exchanged a worried glance.


Behind them, Carletta’s reflection stared on, hands pressed against the glass, grinned, and then dissolved away.

To Be Continued…

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