Rule No. 1: You don’t kill the body you inhabit.
Rule No. 2: You should never again mention your previous name.
Rule No. 3: You don’t ever talk about your previous life. Ever.
Two young men with the power to take over another body inhabit the bodies and lives of brothers Jonah and Louis. The takeover leads to a car crash, injuring Jonah’s legs and forcing them to stay in the brothers’ house for the time being.
The street is quiet. The neighbors aren’t nosy. Everything is okay.
They are safe, for now.
Until they find a dead body in the basement.
The following excerpt is from the opening of Dwellers, a fantasy/crime/suspense novel by Eliza Victoria. Available July 19 from Visprint.
* * * * *
A Strange House in a Strange City
Rule No. 1: You don’t kill the body you inhabit.
The Holmes and Rahe stress scale lists 43 stressful life events that may lead to illness. (I read this in a book – when you’re wheelchair-bound and injured you can do mostly nothing but read.) Every life event has corresponding Life Change Units. This is my list –
Death of a close family member – 63
Personal injury or illness –53
Change in living conditions –25
Revision of personal habits – 24
Change in residence – 20
Change in sleeping habits – 16
Change in eating habits – 15
– for a whopping total of 216 Life Change Units. I don’t know if I should add “Gaining a New Family Member” (39 points); I’ve known Louis (I should get used to calling him this name – Louis) all my life, but I’ve never shared a house with him. Does that count?
He stresses me out because he looks stressed out with all the cuts on his face and arms. His constant attention is breaking my heart. Maybe he could add the 39 points to his own list.
If I add that, I get 255 points, still 45 points short of the requisite 300, which means “at risk of illness”. At this point, I’m still not at risk? “Risk of illness is moderate”.
This is bullshit.
How many Life Change Units apply to a “Change in Body”? “Change in Residence” is a mere 20 points. A change in body is a thousandfold more disorienting.
I don’t know why I’m even bothering with this stress scale. It doesn’t apply to Louis and me. Our collective stress is on a whole other planet.
I should be doing something more productive.
I wish I could walk.
I wish I could just kill this body and inhabit another.
I take stock of what I have, once again: male, medium build, early 20s, close to my real age. Dark hair. Dark eyes. My insides feel tender. Black wheelchair. My right leg stretched out in front of me, bound in a black knee immobilizer. The immobilizer looks expensive; it has a dial on the joint that you can adjust to control range of movement. Not that I have any range.
Dashboard knee. Nerve damage. Knee dislocation. Posterior cruciate ligament injury. The words make my head throb.
My other leg is covered in fading bruises, like swatches of paint. Mauve. Chartreuse. The sickly yellow of sulfur.
Louis said I was in a coma for two days. He himself woke up in the car wreck, ambulance sirens blaring in his ears. He was disoriented by the sudden change in position. From the SUV, he woke up in the driver’s seat of a sedan, a car pinned between the SUV and a tree trunk. He looked through the car’s accordioned backseat and saw our discarded bodies in the other vehicle. Then he saw this unconscious body on the passenger seat, saw the strange way the right leg was twisted, and thought I was dead.
“I thought it didn’t work,” he said, when I woke up on the hospital bed. He was holding my hand. He might have been crying. He let go of my fingers, patted my arm. “Rule No. 1,” he said. “You don’t kill the body you inhabit.”
“We can’t do this again, Jonah.”
But my legs are ruined, I wanted to say. And who is Jonah?
Rule No. 2: You should never again mention your previous name.
Louis said that, for a few days after I woke up, I kept insisting that I got my knee injury from a bad fall. I climbed a tree, hung onto a branch for a few seconds and, inexplicably, let go.
Louis said I was so steadfast in this story, so unwavering, that when he began showing me the newspaper clippings and the photos of the car crash, I got angry.
I have no memory of this.
However, the story of my fall did happen. When I was younger, eight or nine, it was the mango tree my grandfather –
Rule No. 3: You don’t ever talk about your previous life. Ever.
I should write down these rules in a proper fucking list and staple it to my damn forehead.
It is March, and I am in a city I don’t recognize. My room is clean and bare, just filled with the essentials: a bed, a cabinet, a study table with a lamp, and a low bookshelf filled with books. A pair of aluminum crutches I still can’t use leaning against a wall. The house is on an affluent street. Gated, with a driveway. The other houses stand practically side-by-side, but this house sits on a big lot, so the nearest house on either side is more than a hundred meters away. Craftsman-style bungalow. Attached garage. Gray-green brick walls. So muted it could very well blend into the trees. Wood and marble interior. Very American. There is even an attic and a basement. Or so Louis said. Obviously, I’ve never been on any other floor but this one. I’m not missing much, according to him. The attic is filled with boxes, and an old dresser cabinet has fallen over and blocked the basement stairs, so he can’t explore much.
We don’t have visitors or nosy neighbors, which is good. The other houses are quiet. Once or twice, I saw a little girl looking at our house from the other side of the street. She seems to like playing dress-up. The first time I saw her she was wearing pink fairy wings. I thought I was hallucinating.
Bills come to the house in envelopes but Louis says all of the bills can be paid online. There is a desktop and a laptop in his room, the contents of which he has studied for three days.
“What is your job?” I ask.
“IT professional,” he says. “Independent consultants. We’re partners, apparently.”
“I don’t know what that is.” Meaning, I don’t know how to pretend to be that.
He says it doesn’t matter. “Based on the emails, the clients know we’ve been in a car accident. I don’t think they’ll bother us for a while.”
Louis says I own two phones and a laptop, but they were ruined in the crash.
A cleaning lady dropped by five days after I was released from the hospital. A regular, based on the way she spoke to us. Louis and I pretended that we knew her. She talked to us as if we were her children, as she wiped the windows and cleaned the refrigerator. Before she left in the afternoon she took Louis’s hands in hers and told him how kind he was to take care of his injured brother. Louis merely smiled because he didn’t know her name. He said that we were letting her go. The hospital bills, Louis told her. We need to save as much money as we can. She was surprised, but said she understood.
The truth was we just didn’t want to let anyone else in.
Every Monday an old man drops by with a week’s worth of groceries. When Louis tried to pay him the first week we were in the house, the man laughed and said we were already paid for two months. The grocery comes in large blue plastic bags. Sometimes a teenager helps the old man. Maybe his son. There is always meat and vegetables, milk and fruits. They recycle. Cooking oil comes in plastic Coke bottles, vinegar in ketchup containers. The correct ingredients in incorrect vessels. Like Louis and me.
I wonder if the old man’s been fired yet. Probably not. It’s a great help, to have groceries delivered to your doorstep.
How far away are we, I asked Louis once, and he said, nearly 300 miles.
Not far enough, I think.
I know Louis has put a protective spell around the house but he won’t admit to it. I know because I saw it. My bedroom faces the street so I have a view of the gate from my window. One morning, while Louis was watering the bougainvillea bushes in the garden, I saw a girl – college student, maybe eighteen – walk up to the gate and ask, “Is Meryl here?”
She was wearing a pair of glasses with big black frames. Her hair was dyed a deep, dark magenta, but even the pop of color couldn’t hide her weariness. Louis stopped watering the flowers.
“Meryl,” she said.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know who that is.”
She raised her hand toward the gate, and I saw it then – a flicker of fear in her eyes. She lowered her hand. She looked confused. She stared at Louis as though begging him to explain what just happened.
“Yes?” Louis said. Taunting her. He couldn’t help it. She stepped back and walked away.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” I said when Louis got back inside.
“What?” Louis said.
“The perimeter spell. You should conserve your energy.”
“I wonder who Meryl is,” was all Louis said.
It is a strange thing, to inhabit another body. I mourn the loss of my childhood scars and despise the wounds that have replaced them. The fall from the mango tree produced a hook-like scar on my elbow, a brown itch-less welt that I touch before I go to sleep. That hook is no longer there. Sometimes I still get surprised. In the dark, I do not recognize myself.
Jonah has scars of his own, but I don’t know the stories behind them. I wonder if he was a good person.
Rule No. 4: You shouldn’t feel sorry for the life you’ve displaced.
Louis says he found three dead birds in the backyard. He picked up all three with a shovel and buried them in the garden.
“Remember when Grandfather got sick?” I tell him. “Three of his favorite dogs died, and then he got better. Like the dogs suffered his illness for him.”
Rule No. 3. “Jonah,” Louis says.
“Maybe I’ll get better.”
“You will get better.”
“But those birds aren’t mine. And Grandfather ended up dying anyway.”
I am in pain. I have just taken my medication but it has yet to take effect. I understand the importance of pain. It is the body’s defense mechanism. Get burned and you learn to stay away from fire. But prolonged pain? What’s the point? I am injured – I get it. Why continue to make my body suffer?
Pain is bad for the heart, my mother used to say.
Louis offers his hand and I squeeze it, hard. I didn’t know it was possible to suffer pain such as this.
“Maybe we are not who we think we are. Maybe this is really my body,” I say. I feel delirious.
“Stop it, Jonah.”
But it hurts so much, I want to say, but there are things you don’t say out loud to preserve your dignity.
Louis places an ice pack on my knee and sits with me until the wave of pain passes.
“What are we doing, Louis?” I say.
“Biding our time. Resting.”
“We’ve stayed in one place for too long. We’re sitting ducks.”
“When you get better we’ll move again.” He takes a deep breath. “We haven’t seen her. Maybe she doesn’t know where we are.”
“But what if I don’t get better?”
“Stop thinking like that.”
We fall silent. I see an image of a young girl sitting in a yellow kitchen, her back to me. Chair of blonde wood. Black dress, black hair, hands on her knees. I experience it like a flash, a burn. Pain is bad for the heart. I think her name but don’t say it out loud. A sacred word. Celeste.
“I’m sorry, Louis,” I say.
“You didn’t force me to help you,” he says.
I think Louis thinks we are secluded and safe, as though he has already forgotten what real seclusion means and what my former life is like. (Look at me, breaking Rule No. 3 again.) The hush of a huge century-old ancestral house, surrounded by nothing but trees and fields, that’s what seclusion is. At night, I still dream of gleaming wooden floors and capiz shells. The narrow passageways surround the living room and lead to the kitchen. I follow these passageways but cannot find their end.
There are two girls on a bed. There are two girls on a bed. One wears a white shirt – a man’s shirt – and the other is naked, save for a pair of pink panties. They face a barred window. They are both kneeling on the bed. I am sitting in one corner of the room. I should be able to see their faces in profile but I can’t. It is as though I am looking through a camera eye with the frame cut off. I can see them clearly from the chin down. The girl in the shirt touches the naked girl’s breast, slides her palm down her bare stomach, and slides her fingers under the garter of her pink panties. Her free arm is around the naked girl’s neck. The naked girl is trying to pull the other girl’s arm down. The naked girl is crying.
I wake up and all of the lights are off. The clock reads 2 AM.
A dream. It is just a dream. I sit up. Normally I dream of the big house and Celeste. The twins. But this dream is different. It doesn’t feel connected to me.
Louis steps into the room with a flashlight. “Blackout,” he says, rubbing his eyes. He yawns. “The entire street is dark.” He places the flashlight on the study table.
“I had a dream,” I say.
Louis doesn’t say anything except, “Hm”, probably thinking he already knows what the dream is about.
“It’s not about Celeste,” I say.
“You shouldn’t say her name,” Louis says. He pulls out the chair from the study table and sits on it.
“There were two girls. I think one of them is sexually abusing the other.”
Louis and I have talked about this exhaustively. We are what we remember. Or what we choose to remember. If we lose our memories, we lose ourselves. But where do memories reside? Are they tangible objects you find in the organic brain? Do you take them with you when you leave your body, or are they left with the corpus? Do they simply disappear, like steam? Or are they more like the boxes in the attic or the ruined dresser cabinet in the basement? Things that can be abandoned and later inherited.
“Do you think it’s Jonah’s memory?” I ask.
He yawned again. “Maybe.”
“I hope Jonah is not a monster.”
Louis laughs, to my surprise. “Maybe he just saw it in a movie. Online. Someplace. You find the most depraved things online.”
That is possible. “I hope so,” I say. “You’re tired, Louis. Go back to sleep. Thanks for the flashlight.”
“I hope the blackout ends soon,” Louis says before he closes the door. “We have meat that might go bad.”
There is still no electricity the next morning. I have coffee and bread and NSAIDs for breakfast. I wheel myself to the window to catch a breeze. No such luck. The humidity is unforgiving. I watch Louis stand near the bars of the gate and listen to a couple of women fanning themselves, neighbors commiserating, speculating on the cause of the power outage.
“Transformer blast,” Louis reports back to me. It’s too hot to do anything. Louis sits, languorous, on a chair in my room and stares at the ceiling. I hunch over a book. The skin covered by my knee immobilizer starts to sweat and itch. We don’t talk. What is there to talk about when you can’t talk about your past? Remember that time when we had a power outage for two days, and we had dinner in the garden with all the grown-ups? We wore our best suits and felt like grown-ups ourselves.
We can’t talk about that.
We notice the smell around lunchtime. Louis has wheeled me out of the room into the dining area despite my protestations. Beef stew.
“I’m not hungry,” I say.
“You need to eat something.”
I haven’t eaten much of anything ever since the hospital. Louis gives me a look. I sigh, pick up a spoonful of beef, eat it, and chew. It should be enough to placate him, I think. He frowns. I try to eat more but cannot find pleasure in it. I have no appetite. My hands hang limp at the end of the wheelchair armrests. I watch Louis finish his meal.
That’s when I notice it. A faint stench in the air, like rotten meat.
“Do you smell that?” I say.
Louis looks up. “I’ve used up all of our meat in the stew,” Louis says, but enters the kitchen anyway to check.
“Well, it’s not coming from the refrigerator,” he says.
“But you do smell that, right?”
“Yes.” He sits at the table again but stands up after a moment, agitated. “Shit. Where is that coming from?”
Louis places the dishes in the sink and leaves the dining room. I wait, listening to him walking around the house. He stops walking after a few minutes, but doesn’t return to the room. I wheel myself out.
I find him in the laundry room, where the stench is stronger. It smells like leftover rice left out in the sun. The door leading to the basement is straight ahead. The plain white door has, in addition to the doorknob, a slide bolt latch that looks newer than the rest of the house. Louis unlatches the door and the smell hits us like a wave.
“Damn,” I say, covering my nose with the collar of my shirt.
“What is that,” Louis says. “Did something die down there?”
I can see the dresser cabinet seven steps down, right at that point before the winding staircase turns.
“You can’t go in there,” I say. “You might get hurt.”
Louis goes down the seven steps with a flashlight. “I still can’t see anything,” he says. He goes back up, sees me there and gives me a look as though seeing me for the first time. “Do you want to go back to your room?”
“I can wheel myself back you know,” I say, slightly miffed. “And you’re not going down there.”
“I’ll be careful,” he says. He goes out and disappears for a long time, and comes back with a hammer, safety goggles, and a pair of rubber boots.
“You have got to be kidding me,” I say.
“I wish I had an axe,” Louis says, putting on the goggles and the boots. He goes down the basement stairs.
“Why do you need to go investigate?”
“If there’s a dead animal down there it’s going to stink up the street.”
I hear splintering wood, a boot crushing through a board. Louis curses. “You might cut yourself,” I shout through the doorway. The hammer goes down. The glow of the flashlight disappears further down the staircase.
“Well?” I say. I hear squeaks against a cement floor.
“Old furniture,” Louis says. He grunts. “It smells really bad down here.”
“Dead cat?” I say.
“It smells like shit and bleach.”
“Did you say ‘bleach’?” I say, but Louis doesn’t reply.
For a minute I couldn’t hear anything. Then heavy footsteps, boots crashing through wood. Louis emerges from the dark basement, ashen-faced.
“What?” I ask, wheeling myself back. He puts down the flashlight and the hammer on the floor and slams the basement door shut. He pulls off the goggles and sits on the floor with his back to the door. He covers his face with both of his hands and tries to breathe.
I’m frightened. This is no dead cat.
“Louis?” I say, softly.
“Oh my God,” Louis says, dropping his hands from his face. He looks at me. “There’s a chest freezer down there.”
My heart stops.
“There’s a dead girl in it,” Louis says.
Who are these people, really? Louis and Jonah – who are they? For the first time since we arrived in this house, I am disturbed by the lack of photos on the walls, the lack of framed certificates, words to live by, the lack of life.
The girl in the chest freezer is naked and emaciated, Louis tells me. Sunken cheeks, ribs poking through. Fingers like claws. She looks both old and young, at once a child and a grandmother. Louis finds it impossible to guess her age, though he immediately thinks of the words anorexic and teenager. She is concealed beneath melting blocks of ice.
Today marks the third week since I left the hospital. How long has she been in that freezer?
Who hid her there?
We puzzle over the detail of the fallen dresser cabinet. Someone went to the basement, toppled the cabinet over, and left how?
Louis says there is a large window over the freezer, large enough for an adult to crawl through. The glass panes have been painted over with brown paint. It’s locked from the outside and leads into the backyard. All right: so someone came from outside, toppled the cabinet over, and went back out the window? Clearly the cabinet was pushed to discourage people inside the house from exploring the basement.
“Is that why they were driving so fast?” I say. I remember us in the SUV. I remember the sedan with Louis and Jonah (though we didn’t know their names then) zooming out of a street and appearing in front of us, suddenly in the way, suddenly giving us a way out of our old life.
They were driving fast because they were escaping the scene of a crime, a scene we have now inherited.
“We need to get out of here,” I say.
End of Excerpt
© Eliza Victoria
* * * * *
Eliza Victoria is a Filipino author. Her books include Project 17 (2013), A Bottle of Storm Clouds (2012), and Unseen Moon (2013). Her fiction and poetry have appeared in several online and print publications in the Philippines and elsewhere, including Daily Science Fiction, Stone Telling, Room Magazine, Story Quarterly, The Pedestal Magazine, High Chair, and the Philippine Speculative Fiction anthologies. Her work has won prizes in the Philippines’ Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature and the Free Press Literary Awards. She has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the National Children’s Book Awards, and has been included in the Honorable Mentions for Best Horror of the Year.
Cover art and design by Aldy Aguirre