We came to stop by a door near the entrance to Charles's kitchen. He pulled it open and I was staring down a long flight of stairs. It was his basement I realized. The cold air from below hit my skin and the hair on my arm raised. I gazed into the dark pit at the bottom of the steps, my eyes searching for the monsters that my brain had already conjured.
Charles glanced back at me. He wore a broad smile and he was practically trembling with excitement.
"Let the show begin, Mr. Duncan," he said.
He reached over and flipped a switch, illuminating the stairs and the large room below. He then began descending the steps, and I gave a moment's hesitation before following him down.
The basement was huge. It had to span out underneath about half of his house. My eyes were bombarded with the scene before me, for there must have been a thousand things to look at in the room. The walls were covered with shelves, stocked full of the strangest items I had ever seen. Jars lined the shelves, all filled with murky liquids and bizarre figures floating inside. I spotted small conjoined animal fetuses in some of the jars. In others there were fleshy things I couldn't identify, and perhaps didn't want to. Odd looking masks hung here and there, some of them tribal looking, while others appeared to look like women's faces.
The floor was cluttered with a plethora of strange items. I saw a large taxidermy collection, yet no animal or figure I saw appeared normal. There were conjoined squirrels, six legged sheep, a monkey that had two heads, and so on. Exotic clothes hung from tall racks, as well as malicious looking weapons of all kinds. I even spotted a guillotine in the corner of the room, and it didn't appear to be a prop.
There were skulls of many different types of animals, and many were human. Walking amongst the clutter, I saw a human skull that appeared to be disfigured and undersized. I dared not assume whom it could have belonged to.
We came to a large stand with an enormous skin of some kind hanging from it in such a way that it was spread for display. It was a dark shade of brown with a thin coat of sleek hair on its surface. The skin appeared to have belonged to some sort of animal about the size of a large dog. At first, I thought it was an animal skin. Then I took a closer look, and my mouth dropped when I saw the creature's face.
I saw a what used to be a round head with a long face. Two very large eyes bulged from either side of the head, creamy white and lifeless. The nose was a hideous, puckered, snarling mass of flesh, reminiscent of a bat's snout. From here, there were long appendages that resembled tentacles that stretched several feet down to the floor. At their ends were several nasty grey claws or teeth. I could also see sharp looking barbs on the underside of these appendages.
Horrified by the skin but fascinated at the same time, I built up enough courage to touch it. I reached slowly for one of the tentacles and pulled it aside. There behind the hairy appendages, I could see a hole. It honestly closely resembled a pink anus, though I knew it must be a mouth of some sort.
I released the tentacle and stepped back quickly, repulsed by what I saw. I turned a frightened gaze to Charles who stood watching patiently beside me, his arms behind his back. My lip quivered as I searched for the words to say.
"Th-this is just a fabrication, right?" I asked him nervously.
"Truthfully, I do not know," he told me. "The troupe and I had performed in Australia, where we met an old aboriginal man who kept this skin on the wall of the cabin in which he lived. He told me that this creature killed his son many years ago, and that he hunted it down in the bush and killed it. From what I can tell it appears to be skin from an actual living beast of some sort. The giant in my show used to wear the skin for our performance."
Charles motioned to the far wall of the basement.
"If you'll follow me this way, Mr. Duncan, I'll show you something even more fascinating," Charles said.
As he walked away, I followed slowly, my eyes still glued to the wretched looking skin. A chill resonated deep within me as my mind conjured up the image of that thing living and breathing and lurking about. I shivered and turned to see what else Mr. Tibbord had in store for me.
I was led to a large stainless steel door, that appeared to be the threshold to a huge walk-in freezer. I wondered briefly how Charles managed to get it down in his basement. He was already pulling the door open and reaching inside to flip on a florescent light. The freezer was now illuminated, glowing a frosty pale blue color. Inside, past the clear flaps that hung in the threshold, I could see a long box. To me, it looked an awful lot like a casket.
Charles turned to face me. He wore a serious expression on his wizened face.
"Mr. Duncan, you must trust me when I tell you that you are in no danger," he said, "but I must warn you that what I'm about to show you might be unsettling. You must also know that I am taking a considerable risk in showing you this, and I ask you only for your complete confidentiality."
I swallowed hard, somewhat unnerved by his grave tone and the icy glimmer in his eyes. I nodded to him.
"You have my word, Charles," I assured him nervously.
With a nod and a polite grin, Charles turned and entered the freezer. I could hear him talk as he began to open the box inside.
"The lid sometimes gets frozen shut in here," he called from within. "I suppose that is for the better. Ms. Vasquez is already quite skittish about working here without something like this walking around in the night."
The words Charles spoke sent a spike of fear through my chest. What could he have inside the casket? Another creature from a foreign land? Or something worse?
I heard a cracking sound, and I saw through the freezer flaps that Charles had gotten the lid open. Again I heard him talking, although now he wasn't speaking to me. He was muttering something to whatever was inside of the casket.
"C'mon, my dear," I heard him say in a soft coaxing voice. "C'mon out of there. Come here, my dear, let's go for a walk. You can do it."
I felt like running. I was no longer comfortable here in the basement. My mind raced, trying to think of what I should do. I wanted to leave, yet my curiosity was drawn like a magnet to the freezer. I stood anxiously by, my palms sweating and my breath becoming shallow and labored.
I could see a figure sit up in the casket slowly, though I couldn't yet make out any specific features. Charles had both of his arms extended, as to help whomever or whatever it was rise from the casket. I could see the figure standing now, with Charles holding it steady for a moment. It was about as tall as Charles, possibly 5'10" in height.
A second later, Charles emerged from the freezer alone with a grand smile stretched across his face. I studied him with anticipation. He turned his head back to the freezer.
"Sylvie, could you join us out here?" Charles called into the freezer. "It's alright, my dear, it's time for a walk."
My breath caught in my chest as I glimpsed a pale silhouette through the freezer flaps. Then, a head pushed through the flaps. I suppressed a cry of shock when I saw the pale figure that emerged. The first thing I noticed were the eyes, pale white and glazed over, with only a cloudy hint of the irises that once were.
It was a woman, but a pale ghost of a woman. She had long, straight, milky colored hair, which I assumed at one time might have been blonde. Her facial features were smooth and round. She wore a long Victorian dress, which obviously was an antiquity. It left her shoulders and the tops of her ample breasts exposed, for the sleeves were but frilly straps that slipped up to the top of her arm. Her skin was a pale bloodless color, and her lips and the sunken areas beneath her white eyes had a slightly blue tint to them.
Her figure was marvelous to behold, and the simple but elegant dress displayed it well. The pale woman's breasts appeared large and supple, though they were compressed upward by the tight dress she wore. Her waist was narrow down to where her hips flared wide. The dress masked her legs, for it extended to the floor where its frilly edges were dirty and shredded. Though she was a frightening thing to behold, the ghastly woman was undeniably beautiful.
"Mr. Duncan," Charles said, smiling proudly at me, "I would like you to meet Sylvie."
I gawked at the woman before me, at her pale skin, white eyes, and faded hair. I watched as her head rolled slowly about on her neck. It appeared as though Sylvie, as Charles called her, was examining the room, though the strange way she held her head also made her seem like she was listening for something. She swayed ever so slightly, her hands brushing the air feeling at something that wasn't there. Sylvie seemed unaware that we were in the room with her, though she appeared to respond to the sound of Charles's voice.
It was her eyes that disturbed me the most, however. They were lifeless and void of emotion. She didn't blink, but instead maintained a blank expression. They seemed almost fake at times like they weren't able to move much like a doll's eyes. When they did move, however, it was a shutter inducing sight to behold.
"W-what...." I stuttered, flinching as Sylvie's eyes fluttered across me when she heard my voice. "What is-"
"Who is she would be the more correct question," Charles interjected. "Or rather, who was she. Sylvie was a performer in my troupe, just before we disbanded and I moved to the United States. I recruited her in France where she lived. She spoke many languages and was a very smart girl. She was a contortionist, and the very best in my opinion. She could position her body and her appendages in ways that disturbed the mind at the sight. Sylvie was, and still is, a very beautiful young woman, but she was very vain and unpredictable."
Charles paused, his eyes wandering up and down the ghastly figure's form.
"When we traveled to the islands in the Gulf of Mexico," he continued, "we stopped in Haiti for a show. I happened across a small shop that sold a wide variety of local curiosities. I found a book there, a small tome that was actually written in Latin, a language in which I am well versed having been a doctor, as you know. The shopkeeper was a young peddler who didn't have much enthusiasm for the things he sold, and told me the tome was a book that someone had fabricated. He said that within it were certain rites and spells that ancient Haitian tribesman performed routinely. I read through it, and decided to purchase the tome, thinking at the very least that it would make a neat prop for one of our shows.
"Reading the book one night, I discovered a passage that translated to say 'recall he that has gone.' By the context of the passages, I discerned that this was an incantation for reanimating the dead."
My blood ran cold as I heard Charles say the words. Staring at the horrid yet tantalizing creature before me, my mind reeled, unwilling to accept what he was telling me.
"She...." I fumbled for the words. "Sylvie is dead?"
Charles turned to look at her, his brow furrowing.
"I believe she is," he said. "It is a sad tale. She poisoned herself. I found her as she was dying and held her in my arms. I couldn't.... I couldn't let her go."
Charles now wore a very somber expression.
"I had always fancied experimenting with the incantations in that devious tome," he said in a low dreadful voice. "I never thought I would be so mad as to try them on Sylvie."
I swallowed hard. "Why did she kill herself?"
Again as I spoke, the ghastly woman's eyes drifted upon me, chilling me to the marrow in my bones. Her head twitched, and her fingers groped at the air beside her.
"She was in love with me," Charles answered.
I shot him a surprised look. He gave me a regretful grin.
"I thought it unprofessional to bed a woman in my employment, no matter how lovely she was," he explained.
It was then that Sylvie's mouth opened. I was somewhat intrigued by her now, though still hesitant. I dared to step closer, examining her every feature. She rolled her grey tongue around in her mouth, her head reclining to stare at the ceiling. Though this was definitely creeping me out, I couldn't stop watching her.
"H-how can something like this be possible?" I asked him.
Charles shrugged his shoulders. "I am the most knowledgeable man I know, and I do not have the answer to that question, Mr. Duncan. For all my years of study, the science of this phenomena eludes me. Even so, that is still one question to which I don't think I want an answer."
"What did people think of her?" I asked him. "The audience... how did they react to seeing her?"
"I will never know," Charles said.
"She... She was never in the show? Why not?" I asked bewildered.
Charles gazed at Sylvie dreamily and said, "I was afraid of what they would do. With the discovery of Sylvie, the world could do spectacular things... and terrible things. I thought it best to keep her hidden. Many times I have thought to destroy her, but I can't bring myself to be rid of her."
Suddenly, Sylvie was upon me. I yelped as her arms shot up and around my back, her open mouth closing in on my face. My open mouth was met by hers, her ghastly face now pressed against mine. Her cold lips met my own, and her icy tongue slipped into my mouth but for a second. A low groaning noise escaped her throat. I shoved at her, breaking the frightening embrace and stumbling back. Sylvie did not advance, yet seemed at once uninterested in the entire exchange, peering off to her side at a shelf against the wall.
Charles was by my side immediately.
"Mr. Duncan!" He cried. "Are you alright?"
My heart fluttered in my chest like a snare drum. It had happened so fast that I didn't know what to think. I could still feel a chill on my lips and my tongue from her cold advance.
My eyes were glued to her as she shambled toward a shelf full of jars. Her arm raised awkwardly, and her fingers brushed a jar that contained a strange looking worm or snake of some kind. Her movements were wrong. She walked so inhumanly, as though unbalanced or unsure of how her own body worked. Sylvie's pale figure was so elegant and beautiful, yet it seemed all grace and fluidity had left her body.
After I calmed down a bit, I rubbed the chill that clung to my lips. I looked at Charles in shock.
"Did... did she just try to kiss me?" I asked him bewildered.
Charles sighed, watching the pale woman that admired his collection with a lifeless expression.
"I feel terrible," he told me. "I should have warned you. I simply didn't think she would act the same way towards a stranger."
"What do you mean?" I asked confused.
Charles gave me a smile.
"It is my belief, judging by Sylvie's actions these past years, that in death we cling to the things we enjoyed most in life," Charles explained. "Sylvie loved to paint, and she still does. When we use to travel she would paint the most beautiful portraits and landscapes. Now I'm afraid that she can only manage to merely touch paint to canvas."
I studied Charles in disbelief.
"The paintings you might have seen upstairs were some of hers," he told me. "Though she lacks the skill she had in life, Sylvie hasn't lost her desire for the art."
Still in shock, I asked, "But why did she try to attack me?"
He glanced over to Sylvie, who now was making her way to a rack of costumes and props. Her head leaned far to the side and turned strangely, as though she was confused at the sight of the clothing and was trying to study it from a different angle. Again the movement was wrong, too exaggerated and inhuman. Her bare feet scuffed against the floor as she walked awkwardly around the rack, and her torso swayed oddly with her every step. There was a moment when her head turned to face us, her neck twisting impossibly around so that her chin was behind her shoulder. I couldn't bring myself to hold her lifeless gaze, for her milky eyes sent a chill through my veins.
"Sylvie...." Charles started, searching for the words to say. "Well, she was a harlot. She had an addiction to intercourse and a talent for it as well. She could seduce men and women alike. Sylvie's death was most likely my own fault. I didn't believe in having relations with anyone in my employment. She was quite drunk one night and made an advance on me. I was more than stern with her and she took it terribly, apparently thinking that I thought her undesirable. I later found her diary, learning that she was very smitten with me."
Charles smiled at me.
"Sylvie was a passionate being," he told me. "Even in death, she lusts after flesh. I admit that until now I thought her advances exclusive to me, but it seems she likes you as well, Mr. Duncan. She is still a very lovely being. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that even I have indeed succumbed to her ghastly charms."
I looked at Charles in complete shock, almost repulsed by what he had said.
"Y-you mean to s-say that you've let her, uh...." I stuttered, searching for the words to say. "You've had sex with her?!"
Charles nodded somberly. "I do admit that it is the most horrific thing that I have done, but I was in a terrible place after my troupe disbanded, and I was quite intoxicated. And Sylvie.... Sylvie can be quite hypnotic. It is something I am not proud of, but nonetheless it happened."
I examined Sylvie. It was true that she had been beautiful, and that she still was. Her skin was smooth and tight, and she was quite slender and curvy. My eyes were drawn habitually to her cleavage where her soft and ample breasts pressed firmly againts the tight dress she wore. Her waist was slim and her stomach flat. Though much of her hips was hidden under the flare of her dress, I could see that they were wide and plentiful.
For a moment, I imagined her naked, her pale flesh exposed, every curve bared for my eyes to see. I pictured her on top of me, her full breasts hanging free before me and her cold thighs straddling my hips. I thought of how her ass would feel in my hands, how her skin would feel pressed against mine. In my momentary fantasy, I saw her young and pretty face, pale and blank above me. I saw her eyes, those pearly orbs boring down into me, seeing me but not seeing me.
"Well, Mr. Duncan, it is growing late," Charles said. "I'm afraid I haven't even shown you your room. Ms. Vasquez should be preparing our supper. It shouldn't be long now."
I snapped out of my trance. I looked to where Sylvie stood motionless, staring lifeless but intent at an old poster for Tibbord's Traveling Troupe of Terror. She seemed to have forgotten we were there.
"B-but what about Sylvie?" I protested. "You can't just leave her... out... can you?"
"Oh she'll be alright," he assured me. "She isn't dangerous, and she rather likes it down here. You have nothing to fear, Mr. Duncan."
I glanced back at Sylvie. Whereas a second ago she stared at the poster, she had now turned and was glaring straight at me. My heart skipped a beat and my blood ran cold. I quickly headed after Charles. I kept glancing back to assure myself that Sylvie wasn't following us. I wished that I hadn't. Her head turned to watch me, her eyes tracking me my entire way up the stairs of the basement. When I reached the door at the top behind Charles, I breathed a sigh of relief, glad to be away from the thing in the basement.
That night, I sat in a large elaborately designed chair in the guest bedroom, where I was to sleep, my laptop open before me on my thigh. After sharing a short supper with Charles, we had sat and talked more about his sideshow and his travels. I was beginning to develope some original story ideas, one revolving around the skin I had seen in the basement. Charles had made suggestions here and there, and wasn't bad at telling a good story himself. We traded memories of frightening instances from childhood, and laughed about how silly it all seemed now.