This story was originally published way back in December 2007 in the wonderful online magazine, NITEBLADE. It was also reprinted in September 2008 in the anthology LOST INNOCENCE, which I believe is still available for anyone wishing to check out the original version of this story.
The version published here is a heavily edited and rewritten version of THE RUSALKA – it tells the same basic tale, except I’ve tidied up the prose and reworked a couple of sections in order to make it an extra special read for you.
I hope you enjoy it.
The Rusalka by Ian R. Faulkner
“Did you really think I’d fall for that old chestnut, Mila?” Stewart Crow said, his jaws clenched in disgust as he advanced on Mila Sokolova, herding her deeper into the overgrown garden at the rear of the property with his physicality and contempt. “Did you really think I would be so gullible?”
“Stewart, please.” Mila backed away in fright. She stumbled, the long grass wrapping around her feet and threatening to trip her, as tears blinded her. “I thought you would be happy.”
“Happy?” Stewart said, incredulous at Mila’s naivety. “Why would I be happy about you trying to trap me?”
“I… I trap you? I would never….”
“Oh, give me a break,” Stewart said, snapping at Mila and cutting her off. “You must think I’m fucking stupid. Whatever possessed you to imagine I’d ever want a baby with you?”
“You say you love me,” she said, her voice thick with emotion. “You –”
“Oh, please,” he said, stretching the word. “As if.” He stopped and shook his head. “Grow up, Mila.”
“You told me –”
“And you believed me?” Stewart laughed. “Jesus, Mila. I just wanted in your pants. I thought you knew that?”
“But I have baby,” Mila said.
“That’s your problem,” he said, as he moved once more towards Mila. “It’s nothing to do with me.”
He grabbed at her, gripped her arms, his fingers digging into her flesh.
“I never loved you, Mila,” he said and his words inflicted far more pain upon Mila’s soul than his hands ever could. “You’re nothing to me.”
“Why you say these things?”
”Jesus, Mila,” he said in disgust. He shook his head and thrust her away from him. “Don’t you get it? You make me sick. I just want you gone.”
Mila stumbled backwards.
They had reached the furthest point of the garden now and, at Mila’s back, Stewart caught sight of the unkempt and long forgotten pond. It was mostly hidden by the plot’s tall grass, rampant weeds and overgrown rose bushes, but a brief flicker of sunlight stabbed at his eyes and beckoned him. He squinted and sneered and closed in on Mila before she managed to fully regain her balance.
“Stupid bitch,” he said and shoved Mila in the chest. “Just fuck off.”
The ground beneath Mila’s feet vanished and, with his name on her lips, she staggered and fell backwards into the cold, stagnant water. It enveloped her; stole her breath, and, as she sank beneath the surface, her head struck the rocks at edge.
The blow stunned Mila, but left her conscious. She could see Stewart through the gelid water as he leant out over the pond and watched her. He was a dark shadow, silhouetted by the sun and distorted by the sediment, his hands rippling her liquid sky before solidifying and reaching for her.
She cried out, called for help, and her breath burst free of her locked lungs. Bubbles streamed past her face and she began to panic and thrash. The pain in her head was disorientating. Why was Stewart not lifting her up? Her lungs burned. She needed air, but there was a weight now on her chest and her arms and legs were mired in the waterweeds.
The water began to darken around Mila and she realized she was going to drown. She could feel Stewart’s hands upon her, they were holding her down, and with this realisation came a rush of hate.
“Did you get the keys?” Rebecca Doyle asked, as Alex Roberts climbed out of his car and walked towards her. She had been scarcely able to contain her excitement all day and now, as Alex tossed the house keys into the air and caught them, Becky felt it escape from her with a whoop of joy. She jumped up and clapped her hands: her smile brighter than the sun.
Alex grinned and wrapped Becky in an embrace, spinning her around and kissing her. “It’s all ours,” he said putting her down. “A house of our own.”
“It’s not just our house,” Becky said, her face beaming. “It’s our home.”
Inside, as they wandered hand in hand around the huge property, Becky was once again amazed how they had managed to snap up such a fantastic place.
“I love it,” she said, snuggling into Alex’s arms, as they both looked out of the upstairs bedroom window at their jungle of a garden. “And I love you.”
Alex kissed her. “Likewise.”
By the time they had unloaded the van and carried their few possessions into the house it was dark. Alex had gone off to pick up a takeaway, whilst Becky made up the bed, and the house was deathly quiet. For the first time Becky felt a little nervous to be on her own. She glanced up from her task and jumped in fright as she caught sight of her reflection in the curtainless windows: the stark illumination cast by the bare-bulb had turned the glass into a black-backed mirror.
“Idiot,” she said, heart racing. She was amused, annoyed and embarrassed all at the same time.
She shook her head.
On the landing, still a little unnerved by the quiet and unfamiliar house, Becky suddenly felt a presence behind her. She whirled around, heart pounding, but found the bedroom and landing deserted. She sniffed in dismissal and then frowned. There was a lingering, alluring scent of perfume in the air.
She sniffed again. It was an unusual, distinct scent, musky and warm, and very female: what the French would call a cassolette, which made no sense as, as far as she knew, their vendor had been male and single.
By the time Alex arrived home with a bag full of Indian takeout, Becky had managed to put her unease behind her, convinced, after searching the house top to bottom, it was just her imagination playing tricks.
It was only as she undressed for bed that she was reminded of her earlier apprehension.
“Hey,” Alex said: his voice a shout. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Becky heard the backdoor bang and footsteps.
“Alex?” she called out, running to the top of the stairs. “Alex, what is it?”
Downstairs, she found the door open wide and no sign of Alex. She peered out into the darkness, her hand gripping wooden frame, and yelled his name.
“I’m here,” he said, stepping out of the darkness to wrap his arm around her. “It’s okay. She’s gone.”
He locked the door.
“You scared the shit out of me,” Becky said; then, “Who’s gone?”
“We had an intruder,” Alex said.
Becky recoiled; inhaled in shock and noticed the faintest hint of musk lingering in the air.
“There was some woman in the house.”
The next morning, after the police had been and gone, Alex changed the locks on the front and back doors. “All done,” he said, straightening up and accepting a cup of coffee from Becky. “That should keep any weirdo neighbours out.”
“You think she was a neighbour?” Becky asked, leaning back against the kitchen unit, sipping her tea. “You didn’t say anything about that to the police.”
“I know, but…” his voice trailed away.
Frowning, Alex shook his head. “It was just a feeling,” he said. “Nothing concrete. I just had the impression she knew the house.”
The rest of the day passed without incident. Becky put up some temporary curtains in the bedroom, whilst Alex checked the boiler and radiators.
“We’ve certainly got our work cut out for us,” he said that evening, as they ate yet another takeaway. He was looking over the list of repairs and renovations they’d compiled.
“Tell me about it,” Becky said, taking a swig of lager from the bottle, “but it’ll all be worth it when we’ve finished.”
“I hope so,” Alex said, yawning. “God, I’m bushed. Let’s leave this and head up to bed.”
“You go on up,” Becky said, picking up the plates. “I’ll tidy up while you’re in the shower.”
She dumped the plates in the sink and began to wash up. From overhead she heard the drumming of water as Alex turned on the shower.
Finishing the last of her beer, she dumped the bottle in the trash, checked the doors and headed up. The beer had been her third of the night and, as she climbed the stairs, she felt a little foggy from the alcohol.
On the landing, she paused and grinned.
Was that Alex?
She crossed to the bathroom door and pressed her ear to the wood. She could have sworn she had heard voices.
“You okay in there?” she called, knocking on the door. “Alex?”
The water cut off and, for no obviously explicable reason, the sudden quiet felt ominous to Becky.
“What?” he said, his tone brusque.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. Go to bed. I’ll be out in a bit.”
Becky frowned: momentarily piqued at Alex’s snappy response; then she simply widened her eyes and left him to it. She would grab a shower in the morning – let Mr. Grumpy pants put up with her stinking of Chinese food and beer.
She brushed her teeth in the en-suite, undressed and was asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.
When she awoke, Alex was in bed next and the blue glow from her bedside clock told her it was just before dawn. At first she couldn’t place what had disturbed her; then she realised it was Alex. He sounded suffocative, his breathing too loud and too fast, as if he was fighting for each breath.
Worried, Becky sat up and clicked on her bedside lamp, turning towards Alex as she did so, only to find him fast asleep and sporting an erection.
Becky grinned, the sudden tension draining away.
“That better be for me,” she said in a whisper, mock serious, as she switched off the light and snuggled down, the faint smell of perfume unnoticed.
Sunday morning dawned bright and cheerful. Becky stretched languidly out across the bed and arched her back: luxuriating in the happiness of her new life. She had overslept. It was already late morning and from downstairs came the smell of bacon frying.
“Me thinks someone has a guilty conscience,” she said, throwing back the quilt and swinging out her legs. Alex never cooked breakfast. He was a serious cereal addict. She glanced over at the hamper by the door and saw his shorts wadded up on the top of yesterday’s dirty clothes.
She pulled on her robe and headed down.
“Did you have a little accident last night?” she teased as she sat down at the breakfast counter and bit into a strip of bacon.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
The grin dropped from Becky’s face.
“Forget it,” she said, confused and a little hurt by Alex’s unexpected reaction, but not wanting to make a big deal out of it. “It was just a joke.”
“Fine,” he said, turning away to pour more coffee, face flushed. He was clearly flustered and embarrassed by his nocturnal emission and avoided making eye contact as he finished his breakfast.
By lunchtime Becky was beginning to worry. Alex had studiously avoided her all morning by working in the garden. The last time she had seen him he had been wandering towards the shed at the rear of the property.
She brushed aside the overhanging branches of a willow and skirted the edge of an immense patch of nettles. The garden was an overgrown nightmare. It would take months to even begin taming it. Becky thought they might even have a pond hidden somewhere back here. She could smell it. Maybe they could have a wildlife garden.
The shed, as she came upon it, reminded Becky of a weathered and age-lined face. The hessian covered windows, which bracketed the doorway, were like the blind and cataract covered eyes of a corpse, and the unexpected image made her hesitate.
She shivered, unnerved and suddenly afraid.
The interior of the shed was obscured from immediate view by the rotten coverings, although, given the amount of cobwebs, dead flies and dirt on the glass, Becky guessed, even without them, she would have struggled to penetrate the gloom.
“Alex?” She stepped forward.
From inside the shed she heard whispering.
“So beautiful, you’re so beautiful.”
Becky stood stock-still: her mind reeling.
She reached out a tentative hand and eased open the door, her eyes widening in shock as she saw what Alex was doing. He had his back to the door and his trousers around his ankles. His shoulders were hunched, his hand working hard, his breathing rhythmic and heavy. He grunted, the muscles and tendons in his neck standing out, his movements becoming faster, uncoordinated, as his climax approached.
“Oh, Jesus fuck,” he said, his body slamming forward, convulsing in release, as Becky ran for the house with her tears blinding her.
The atmosphere in the house that evening was strained. Becky tried to pretend nothing had happened. That didn’t mean anything. She wanted to believe it was nothing more than an aberration brought on by the stress of the move, but, as she replayed the scene over and over in her mind, it had begun to feel more and more like betrayal. She was convinced now that she had seen the shape of a woman within the shadows at the rear of the shed, that the air had been redolent with musk.
Now, as she lay rigid beside Alex, her thoughts ceaseless, she found she was unable to hold her tongue.
“Alex,” she said. “What’s going on?”
“Huh?” Alex said: his voice thick with sleep.
“I said, what’s going on?”
“Don’t play dumb. You’ve been like a bear with a sore head all day. Is it to do with that woman last night?”
“Last night?” He switched on his bedside lamp. “No, Beck. No. I don’t –” He looked genuine in his confusion.
“So what is it?”
“Honestly, I don’t know. I didn’t sleep too well last night and,” he shrugged. “Maybe it’s stress?”
“Was that what I saw in the shed: stress relief?”
“The shed?” he asked, his confusion deepening. “What are you on about?”
Becky sighed. “Forget it,” she said, she just didn’t have the energy to fight.
Alex sat up.
“Look, Beck, if I’ve pissed you off, I’m really sorry. I don’t want things to be like this. I want us to be happy in our new home.”
“Me too,” she said, relenting.
Alex reached over and kissed her on the forehead. “Everything will be better in the morning,” he said. “I promise.”
Heavy breathing once more awoke Becky. She sat up and clicked on the light. Alex was bathed in sweat. His respiration was strained, wheezy and in distress. It sounded as if he was having an asthma attack, although she knew there was no history of the disease in his family.
She touched his arm. He was burning up. She sat up and gripped his shoulders.
“Alex, wake up,” she said, shaking him. “Wake up.”
Alex surfaced like a swimmer gasping for air. He sat up and swung his legs out of bed, dropped his head into his hands, and sobbed.
Becky shuffled over and sat next to him, her arm around his shoulders. “Hey,” she said, rubbing his back. “Come on, Alex, it’s just a dream.”
“I couldn’t breathe,” he said, shuddering. “It felt like someone was sitting on my chest; pressing down, sucking the air from my lungs, and all the while I was….”
“What?” Becky asked, as Alex’s voice trailed away.
“Aroused,” he said and looked up at her, his face filled with shame. “I could feel a woman moving on me. I could smell her perfume; feel her heat. She kept whispering to me, telling me how much she loved me.”
Becky didn’t know what to say.
“I feel like I’m losing my mind, Beck.”
Becky opened her mouth, but still no words came.
Alex looked away. “Ever since the break in, all I can think about is….” He shook his head, his distress clear. “I’m sorry, Beck,” he said, meeting her eyes. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“Who is she?” Becky asked, her voice a whisper.
“I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.”
The morning light showed her the toll the night had taken on Alex. He looked drained, his face pale and drawn, and his gaze had a haunted quality Becky had never seen before.
“Why don’t you have stay in bed?” she said, worried by the bags beneath his eyes, which looked bruised, and the grey sheen to his skin. “Just grab an extra half hour?”
“I’ll be fine,” he said.
He nodded and said again, “I’ll be fine.”
At midday, Becky grabbed a couple of beers from the fridge, straightening the kinks from her spine as she did so, and went in search of Alex. She crossed the hall and headed up the stairs. The last she seen him, Alex had been working in the dressing room erecting wardrobes.
The bottles clinked together as she reached the landing and she realised how quiet the house had become: she also smelt again the same exotic scent as before, only this time the perfume brought more than a sense of apprehension.
Heart pounding, Becky slammed into the dressing room and stopped dead, shocked immobile by what she saw.
Alex was slumped in the corner, his eyes rolled back in his head, his clothes strewn about him, as a spectral shape bobbed in his lap.
“Oh my God,” Becky said, her mind unable to comprehend what was happening before her eyes.
With a final convulsive spasm, Alex ejaculated and the lissom, unearthly woman stood and turned to face Becky, head tilted on one side, as if puzzled by Becky’s presence in the house. She frowned and Becky saw a fleeting, unbearable sadness cross the woman’s face before she vanished into thin air.
Becky’s legs buckled beneath her and she found herself seated on the bare floorboards with no knowledge of her fall.
Across from her, Alex was unmoving and limp, his face slack. He appeared unconscious and, as Becky felt tears prickle and fill her eyes, she realised he had lost weight over the last few days. He looked gaunt, exhausted and frail: he looked old.
She wiped her eyes, clearing her distorted vision, and suddenly realised something else: she had seen the woman before.
“I know who she is,” Becky said.
Alex was propped up in bed. She had carried him through from the dressing room and covered him with the quilt.
“Beck, I’m so–”
“Don’t Alex.” She wiped her face, which was wet again from tears she didn’t remember shedding. “I don’t want apologies; I just want to know what’s going on.”
“I don’t know. I wish I did.”
“I recognised her from when we viewed the house. The guy we bought it from, Crow, he had a picture of her on the wall. I remember looking at it.”
“Who is she?” Alex asked in a small, scared voice.
“That’s what I’m going to find out.”
Downstairs, Becky called up Stewart Crow’s contact number from her mobile.
Crow answered on the third ring.
“Mr. Crow? This is Rebecca Doyle, I hope you don’t mind me calling, but I need to ask you a question.”
“It’s no trouble at all, Rebecca. I’m glad you called. Hope you’re settling in okay.”
“Well, that’s kind of it,” Becky said, walking around the living room as she spoke. “We seem to have a bit of a problem.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Is it to do with the house?”
“Not exactly,” Becky paused; started again. “This is going to sound a little strange, but do you remember me asking you about the woman in the photograph on your wall? I think you said she was an old girlfriend?”
Crow was silent.
“What about her?” All the warmth and welcome was gone from his voice.
“Erm, sorry, I’m….” Derailed by the man’s change in tone, it took Becky a beat to shake off her shock. “It’s, well, it’s a little –”
“What. About. Her?” Crow said, cutting her off, voice like ice.
“She broke into the house.”
“Impossible,” Crow said. “Who put you up to this?”
“What!? No one.”
“I suggest you tell me the truth, Miss Doyle, or you may live to regret it.”
“I beg your pardon,” she said.
“You heard me.”
“I’m not sure I did. I thought you said,” but Crow had already hung up.
“What the hell?” Becky said. She looked at her mobile, stunned by what had just happened. She had a good mind to ring Crow straight back and give him a piece of her mind.
She was still fuming fifty minutes later when the doorbell rang.
“Hold on a sec,” she called out, wiping her hands on a dish towel. She had just finished washing up after a late lunch, although Alex had barely touched his food.
She opened the door and was shocked to find Crow on her doorstep.
“What do you know about Mila Sokolova?” he said without preamble.
“I’m sorry,” Becky said, taking an involuntary step back. “Who?”
“Don’t play games with me, bitch. I’m not fucking around here.”
The venom in his voice scared her. “I think you better go,” she said, hiding her fear by using her anger at the man’s attitude and audacity. She began to close door.
“I don’t think so,” Crow said. He blocked the door, slamming it back into Becky, as he barged inside.
“You’re all the fucking same,” he said, pushing the door to. “Mila thought she could trick me. Trap me. Get my money. She thought a baby would do it. Thought that’d be all it took to sink her claws into me. Well, I sure fixed her.”
Becky cowered back from Crow. The man looked crazed.
“Please,” she said. “You need to go.”
“I fixed her and I can fix you.”
“What?” Becky asked, backing up. “What do you –”
“What do you think I mean?” Crow said, grinning and advancing on her.
“Oh my God,” Becky said in sudden realisation, her hand going to her mouth. “You killed her, didn’t you?”
Crow smiled and Becky ran. She wanted a weapon, a knife from the kitchen drawer, anything to defend herself with, but Crow was hot on her heels and she didn’t dare stop. She would have
shouted for Alex, but in his present state she didn’t want to put him in harm’s way or alert Crow to his presence. So she ran.
The garden clutched at her clothes, racked her arms and legs with its thorny fingers, drawing blood as it snagged her flesh. It snaked around her ankles and tried to trip her with its tangles, pulled at her hair and lashed its limbs at her eyes. It was a living, hateful thing of thorns and brambles, nettles and weeds.
She staggered, risked a glance back, and almost fell as Crow lunged at her.
“Bitch,” he snarled.
Becky swerved; felt the brush of his fingertips.
Her breath burned in her lungs.
Too close: he was too close.
Ahead, through a feral snarl of rosebush canes, all dead-wood and thorns, prickle-edged leaves and stunted pink buds, she saw the shimmer of water and, beyond, the shed.
She changed direction, just as a shove sent her sprawling.
Crow grabbed her t-shirt and belt and dragged her, screaming, towards the pool.
“I did Mila here,” he said, grinning, as he dropped Becky on her back, her head and shoulder overhanging the edge of the pond.
He dropped down, straddling her and pinning her arms with his thighs. “I held her under,” he said, cupping her jaw with his hand and squeezing, “watched the bitch drown.”
Becky felt his spittle fleck her face.
He pushed: forced her head down towards the algae and weed-choked water.
“No!” She struggled; strained; fought to hold her head up.
“Tell me,” Crow said.
Water flooded Becky’s ears. In moments her face would be under the surface and it would be all over.
“Tell me how you knew?” he said. “Tell me who told you. Tell me –”
The impact knocked Crow flying.
It was Alex. He had Crow on the ground. The two of them were wrestling back and forth through the weeds and long grass at the water’s edge. Alex landed a couple of good, solid blows, but it was obvious Crow was going to come out on top. In his weakened state, Alex was no match for the man, and Becky knew Crow would not hesitate to go for the kill.
“Stop it,” she said, crawling forward, her hair hanging in her eyes, as Crow threw Alex off and pinned him to the ground. “Leave him alone.”
Crow glanced her way and then, as something caught his attention, his eyes flicked past Becky’s shoulder and he froze. The grin that had begun to twist the corners of his mouth suddenly dropped from his lips and all colour drained from his face.
“No,” he said, eyes widening.
Becky turned, following his gaze, and she saw the woman who had been seducing Alex, the woman from Crow’s photograph, the one he called Mila, ascend from the water.
The willowy, dark haired woman crossed the pond and stepped onto the bank and walked towards Crow. Water poured from her. There was nothing spectral or ethereal about her now. She looked complete, tangible and fully in the world. She still radiated a sense of intolerable sadness, but now Becky also saw a rage smouldering like a green fire behind her eyes.
“I loved you.”
Crow scrambled to his feet.
“You’re dead,” he said backing away.
“Why Stewart? Why you do it? Why?”
“This is a trick,” he said, his eyes frantic. “It’s impossible. It’s a trick.”
“Why you hurt me? Why you hurt our baby?”
“No,” he said. “You’re not real.”
Without warning, Crow ran at the woman. He slammed into her; knocked her down and began to rain punches down upon her face and torso.
“You’re dead,” he said, voice a scream. “You’re dead. You’re fucking dead.”
“Stop it,” Becky said, yelling at Crow. “For God’s sake, stop it.”
Blind to everything but his rage, Crow ignored Becky’s plea. He sat astride Mila and wrapped his hands around her throat. He locked his thumb tight against her windpipe and squeezed.
Becky stood; her hand closing around a jagged triangle of rock.
“Stop it,” she said.
She ran to Crow, lifted the rock from pond’s edge above her head and brought it down with all her might.
Blood sprayed her face.
Crow slumped sideways, the body beneath him gone.
It was over.
Mila had vanished.
Becky crawled past Crow to Alex’s still form. She wrapped her arms around him, laid her head on his chest and cried. His heart beat against her ear, reassuring and steady.
“I love you,” Alex said, his voice little more than a whisper. “I love you so much.”
“I know,” Becky said, lifting her head. “I love you t–”
Alex was looking at the pond.