In Cameron County, Texas, about thirty miles from the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, there is a city called Harlingen, and if you take the highway west out of that city through Edinburg and get off at a certain exit, you will find yourself wandering down the wide, rambling dirt roads that run like long fingers over the rolling flats of the Southwest. And if, after a time, you turn onto one of those dusty byways and travel a very peculiar and winding course, you will come upon the small town of Narvais, sequestered in silence and forgotten among the desolate vastness of the Rio Grande Valley. Change comes slowly to this place, and the few traces of modernity it boasts—the Shell station on the corner with its air-conditioned interior, the electronics boutique downtown that sells color televisions, the tangled telephone wires laced over the streets in thick, black coils—are muted beneath the wilderness that presses in on the town from all sides. The sun bakes the air, and the people here are mastered by it; they rise with it, live their waking lives under its journey across the open sky, and at night, when it dips below the horizon, they huddle in the safety of their darkened homes and sleep while mountain lions stalk deer through the whispering hills by the light of the Milky Way.

To the north of town, isolated from any other settlement by a distance of four miles, stands an old, two-story ranch house. It is built entirely from wood, except for the stone cellar, and the boards show clearly the woeful marks of weariness that time has etched into them. The house has been allowed to fall into a state of disrepair—weeds strangle one another on the lawn, the windows are caked in a thin layer of grime, the porch tilts and sags unevenly in spots, and the whole structure groans arthritically in the high wind as if it might collapse at any moment under the burden of its years. The decrepitude extends to the surrounding land, bleak acres of broken fences and parched soil where cattle have not grazed for many seasons. All in all, the property is an eyesore, and it gives a general impression to anyone viewing it from the road of having been long abandoned.

Despite appearances, however, the house was only recently forsaken—it was occupied by the original owner, a man named Richard B--- who passed away six months ago at the age of eighty-seven. Mr. B--- lived alone, and had no friends or close relations to speak of. His wife had suffered from a debilitating heart condition and died young, and their only daughter, who had moved away to Los Angeles and married a wealthy financial advisor, ultimately contracted and succumbed to the same fatal disorder.

Mr. B--- was mentioned to me for the first time in twenty years by his lawyer, a man named Roger K--- who called me at my apartment on a Friday afternoon to express his condolences regarding the old man's death, as well as to inform me of my inheritance. Mr. B--- was my grandfather, and I, his only living descendant, suddenly found myself heir to all the worldly belongings of a man I had never met. Initially, I was taken aback by the news, but the attorney spoke very matter-of-factly, answering my questions with professional patience, and my confusion quickly subsided. I found him to be an agreeable fellow, if a bit stoical, and after we had spoken for five or ten minutes, he asked if he could send me the necessary paperwork. I, after a short pause, told him that it would not be necessary, for I would be delighted to make the trip to Texas in order to discuss the matter in person. Though at first my enthusiasm surprised him, Mr. K--- was receptive to the idea of meeting face-to-face, and I made an appointment to see him in his Harlingen office the following Thursday. As I hung up the phone and set about making my travel arrangements, I was keenly possessed by the idea that a sort of long-awaited opportunity had arrived, and I was not about to let it slip away.

My flight was serene and free of hassle; I spent the hours reading and letting my mind wander freely over thoughts of my grandfather and of the refreshing change of scenery promised by this unexpected trip. My eagerness might seem strange, but to be honest, I have been desperately looking for an excuse to get out of the city. Life in L.A. has not been kind to me lately. Finding work as an actor has become increasingly difficult, and I am forced to rely more and more on the money left to me by my father. Add to that my current romantic troubles, and my desire for an extended vacation in a far-off place can hardly be called unreasonable.

When we touched down at Valley International, it was about two-thirty in the afternoon. Mr. K--- had kindly agreed to meet me at the airport, and I found him waiting in the terminal. He was a thin, well-dressed man who, despite being in his late thirties, had a stern look of worry about his features that made him appear much older. His voice was accented by that rustic twang common to Texans, and he studiously adjusted his glasses as we shook hands and briefly exchanged greetings. He said that he was prepared to guide me to his office, and once I had acquired a rental car, I followed him out of the airport and across town. We found parking on the street, and he led me into a small, dreary-looking building.

The paperwork had been prepared in advance, and it took about twenty minutes to complete. As Mr. K--- walked me through the forms, indicating where I should sign and initial, we spoke a bit about the house and its late inhabitant. He had apparently known my grandfather about as well as anyone else, having met with him only infrequently over the years solely for the purpose of discussing and managing his legal affairs. Mr. K--- described him as a dour old fellow who rarely ever said a word, choosing to converse primarily by way of nodding and smiling. When he did speak, his voice was so hushed and breathy that his listener was compelled to lean forward in order to better hear him, and his tone was such that he always seemed to be saying things of the gravest importance. Raising an eyebrow at what I felt was an oddly worded description, I remarked to Mr. K--- that his view of my grandfather did not appear to be entirely favorable and asked if he would tell me more about it. This he politely denied, asking me to forget his comments and making a concerted effort to redirect our conversation to the paperwork, but I observed in his anxious face a suggestion of some inappropriate thought or emotion—something approaching gratitude, perhaps even relief. By this, I was intrigued more than offended, and I wondered what sort of man my grandfather must have been to elicit such a reaction, but seeing how uncomfortable Mr. K--- had become, I did not press him further.

By the time we finished up with the forms, it was quarter after three. As a further gesture of hospitality, Mr. K--- offered to see me out to the house himself. The back roads of Cameron County could be disorienting, he said, such that even the locals get lost occasionally, and he could not in good conscience allow a West Coast city-dweller to brave them alone. I took his playful jab as a veiled apology for his loose words about my grandfather, and though he had really said nothing that needed forgiving, I gladly accepted his kind offer.

And thank God I did, too. I was just fine on the highway, but I can say without a doubt that I will never voluntarily drive through rural Texas again. Were it not for Mr. K---, I might have run out of gas before I found my way out of that labyrinth. Fortunately, the attorney knew the roads almost as well as he knew property law, and after half an hour or so of driving, he led me into the town of Narvais. Pedestrians, astonished that someone had actually come to visit their sleepy hamlet, stopped and stared at us as we trundled down Main Street. “What in the world could have possibly brought you here?” they seemed to ask. I smiled and waved to them as I passed, but they only continued to stare as I moved on, following Mr. K--- as he headed north out of town.

Although I had been warned of the sorry state of the house prior to signing the papers, I was disheartened to find that the lawyer had not been exaggerating—it really was an ugly sight. I followed him up the steps onto the sagging porch, staring out over the barren fields—my barren fields, I suppose—and dreading the disappointment to be found inside while Mr. K--- fiddled with the key.

We were both pleasantly surprised, however, for the outside of the house was not at all an accurate indication of what lay within its walls—the house was, in fact, quite neat and orderly. The curtains were drawn back, and the late afternoon light shone in on a series of spacious rooms, all well-furnished and in good condition. The signs of decay plaguing the facade of the building were nowhere to be found, except for a barely noticeable film of dust that had settled over everything. It was much more habitable than had been advertised, and Mr. K--- was at a loss to explain it. The interior of the house, he insisted, had been as much in need of repair as had the exterior when he had last been here, and as a cleaning crew had not yet been called in, he could only assume that my grandfather had tidied the place up himself in the days before his death.

At that time, it was more of an oddity than anything else. Mr. K--- promised to double-check his records to see if he had called the cleaners and simply forgotten about it, and that was good enough for me. He handed me the key, I thanked him for his time, and we parted with the understanding that we would soon be in touch. I watched his taillights fade over the hill as he drove back towards town, and, at last, I was alone in the house.

I set about unpacking and organizing my things. I settled into the large bedroom on the second floor, finding it as comfortably furnished as the rest of the house. The electricity and water had been turned on prior to my arrival, and after another quick inspection of these utilities, I felt satisfied that everything was in working order.

Once my initial excitement had worn off, I realized I had not eaten since before boarding my flight in Los Angeles. There was, of course, no food in the house, and deciding to put off the task of tracking down a local grocery store, I found a phone book in one of the kitchen drawers and called up a pizza parlor in Harlingen. Upon hearing my address, the young man on the other end of the line informed me that they would charge extra to deliver all the way out to Narvais. Smiling, I told him that would be fine, and once my order was placed, I hung up the phone and plopped down on the living room sofa with a book, quite content with my newfound isolation from the rest of the world.

I had been reading awhile when I became aware of something in the corner of my vision. Looking up, I saw a small, wooden picture frame sitting atop the mantle, the glass reflecting the glare of the lamp at just the angle to bother me. I got up to adjust it, and as I did, my attention was drawn to the photograph it contained. It depicted a man in his early thirties and a little girl no older than six, both dressed in the formal wear of fifty years ago. The little girl I immediately recognized from pictures I had seen in my youth—she was my mother, and I knew the man standing behind her was my grandfather. I say that I knew this because, although I had never before seen the man, I could tell from his facial features—the strong jawline, the wry half-smile, the narrowed eyes that suggested knowledge of some amusing secret—that he was the sort of person who, even at the age of eighty-seven, would have left such an intimidating impression upon a nervous individual like Mr. K---. My grandmother was absent from the photo; the left portion of it had, by some unfortunate accident, been damaged and torn away, leaving only the back of the frame to fill the space she might have occupied beside her husband and daughter. I was disappointed by this, as I had never seen her in any of the pictures my mother had shown me, and it would have been nice to finally see a complete family portrait.

I was startled by the sudden sound of the doorbell, and I quickly pulled myself together and answered it, wondering how long I had been standing there before that photograph, lost in my wistful thoughts. I paid the delivery boy, who was less than pleased about having driven so far from the city, tipped him generously, and went back inside, setting the pizza box down on the kitchen table. My hands were shaking for some reason, and my pulse beat rapidly in my ears. I worried that perhaps I was getting sick.

Unexpectedly, the doorbell rang again, and I moved to answer it, wondering what else the delivery boy could possibly need, but as I passed through the living room on my way to the front door, I paused. Was it the doorbell I had heard? Hesitantly, I crossed the foyer and opened the door, but the delivery boy had left several minutes ago, and he was nowhere to be seen.

Confused, I stood on the porch, staring out over the empty fields, arms folded in thought. I was certain I had heard the doorbell., I had heard something, something that sounded remarkably like the doorbell but was somehow different—not just one tone, but a chaotic smattering of pitches, hollow and clear, but also subdued, muffled, as if echoing from beneath...beneath...

A thought struck me, and I raced down the porch steps and around the side of the house. Here, a pair of rusted storm doors marked the only entrance into the house's cellar, and as I stood over them in the encroaching twilight, I fancied I heard again the same ringing sound swelling up from somewhere below. Curiosity overcame me, and heaving open the doors, I carefully descended the concrete stairs.

The basement air was damp and musty, and the darkness was absolute. I felt along the walls for a light switch, but I did not find one immediately, and as I walked around the edge of the room, my hand brushed over something smooth and cold. I recoiled in fright, knocking the thing against the wall in my haste, and nearly tumbled to the floor as the stone walls of the cellar reverberated with a brilliant, singing wave of sound, the most otherworldly resonance I have ever heard, as if a dozen bells of whirling light in the belfry of a starry church had been struck just a few feet from where I stood.

I waited, dazed and breathless, for what felt like hours as the beautiful discord gradually melted away into silence, and when at last all was quiet, I retreated back up the stairs, around the porch, and into the house. From my suitcase, I retrieved a flashlight, and after making sure it was working, I returned to the cellar, holding it out in front of me like a sword and stabbing it into the shadows of the room.

The light revealed that the basement was mostly empty—the only furniture to speak of was a heavy, oak desk that stood just inside and to the right of the stairway entrance. Scattered over the desk was an assortment of strange-looking instruments and vials, as well as a few sheets of yellowing paper, and pinned to the wall above it was a plain-looking, faintly glimmering bell of pewter. This was the object I had unwittingly touched in the darkness, and it must also have been the source of the ringing, although I very much doubted that so small and solitary a chime could produce such a maddening volume and quality of sound.

Passing my light over the room once more, I suddenly realized why it had been kept so free of clutter. With what must have been a grotesque and unwholesome artistic vision in mind, someone had taken to the basement floor with a stick of chalk and covered it wall-to-wall with strange drawings and characters. Most of them were nonsensical arrangements of lines and geometric figures, but I spied Greek letters and whole phrases written in Latin, as well as bits of language I could not hope to identify. The chalk renderings seemed to constitute a pattern of sorts—yes, even at this distance, it was clear that they converged upon a center, a point of focus in the middle of the room where a translucent haze of dust was hovering, hugging the ground and swaying playfully in the beam of my flashlight.

Something in those symbols chilled me to the bone, and I looked away, glancing instead at the wrinkled sheets of paper on the desk. The penmanship was neat and precise, and as I scanned the first few lines, I snatched up the pages, a fresh surge of terror and exhilaration rushing through my body—it was a letter, addressed to me. It read as follows:

James, my boy,

We've never met, and we probably never will, and that's a real shame. You can't imagine how happy I was when I heard you'd been born. Grandma and I loved your mother dearly, but the blood only sticks once in a generation, and luck just wasn't on our side. You, though, you'll do much better.

You can blame your idiot father for not allowing me to see you. I expect he left you to fend for yourself a while back now; he would have run off sooner if I hadn't made it all very clear to him. When I think of all the time he cost us, I get a powerful urge to break my promise to him. But the Powers aren't meant to be used so loosely, and anyway he's served his purpose well enough. You're much better off without him, I'm sure you know.

I'll be gone soon, James, but I won't leave you alone in this world. You were bound for greatness the moment your sweet mother birthed you, and by God, you're going to have what you deserve. I've made the house ready for the both of you. The lines are set, the runes are cast, and the reagents—the meat, the milk, the red and green, the shell, all of it—I've taken care of everything. All you need to do is ring the bell. It'll call to you, you see. Just let it ring once, James, like I did all those years ago, and dance in the sheets of your wedding night, for you are my daughter's son, and your blood is m—

I could read no further, for my eyes had wandered up from the page, and the letter had slipped from my trembling hands. Unsteadily, I aimed the flashlight ahead and saw that the translucent haze had grown—no, it was growing. Clouds of thick, billowing dust were swirling into the center of the room as if drawn there by an unseen breeze, and in their depths—was I imagining it?—something was beginning to take form, something...

All at once, my senses were assailed by an overwhelming odor that issued forth from the gathering fog on a sudden blast of air. As I fell back, shielding my watering eyes from the winds, the pewter bell sang out another rousing chorus, louder this time and more unpleasant to the ear. The flashlight clattered to the floor and rolled out of my reach, and as I scrambled to reclaim it, guarding my nose against the oily stench, I beheld it—that hulking, oblong shape that scrunched forward along the ground like an enormous, bloated inchworm, spilling grease and other unspeakable things from either end. With a sickening, wet slap, it hoisted itself clumsily into a standing position and made a noise from deep within the warmth of its folds, a noise that pressed against the laws of nature and threatened to drive me insane, a soft, tittering noise of enamored recognition as it noticed me.

The rest is a merciful blur. I remember fleeing up the stairs, slamming the storm doors down behind me and barring them shut. I remember screaming myself hoarse and clawing at my skin in a fit of blind hysteria. I remember frantically ransacking the house, finding the matches, pouring out the gasoline.

And now, it is clear to me, so painfully, terribly clear. Now, I know that the photograph in the living room had not been ruined accidentally. Now, I know that my mother did not perish from a heart condition, that the foetid odor of that basement creature was the same stale, cheesy smell that had hung like death over her hospital bed the last time I ever saw her. Now, I throw myself upon the burning timbers of this wretched house and allow the hungry flames to devour the foul lineage of this place—because, as grandfather said, I am his daughter's son.

-James B---