As I stood there in the hallway, halfway between the back door and the basement door, I began to realize how quiet it was. For a moment I thought I had heard something. Like feet shuffling. Or was it a scream? Suddenly a weird cold and itchy sensation came over my whole body. I blinked and took a deep breath, trying to shake it off. I already forgot what I was supposed to be doing there. Everything felt slightly unfamiliar as I peered around the kitchen. Maybe Hank is right, I thought to myself. I’ve been spending too much time alone with myself and my mind is finally coming apart at the seams.
I am an old woman now. My husband passed away ten years ago and ever since then I’ve been living all alone in this house that he built with his own hands for me. My only son Hank lives in the neighboring town about a two-hour drive from here. Once a week he would stop by to help me with some chores and to occasionally lecture me on my decision to keep the house which so often ends up sending him into fits of frustration. I may be old, but not as weak as a kitten. At least, not yet. Never in my life have I worried about dying or getting terribly sick. I may catch a cold once in a while and need to be bedridden for a few days. There are nights when my feet are killing me after spending hours meticulously tending to my garden. That’s when Hank and his wife Sarah would come over and stay with me until I get better. Such are the drawbacks to being old and living alone. You become more prone to diseases eating away at your body slowly while you become a burden to your family.
Hank has been trying to talk me into putting the house up for rent and moving in with him and his wife for a while. Sarah would not mind, he always tells me, and I believe him. His wife is the sweetest woman you’ll ever meet and she treats me like her own mother. Personality-wise, Hank is much more like his late father. Two peas in a pod. They’re both strong-willed, sensitive, persistent and extremely adept in the household skill department. But what we lack in the similarity of our personalities, we make up for in our looks. We both have thick black hair and pale skin. The same long straight nose and piercing blue eyes.
This morning as I was struggling in the kitchen to make breakfast, he called again to try to egg me on to sell the house and move in with them. And for probably the zillionth time I said no, and instead invited him and his wife over for dinner next week. My own father used to tell me, if I ever had to say no to someone when they’re asking for help, I would have to make sure to invite them over for dinner to compensate for their disappointment over the rejection. I have no idea if that’s just a small town courtesy or a diversion.
This time my son insisted. People have started to disappear again under mysterious circumstances according to the news. Some deranged person whose mind is no longer tethered to common sense is on a killing spree. I chuckled gleefully while trying to calm him down. Who would want to kidnap an old lady like myself? I am certainly of no great wealth. I started laughing openly now much to his annoyance.
“Mom, please. For once in your life, listen to me. I love you and want to take care of you. Wh—”
“Now don’t you get cute with me, sweet popsicle! Because I know you do!” I sighed. It was now my turn to get frustrated. He could be downright annoying to deal with at times with his constant nagging.
“Then get rid of the house. Move in with me. And please don’t call me that ever again. If Sarah…” His voice trailed off.
“I won’t call you sweet popsicle ever again.”
“No, I mean—”
“I won’t sell the house, Hank.”
“Mom, please.” He lowered his voice. “I’m not asking you to sell it. Just rent it out. Use the money to treat yourself or something. Don’t be thrifty. Go travel the world.”
“I love being thrifty!”
“Well, that’s your call. A sick weirdo is on the loose. They kidnap and hurt people. That’s what it said on the news,” he continued. “I can’t sleep at night thinking about you being in that old house all by yourself.”
“You sound like your father. Anyway I can’t talk for long. James will be here any minute. I’ve said yes to babysitting his son today. They have an important lunch with a client to go to in the city and will be staying there for a few days.”
“James and Stephanie Ham. My new neighbors. They moved here a few months ago. I told you about them last time we spoke.”
“Oh you mean your super noisy new neighbors. Have you slept at all since they arrived? Kind of makes you wish The Greenes hadn’t moved to Colorado now, doesn’t it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“They’re super loud, mom. I heard their kid screaming all night long like a demonic puppy last time we stayed over. I could not sleep at all. Sarah thought I was only dreaming.”
“You can hear them?”
“I’m not deaf. And by the way, mom, I’m deadly serious. This person is demented.”
I could hear him sighing in frustration on the other end.
“The crazy weirdo!” He yelled. “Mom. I am really worried about you. You blank out a lot these days.”
“That’s what happens when you get old.”
“Seriously. This nutso is highly dangerous. That’s what it said on the—”
“Why would anyone want to kidnap an old poor woman like myself, Hank? Surely you don’t think they’re going around raping old women who live alone just for kicks, do you?”
“What the fuck, mom!”
As I sat there in my damp and gloomy kitchen that morning, my thoughts involuntarily darted back to the past. Sixty six years ago. Just like Hank, I was an only child myself. My mother had bailed on us because she wasn’t ready to give up everything and become a mother. Years later when I was in my late twenties, she would show up at my door unannounced to try to mend a relationship that had never existed. I told her that she had the wrong address and proceeded to slam the door hard in her face. I would never hear from her again until twenty years later when her husband rang me up to inform me that she had died after a long battle with lung cancer. I decided not to attend her funeral. She had always been a stranger to me, anyway.
My father on the other hand was a very sweet, loving and caring man, though he could be really strict when he had to. On that particular morning, he told me over breakfast that he was going on a work trip to New York for a few days and wanted me to stay at an old acquaintance’s place until he returned. I tried to convince him that I was more than capable of taking care of myself but he wouldn’t budge. I would be spending the whole week with this old Mrs. Glough. There had been a string of mysterious disappearances and it shook my father to the core. Peter Corns, a kid from a rich family downtown, had gone missing weeks before. People linked it to the other mysterious disappearances which might or might not have been orchestrated by the same perpetrator. My father was deathly worried.
“But I don’t know this Mrs. Glough,” I sulked, pushing a bowl of my father’s delicious homemade chicken soup aside, licking my lips to savor the aftertaste.
“You’ve met her before. She was at Jodie Curry’s eighth birthday party.”
“That creepy old lady?” I stared at him in disbelief.
“Natalie …” He put his spoon down, looking tired and extremely frustrated. “She’s one of my mother’s old friends from the farm and she’s the only one willing to put you up for a few weeks. Please understand. This is a very important trip. If things go well, I may get promoted and you know how important this job is for us.” He tried to knock some sense into me.
“I know, but—”
“Remember what I told you last night?”
“Yeah, dad.” I rolled my eyes. “Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t go out after dark. Don’t go into the woods … blah blah blah …”
“Good. You’re a smart kid. I’ve taught you well.”
“Let me stay here, then. I can cook for myself and take care of the house. It’s easy as pie. Besides, you’ll only be gone for a few days. I can ask Sally to stay with me,” I pleaded.
He shook his head. “Out of the question. Sally isn’t your babysitter.”
“It’s not like I’ll be a lot safer staying with that old lady.”
“Yes, you will. Besides, Mrs. Glough’s house is only a few blocks away from your school. And you’re a perfectly healthy kid. You can walk.”
“What if she’s a witch or something worse?”
The words were no sooner out of my mouth before I realized how utterly childish they sounded.
“Good. Maybe she can teach you some magic tricks or spells so you can finally grow up and act your age,” he said sternly, got up from his seat and half-threw his empty plate into the sink.
“Dad, please …” I whined as a last resort to talk him into letting me stay home all by myself. He held up both hands dismissively, not wanting to listen to my pleading anymore, and walked out of the kitchen. I hung my head between tensed shoulders, defeated.
The following morning, I got out of my father’s car begrudgingly when we pulled over in front of Mrs. Glough’s house which was situated on the outskirts of town. Her front yard looked unkempt and was overgrown with tall grass and thick bushes with fuzzy tendrils which hung and coiled like snakes in the air. The house itself looked ancient and worn out with its light brown paint peeling off here and there from years of exposure to the weather. It looked, for a lack of a better word, dead. Two huge willow trees stood on its entrance, casting gigantic shadows everywhere, driving away the warmth of the sun.
“Come, Nat. Hurry! Remember what I told you about always being extra careful and vigilant,” he exclaimed as he glanced over his shoulder, suddenly looking nervous, as if he hadn’t given me an earful the night before and on our way here. His slept-in black hair was billowing in the cold morning breeze.
“Yeah,” I replied gloomily, dragging my feet along the tree-lined path leading to the front porch.
“Promise me you’ll be good, okay?” he repeated.
“I will, if she will.”
“Nat,” he sighed exasperatedly.
“Okay. Fine. I will,” I snapped.
“Didn’t I tell you to wipe that miserable look off your face.” He rolled his eyes at me. “How’s that working out for you?”
“As well as you trying to wipe that stupid mustache off your face, dad,” I grunted.
Old wooden boards creaked and whined as we walked up the front porch, as if announcing our arrival. My father knocked on the front door slowly while I was still busy observing the gloomy and quiet neighborhood and thinking about how miserable I would be for the next few days.
I heard the faint clatter of light footsteps behind the door and then it started to swing open slowly, revealing the dark long hallway inside. Mrs. Glough’s face appeared through the narrow slit and she peered at us with her wickedly big black eyes. I zipped my jacket up to my neck instinctively until it wouldn’t go anymore.
“Good Morning, Annie!” My father greeted her merrily.
“Ah, David. Good Morning,” she said in a low and raspy crackling voice which immediately made me think of a frog. “And this must be young Natalie.” She opened the door wider and turned her head to look down at me thoroughly up and down. A waft of nauseating smell greeted me instantly. I took a step behind warily as a feeling of unease settled in my stomach.
She was an extremely tall and gaunt-looking woman in her late 70s with a craggy appearance, hunch-backed from so many years of hard labor at the farm. From up close, she looked even creepier than I remembered. Her long crooked nose almost touched mine as she bent down to look at me closely. Her wrinkly face made her look like an old and worn ragdoll. Her long thick snowy hair stood out conspicuously against the darkened hallway behind her and came down in waves down her back, accentuating the elongated shape of her face. She also smelled funny. Specks of filth dotted the front of her plain red dress.
“Such a sssweet little girl…” She sniffed and inhaled deeply, as if wanting to suck more than just the chilly morning air. I could only stare at her wide-eyed in fear. Then I felt my father’s hand on my shoulder as he threw me a dirty look, winking rapidly.
“Uhm… Good Morning, Mrs. Glough,” I chirped. You creepy old witch!
“Ah, what a sweetheart!” She tapped the tip of my nose playfully. Her bushy brows fell down over her eyes slightly as she squinted. We stared at each other in silence for a few seconds.
“I can’t thank you enough for this, Annie.” My father cleared his throat.
“Oh, sure, yes. No problem. Glad to help ho ho…” She waved her long gaunt-looking hand dismissively as she stood straight beaming broadly, her big goldfish eyes still fixed upon me. Something about her just didn’t sit right with me though I could not put a finger on what it was. She was smiling even wider… too wide… ear to ear, baring her tiny yellow teeth. I had never seen anybody smile that wide in my life.
“Would you like to join us for breakfast, David? We were about to have breakfast,” she offered without turning her gaze from me.
“Oh, thank you for the offer.” My father laughed nervously. “I’m in a hurry. My plane leaves in two hours,”
I could sense that like me, he was also feeling a bit nervous before those big prying eyes.
“Too bad, then. You seem like you could use a little more food, David. You look… underfed.” She caressed his arm softly and let out a hoarse high-pitched laugh that made all the hairs on my body stand on end.
“Ha ha ha. My sister always tells me that,” said my father, looking even paler. “Okay, now I better get going so you can have your breakfast in peace. Please watch Natalie for me. She’s a nice and well-behaved kid. Right, sweetheart?” He squeezed my shoulder.
I nodded and gulped at the same time as she looked down at me again, still smiling. Her big red eyes were sparkling wildly.
“Oh yesss… We’ll behave while your dear father is away, won’t we, sweety?” she hissed. It was a warning, I realized. She reached out a long and gaunt-looking hand to me. I cringed away instinctively. “You smell really sweet, don’t you?”
After my father left, she walked me through a long darkened hallway that led into an oval-shaped room which looked dirty and dilapidated. Flakes of dust drifted in the air as I walked closely behind her. At the end of the hallway stood an ancient-looking statue of Virgin Mary which creeped me out as I walked past it. Between rows of old black and white photos mounted upon the walls were old dusty-looking fedoras. This house definitely needs a pop of color, I thought to myself. All the curtains were pulled tight, letting only a little light in to cast an eerie reddish glow all around the dining room. There was a small round dining table in the middle, on which empty plates and a huge bowl of the most disgusting-looking soup I had ever seen in my life had been arranged neatly. She pulled one of the creaky wooden chairs and motioned for me to do the same.
“Come,” she said. “We’re having breakfast.”
“Uhm, Mrs. Glough. I’ve already had breakfast this morning.” I tried to sound cheerful and polite, eyeing the oily-looking dark liquid in the pot warily. Spending a week here would surely do nothing to whet my appetite.
She pursed her lips and shook her head in disagreement while scrutinizing my face.
“Oh, I’m afraid you have to do as I say, sweet little girl. It’s… the… rules.”
Her condescending tone was making me feel insulted and nauseous at the same time.
“The r-rrules?” I stammered.
“Yes. You are bound to follow all the rules while you’re in my house,” she continued, pushing a cup of tea towards me. Her words wafted down to me like a cold heavy downpour as I stared up at her. “Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are always served on time. You don’t go out after dark. Never open the doors and windows without permission. Don’t forget to turn off all the lights by nine. And you always do as you’re told.”
“But… ” I swallowed hard, unable to look away from the disgusting-looking soup in front of me.
“Oh, and one more thing…” She turned in her chair to look past me into another long, dark and narrow hallway adjacent to the stairs. “Stay out of the basement.”
“Mrs. Glough, I—”
“The rules, kid. The rules must be followed.” She said resolutely, clicking her tongue in irritation.
I took a step away from the table. Despite the ever-present smile plastered across her face, I could sense her impatience bubbling up in every word she spoke.
“I… I don’t think l… I mean, I’m not hungry yet. I just—”
She slammed her hand hard on the table with a loud thud that cut through the air, rattling the whole table. I gasped in horror. She was still smiling. But her eyes were sparkling with anger. I realized I was treading on thin ice with this woman.
“Forgive me. But I’m under the impression that I am in charge here. And didn’t that scrawny little father of yours say if you were to act up, I was allowed to punish you?” she growled.
“Punish me?” I stuttered as my stomach knotted up.
“I had spoken with him on the phone before he dropped you off.”
I wanted to run as far away as possible but I knew I had nowhere to go. I was stuck with her now. What little sense of comfort I may have felt before my father left was now evaporating quickly.
“Now stop acting like a little snot! Put your bony ass in that damned chair and enjoy your breakfast.” Her expression quickly melted into a subtle look of pleasure, as if enjoying my discomfort. I nodded solemnly as tears welled up in my eyes. I unslung my backpack and put it on the floor quietly next to me as I sat down.
She put a plate piled high with what looked like slices of blackened and oily meat bathed in green sauce in front of me. I stared at it in horror as my stomach churned. What on earth could this disgusting meal have been made of! A fucking dead raccoon?
“We need to fatten you up while you’re here.” She said then went and took the seat opposite me. “Nobody leaves this house as emaciated as a sewer rat. I won’t allow that.”
I nodded again.
“Bon Appétit!” She exclaimed cheerfully, beaming down at me with those big bloodshot eyes of hers.
I opened my mouth to protest again but it was as if something were stuck in my throat. I took a deep breath and stifled another urge to provoke her.
“So, how old are you?” She asked, already gnawing on her meal greedily like a stray dog.
“I…” I answered, holding my breath while slowly and reluctantly taking a bite of the meat, chewing, and swallowing. She cleared her throat. I looked up at her.
“Yes?” She waited. For a moment I did not speak. I just stared at her while enjoying the rich flavor of the meat dancing on my tongue.
“Oh…” I said, still reveling in the sweet and slightly tangy aftertaste in my mouth. Then without hesitation I took another bite and again the savory juices exploded in my mouth, running down my chin. But I did not care. It was too delicious. Too perfect.
“Looks like somebody’s enjoying their breakfast.” She sneered.
“Oh… hmmm…” I mumbled through a mouthful, still struggling to shovel another bite into my mouth.
“Take it easy, kid. We don’t want you to choke on it, yes?” She put her knife and fork down and took a sip of tea, her plate already clear.
“I have never…” I said, struggling between bites “… had something this delicious in my life before. And my father is a great cook.”
“Ho ho! Now you’re making me blush.” She waved a hand, looking pleased with herself. “I used to work at a restaurant in Paris in my 30s. I was good at it.”
“You are good at it!” I gave her an enthusiastic nod as I popped another bite into my mouth greedily as if I had been deprived of the extravagance of delicious meals for decades.
“Glad you like my cooking.”
“Like it? I love it!” I exclaimed loudly. “Can I, uhm, have some more?” I stared at the still steaming pot in front of me longingly.
“Please, help yourself!”
Without hesitation I went for it and within a few seconds I was already moaning in ecstasy from the sweet and melt-in-your-mouth softness of the meat on my tongue.
“Seriously…” I tried to speak around the bite, then took a swallow of tea to wash it down. “This is the best meal I’ve ever had in my entire life!”
“My dear, girl. You have no idea the great lengths I had to go to for this.” She chuckled. “For years, many have shown up at my doorstep, asking for the recipe, begging, even offering to pay a lot of money to be let in on it. But I never relented. The things you seek to possess are not always the ones you deserve.”
“So it’s a secret?” I asked, feeling a bit upset that she had been keeping the recipe to herself all this time.
“Well, it will be no more…” she whispered and gave a perfunctory nod. Suddenly my eyes felt heavy, and my mind drowsy. Silence engulfed the whole room. It was so quiet and peaceful for a while. And then, like a gust of cold wind, her voice returned. Strange words were coming out of her mouth, undulating like waves, enfolding me from every direction. I squinted my eyes. I had never heard something so beautiful.
“Uhm. Sorry. I… What did you…”
“I was asking you about Peter Corns.”
“Who?” I frowned.
“The boy who went missing.”
“Oh!” I sighed and took a quick glance at my watch. “Peter.”
“Yes,” she replied, suddenly looking interested. “Have they found any clue as to that poor boy’s whereabouts?”
“Uhm, no. I don’t think so.” I shook my head. “They combed the whole forest and hill behind the school last week and found nothing. I overheard our math teacher telling the cops that maybe the boy had run away. But everyone else thinks he’s been kidnapped, though”
“I see…” she mumbled, more to herself.
“Do you know them?” I asked her.
“Peter and his parents.”
“Oh, no. I can’t say I know his parents well.”
“Oh, you know Peter, then?
“I think I knew him rather well,” she said, her voice fizzing with excitement. “Pretty well, in fact. Inside out.”
I looked up from my plate and stared at her.
“What do you mean you knew him?
“He is such a sssweeet boy, isn’t he?” She squinted down at me, smacking her lips loudly, grinning wide.
“Well, I didn’t know him ve—”
It took seconds for her words to sink in. But as I grappled with the shock from the horrifying revelation, my spoon and knife fell out of my hands as a numbing wave of nausea came crashing down on me. Her whole body started to shake and convulse violently as she leaned back into her chair and opened her mouth even wider as if charging up to scream, both eyes bulging as if about to pop out of their sockets. Locks of her snowy hair were bouncing against her shivering pale face as she let out a sickening retching noise. Then a slimy mass of what looked like a ping pong ball at first was thrown out of her mouth. It landed on the table with a dull thud right in front of me. Then I realized it was a small human eyeball.
I started to gag as blackness rose around my vision, still trying to hold fast to my chair but it was too much to handle for my body. I finally succumbed to the amplification of gravity as I landed on the floor and started vomiting heavily.
Terror and disgust filled every ounce of my being. She arched her back and opened her mouth again, preparing to regurgitate more of her doomed meal. I stood up quickly and made a run for the front door, wobbling through the darkened hallway, screaming as hard as I could, as loud as I could, my stomach still aching from trying to push out my horrid meal. Her demonic retching and gurgling was getting louder behind me. I didn’t look to see if she was chasing after me or not.
I threw the door open and ran into the street, not even thinking of where I should go. I just wanted to get as far away as possible from her. The brightly illuminated world outside was a sight to behold, as if I hadn’t seen the light of day for ages. I ran and ran until my legs hurt and my chest burned from exhaustion, then I collapsed in a heap on the sidewalk, her horrifying regurgitating still echoing in my ears. When I came to, I found myself being surrounded by unfamiliar faces looking down at me worriedly. Between hysterical sobs, I told them what had happened.
When police searched the house, they found her lifeless body in the dining room, exactly as I had left her. They ruled her death undetermined but in the local newspapers I would later find out that she had died of myocardial infarction at the ripe age of eighty eight. And then the horrifyingly gruesome discovery. They found Peter Corns, or what was left of him down in her basement. She had kidnapped the poor boy and chained him up to the wall for weeks, torturing and cutting him up slowly bit by bit, keeping him barely alive long enough for the wounds to heal before finishing him off. It’s a horrible way to go and his parents were beyond devastated.
The light sound of my front door being knocked on yanked my wandering mind back to the present.
“Mom? You’re still there? Hello? Oh God. You’re doing it again.”
“Oh sorry. Yes, I’m here. I gotta go now.”
“Wait, what? Is everything okay?”
“Yes. Everything’s fine. Somebody’s at the front door. I’ll talk to you later, okay?”
I hung up and slipped the phone into my pocket as I hurried across the kitchen and into the living room.
“Good Morning!” James Ham greeted me with a wide smile as I swung the door open, a plump boy with a freckled pale face next to him.
“Good Morning!” I beamed down at them both.
“This is Matty,” he said, ruffling the boy’s thick curly red hair affectionately. “Well, Matty… Aren’t you going to greet our neighbor too?”
“Good Morning.” The boy waved his hands and started to laugh giddily.
“Well, now…” I bent down and tapped the tip of his nose as the familiar sensation returned, my voice fizzing with excitement. “… aren’t you the sssweetest little thing ever?”
Credit: Eoghan Ferguson
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