Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
Moving day. A chance to start fresh in a new place. New opportunities, new community, new home. Home. Not just a house. To Eric Sherman, this was a place he could finally call home. No ex-wives to hound him for alimony. No disapproving parents to question his absence of faith and Atheist lifestyle. No bitchy neighbors threatening to call the authorities about his “over the top” Halloween displays.
No, this house was different. For one, it was in a more rural and secluded county. There was no HOA to worry about. His nearest neighbor was almost half a mile away. Before Eric had moved in, he made it a point to go and meet him and ask some questions about the community. “So, how long have you lived around here Mr. Holt?” Eric asked.
“Ah hell,” the old man began, “Call me ‘Henry’. Everyone else ’round these parts does.” Henry took a long drag from his cigarette, “But to answer yer question, been here my whole life. I inherited the house and little farm from my Pa after he passed in ‘75.” Henry extinguished what was left of his cigarette in a small glass ashtray before slipping another one out of its wrinkled pack.
“You grow anything on the farm?” Eric asked. Henry gestured over his shoulder, swirling smoke through the air with his newly lit cigarette.
“Just some squash and the like. In the Fall I grow pumpkins and let the city folk come and pick’em for Halloween. You like Halloween Son?” Eric’s eyes lit up. Ever since he was a boy, Halloween had been his favorite holiday. He enjoyed being scared and using his extensive collection of decorations and props to scare others.
“Yes sir, I do. At my last house, my ex-wife and I would put up quite a display. Sometimes we would even make a little haunted walkthrough in our yard. Some of the neighbors said our displays were ‘too intense’ and ‘made too much noise’.” Henry chuckled and took another long drag.
“Well,” Henry began, “you don’t have to worry about that round here. I’m yer closest neighbor and I love all that spooky shit. Noise won’t be a problem neither. My hearin’s been going these past few years. So, if you wanna rile up the folk that come out this way for pumpkins and trick or treatin’, I say have at it.” The two men chatted for a few more hours. Eric told Henry about some of his more gruesome Halloween displays and Henry told Eric about which shops were closest and had the best prices.
“Well, Henry,” Eric said as he shook the old man’s hand, “I look forward to living up the road from you.”
“Same here son,” Henry replied. “Treat that old house good. Like all old things, handle’er with care, and she’ll treat ya right.” A week later, Eric was finishing unloading the boxes from the moving truck and into the old country house. He wiped the sweat from his forehead, gazed up at his new home, and let out a satisfied.
* * * * * *
The farmhouse was huge, much bigger than Eric’s last house, and more than enough for a bachelor and his dog, a border collie named Cirice. Eric wasn’t bothered by the extra space. More room to store props and decorate with macabre knick-knacks. Horror and grotesquities were not reserved solely for Halloween. Eric enjoyed adorning his shelves, mantles, and countertops with skulls, bones, old crumbling books, and other bizarre curios he acquired over the years.
As he was carrying the last of the Halloween boxes up to the attic, Eric stumbled sending the box crashing to the floor. He frantically pulled open the cardboard flaps and sighed with relief. Nothing had broken. He then turned to see what had caused him to lose his footing. There, at the base of the attic steps, was a noticeably loose floorboard.
Eric grabbed a hammer, nails, and flashlight from his toolbox and made his way back to the attic doorway. He clicked the flashlight on to find the best place to hammer the board down when he noticed something tucked away just under the loose board. Using the claw end of the hammer, Eric pried the other nails out of the floorboard.
The space beneath the floor had an old, musty smell. The kind of odor one expects to smell in a second-hand shop or antique store. As the beam from his flashlight scanned the dust-caked alcove, Eric finally saw what had caught his eye. Before him sat a small, antique black trunk. Eric lifted the box from its hiding place and wiped the dust from it with his shirt sleeve. The box was made of very sturdy wood that had been painted black by its creator. The lid was slightly domed and secured with a large antique lock. Emblazoned across the front of the lid were letters that Eric instantly recognized as Hebrew: לִדבּוֹק.
Eric rubbed his stubbled chin as he tried to make out the letters. He had taken Hebrew lessons as a child, but hadn’t studied or read anything in the language since his Bar Mitzvah. Now, in his late thirties, the letters seemed alien to him. He thought about calling his mother and asking her what it said, but their relationship had been rocky ever since she told him she could not accept that he had “abandoned his faith”.
At any rate, Eric knew he had to see what was inside. He went back to his toolbox and returned once again, this time with a pair of bolt cutters. Eric placed the cutters on the lock and with one firm squeeze, the lock snapped in half. He removed the remnants of the broken lock from the latch and, without warning, the lid flew open with a horrible screech.
Eric jumped back from the sudden noise. After taking several deep breaths, he clutched his chest and laughed a bit to himself. He walked back over to the now opened trunk and peered inside. Eric’s eyes lit up as they had at Henry’s when he mentioned Halloween. Inside there was an assortment of bizarre trinkets: A small jar filled with teeth, five rusted nails fastened together with twine, a desiccated frog, a small jar of what looked to be rock salt, but among the various oddities, the most impressive was an antique jester marionette.
The puppet glared up at Eric with lifeless blue eyes and a sardonic grin that was thinly framed by a pair of blood-red lips. Eric reached toward the limp figure to inspect it when, with a loud wooden snap, its mouth popped open. “Oh, shit!” Eric gasped as he recoiled and withdrew his hand from the marionette. His heart began racing and the sound of pumping blood filled his ears. From the downstairs living room, Cirice had begun to bark. “It’s alright, girl!” Eric shouted. “Daddy was just being a wuss.” As courage crept its way back into Eric’s body, he noticed a small piece of paper in the puppet’s mouth. He slipped the paper out of the doll’s open maw and found the same Hebrew lettering on it. “Must be your name,” Eric wondered aloud. With that, he placed everything back into the trunk and decided he would ask Henry if he knew anything about it tomorrow morning.
* * * * * *
Eric sat on Henry’s porch as the blazing autumn sun beat down on them. Though it was still early in the morning, the temperature had already reached an uncomfortable 91 degrees. This heat and the accompanying humidity were not uncommon for the area, but it was more than Eric was used to. Sweat drops had already formed on Eric’s forehead and his clothes began to cling to his body with sweat.
The mysterious trunk sat on the small patio table in between the two men. “Any idea what it could be?” Eric asked Henry as the two studied the box and its contents.
“Looks like a lotta weird shit,” Henry replied. “Hell, son, thought you was into all that spooky stuff.” Eric chuckled. Henry had a good point. This was the exact type of thing Eric would go out of his way to find at antique stores and estate sales. Eric was about to reply, when Henry gestured to the inscription on the trunk, “Ain’t those them Jewish letters?” Henry asked. Eric nodded as he took a sip of water from his bottle.
“Yeah,” Eric replied, “Hebrew. Was the previous owner Jewish?” Henry let out a deep sigh and shook his head solemnly.
“Now, my Pa and I always had our suspicions about Kertz,” Henry began, “the old feller that lived in that house before you. Mean ole bastard. Thick German accent. Bought the place yous livin’ in around 1950. Pa always said to keep away from’em. Told me, ‘Only good Nazi is a dead Nazi.’ That ole bastard musta stole this offa someone poor Jewish fella thinkin’ it’d be valuable someday.” Eric looked at Henry with a steady gaze. He swallowed the lump that had built up in his throat.
“My family is Jewish Henry…they, uh…they escaped the Nazis in Poland and fled to America when the war was over.” Henry placed a hand on Eric’s shoulder and gave a reassuring smile.
“Son, I know it might seem strange living in that place knowin’ what you know now,” replied Henry, “But, maybe this is restitution of sorts. That ole prick is dead and buried. Now you live in his house and you’ve reclaimed somethin’ that belonged to yer kin. Yessir, this is just your people reclaimin’ what is rightfully theirs.” Eric forced a smile and looked down at the box. The puppet met his gaze with its own cruel smile. Eric turned back to Henry.
“But why wouldn’t the realtor have said something about this?” Henry let out a laugh.
“Boy, even if they knew the ole fool’s history, do you really think that would be somethin’ they’d advertise?” Henry replied. Eric knew he was right. No sane person would stop on a real estate listing that read: Rural farmhouse. Country living. Former Fascist occupant. Eric thanked Henry for his time, gathered up the trunk and its inhabitants, and started to walk down the dirt road that led to his house. Henry called after Eric, “Whatcha gonna do with that creepy puppet?” Eric turned and replied,
“Well, Halloween is in a couple of weeks. I think he’ll look pretty good on my mantle.”
* * * * * *
Before long Eric had started putting up his Halloween display. He had spent years purchasing and collecting the most grotesque and gory pieces he could find. His once scenic front yard was now an abattoir littered with limbs and heads, festooned with intestines, and manned by blood-soaked, animatronic clowns. Henry came by a few times a week to see how the display was coming along. Each time he would ask Eric if it was finished and each time Eric would tell him there was always room for more.
Inside, the farmhouse was more tame by comparison, but still had its fair share of horror. Actual skulls and bones Eric had acquired from various collectors adorned his walls. Antique surgery tools and dental phantoms sat proudly on his end tables and counters. Preserved rodents, bats, and spiders occupied his mantle along with the contents of the trunk – the marionette taking center stage. Eric had decided to name the marionette Jerry. Both he and Henry agreed the puppet’s angular features, rectangular head, and broad smile made it look like a medieval Jerry Seinfeld.
Eric had just finished putting up a few more decorations and lights when he decided to turn in for the evening. The heat was still pretty intense during the day and all of the outdoor decorating had drained the energy out of him. He took Cirice on her nighttime walk, making sure to pick up after her (though dog feces can be quite scary, they were not welcome in his display). Eric and Cirice came back inside and Eric told her it was time for bed. The dog curled up on her favorite wingback chair, put her head down, and blew air out of her nose the way a disappointed child would respond if you told them it was time for bed.
Eric crossed the living room toward the stairs leading up to his room. As he reached for the light switch, he turned toward his dog, “Goodnight Cirice. You were such a good girl today.” Cirice did not get up or even open her eyes, but her tail began to wag energetically to show him she understood. Eric then turned toward the mantle, “Goodnight Jerry. Keep an eye on the other decorations for me will yeah?” As if in response, Jerry’s mouth snapped open with that distinct wooden click sound.
Cirice began to whimper and growl in her sleep as the hair on her scruff bristled. Eric felt all of the little hairs stand up on the back of his neck as he stared at the puppet in shocked disbelief. Calm down, he thought to himself, It’s just an old doll. He made his way cautiously over to the mantle, his eyes locked in a staring contest with Jerry’s. Eric reached out with a trembling hand to close the puppet’s mouth, expecting the thing to spring to life at any minute. He placed a finger on Jerry’s chin and slowly pushed its mouth closed. Eric sighed with relief and made his way back to the light switch, never taking his eyes off of Jerry. “I’ll find some wood glue in the morning and take care of that jaw problem you’ve got there Jerry,” Eric joked, “Maybe even give you a fresh coat of paint.” With that, Eric turned out the lights and went to his room to have one of the most troubling sleeps of his adult life.
* * * * * *
That night, Eric could not sleep. His dreams were a labyrinth of nightmares that he struggled to escape. Images of Jerry and his terrible grin haunted Eric’s every wakeless second forcing him to jolt awake and scan the room for the demonic doll. Every creak, every tap, every subtle noise caused Eric to spring awake. It was getting to the point where he wasn’t sure if it was better to just stay awake and try and take a nap in the morning.
At around 6 AM a new noise had shocked Eric from his bed. Downstairs, he could hear the distinct sounds of Cirice barking and snarling. Eric felt a knot form in his stomach. Maybe it’s just a rat, Eric hoped as he climbed out of bed. The dog’s barking grew louder and more fierce. Eric knew he had to go downstairs and investigate, but fear slowed his movements to a glacial pace.
The stairs from the second floor creaked with unease as he crept downstairs to see what Cirice was barking at. Eric peered through the living room doorway. However, what he saw was more annoying than startling. His mantle display had been knocked down and strewn about the floor. Broken display boxes and animal specimens littered the area rug that was below the mantle and in front of the fireplace. The one startling aspect of the scene was that Jerry did not fall all the way to the ground. His marionette controls and strings had snagged the edge of the mantle causing the puppet to hang and sway like a corpse on a noose. Jerry’s mouth hung open as Cirice barked and snarled at him.
“Cirice!” Eric yelled. “What did you do!?” Despite Eric’s accusations, the dog continued to bark and lunge at the dangling puppet. Eric grabbed Cirices collar and dragged her toward the kitchen. He told Cirice to sit and stay, shutting the door behind him as he returned to the mess she had left.
Eric got a broom and began to sweep the broken glass from the rug. From the looks of things, he would not be able to save any of these pieces. Once he was sure he had cleaned up all of the glass, Eric untangled the marionette string and sat Jerry back on the mantle. “I guess Cirice thinks you’re creepy too,” Eric said aloud to the doll. As he turned to let Cirice out of the kitchen, Eric felt a sharp pain in the bottom of his foot. “Fuck!” Eric screamed as he grabbed his foot to see what he had stepped on. A small piece of glass protruded from his heel, glistening in the light as a tiny red stream of blood began to trickle from the wound.
Eric hobbled over to the couch and examined his injury. He pushed on the skin around the glass to force it to the surface. He plucked the shard from his foot as blood began to stream faster from the puncture. Eric hopped over to the bathroom, cleaned his wound, and covered it with a bandage.
Upon returning to the living room, Eric found Jerry slumped over and lying on his side. Eric limped over to the mantle not wanting to put pressure on his foot. As he reached for the puppet, Jerry’s mouth snapped open again. Eric quickly recoiled his hand. Before he had time to register this new fear, h was startled again by a loud bang at his front door. Eric cried out in surprise. “Eric, you in there?” Henry’s familiar voice called from the front door. Still slightly panicked, Eric hobbled over to the front foyer and answered the door.
Eric smiled a weak smile at Henry. “Hey Henry,” Eric said, “How’s it going?” Henry looked Eric up and down. He could tell things were out of the ordinary.
“I was just goin’ for my mornin’ stroll and decided to see how the display was comin’ along,” Henry replied, “But from the looks of things, you’ve had quite a mornin’.” Eric nodded and explained to Henry what had transpired since the dog had made the mess. Henry shook his head, “Guess that dog a yers hasn’t taken a shine to ole Jerry yet huh? Well, at any rate, I just wanted to say yer yard decorations are gettin’ pretty sick, even fer my taste.” Eric gave Henry a quizzical look.
“Henry, I haven’t added anything to the outside display.” Henry looked confused and the two men stepped outside onto the front porch. Dangling from the trees were dozens of dead mice and birds, swaying lazily in the light breeze. Eric swallowed hard. He was suddenly aware the strings that were wrapped around each animal were identical to the ones that were on Jerry. “H-H-Henry,” Eric stammered, “I didn’t hang these.” Henry gave Eric a stern look.
“Listen, boy,” Henry started, “I’m all fer a good scare here and there, but this may drive business away from my farm. I’m askin’ as a friend, please take’m down.” Eric, not looking down from the ghoulish menagerie, nodded silently. Henry patted him on the shoulder, “I am happy yer gettin’ into the spirit of things, but don’t go gettin’ carried away.” With that, Henry started back down the dirt road toward his house.
Eric retrieved a ladder from the shed and began the grim task of removing the lifeless creature from his trees. As he finished taking the last morbid ornament down, he heard Cirice barking from inside the house. Eric climbed down the ladder and burst through the front door. To his horror, he found Jerry sitting upright in Cirice’s chair. Eric rushed over to the puppet, snatched it off the chair, and chucked it into the fireplace. He then shoved some newspaper and scrap wood under Jerry and struck a match. As he set the ghastly pyre ablaze, Jerry’s mouth fell open once again with a hideous click.
* * * * * *
That night, Eric gathered what remained of the trunk’s contents and threw them in the trash. He snapped a picture of the box with his phone and, begrudgingly, sent it in an email to his mother. He hated contacting her after their falling out, but she knew how to read Hebrew. As he hit send, He glanced over at the fireplace. The fire continued to blaze, but all remnants of Jerry had become smoldering ash.
Eric had just walked into the kitchen to get a glass of water when he felt his phone buzzing in his pocket. He pulled the phone out of his pocket. The caller ID simply read “Mom”. He took a deep breath and answered, “Hey, ma.”
“Hello, Eric,” she responded, “I just got your email. What exactly am I looking at?” Eric did not want to tell her all that had happened since he found the trunk.
“It’s this really old box that was left by the previous owner. I can’t make out what the Hebrew says on the lid.” Eric heard his mother sigh.
“You don’t even remember enough Hebrew to read a short word like that?” his mother scolded. “Well, at any rate, I hope you left that thing alone.” Eric began to feel the hairs on his neck stand up.
“Why?” Eric asked. “What does it say?”
“Dybbuk,” his mother responded. “Old superstition. They are like demons or spirits. The word actually means ‘adhere’ or ‘cling’.” Eric took a deep breath, but before he could respond, he heard a sharp yelp from the living room.
“Mom, I’m going to have to call you back.” Eric hung up the phone and bolted into the living room. The sight that greeted him sent his head spinning. Cirice was thrashing about on the floor in front of the fireplace. Protruding from the ashes was a long, sickly pale arm. Its skeletal fingers were firmly wrapped around the dog’s neck. “Cirice!” Eric shouted. With that, the arm gave a quick twist, breaking the dog’s neck with a terrible snap. The arm raised Cirice’s lifeless form into the air. Then, with one swift motion, threw the dog toward the front door.
Eric stood frozen in horror not knowing what to do or where to run. Before his senses could fully return, all of the lights suddenly snapped off and the fire went out. Eric groped behind him for the kitchen door, eyes fixated on the unlit fireplace. BZZZZZZZZ! Eric’s phone buzzed violently in his hand. The screen illuminated. The caller ID said “JERRY”. Before he could do anything, the phone accepted the call and switched to “speaker” mode. A shrill, unearthly screech emanated from the device as images of an eyeless, gaunt face in jester paint flashed on the screen. Suddenly, the phone went dark and the screeching stopped. In the darkness, Eric heard something slump onto the floor in the direction of the fireplace. As he turned to run into the kitchen, he heard the sickening thumping of the creature crawling toward him.
* * * * * *
Henry stood in Eric’s yard. An old cigarette clung to his lips. He shook his head. “Mr. Holt, I’ll ask you one more time. What were you doing in the deceased’s yard so early in the morning?” Henry took a long drag from his cigarette.
“I told you, officer, me and him had become very close. We was fixin’ to be partners ’round Halloween time. He’d spook the youngins and city folks and I’d sell’m pumpkins. Poor kid. I knew he was in a bad place. Told me ‘bout his wife leavin’m. Told me ‘bout not bein’ on good terms with his folks. I knew somethin’ was off but never guessed he’d do somethin’ like this.” The two men turned around to reexamine the horror of which they spoke. In a tree, high above the Halloween grotesquities, hung Cirice, a coarse rope pulled tight around her neck. Hanging beside her swung Eric, face made up to resemble the marionette sitting upon the branch suspending them.
Credit: J.M. Cennamo
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