02 Feb What’s the Matter, Jenny?
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"What's the Matter, Jenny?"Written by Mike MacDee
Estimated reading time — 9 minutes
You believe in ghosts?
Me neither. I can’t or I’ll go completely off the track. Or maybe I’m already nuts. What happened two days ago in the Chapelgate house might’ve actually happened or might’ve just been my imagination. One thing’s for damn sure, though: I’ll never set foot in that neighborhood again.
Sure, if you got a minute I’ll tell you all about it. You won’t buy an inch of it, though. Everyone thinks I’m as crazy as Jenny. Eric won’t even believe, for Chrissakes, and he’s the one who sent me to that dump to begin with! Came just short of picking me up and tossing me out of his house when I told him. Jenny had the right idea, keeping her mouth shut.
It wasn’t an official job. I went out there as a favor to Eric Cunningham, Gary’s brother. Yeah, the schoolteacher. His ward, Jenny — that cute little teen that clutters his house with all the photos — had a medical emergency recently.
Well, I wouldn’t exactly call her “all right”. She’s gone mute and even so much as making eye contact is difficult for her. Shies away from folks like a puppy that’s been kicked once too often. Since her recovery she’s clung to Eric more than ever. Poor Eric’s about to crack, he’s worrying about her so much. We’re old friends, me and Eric, and I wanted to help him out. Now he doesn’t want me near him or Jenny anymore. That’s the thanks I get.
Understand that Jenny has no one else, and the feeling is mutual. Jenny was raised in the Aspenvale Orphanage, but never adopted ‘cos she feared and loathed adults and kept running away. Bright kid, though. Real imaginative and loved a good book. When she ran away the police almost always found her at the library.
For two years Eric held a side-job at the orphanage as a weekly reading and writing tutor. Every week Eric brought boxes of new books for the kids to enjoy, but Jenny always got something special, usually something by her favorite authors: Christie, Poe, Keats, Angelou, Frost. They became friends right away, and whenever she saw Eric she eagerly ran to greet him with crushing hugs and tales of her misadventures in town.
No, Gary’s the one married to Tricia. Eric lost his wife, Gwenny, to pneumonia. Gwenny would have adored Jenny, so Eric became her legal guardian. Even gave Gwenny’s wedding band to her as a birthday present to unite the three of them as a family, and she never took it off. They were just like father and daughter for the longest time: sweet little Leave It to Beaver family.
The whole ordeal began on my doorstep with a 7 A.M. visit from the police. “Eric Cunningham sent us,” one of ‘em said. “Jenny’s in a coma at the hospital.”
I threw on my coat and rode with ‘em. Gave me the skinny on the way there: they’d found her in the Chapelgate house on the furthest corner of Evergreen Drive, where she’d apparently spent the entire night in the kitchen pantry with the door barricaded from the inside. They wouldn’t have found her there if she hadn’t been whimpering like a dog, or at all had her friend Derrick Snyder not told them where to look for her.
All of Derrick’s friends are what you might call die-hard horror connoisseurs, and Jenny was no exception. She loved a good thrill, but in spite of her imagination she presented herself as a hard-nosed skeptic where reality was concerned. This made her a constant target of Derrick’s childish dares, and she never backed down from a dare, that girl.
Derrick had been on a tangent about the house when Jenny last scoffed him. He goaded her to sneak in alone that Friday evening — when its only current residents, the Clarks, were due to leave for the weekend — and take a moonlit tour of the mansion to prove the nonexistence of ghosts. That weekend at 10 P.M. she went, promising to return with a souvenir. Derrick and friends stayed up late waiting for her, but when night came and went and Jenny never showed, they called the police.
She was unresponsive when they found her, and she refused to open the pantry door. When they were forced to break it down she fell into a frenzy of panicked screaming and fainted as one officer reached in to offer his hand.
I’d braced myself for an ugly sight when I got to the hospital, but Jenny wasn’t hurt. Just a little dirty and trapped in a restless sleep. Rashes on her arms and shoulders were the worst of her injuries. The doctor said she’d suffered a shock and no one could say how long she’d be out.
Eric refused to leave her. He was pasty, baggy-eyed, and irritable as hell when I got there. Scowled at everyone, spat his words on ‘em like phlegm. He had good reason to be pissed: his baby was in a coma, nobody could tell him what caused it, and on top of that Gwenny’s ring was missing from her finger. The paramedics and police insisted she wore no jewelry when they brought her in, and Derrick swore she had it when she left on the dare. The ring is precious to Eric and Jenny and its loss would’ve broken both their hearts, but more importantly Eric believed that its return would help brighten Jenny’s spirits and maybe even hasten her recovery.
That was all he asked me to do. Get the ring back, and find out what happened to his adopted daughter.
Well, I did. And me and Jimmy Beam have been trying to wash it outta my memory ever since.
Everyone’s heard the rumors about Chapelgate House being a haven for ghosts and demons. It’s no secret that orchestra leader Evadne Chapelgate was murdered there in 1934 by her husband Ralston as comeuppance for slapping him around for twenty years. But nothing’s ever proven the property is dangerous or haunted to any degree.
It isn’t even abandoned: Edie Hathaway, this retired accountant, rents its rooms to families in the process of moving in or out of the city. At any given time there is always two or more people inside. Tom and Agnes Clark, the most recent residents as I’ve said, have had no complaints about the place apart from a few odd smells.
I hoped Mrs. Hathaway might shed a little light on Jenny’s predicament. She didn’t know much about the Chapelgates except that they’d shared a modest fortune, never propagated, and were the most unappreciated artists of our time. She didn’t like to talk about them much ‘cos of the murder. She gave more details about the house itself: two bedrooms, two washrooms, kitchen, dining room, study, cellar, drawing room, and studio. Built by an English merchant in 1850, sold to the newly-wed Chapelgates in 1917, and to the Hathaways in 1940. Renovated twice in its lifetime.
The kitchen caught my interest, of course. The Chapelgates practically wore it out with all the parties Evadne threw (she had an unhealthy love of gin and compliments); after the Hathaways bought the house, none of their tenants ever used the kitchen except occasionally as storage space. The most common reason given was its smell, a strong potpourri of mildew, sewage, and mire.
Mrs. Hathaway squeamishly admitted her growing concern about the moldy stench over the last few years. She cleans the house from top to bottom once a week, including the abandoned kitchen, but the stench clings to the air no matter how hard she scrubs it. She even called a health inspector over on one occasion. He never found the source of the odor, but did manage to find a dead cat tucked beneath the steel dishwashing tub.
I could see Mrs. Hathaway’s skin turning green when she described it. Blisters, rashes, and necrotic lesions covered its body: slimy black fungus peeled the flesh back eagerly like a greedy kid opening a Christmas present. Eyes bugged out of its head like it’d died of fright. Mrs. Hathaway had never seen or smelled anything like it, but while it certainly added to the kitchen’s offensive odor, it wasn’t the source.
Curious? A little bit. Nauseating? Absolutely. But these details still didn’t explain how a house that had served as a hotel for years could turn a young girl’s mind inside-out in a single night. I turned my attention to Jenny’s ring, figuring she would enlighten us when she woke up.
Damn Jenny. Damn Eric. Damn the Chapelgates. Damn the Clarks and their vacation. Damn my own weak, mushy heart for ever feeling sorry for anybody. The answer finally reared its hideous head when I visited the house to look for the ring.
It was the middle of the afternoon by the time I got there. The moment I stepped through the front door rotten marshland fumes punched me in the stomach. I’d been to the house a few times to visit friends that stayed there and never noticed it at all; now here it was in full force like something had recently agitated it.
In all my visits, though, I’d never seen the kitchen. The lights didn’t work, but the late afternoon sun lit it up just fine as it trickled in from a pair of tiny windows eight feet up the eastern wall. The cupboards and counters sagged like the weak shoulders of elderly men waiting for death, their surfaces spotless but worn and brittle. Many cabinets had lost their doors long ago and grinned broadly with cobweb teeth. Along the north wall (to my left from the door) naked cupboards stood at attention on an Egyptian tomb floor of faded tiles. In the far corner the wall opened into a pantry the size of a small walk-in closet. The inside was a mess of broken shelves and crates. The door was in splintered fragments on the floor.
I found Jenny’s ring in the pantry, glistening in one corner as if calling for help. I would have left right after snatching it up, but an odd gurgle — I almost mistook it for a voice — turned my attention to the far end of the room. A partition jutted out from the middle of the south wall, shrouding the corner to the right of the door in thick shadows. Hiding shamefully from the sunlight in that corner was the steel dishwashing tub.
I approached it with my handkerchief over my nose (the smell was worse by then) until I stood close enough to rest a hand on its tarnished lip. A blackish sludge stinking of rot had scaled the pipes to form a puddle at the bottom of the tub — maybe a clue to the source of the mysterious stench. Mrs. Hathaway should’ve noticed it, but never mentioned a clog. On closer inspection I realized the sludge puddle swirled and quivered with sluggish life and its edge was slowly expanding, as if the drain decided to back up on a whim.
The shriek of a rusty hinge attacked me from behind, and I about-faced just in time to watch the kitchen door fling itself shut. I tried the knob and found it frozen with centuries of rust!
In only a few minutes the septic stench had rotted to a choking level that my handkerchief couldn’t fend off: my throat itched and convulsed and fire tickled my eyes. Black sludge continued to puke up from the tub’s drain, filling it halfway, then two thirds, then near overflowing. But just when it seemed on the verge of spilling over the edge, it abruptly stopped.
Some fool curiosity inched me forward for a closer look, but my feet quickly filled with concrete: from the tub’s throat came a thick gurgle that sounded like speech!
The longer I listened, the more the drain spoke. Its voice seemed miles away and grated like a knife against the grindstone, its language slurred and meaningless. A silhouette formed on the south wall, bent slightly over the tub like a washwoman. Another shape appeared, swimming back and forth like a shark on the prowl, occasionally latching onto the first and then tearing away like it was feeding on it. The gurgle-voice shot off a steady stream of vicious nonsense words like artillery fire while the urge to scream struggled to reach my throat and kept slipping back down again.
Suddenly the first silhouette turned on the second. The voice rose to a shrill whine punctuated with the crashing sound of metal utensils scattering on the floor. The first form had the second by the neck, squeezing the strength out of its legs, beating it into submission with its fists whenever it broke free. The attacker pivoted, plunged the weakening shape into the tub with a sploosh I heard but never saw. I counted every second of the eternity that followed while the shape held its victim down with all its might. Then the drain fell silent; the first silhouette wilted like a miserable flower, then vanished. The tub drain released a long sob.
All was still again. I stood unmoving, listening sharply like a soldier in the jungles of ‘Nam. I thought of dashing to the door and coaxing it open with brute force. The stench, as if in reply, swarmed me like angry bees and almost knocked me off my feet.
A nightmare broke the sludge surface. A hand, its peeling flesh stained black with mold and filth, reached out and latched onto the edge of the washtub. A head wrapped in snakes of black hair emerged, then a set of mildew-eaten shoulders.
I’d seen enough. I scrambled for the door and assaulted it with my boot. It rattled in its frame but refused to give.
Splashing of the nightmare climbing out of the tub drove me into panic. I throttled the door, keeping my eyes fixed on the doorknob. I would not look at it, no matter how much my instincts begged. I would not look at it like Jenny had. I would not suffer the same mental shock with that lurching horror inching nearer every second. The stench strangled all the breath from my throat and my vision began to fail me.
Dripping ice cubes touched the nape of my neck.
The door surrendered.
I don’t remember leaving the house. My memory is nothing but fog for several pages; then I’m waking up in the home of Eric’s brother, Gary. He says I showed up on his doorstep pale and exhausted and collapsed in a faint right in the doorway. When I came to he offered me a glass of bourbon, which I gladly traded for Jenny’s ring. Didn’t say a word except that I’d been to the house and found the damn thing.
I think I was on my second glass when Tricia sat beside me and put a cold spread of ointment to my neck. I asked what it was for and she described in great detail a grossly neglected fungal infection. My head still swimming from the things I saw in Chapelgate Manor — teetering toward writing it all off as a terrible dream — I sauntered into the bathroom to see for myself.
Three unsightly welts had formed at the nape, each one raw and inflamed as if it had gone untreated for days. And as you can see for yourself, each took the hideous shape of a human finger.
I took one look, thought of the cat, and threw up in the sink.
Publisher’s Note: The author requests that anyone who desires to narrate, perform, or adapt this story to any other format, or feature it on a YouTube channel, podcast, or other platform, contact them for permission before doing so. Use of the author’s work without this permission is strictly prohibited. You may reach the author here. Thank you!