By the end of the week, Josie’s song was a running joke in her circle. She’d asked everyone if they heard it. No one had. She told them it was driving her crazy.
Dominic sat in the coat closet amidst the bare bones of his new house, ripping up traces of threadbare carpet. It was the last closet left. He’d started upstairs, and he’d torn carpet out of twelve others. Since the house hadn’t been wired yet, he tried to do the darkest rooms while the sun still shone. If he had been honest with himself, he would’ve been forced to admit he didn’t want to be in the house after dark, regardless of the room or the project.
The first night Dominic had come to work on the house, he’d barely set up his shop light when a millipede scuttled out from the sink’s drain. Dominic stared in awe as it crawled carefully down the side of the pedestal before reducing its body to a sliver and slipping into an invisible slit in the lathe. He’d barely recovered from the sight of that when a velvety brown spider crawled across his hand. He reacted immediately by squashing it dead, but as he did, the dead spider seemed to transform itself into a multitude of miniature clones.
“Shit!” Dominic shouted, as he removed his shirt and used it to beat the tiny spiders from his arm. He shuddered and raked his hands over his bare chest, still feeling as though bugs crawled all over him, more than when it had actually happened.
Since the wolf spider incident, he merely swatted the smaller leggy creatures away, and with the large ones, he slid aside in retreat. Still, each time he encountered the millipedes, centipedes, spiders, or beetles, he was repulsed. It was the same with these closets. He’d swept the closets out with a broom, but seemingly overnight, new cobwebs were spun. The house had been abandoned more than twenty years earlier, and nature had reclaimed it. Every seam unsealed meant the opportunity for more bugs to emerge. Pulling out trim and replacing floor boards had taken Dominic more courage than strength. He was glad the floors were still viable, as when he imagined tearing up the floor, he could only envision a swath of swirling snakes covered in insects of every kind.
The house wasn’t infested with only bugs, but also with critters. He’d been plagued by strange noises of all sorts. Chattering rats seemed to play hide n’ seek with the possums and raccoons that shared the house. He didn’t know why the bats felt compelled to squeak. He’d always thought that they slept during the day, so his only conclusion was that they squeaked to drive him out of his mind. Dominic was a solo human, a minority. Once the sounds of howling coyotes and owls came after dark, Dominic felt like prey.
All this was made worse after his sister had driven out to see the property. The since-torn-down walls had still had a substantial amount of graffiti on them then, which Dominic assumed was the work of kids who’d used the house as a teenager hangout, but his sister told him the graffiti was a series of ritual symbols. She’d told Dominic to have a priest come out to bless the house before he started work. His sister always said things like that, to burn sage first, or to have a priest come out, but Dominic had never understood her flighty ways, and he’d long ago lost his faith.
A priest wasn’t necessary, but securing the house was, so replacing windows and doors was the first thing he’d done once the tear-out was complete. He’d carefully chosen larger windows to let in more light. He’d replaced all the wooden screen doors with full-length glass storm doors, again for the light, but also because they locked. Dominic often felt vulnerable with his back to doors and windows. The windows seemed to be the house’s eyes, as if the house itself hovered outside watching him. He could feel the hairs on the back of his neck stand up when the house watched. As a result, he often regretted giving the house bigger eyes, despite the light. He took comfort in the storm door lock.
Having crews in for repairs and drywall would be a relief. Maybe with other men around, he could shrug off bugs and laugh at snakes. Perhaps instead of losing his breath every time he heard those random footsteps which belonged to no living being, he could attribute them to his crew. That relief was a long way off. He’d called three plumbers, one who declined to come out, and one who came out, but then subsequently refused to enter the crawlspace. Finally, Plumber Number Three told Dominic that he wasn’t afraid of curses or spells, but he wasn’t keen on the vermin living under the house, so he’d want an exterminator to come out first. Then he told Dominic that the last owner had an exterminator come out, but all that had done was drive the spiders out of doors, resulting in fields covered in webs for months, until the chemicals wore off and the spiders went back inside. “Best to do it in the winter. Drive ‘em out into the cold so they die,” he’d said.
Every time he got into a closet, Dominic’s mind raced with all this information. He’d replay the words of his sister and Plumber Number Three. Combined with the real estate agent’s comment, “I can’t show you an old gothic house on Friday the thirteenth, now can I?” she laughed, “Let’s do it Monday,” he realized that the pittance he paid for the property was nothing compared to the price of fear. Yes, it was old, yes, it was gothic, maybe it had once been inhabited by crazy witches who liked to write and draw on every surface, and it might even be haunted. Ghosts couldn’t hurt anyone, even if you believed in them. The house had great bones on substantial acreage and he could make it beautiful. He took pride not only in restoration, but also in taking risks. So what if the fear grew greater each day? He was battling his own mind, not any real danger. He told himself that if he spent less and less time there each night, it was only because the sun set earlier and earlier each day.
He convinced himself that all the paintings hidden under the carpets were no more than silly talisman the crazy old witches used to make themselves feel better. He wanted to believe thirteen closets was coincidence. He pretended the noise level of the animals was not related to each drawing he revealed. With every carpet he pulled up, the animals immediately began their din. He covered his ears and told himself the noises were normal, animals going about their business, not meaning to scare him.
With the last carpet pulled up, another new drawing appeared, but this time, as Dominic went to cover his ears, he realized the animals were silent. Even the outside chatter, the sounds of birds and breezes, crickets and cicadas, all had stopped. He dropped his hands and looked at the ceiling, thinking maybe the last carpet was also the last of the clamor.
Footsteps started. The footsteps were never the same. He’d heard what he thought were children running barefoot, as well as heavily-shoed women walking quickly, and several times, he’d heard what could only be described as the sound of a dog chasing its ball, its claws scratching haphazardly as it ran and slid. The feet were heavy today, but not like shoes. The footsteps were familiar though, so Dominic listened until he could identify them. Dominic shook his head in amazement when he recognized them as the footsteps of a horse. The footsteps descended the back stairs, slowly.
Dominic went to investigate. He couldn’t stop himself from walking toward the sound. He was pulled by his curiosity and determination. He was desperate to discover the footsteps weren’t footsteps at all, but part of some earthly misunderstanding he could laugh off. As he trod slowly through the kitchen, a snake turned the corner, startling him. The footsteps continued. Dominic’s desperation grew with the realization that he could only hear the sound of the horse’s footsteps and the beating of his own heart. It was then that Dominic felt every single hair on his body stand erect. Terror seized his body. He raced to the back door. He could feel it, could see it lingering behind him, from the corner of his eye. He knew what it was without looking directly at it. He was determined to escape the house and never return. He fumbled, trying to turn the storm door lock, but no matter how he turned it, it wouldn’t open. The door would not unlock. It had caught up to him. Every inch of Dominic’s skin burned with fear. As he pressed his eyes shut, a single tear cooled his cheek. He turned to face the devil, and the devil politely said, “Thank you for summoning me.”
Jolene Mottern lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, primarily on the south side of a loveseat, where she reads everything and writes whatever people tell her to. In her spare time, she bangs cookware around, obsesses over things that don’t matter, and waves her loud Italian hands at her family. Jolene earned a BA in English Education from Ball State University. You can stalk her all over social media, on her blog jolenemottern.com , on Twitter @ joeyfullystated and on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/pages/Jolene-Mottern/
by Jolene Mottern
Katie woke up with her head on the car window and a kink in her neck. They were far from the city now. She stared into the dreary landscape. Fields of green grass and broken corn stalks stared back at her. It had begun to rain. They were going to some house called Stony Hill. Surely it had to be some pretentious place when people actually named their home. The party was supposed to have apple bobbing, pumpkin carving, arts and crafts, a costume contest, face painting and a bonfire. She suspected the bonfire would be canceled because of the rain. A crow on the fence nodded in agreement with her.
Her parents were happily singing folk music in the front seat.
“Where are we?” she asked. They didn’t hear her. They thought the countryside was quaint. They even liked the rain. Great Halloween weather, they said. They thought the gray haze added to its mystique. She traced the outline of the crow in her window’s fog and went back to sleep.
She woke up to a dusky sky, the sound of the car crunching through gravel, rocks jumping up to hit it. She hoped they were close, because she had to pee and with every bump, it grew more painful to wait. “Are we almost there?” she asked.
Up ahead, Katie saw a lawn with kids running around in the damp air, their breath a constant. Most of them had costumes on. One kid was dressed as a cowboy, waving his shiny pistol around, another one a superhero, the girls all seemed to be dolls, their jaunty runs trailing long hair and ribbon. Katie saw no one close to her age, causing disappointment.
The farm house was falling apart. It looked dirty, with its peeling white paint. Some of the shutters hung crooked and loose. At the widow’s peak, the entire window was out, not even a frame remained.
The house was cold, despite all the busy people. The hostess was a pudgy blonde woman, shorter than Katie. She smiled warmly even though the Cowboy Kid ran through the house scraping the walls with his pistol, and all the cute little dolls seemed to scream constantly. She was led through the hallway, to a room off to the left, as a place she could put their coats. A bare mattress, striped and stained, was propped up on an old iron bed. The wallpaper was tattered. In some places it had been ripped down and in others, it fell down like heavy eyelids. Her teeth chattered some, although she was cold, she had to admit she’d grown nervous.
The hostess started rambling about how they’d only just acquired this property, but it would be a renovation project, so why not enjoy it for Halloween, while it still had all of its creepy charm. She laughed. Katie didn’t find it funny. Who throws a party in a nasty, old house?
She made no hesitation in asking for the bathroom. Ascending the stairs, the whole house seemed to shift and sway in her path. With each step, the din below grew quieter. She gripped the handrail. The bathroom was the first door she came to, just at the top of the stairs. The hall beyond it appeared endless. The bathroom had one of those old-fashioned toilets where the tank perched high above the bowl. The seat was like ice. The cold startled her and she decided to hover. While she went, the floor creaked under her. She had images of herself falling through the floor, probably into that nasty mattress, with her pants still down to her knees. She heard the Cowboy Kid scrape his pistol on the wall up the stairs. Ever so slowly and softly he slid it, along the wall and then across the bathroom door. “Hey!” Katie yelled, “Stop it!” He stopped, but he was still out there, she knew it. She hadn’t heard his feet going back down the stairs.
Something hit the window. She jumped up and clutched her chest, pee ran down her leg. Once she got her pants up and caught her breath, she tried looking out to see what it was, but the window was so dirty, she couldn’t see much beyond the vague tint of green turning to blue where the grass met the sky. She pressed her forehead to the glass and cupped her hands over her eyebrows to get a better look. Just then came another crash.
“Jesus!” She jumped back. A bird. Just a big, black bird.
Behind her, the Cowboy Kid started with the pistol again, this time from the opposite end of the hall. He crept slowly, toward the bathroom door again. Annoyed, Katie decided she would scare him by jumping out of the bathroom when she heard him hit the stairs. She stood in wait, smiling. He was so careful with his footsteps, she couldn’t even hear him walk, just the sound of his pistol etching the wall. When the pistol got to the door, she saw that he was trying to scare her. Katie watched the doorknob turn back and forth. She’d show him, she thought, and wedged herself carefully against the wall behind the door.
Her chest pounded. She could actually hear her own heart beating. Katie’s anticipation was causing her breath to deepen. Outside her, there was only the sound of the doorknob turning again and again. She grew impatient. Finally, the door opened with a squeak. Katie pounced out from behind the door, “Boo!” she hollered at nothing. No one was there.
Terrified, she stepped into the hall. A cold wind passed by her. Goosebumps and their tiny spears pushed through her skin, making all the hairs on her neck stand up. She shuddered. Her teeth chattered. The sun was going down. The house only grew colder. Katie tucked her hands into her jacket and wondered how much colder it had to be before she could see her own breath.
Another bird hit the window. As carefully as she had gone up, she held tight to the rail and pressed herself to walk down the stairs. At the bottom, she turned to look at the bathroom door. It slowly fell closed as if was signaling to her. A squeaky wink it gave her, for their shared experience.
Behind her, Cowboy Kid ran through the front door, waving his pistol and shouting, “Pow pow pow!” Suddenly comforted by his presence, she asked him, “What are you shooting?”
“Crows!” he yelled.
From the back of the house, a woman’s voice came. “Dalton, surrender your weapon and come make me a masterpiece!”
“I won’t never surrender it, Granny, but I’ll holster it and draw you somethin pretty!”
“Fine enough,” she said, “Come draw me a picture and I’ll make you a cup of hot cocoa.”
Katie followed Dalton the Cowboy Kid toward the kitchen. “Can I draw a picture for hot cocoa, too?” she asked. “Or am I too old?” She peeked around the corner to find an old woman at the stove.
“Ain’t never too old to draw Granny a pretty picture,” she replied with a sweet smile. “Sit down here at the table and draw me something all Halloween like. “ She patted the tabletop. Cowboy Kid sat at a miniature table, happily coloring a bright blue sky.
Katie smiled, and sat down. She couldn’t remember when she’d last been given a blank sheet of paper and been granted the freedom to draw anything she wanted. The smell of brand new crayons and chocolate eased her mind. She’d laughed when her parents told her there’d be arts and crafts, but there was a strange comfort in coloring. The kitchen felt warm and safe. Her fingers started to thaw as she shaded.
Granny brought her cocoa and told her what a lovely picture it was. Katie was feeling so much better now. She sipped her cocoa, but it didn’t taste right. It didn’t taste sweet. It tasted more like when she held bobby pins in her mouth.
“Thank you. Never gonna be enough of these for Granny.” Granny fastened her picture under clothespins on a line above her head. Picture after picture of crows waved from the clothesline. Not one of the children had drawn anything other than a crow.
Katie woke up then. She must have been dreaming. Pink tinged her vision. Her head was throbbing. She wasn’t in the house. She wasn’t in the car. She could feel dirt under her hands. As Katie opened her eyes, she saw a pale gray sky and then a crow diving down over her, just a few feet away. It squawked at her as it neared. Its yellow eyes clearly sought Katie’s face. She reached to put her hands over her face and saw her hands were spattered with blood. She screamed out, but her voice failed her. Katie swatted at the crow, it was so close to her, she could feel a deft feather graze her fingertips. She tried to sit up, but it was too hard.
Katie slid her hand over her aching forehead. It was slick with blood. Her head bled from somewhere. She flipped over on her stomach, discovering she was in a ditch. Dead in a ditch, she thought. She saw only broken corn stalks ahead of her. She knew the car must be the other way. Turning around and crawling forward, her legs felt like lead and her right shoulder burned. Katie could hear the flutter of feathers over her. The crows thought she was soon to be carrion, too weak to fight back. They chattered and squealed over her. She stopped, over and over, to bury her bloody head in her hands. Her voice was missing, but she kept trying to cry out. Her voice was the sound of a hushed amimal, wimpering. She could actually feel the air moving from her mouth into her lungs, and it felt like sand. As she dug her feet into the earth, she grabbed the grass with her fingers and wriggled back to the road.
Her hands above her, she finally felt the roadside ahead. She felt her hopes rise. If she could get to the road, she could be rescued. The crows’ calls pierced her ears. They were relentless. Katie buried her head in her hands again and wept silently. Tears and blood streamed down her face. Chunks of gravel scathed her palms. There was nothing to pull anymore. She pressed her toes into the ground below her, trying to gain momentum. Katie wanted so badly to stand. When her eyes finally met the horizon, she took in the scene, squinted her eyes as tightly as she could. When she realized closing her eyes wouldn’t make it go away, she expelled an almost silent scream.
The big blue station wagon lay on its side, as crows swarmed the car. Her father’s legs were pinned under the car at his knees and his head was held upright only because his neck was shoved between the car and the side mirror. He almost looked as though he was praying, if his body hadn’t been so twisted. His gray tweed scarf flew as a flag to the left of his neck. His lifeless eyes bulged forward, but the rest of his face was just a featureless mess of blood and bone. A crow perched on his skull and tore at his hair. Other crows dove in, pecking greedily at his face.
Her mother’s head rested in the rocks directly in front of Katie, staring sideways at her. A look of surprise seemed frozen on her perfectly still made-up face. Crows flew in and out, swooping down to feast from her open throat. Over and over, Katie screamed silent screams of horror. She could do nothing to save her father from the crows, but Katie pulled her mother’s head toward her and tucked it into her chest.
Unnoticed, Katie watched as the sheriff arrived. She tried to scream and she threw rocks, but he couldn’t hear her. He radioed for help, and in the meantime, loading his gun over and over, he shot so many crows, when they finally subsided, the gravel seemed to wear a black feathered rug.
It was a pudgy old blonde woman who finally discovered her. “Sheriff Dalton!” she yelled, “There’s a child! There’s a child!”
Katie couldn’t seem to let go. For over an hour, she lay belly down on the shoulder of the road, clutching her mother, burrowing her face into the disheveled bun of a decapitated head, wailing in a whisper. When she finally relinquished her grasp, the old lady pulled her up close to her, put her arm around her, poured her a cup of cocoa from a thermos and told her, “A flock of crows is called a murder, you know.”
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