DOWNSTAIRS - ANDREW HODGES
Jimmy was afraid to go.
He would rather soil himself.
He knew that Billy and Sam from school would have given him the ragging of his life if they had known, but that didn’t matter. He was certain they were down there, with the unshakable faith of the martyrs and saints.
All the same, he felt like he was about to explode. His guts were like balloons bloated to capacity and about to pop. It wasn’t just flatulence, either, he could feel some real logs rolling around inside of him, shedding splinters over his colon. Something was going to happen one way or another no matter what he did. He clutched the sheets about himself, trying to ignore the cramping pain. It was still dark, and though he couldn’t see the digital Mickey Mouse clock on the bedside table, it felt to be about three in the morning…meaning it would be another three hours until dawn.
Oh gosh, he couldn’t take that!
If he dumped himself, especially in bed, his mom would kill him. Maybe actuallykill him this time. She had given him several good whoppings, but the worst he had ever received in his seven years of life was two weeks ago when he had made a leak on the carpet. He ought to have just wet the bed, but the thought of laying in urine all night had disgusted him. Instead, he had opted to ruin the little dinosaur carpet that he had gotten for Christmas last year. The next morning, his mother had caught a whiff of it, and he had caught a taste of hell.
But he was now more afraid of going downstairs at night than of his mother’s fury. A lot more.
He was resigned to dump himself when he recalled the last Talk that he had endured from his father. There were varieties and flavors of Talk, for anything he might do or say. The one he was most familiar with was the That Kind of Behavior Will Not Be Tolerated, Young Man Talk, which he got about every other week. There was also This is What We’re Doing As a Family, which usually preceded a family vacation or visit to a relative. Like suits of clothes, there was a talk for every conceivable occasion, all delivered in that authoritative narration that he thought of as Adult Speak.
Yet the worst flavor of Talk was undoubtedly Are You Ok, Jimbo. These were administered exclusively by his father, and were the most concerning despite the mellow method of delivery. Dad would sit him down, look at him with his big sad eyes, and ask in that quiet voice if he reallywas ok. Even if he managed to convince his dad that all was ship-shape and copasetic, that sad and perplexed look would always remain on the old man’s face. To be told he was naughty meant very little to him beyond corporeal punishment, but those talks with his dad cut him down in a big way. Those looks and stares stayed with him a lot longer than a spanking. They made him feel as if there was something deeply and intrinsically wrong with him. His father was an old electrician, and in the old man’s practicality and pervasive common sense, Jimmy saw all the wisdom of adulthood concentrated in one paternal figure. To be mocked by his school chums was hurtful, to be spanked by his mother worse still, but to be treated like an invalid by his father was an injury too great to bear.
He had gotten such a talk when he sprayed the carpet, one full of somber glances from his old man. He realized now that if he bust his gut all over the sheets, another such talk would follow. Jimbo, you ok? You alright, son? Is it all good upstairs or are you ready for the booby-hatch?
No. He couldn’t face that again.
He sat up in bed and threw off the sheets. Swinging his legs around slowly, he quietly planted his tootsies on the floorboards. The cold wood stung his bare feet, but he ignored this as he slowly stood and pressed weight down on his ankles. The fullness of his body made the floorboards creak, and he paused, listening. He was as still as possible, holding his breath and pricking his ears. Naught but the crickets outside were heard. He sighed and began to tiptoe towards the door, moving stiffly but swiftly.
Please God, he prayed, no more noise.
The door was only a few feet from the bed, and he managed to creep over without incident. He moved with the practiced skill of all imps who were used to sneaking about after the parental unit was abed. The bedroom door would be a hassle: it was an old thing with tattle-tale hinges. He grasped the gritty black knob and turned it slowly, making sure the click of the jam wasn’t too loud. He moved as pirates hiding treasure or thieves in Egyptian tombs must have moved, slowly but with purpose. He pushed the door open, but not all the way, just enough to get out. He pressed it open only half an inch every few seconds, moving it slowly, face twisted in a wince. The hinges let out a single croak, but no more. When he had a slit big enough, he squeezed into the outside hallway.
There were only two bedrooms in the upstairs of the house, situated across from each other at the top of the stairs. Jimmy saw in the dimness that the door to his parents’ room was thankfully shut. He tiptoed over the carpeted stairs, the soft threads muffling his steps. If there was a bathroom up here, he thought, his problems would be over. Unfortunately, the old farmhouse his dad was renting only had the one: downstairs. Hand on the rail, he took the steps one at a time, trying to limit the noise of his passage as much as possible. He knew that if the door to his parents’ room popped open now, he would be caught. There would be a Talk, and he would be unable to give any reasonable explanation that he knew they would listen to. Yet the thump of his feet was answered only by the faint drone of the insects. The night was otherwise heavy and mute, uninterrupted by human disturbances.
On the bottom landing, there were three doors. The one before him went to the back patio, the one to the left to his father’s studio, and the one to the right went to the living room. He planned out his route carefully: the studio would be difficult to move through in the dark, but it was the shortest route to the downstairs bathroom. He would have to be doubly sure not to knock anything over, a highly likely scenario in dark. Going though the living room was a safer route, so far as obstacles went, but…..
No. He had to cut his path through the studio.
He found the studio door ajar, another sign that luck was on his side. He slid in, trying to move the door as little as possible. Two windows in the wall to the right let in the moonlight, revealing his father’s collection of junk. The basement was where the old man had his workshop, but here he kept his evening entertainments. There was a long table bearing a train set, now a dark landscape of polymer mountains and plastic houses. There was the outline of a book shelf, and a stack of boxes containing the old man’s collection of hobby magazines and model supplies. Several planes and zeppelins hung by bits of wire from the ceiling, as if in flight. The immobility of the various models enhanced the night’s silence and emphasized the stillness.
He trickled in, moving carefully. Jimmy loved this room by daylight, and enjoyed the hours spent with his dad pouring over modeling books and building flying machines from all different eras. His dad encouraged his son’s imagination and would let him fiddle with the little plastic village or the train set. He would set up some combination of stores and houses, then his dad would get the train going and they would watch it circle. But at night, the place seemed ominous, the stiffness of the models somehow unnatural. He tried to move swiftly, making a broad semicircle around the table. In the junky and crowded room, he was petrified of bumping into something and knocking it over. He had been fortunate so far, but he didn’t want to push his luck, knowing that he was on borrowed time. His guts were griping again, and he needed to get to the commode quick. He was much more reckless now, doing a little power walk to the door at the far end. His shoulder bumped into a WWI fighter plane, and he nearly screamed. He clamped his hands over his mouth and stood still, trying not to shudder. The dark shape of the plane swung back and forth, moving slowly and pendulously. He waited until its momentum was spent, then set out again, creeping as quickly as he dared.
Out of the studio, he saw the open door to the backroom in the downstairs hallway. His guts were jumping, and he padded the last five feet of his journey at a brisk jog. He closed the door and flipped on the light with one hand, working his pajama bottoms off with the other. He couldn’t move fast enough now and was at his wits end.
There was no way that he could think of to stifle the loud flush of the toilet. It was momentous in the quiet house, like a monsoon in a deserted jungle. His business was done and like a sailor at some foreign port he now had to make the long and dangerous journey back home. Maneuvering upstairs was a retracing of his steps, and in theory just the second half of the journey. He knew however that in practice this trip was far more dangerous than the first. It was normally on the return trips that he encountered The Downstairs People. He had to get moving and get to the security of the stairs. Once there, the journey would be smooth sailing, the only danger waking his mom and dad.
But as he poked his head out of the bathroom, he saw something that made his mouth fall open. Light was cutting a triangle across the dark hallway floor from the living room.
They were here already.
Slowly, trying not to shiver, he backed away. He just had to get to the studio without being seen or heard, and he could short-cut back to the stairs. If he could manage that, all he had to do was bum-rush the rest of the distance. If that meant waking his parents, so be it, he would just have to admit that he had had a bathroom emergency. There would be sighs and the shaking of heads, but he could stand that. The main thing was getting upstairs, where he would be safe. The Downstairs People could not get upstairs, so far as he knew. They came only at night, and he had never seen them outside of the dining room or living room. He had managed previously to slip away from them and get back to his room, under the assumption that, by some perverse magic, they could not go beyond these rooms where he had encountered them. Going back to his room was all that had been necessary to put everything back to normal, like resetting a video game. The next morning revealed no trace of the Downstairs People, who had vanished like a nightmare upon waking. Yet this pattern had proved to be more nuanced during the past couple times. The rules were always changing, it seemed, and he had to wonder even now when they would change in such a way that he could not escape them.
He turned towards the studio door, which he had left open. He would have to move quickly, and not be detected. The balance there was delicate, and thankfully he had been developing a mastery of it. He raised his foot for the first step, planning to make a dash. He was about to do it….
“Jimbo, old boy!”
He turned slowly, knowing what he would see.
There was a figure in the hallway behind him, closing the distance. The shadow was as broad-shouldered as a billboard and dressed in a gray suit and tie. It was, of course, Uncle Edgar, a bottle of brandy in one hand. Even in the dark, he could see that Uncle Ed was wearing his usual top hat perched on his head, looking like a country gentleman, circa 1920. The face beneath the brim of the hat was not that of a living man, but the face of a corpse a year in the ground. Black dress shoes clacked on the wood planks as he moved closer, and the dark bottle swung loosely in the long, desiccated fingers. His scent was getting pervasive, the sickly-sweet smell of mimosa mixed with a tinge of rotting meat.
Jimmy wanted to shout, to shriek, but he was not sure how this would be received. He had been guarding his reactions from the beginning, not sure how they would react if he became hysterical or aggressive.
Uncle Ed was now upon him, speaking in a genteel voice that contradicted his Golgothian face. In tone it reminded Jimmy of Basil Rathbone from the Sherlock Holmes movies his dad watched. “Jim, old son, you ought to have told us you were coming! We would have made a bed for you and had Fran set out some pudding! Your visits do excite us so!”
He just nodded and forced a smile.
Edgar put a hand on his shoulder, the fingers closing over him. The grip was cold, and he wanted to pull away. He thought of jellyfish, with their poisonous, paralyzing nematocysts. “Come along, lad. Nev and Fran will be happy to see you…and of course, Myra too.”
He was then being led towards the light, steered by the firm hand of Uncle Ed. He did not really want to go with him, but something about the touch of that gaunt hand impelled him. He was like a toy in the hands of a child, his limbs manipulated. He should have run when he heard Uncle Ed’s voice, though he felt intuitively that this would have been futile. He really should have just taken his chances with dumping the bed and not bothered coming down at all.
The living room had changed, like it always did when THEY were here. Normally, the living room was no different than any in suburbia, a cramped room with cheap furniture from IKEA and K-Mart centered around a flat screen TV. Yet now, it had become something archaic, looking like the pictures in his Edward Gorey books. Everything took on dark, earthy tones, and bore cramped, intricate textures and patterns. The walls were covered in dark green wallpaper, bearing floral designs that curved their way down to the mahogany paneling. There was a couch and two chairs, placed in a circle around a coffee table with a marble top and legs carved into claws. One wall sprouted a stone fireplace, with pillars shaped like roaring lions and a mantlepiece chiseled from black onyx. It bore several lit oil lamps along with a wooden clock that was ticking away furiously. Over the mantel was a stuffed bear’s head, the eyes bulging, the mouth open in a ferocious snarl. The floor bore an oriental rug of incredible age, with intertwined vines that writhed and twisted all over each other. Everything in the room looked like something from the Edwardian or even Victorian era, an antiquarian’s dream come to life.
Three people were seated around the coffee table, although calling them “people” was generous. A couple sat on the couch, and a young woman sat in one of the overstuff chairs, all gathered about a silver tray laid out for tea. As Uncle Ed pushed him in, their faces turned towards the boy, many holding delicate and intricately decorated tea cups in their clawed hands. His eyes went from one to the other, and he hitched his breath. He had thought, the first time, that his encounters with the Downstairs People were just nightmares. But time and the frequency of his encounters had shown him a more frightening and harsh reality.
“Lookee here!” Uncle Ed called out “I was just out for my tipple and look who I found!”
The tallest and thinnest of the horrors spoke first. He was a ghoulish bean pole with a cyanotic, horse-like face of freakish length. He was dressed in an evening jacket and dress trousers with a bowler hat atop his narrow forehead. The yellow, reptilian eyes fixed on Jim, and the thin lips parted to reveal fanged teeth. “Why Jimbo” the creature crooned “you really should notify us when you come by. You do get around, old son.”
Jim smiled, but could not force himself to speak. His voice simply would not come.
The blue man, the patriarch of the family, cocked his head. “You alright, my lad? You don’t look well.”
“He’s under the weather, I should think,” said the hag sitting next to the blue man. She might have been pretty, but her face looked as if it had been through a meat grinder. She wore a lacy forest green dress that, like the clothes of her husband, seemed to come from a period a hundred plus years past. Her scab-coated cheeks crackled as she smiled, thought the smile did not touch her emerald eyes. “That’s right, isn’t it, Jimmy? You’re not feeling well?”
“You might be on to something, Fran, it isvery chilly these days.” Edgar said. “Perhaps it’s a cold. You had a cold last week, didn’t you Neville?”
“That’s right.” the blue man confirmed. “Something goin ‘round, I suspect. Is that it, Jim? You’ve caught the shivers?”
He forced himself to nod again. With their eyes on him, it took a lot of effort to move. Standing before these creatures in his PJs he felt very self-conscious.
“Come sit by me, Jimmy,” said the dark-haired teenage girl lounging in one of the chairs. She patted the seat next to her and offered him a smile. “I think you need a rest.”
He moved stiffly (and gratefully) away from Edgar towards the girl, the youngest of the group. He slid slowly into the chair beside her, eliciting a satisfied smile from her lips. Myra was the only member of the group he trusted to any capacity, which was saying very little in any case. She was blue, like her father, but her petite features were far more humanoid than the others. Her long dark hair was held in a tangle of ribbons and she wore a black dress that seemed to consist almost entirely of bows and buttons. She reached out and put a hand on his, in an affectionate gesture. Jimmy was an only child, and in a perverse sense, Myra was something of a sisterly figure to him. She had eased him into his first visits with the Downstairs People, the result of him sneaking out of bed for sugary midnight snacks he was forbidden during the daytime, and her fawning had become one of the only tolerable things about encountering them. She had sewn buttons back onto his pajamas and repaired holes in his clothes, which was the thing that proved their reality to him: the next morning, the repairs remained, a sign to him that this was all not a dream.
As he settled in, she flashed him a smile that showed a pair of wickedly sharp canines. They reminded him of an unfriendly German shepherd in a yard up the road who always barked at him as he walked past.
“We were having tea, old son.” Neville said, turning his yellow eyes to him. “Would you like some? It might help with that cold of yours.”
Before he could reply, Myra had poured him a cup from the porcelain teapot on the coffee table. She put it on a plate decorated with interlocking blue vines and held it out to him with a smile. He took it with trembling hands, afraid to say no. He never consumed anything they gave him, a general rule that he followed religiously. Thankfully, like most of what they ate, the tea itself was hardly appetizing. It was a chunky greenish brown, like pond water. He held it awkwardly, afraid to even pretend to drink it, a process which would involve brining the grotesque stuff far too close to his lips.
“Drink it while it’s hot.” Myra suggested, with that toothy smile of hers. “It’s really good for a sore throat.” He nodded, but made no move to raise the cup. Myra was always fawning over him, and at first, the fawning had been rather enjoyable. His own parents were scarcely around these days, and he had found in the nightly visits of the Downstairs People some of the attention that he lacked. They were scary, at first glance, but he had thought of them originally just as people who were eccentric. He was helped in this transition by cartoons and shows he had seen, such as The Adams Family and the Munsters.
He had realized, quite quickly, that the Downstairs People were not at all like anything he had seen on TV.
“How about some refreshment?” said Fran, picking up a white ceramic sweets box with a lid that bore a handle shaped like a rearing steed. She took the top off and revealed the box to be full of black dirt in which crawled what looked like a breed of enormous hellgrammites. “Uncle Edgar brought these in from the garden just this morning.”
He fought to hold back his vomit. He shook his head slowly.
Myra reached out, grabbed one with her dainty fingers, and popped it into her mouth. She chewed it with a great deal of satisfaction.
“If you’re sure, Jim.” Fran said, covering the candy dish and setting it aside. “You really should eat something, though.”
“We’ll be having dinner soon enough, Fran.” Neville pointed out. “We’ll have plenty to share with Jim here.”
Edgar, who had been sipping from the brandy bottle, turned to his niece and said “I think we should have some entertainment. Myra, perhaps you could play something?”
Myra reached behind her chair and produced a dark instrument that looked like a dulcimer carved into the shape of a gutted man. The head of the dulcimer was shaped like a screaming face, with the strung-out viscera composed of guitar wire. “What would you like to hear?” she asked.
“Oh, anything.” Edgar said, with a wave of his hand. “Just give us a bit of smooth noise.”
Myra began to strum the strings, and then set about to playing a tinkling tune. It was slow and full of dulcet twangs, messaging the air with pleasant frequencies. Jimmy listened and, to his horror, found himself dropping off. He shook his head, shifted his weight, tried to keep himself from checking out. He also caught Myra glancing over at him as she played, her eyes locking with his. She smiled, but it was not pleasant to look at. That alone helped him to stay awake.
Mercifully, the play session was interrupted by a sound beneath the floor. It was loud, and difficult to describe, but it made Jimmy think of an octopus slithering over a carpet made of cellophane. It was a slimy, scuttling sound that spoke of a large number of limbs flailing about all at once. This sound was punctuated by a loud, gurgling cry which sounded like somebody trying to strangle a hyena.
“Good heaven!” Fran exclaimed. “You’ve awakened Grandfather!”
More scuttling came from below, followed by more gurgles. Jimmy had never seen the thing in the basement, but those sounds were not inviting.
Neville stamped on the floorboards with the heel of his boot and barked out “You be quiet down there!”
A hiss followed, the sound of air escaping a tire.
Neville stamped again. “I said quiet!” He looked up at Jimmy with a toothy smile. “Sorry, old son. He’s been very excitable lately. And the chains keep slipping off.”
“Jimmy, my poppet, you really aren’tlooking well,” Fran said in a fussy way that (God help him) was similar to his own mother. “Would you care for some extract? It might help.”
He opened his mouth to say something but was interrupted. Myra’s hand ran through his hair in a rather maternal manner, and she was leaning over him with a concerned look. There was a time, when he had first met them, that he thrilled at her attention. His own mother was not much for affection, and Myra’s cooing and caresses were an almost fantastical substitute. This was all, of course, before he had learned to be afraid of them.
“Mother’s right.” she said, peering at him up close. “You look so pale. I suspect those ruffians you go to school with have given you something awful.”
“Myra” Fran said, “go get some extract from the hutch. You know where it is?”
Myra sighed, standing. “Yes, mother.”
By the fireplace was a tall, carved oak hutch that was four shelf tiers high. It was intricately carved with lion paws for feet and knobs shaped like rose buds. Inside were a variety of different knick-knacks, which included silver goblets, shrunken heads, a silver-hilted dagger, a box of cigars, and a tall jar that looked as if it contained a preserved mutant fetus. From the top shelf, Myra took down a glass phial that looked like it contained green gelatin. She brought it over to him, pulling out the glass stopper. He could smell it as she held it out, something not dissimilar to pond scum.
“I can’t.” he said slowly.
“It’s no imposition, old son.” Neville assured him. “A sip is all you need.”
Myra moved the open phial closer to his face, and the smell almost made him gag. He turned his head away on instinct. Myra frowned, an unpleasant thing to see. Her hand flashed out like an adder’s strike and gripped his lower jaw. Her fingers dug into his skin, her touch hard and cold. The momentum of her clutch caused him to drop his tea cup, which hit the floor with a thud and splattered the tea on the carpet. Something scuttled out of the cup, but he didn’t get a good look at it. She forced his face forward, her grip strong.
“Come on, now, Jim. You need this.”
He tried to pull away, but failed. The phial was pressed to his lips, and tipped up. He felt the fluid pass into his mouth and down his throat. His tongue exploded with a bitterness that made his eyes tear up. He lurched forward and gagged, but nothing came up. Myra stepped aside as he fell from his chair and onto the floor. His stomach was doing a two-step in his abdomen and he shot out an explosion of vomit. He shuddered as the previous night’s dinner hit the rug.
“You’ll feel a lot better.” Edgar said. “Just give it a moment.
“Let it all out.” Fran cooed.
Finally the contractions ceased, and he managed to catch his breath. He climbed to his feet slowly, his legs like rubber. A puddle of goop lay on the carpet, staining the surface. He wondered what the response what be to this indiscretion.
Myra put a hand on his shoulder. “There you are, Jim. Feeling better?”
He didn’t, but he nodded.
“Good. Don’t worry, I’ll clean that up. Now, why don’t you go to bed?”
“A capital idea!” Neville exclaimed. “A bit of rest would do you some good, old son.”
His lips moved, but he could not manage to speak in protest.
“I think that’s best.” Fran concurred. “The young man ought to go right off to bed.”
He shook his head. “No…”
“Don’t be stubborn, Jimmy.” Myra said. “Uncle Edgar, could you show him to his room?”
“Certainly!” said Edgar, taking him firmly by the arm. “Come along, laddy.”
He tried to pull away, but the bony hand had him. Edgar was already pulling him towards the stairs, with the clear intent of dragging him up. Never before had he gone upstairs with one, and he thought immediately of his parents. What would they say at the sight of Edgar? This shambling corpse would surely excite them. But all the same, they be might be able to help him if he could alert them in time. Maybe, with their help, he could escape and they could flee the house together.
They were going up the stairs now, Edgar leading the way. “Come along old thing,” he was saying. “You’ll feel a bit better after a good evening’s sleep. No worries, Jimbo, you’re always welcome to stay with us.”
They were on the landing, and his mind raced. Should he scream? He had to wake them up somehow. If they saw Edgar holding him, then they surely could not deny his stories of the Downstairs People. Then they would have no choice but to do something, to believe him.
He took in a breath.
He was going to do it, to let his lungs loose….
When Edgar flicked on the light, it revealed a room completely different form his own. His bed had turned into an enormous canopy monstrosity with screaming faces and twisted vines carved into the posters. The floor was covered by a thick oriental carpet featuring flowery patterns and the once blue walls sported wallpaper of faded green. The far wall had a marble fireplace of incredible age. The texture of everything was claustrophobic, from the bed sheets to the carpet, bearing a litany of cramped patterns and themes.
Edgar stared at him, cocking his head. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s…” he said. He turned to Edgar, and with an accusing tone, he shouted “IT’S ALL WRONG!”
Edgar chuckled. “You need a rest, Jimbo.”
His anger burst and mixed with his rising fear. He turned on his heels and charged across the hall. He flung open the door to his parents’ room and flicked on the light. He knew what to expect, but his mind wouldn’t accept it. It was logically impossible, and from the perspective of his worst fears, inconceivable. Yet the light revealed the undebatable truth.: it was not his parents’ room, and they were nowhere in sight.
Images flashed through his mind. His face on a milk carton. His mother crying while a police officer interrogated her, the way he had seen in cop shows. His own gravestone with a bouquet of flowers laid across a mound that contained an empty coffin. He turned to Edgar, his cheeks red and his eyes streaming. “What did you doto them?”
Edgar took a step towards him. “Jimmy…”
Screaming, he ran down the stairs, taking them two at a time. His voice was hitching in his throat, and his breath was coming in gasping sobs. His mind was racing, and the fullness of his desperation was realized. They had him now. He had to get out of the house somehow, to escape. Maybe he could call the police? He didn’t know if they would believe him, but it was worth a shot.
He ran into Neville, who was standing at the bottom of the stairs. “Is there a problem, old boy?” he said, putting his hands on the sobbing boy’s shoulders.
“YOU TRICKED ME!” he shouted, “YOU DID SOMETHING! I KNOW YOU DID!”
Neville frowned. “You’re out of sorts, Jimmy.”
Edgar was charging down the stairs. “Nev! Don’t…!”
Jimmy ripped away from Neville and ran towards the door to the studio. He could circle back around and run out the front. If he could just get away from the house, maybe he would have a chance of slipping away. He could get to a neighbor’s house and phone for help. It was the only thing he could do given the circumstances. But when he pushed the door to the studio open, he realized that he had underestimated how much the house had changed. This was no longer the house he had grown up in: they had made it their own.
The studio had grown enormous, turning into a long, rectangular room that was laden with cobwebs. It was typical of their aspect of the house, the carpet with oriental patterns, the ancient wall paper with knotted vines, the tight patterns and multiplicities of textures. Gone were the airplanes and models, all signs of his father. In their stead was that aged turn-of-the-century furniture, all hand-carved with those vine and floral patterns.
In the middle of the room was a large bed that was held in a four-poster frame. The tall headboard bore a pile of pillows, and the mattress was laid over in a thick downy blanket showing peacocks and dancing elephants. Laying on the mattress was a shriveled figure dressed in a frilly white gown. In only about half a second he realized that the figure was that of a woman who was long dead. The face was shriveled to the bone, the eye sockets empty concave depressions. The tiny, bony hands were folded over the chest, in a peaceful repose. Spiderwebs blanketed the woman’s face, forming a veil around the sockets and jaw.
Cut into the headboard of the bed was a kind of shelf or platform, on which was perched a jar. It was not like a Mason jar, but a tall thing of bluish-green glass with an ornate crystalline lid. The jar was filled with a kind of thick yellowish liquid that gave off a ghostly glow. Floating in the jar was what looked like a human brain.
He was too stunned to move, the dead face grinning at him.
Neville’s tall, lanky frame filled the doorway. The expectation was that he would be angry, but when he spoke, his tone was almost fawning. “Why, Jimmy,” he said, “if you wanted to meet Grandmother, you only had to ask.”
Jimmy turned to him, feeling broken. “Please let me go…” he moaned.
Neville seemed taken aback. “Why, Jimmy, what do you mean?”
The ladies were now coming into the stairwell with a lot of clattering and clucking. Fran called out, “Are you alright, my poppet?”
“He’s getting very excitable,” Edgar said, leaning heavily on the rail. “I think it’s serious.”
“He may need a doctor,” Myra said.
Jimmy pushed past Neville and ran towards Myra as a man dying of thirst runs towards an oasis. She stood at the foot of the stairs next to Edgar, Fran peering at him over her shoulder. He fell to his knees and threw his arms around her legs, like a man clinging to a buoy. All he could do was sob, and cry out, “Please tell me where they are…please…please…please…” It was his mantra against the evil realities crashing down on him.
A cold hand touched his shoulder, and her heard Neville’s voice say, “Are you ok there, Jimbo?”
Myra grabbed him by the arm and pulled him up. He allowed her to, now drained of all energy. It was too late. The dark magic, whatever it was, had been worked, and he was stuck with them. He was pulled to his feet on legs that no longer seemed to obey him. He was resigned to this now, his name on the dotted line.
“Tuck him in, Myra.” Fran said. “Let him have a good rest. And when he wakes up, we can all sit down to dinner.”
Myra nodded dutifully and locked arms with him. “Come along, Jimmy. I’ll read you a story.”
She led him upstairs, and he walked along beside her like a somnambulist. Nothing seemed to matter anymore anyway. Like a man who has passed over the brim of a waterfall, the rest was all unavoidable. He glanced over his shoulder and saw that they were all standing at the foot of the stairs, watching his progress intently.
They gave him toothy smiles.
ANDREW HODGES is a biology teacher and a fan of all things strange and horrible. He lives in Virginia, and enjoys the naturalistic beauty of the Appalachian. He's a Blackwoodite, and tries to capture a sense of awe and wonder in his stories, as well as a splattering of spine-tingling fear.