The demon who has haunted your family for generations…

Writing Prompt
The demon who has haunted your family for generations pays you a visit to tell you you’re next.

“Now, remember, children: Aunt Millie will be here in five minutes. No; don’t you give me that face! Robbie, don’t groan like that. You aren’t going to do that when she comes, are you? No, you’re not. Owen, get over here and let me tuck in your shirt.”

I pretended focused interest in my book as soon as Deb began talking. She always thought I couldn’t hear her, but my poor body automatically came to attention whenever her pinched nasal tone rang through the halls. If only she’d not decided to stand in the foyer to command the boys, then I could have slipped upstairs or out back.

Too late.

“Jim!” Footsteps.

“Jim, honey,” she paused behind me, gathering patience. She’d recently read a marriage book that recommended communicating in a way that made each of us feel acceptance. So far I’d had decreased yelling, but increased audible sighing.

“Jim, did you hear about your Aunt Mildred?” I heard her footsteps come around the couch, then hazily made out Deb’s body shape beyond my mystery novel. She had a hand on a hip.

“Yes?” I asked, neutrally. I shouldn’t have.

*Sigh* (That was Deb)

“I said Aunt Mildred would be here in five minutes. You’re the one who told me about it last night.” She gave me her stern face. “At eleven o’clock last night.”

My face betrayed my attempts at nonchalance as I felt it scrunch into a guilty expression. “Oh, yeah.”

I smiled sincerely up at Deb. “Thanks, Deb! I’ll go make sure the front porch looks inviting.” I got up and was outside before she could realize I had escaped. I heard another exasperated exhalation just before I pulled the door carefully closed.

A car noise nearby made me jump. I turned to look, but the offender was merely a passing VW. She wasn’t here yet.

Despite what assurances my wife gave us, I was with my boys: Aunt “Millie” was not an event to look forward to. I thought to run an errand or request an out of town convention from my boss, but knew that wouldn’t work.

My dad used to try avoiding her. But If he ran to the store, Aunt Mildred would wait. I still remembered her stiff, high-buttoned, lacy-collared form sitting disapprovingly straight in our front room chair, waiting with a stern frown for his return.

And no matter how impromptu my dad planned business trips, his dear aunt would always plan a surprise return visit the minute his car came home from the airport.

I realized now, upon reflection, that I had also heard my father ruefully exclaim, “I should have known better.” When pressed, he’d mumble something about Uncle Earl never being able to shake Mildred, either.

I frowned. Something wasn’t quite right.

A robin called to his friend from across the yard. Another bird answered cheerfully.

From inside the house, I heard a yell, scrambling feet, and “M-o-o-o-o-m!” Deb’s high tones soon followed, plus a smack that may have been something falling and not a love pat to some offender’s rear end.

Tuning it all out, I set my book on the front porch bench. I pulled my phone from my pocket and dialed.

“Hello?” My mother’s unsure voice asked, although I knew she would have seen my name on her screen.

“Hi, Mom!” I said brightly. “It’s Jim.” I paused, then joked, “Your son.”

“Oh, hi, Jim dear. How are you?” Mom said. I could hear her smile. She was always willing to play along, which made her a fun grandmother for my children.

“I’m good.” I studied the hideous flip-flop and water balloon wreath on our front door. “I was just calling to ask you a question, Mom.”

“Okay, dear. Shoot.” I could mentally picture my mother settling onto whatever chair she was near, even if she was out shopping.

I toyed with a stray balloon. “I just wondered if you could tell me about Aunt Mildred.” She didn’t respond, so I continued, “You know, is she my great aunt? Dad’s? Earl’s?” Nothing. “She’s been around for a while,” I added, teasing.

“Mom?” I asked, then frowned and looked at my phone screen. The call had dropped.

“Hello James,” a familiar female voice clearly enunciated behind me. I froze, then turned.

I hadn’t heard a car, but her suitcase sat by her feet. I hadn’t heard footsteps, though she still wore those black antique boots with the hard soles. I should have at least noticed the birds were no longer chirping.

“Au-Aunt Mildred,” I managed, pocketing my cell phone. She hated them and refused to have them in her presence.

“Yes,” she stated. Her ageless eyes bored into mine. “I’ve come, just as I promised, James. You’re next.”

Sleep Tight, Continued

I can only blame my grandfather. “You like antiques,” he’d told me, smiling. He didn’t smile often, so that should have clued me in. He also loved a bargain; to the point of renting the discounted room, that smelled of everything used, if the motel clerk knocked the price down so low that most people would smell a rat. Literally.

“You need somewhere to live for a while,” he’d added. “I won’t even charge you rent till you get back on your feet.” Being my own grandfather, most people would see this as generosity. In my present, stressful circumstances, I think I convinced myself of this as well.

“You like antiques,” I mimicked, as I re-tied the kerchief around my sweating hairline. I checked it in the hallway mirror, which returned a distorted, musty outline of my strained features. I heard Sam yelling outside, but he was calling his brothers to play in the mud pile. It was better than the potentially-poisonous foliage.

I sighed. I would clean the bathroom first.

The bedrooms had made my skin crawl. Well, they’d made it feel like something was crawling on my skin. My hesitant inspection of the bathroom, safely conducted from the doorway, had the added sensation of my stomach reacting. I never could handle mold. That was one reason why I would sleep in the car over the discounted motel room option. Grandpa would say I’d get used to it, but I didn’t. The mold would grow in my mind the way it was surely growing inside the walls, entering the air sacs of my children’s lungs and poisoning them for life.

I not only smelled mold, I could see it. Someone, somewhere along the line (probably another victim of a well-meaning patriarchal relative) had installed more modern plumbing in this room and the kitchen. By the looks of things; that person had cleared the space needed for improvements, installed them, then left them victim to whatever time wished for decades. I assumed that was the reason for the water damage.

Browning spots, circled darkly then fading to the middle, were splashed around the crumbling plaster walls. The floor looked sound, at least. It was filthy like the rest of the house, but whole. There were probably creatures holing up under the sink cabinets, but we weren’t going to fall through to the basement.

I didn’t see the bathtub until I was brave enough to stick my head in farther. It sat very solidly against the door-wall, and the sight of it was the first time I considered a word like haunted. Then, of course, I told myself I was too old to feed my phobias and I’d watched too many scary movies about bathtubs (two, to be precise).

Whenever I saw a free-standing antique tub, I couldn’t help but hyperventilate a little. My mind would detach just slightly from the concrete world at hand and, instead, see hands groping the air above the too-deep water as a murderer shoved a helpless body down into the porcelain depths where no human had strength to prise the ancient stopper from the drain.

Laughing and yelling, the sounds of play, the sunlight bravely glancing in through bubbled glass, all helped to bring me back to the crusted, spotted ground on which the tub sat. “Just a tub,” I told myself. I kept telling myself.

This mantra sustained me through sweeping, dusting, bleaching, and scrubbing. It barely hummed when I first turned on the water, though. “It’s just rust,” I added, for good measure. I impatiently watched the dark liquid splash around the bathtub I’d just sanitized. “Just a tub. It’s just rust.” I told my mind to stop seeing what the water really resembled, even as I couldn’t help but glance over my shoulder or around the room.

Maybe it would have helped me to know they didn’t like the bathroom, either.

Sleep Tight

I never would have slept in that bed, normally. In fact, why stop at the bed? The house, alone, was a bad idea: dilapidated, creaking, practically condemned. Faded, peeling, nondescript paint hung tenaciously from the wood slats and window frames. Fresh air hung tenaciously from without, occasionally sneaking in through assorted gaps.

Mostly it was the vermin that made me nervous. I looked around the dusty, filthy floor and was certain I heard scuttling everywhere. Pieced sunlight streaming through the boards across the window played across the litter at my feet and rested on the bed I was meant to sleep in: an antique metalwork frame straining to hold its own lumpy mattress. Its own lumpy, dusty, filthy mattress.

Good thing we brought our own blankets. Too bad I didn’t bring my own house, or bed.

The boys’ room wasn’t much better, in terms of cleanliness. Peering carefully through the door, my hands twitched as I imagined crawly things attaching to my hair. I slapped and scratched at sudden, suspicious itches on my body and scalp.

The boys were going to have to play outside¬†till I could fumigate this place. For a few days. Hopefully they wouldn’t fall in the old well, land in the winding creek, or swim¬†through possible poison ivy in the tired old forest that clothed most of the hill on which the house rested.

I should have realized that insects, mice, cobwebs, repair, and dirt were not the biggest problems.

When the warm, friendly sun penetrated most of the house, I saw only that the physical problems were significant.

Looking at the spots on the bedframe and its mattress, I’d told myself that sleeping would be uncomfortable, if not impossible. I’d slept in a basement in my childhood, in a much newer house, and refused to lay under the covers for fear of night things crawling up my legs. Memories of this had crossed my mind briefly as I’d studied my sleeping arrangements.

Still, I hadn’t actually felt the nighttime. I hadn’t experienced cocooning my tired body carefully in the middle of the old mattress, nor staring up at the dark ceiling. I didn’t watch imagined movement wherever my imperfect vision blurred at the edges of clarity.

Most importantly, I had never considered who else still lived there. Well, more precisely, who else lingered. I’m certain they were no longer alive.