Grandma’s house was dusty and dark when we arrived for Christmas Eve. Her milky eyes and clawed hands weren’t so helpful for keeping a clean house anymore, but she was too proud to ask any of us for help. My mom sighed, and set about assigning tasks to us kids.
“We can’t decorate until everything is clean,” Mom said.
I groaned. Mom narrowed her eyes.
“Carla,” she said in that warning tone she often got with me, but I grabbed my cousin Ina’s hand and dragged her away to the parlor before she could continue scolding.
Good thing Ina was always more thoughtful than me, because she had rags and furniture polish in the hand I hadn’t grabbed. We worked our way around the room, turning on lamps, dusting off the thick layer of grey that coated everything, Ina chattering away.
“…and then Marcus said that he wouldn’t ever date Gina because she smells like pea soup…”
I ignored Ina as much as I could, but that was hard because her voice was loud and grating. She had no volume control, no inside voice I could remind her to use. Not that she would have listened to me. She was a whole three weeks older, which she reminded me of every time I tried to suggest she do something different.
She was still going on about Marcus and smelly Gina when I came to the fireplace. A whole year of grime lay before me, begging to be cleaned. I sprayed it with the polish and began rubbing.
The ornate carvings made it difficult, and I wished I had some q-tips and several hours to get into each crevice. Grape vines and dancing men, beautiful and pleasing. Grandma’s family must have been very rich, or very talented, to make this. I’d never asked her the story behind the mantle, easily the centerpiece of the house, but I would ask her this year.
Grandma was a woman of few words, but I hope she’d tell me the story. Her childhood was a mystery, and we’d all learned early not to ask too many questions. My mom answered any questions we had to the best of her ability, but always warned us not to ask Granny.
The one time I’d asked Granny about her life, she threw her spoon into her soup bowl and screeched about nosy children who didn’t understand their place.
I never asked another question.
“I hate cleaning,” I said, interrupting Ina and my own endless thoughts. “And I wonder if this is the year the curse will befall our family.”
“You don’t actually believe in that silly story, do you?” Ina asked. “I don’t.”
“Why not? Every grandmother in our line has died on Christmas Eve. Granny’s not looking too great, and today’s Christmas Eve.”
“Oh, shut up,” Ina said. She threw a dirty rag at me. “Besides, it’s not every grandmother. Just every other.”
“Okay, yeah. Every other. As in ours.”
Ina ignored me, and I returned my attention to the mantle. One grape on the right side was particularly grimy, and I rubbed it harder with the cloth.
“Damnit,” I muttered. “Get clean.”
“Language,” Ina scolded.
I shot her a dirty look, but she just returned it with an innocent one of her own. Damn Ina and her prudishness. It’s not like I’d said fuck.
I returned my attention to the grape. I pushed down with the rag, and the grape depressed into the mantle. Fear froze my body, icing its way from my head to my toes. I broke the carvings.
With shaking hands, I brought the rag away from the mantle. Ina hummed to herself behind me, lost in dusting the baseboards. At least she’d stopped talking.
The grape was pushed down deep, far lower than the other grapes around it. But, a small drawer had also opened beneath it, cutting through the chest of one of the dancing men.
Relief flooded me. I hadn’t broken it. I wouldn’t get into trouble.
A rustling noise behind me made me turn around. Grandma shuffled into the room, her slippers scuffing on the hardwood floor. She was bent and crooked, her figure imposing and terrifying even in its twistedness. I didn’t want to be afraid of her, but I couldn’t help it. She’d never been overly affectionate, which had led to my never really bonding with her. And now she was just a scary old woman whose temper got worse with every task she was no longer able to do herself.
I looked into the little drawer before she could make her way across the large room. A small key lay nestled inside. I grabbed it, and slid the drawer closed as quietly as I could. It closed with a small snap as the grape popped back into its normal position.
With a sigh of exhaled anxiety, I pocketed the key. I’d look at it later. For now, a semi-blind old woman was picking her way through the living room toward me.
“Not breaking things again, are we?” Grandma said. Her voice was thin and ancient, its sound even more grating than Ina’s despite its softness.
“No, Grandma. Just cleaning,” I said.
Ina popped up from the floor and held out the dusty rag. As if Grandma could see it.
“We’re doing just fine, Grandma” Ina said. “But thanks for checking on us.”
“Hmmph,” Grandma said. She began her slow scuffle back toward the door.
Ina and I stayed still, watching Grandma’s retreating back. I felt bad for the woman. No matter how intimidating I found her, she was still just an old woman trying to do the best she could and being told it wasn’t good enough. But those charitable thoughts were easier to have when she wasn’t staring at me, demanding answers.
I turned the key over and over in my pocket, waiting for her to leave. Waiting for the opportunity to look at it better.
The key was black and ornate. Heavy. Old. It lay in the palm of my hand in a shaft of moonlight streaming through a crack in the shutters, its heft more than I’d have ever expected from a key so small. It was barely half the length of my pinky finger.
Ina, Marie, Jessie, and Toni slept on the other futons in the bedroom we always shared. Their breath came regular and even. I risked life and limb by climbing my way through the minefield of spread-out cousins on the floor. The door creaked slightly as I opened it. I froze, held my breath for a few beats, but no one in the room stirred. I shut the door behind me. It didn’t creak going the other way, and it closed with a quiet click.
The long hallway lay dark before me, suggesting I return to the safety of the bedroom. But the key weighed in my hand, a promise of adventure and novelty in a house that had seen little of that my entire lifetime.
I’d never seen a mysterious locked door in this house, but I was determined to find it. If the key was hidden, the door may be too. I’d start with the fireplace.
For over an hour, I pushed on each knob and whorl, each carving and ornament. No dice. Strangely, even the grape that had spat out the hidden drawer at me was no longer working.
The grandfather clock in the corner struck midnight. I whirled around at the sound, heart pounding. The chiming mocked my inability to find that which was hidden.
I leaned against the mantle, hoping it would open a secret panel in the walls like I’d seen in so many movies, but the walls stayed firmly shut. I picked up each candlestick and nick-knack on the mantle, but each came away easily. I stifled a frustrated groan.
I flopped onto the couch in defeat. I sat until the grandfather clock chimed the half hour.
A shuffling noise down the hallway stirred my attention. I turned my head toward the noise as it grew louder, making its way through the darkened house and into the parlor where I sat.
My grandmother was even more terrifying in the dark. Her head was shrouded in a scarf, her white nightgown flowed behind her, both giving her a wraith-like appearance. If it weren’t for the scuffling of her feet, I’d have thought her a figment of my imagination.
“The door’s over here, dearie.” She pointed with her arthritic fingers toward the wall behind the television stand. No wonder I hadn’t been able to find it.
“Thanks, Granny,” I said. A little part of me suggested caution, but I hopped off the couch anyway and slid the stand away from the wall as carefully as I could. Only one small Santa fell off, his face contorted in the darkness into a scowl, censuring me for disrupting his slumber.
Grandma pushed an invisible spot on the wall and a false panel opened up, just like I’d hoped for. It revealed a wooden door, unimpressive and plain with a black lock that matched the key in my robe pocket. I’d been expecting something a little more exciting, but my hand automatically reached out, stuck the key into the lock, and turned it. That, at least, gave a satisfying ka-thunk as it turned.
I finally hesitated, a pit growing in my stomach. How had Grandma known what I was doing?
This had all felt so natural, her coming to help, my willingness to follow along. The magic of midnight hours made the strange feel normal, and hid the truth too well. A pang of fear jolted through me, and the certainty that I needed to be back in bed overwhelmed me.
I looked back at my grandmother, who smiled at me, a leer in the shadows of the dark. I opened my mouth to say goodnight, to leave this room and go back upstairs, but my body betrayed me. I smiled back, and I opened the door.
Behind was pitch black. Cold seeped out, giving the feeling of a large space. Impossible. My brain was churning out information about how on the other side of the wall was the dining room and there shouldn’t be space for a cavern inside the house, while my body swayed on the threshold.
Despite the chill, the unknown beckoned me. Something inside of me screamed at me to shut the door and leave, but I couldn’t have ignored the pull if I tried. The room drew me inside.
Grandma followed me in, her scuffling feet right behind me. I felt her clawed hands on my back, shoving me further in. And I felt the floor rising up to meet me as I tumbled into the dark.
Pale light from a weak winter sun streamed through the parlor windows, hitting my eyes and waking me. I hadn’t meant to stay here all night, but dragging my old body down the hallway and into bed had left me too exhausted to bother mounting the stairs and then picking my way through Carla’s cousins and into her own bed.
My bed now.
Granny had died in her sleep, on Christmas Eve, just as every other matriarch of the family died. The Family Curse, they called it.
A gift, I called it.
I slipped the key back into the secret drawer in the mantle, ready for the next generation to find.