The Christmas Corridor

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.

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Guest Story: Insubstantial

Happy Friday the 13th, everyone! In honor of today, please enjoy a story written by my wonderful friend and writing buddy, Kate Sheeran Swed.

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Image from Pixabay

 

Calliope cannot convince her blood to circulate.

It is the sensation of waking with one arm splayed on the pillow, the limb drained and temporarily useless—only it tingles throughout her body. She can’t convince her numb fingers to grasp the doorknob.

The window is open, and she sneaks onto the slope of the roof more easily than ever before. Though she can’t manage her usual grip on the gutter, her ankles don’t smart when she lands.

She is weightless. She almost giggles, thinking of how she will surprise her mother by walking in the front door. But a cold feeling against her spine stifles her laughter. It is like getting up to use the bathroom at night, when the darkness convinces her to waste no time in returning to her room, lest the monsters should realize there’s a morsel out of bed.

If she loses her grip on the earth she will fly away, a balloon without a tether.

Calliope gives her head a shake, willing the dizziness to pass. Soon she will go inside, where her mother will press a cool hand against her forehead and check for fever. For now, she scans the yard for something familiar. The trees tilt, and she blinks to set them right. The flowerbeds wobble from daffodil to snapdragon, a double exposure in her brain.

Through the chaos, she catches sight of her lunchbox, anchored in the grass. She tries to remember the last time she held the handle, but it’s hard to distinguish the difference between days and years.

It should not be here. It belongs on the kitchen counter, jaw unhinged, waiting to be sated with peanut butter sandwiches and notes from her mother: Don’t forget to hand in your lunch money! Always with a heart.

On the street, kids hurry by, backpacks quivering as they cast wide-eyed glances at the house. Calliope kneels before the lunchbox. She expects damp knees, but no sensation leaks through her jeans.

There are two boys beyond the fence now, poking noses and fingers between the bars and whispering, jabbing one another with elbows. Calliope cannot hear what they’re saying. She wants them to leave her alone.

The lunchbox is decorated with a unicorn. There are rainbows on the thermos. But the hinges are rusty, the unicorn’s horn all but faded away.

Calliope reaches for the clasp.

One of the boys squeezes between the bars of the fence, pauses, looks back to his friend. The friend urges him on with a bright red sleeve.

“What do you want?” asks Calliope. The boy looks past her and swallows, then darts toward the porch.

Calliope decides to pay him no mind. She touches the tip of her index finger to the clasp on the unicorn lunchbox.

Her finger disappears. When she pushes forward, alarmed, the rest of her hand follows.

She jerks it back.

The boy reaches the porch, touches the bottom step. For a moment, the house settles in Calliope’s vision, and she sees it as if for the first time.

The porch swing hangs drunkenly from one chain. The welcome mat is gone. The kitchen window is broken, mold-black curtains hanging dirty and frayed.

It’s disorienting, like stumbling into a carnival and searching for a familiar strain through the cacophony of clashing tunes.

The boy hurtles back down the walk while his companion giggles.

Calliope is heat. She pours it into her fingers, curls them around the handle, and hurls the lunchbox with all the substance she has left.

The boys scream when the box hits the fence. They run.

Calliope sinks once more to her knees and tries to piece it all together, her thoughts no more solid than the ground beneath her feet. She will grow too heavy for the surface and descend through layers of earth, forget her place in time and fall through the years, until everything exists at once. She will hear the reason for the cockroaches, and how they keep the melody of the world from tilting off key.

The day slinks on.

*

Calliope cannot convince her blood to circulate.


Kate Sheeran Swed loves hot chocolate, plastic dinosaurs, and airplane tickets. She has trekked along the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu, hiked on the Mýrdalsjökull glacier in Iceland, and climbed the ruins of Masada to watch the sunrise over the Dead Sea. Following an idyllic childhood in New Hampshire, she completed degrees in music at the University of Maine and Ithaca College, then moved to New York City. Her stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Electric Spec, and Fantasy Scroll Magazine. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Pacific University. You can find her at katesheeranswed.com or on Twitter @katesheeranswed.

Halloween Short Fiction Contest!

This year, in honor of my favorite season, I’m running a flash fic contest for Halloween! Read on for details.

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What: Short fiction under 1000 words in the spirit of Halloween! Give me creepy, spooky, or funny. Let your imagination run wild and do what you do best! (Please, no graphic violence.)

Where: Send your submissions pasted into the body of the email to writingrosa at gmail dot com. Any emails with attachments will be disqualified and deleted.

When: Sub your stories by October 1!

Who: 18+ humans can submit. 🙂

There will be 1 winner and 2 runners up! Your stories will be posted on my blog during October and all winners will receive e-copies of a creepy Halloween book (Book TBD!)

Good luck and happy writing!

Cinderella, At the Ball

Light seeps in around the edges of the door. Not enough to see by, but enough to know it’s daytime and I should stop sleeping now.

I pick at the hole near the baseboard of the closet. Insulation pokes out and makes my hands itch, but I ignore it. I focus on making the hole bigger.

My plan to escape the closet came after hearing mice in the walls, scrabbling around as I tried to sleep. If they can move around in the walls, maybe I can, too.

The only problem is working without making noise. As the wall rips away in my hands, the hole grows, but so does my fear of discovery. They can’t know. They can’t find out.

The jingling of keys forces me to the front of the closet. It must be time to eat. Or maybe it’s time to go to the bathroom. I can’t always keep the schedule straight.

Bright light hurts my eyes and I duck my head down until they adjust. She’s standing in front of me, blocking some of the light. Well, one of them, at least. I can never tell them apart. I think they like it that way.

She thrusts some paper into my hands. No, not paper. An envelope. I open my mouth to ask about it, but she turns and leaves. She doesn’t shut the door again, so I take it as an invitation to leave the closet.

The envelope is heavy in my hands. Who knew paper could weigh so much.

I slit it open with my fingernail and ease the contents out. Frilly pinks and whites surround elegant handwriting.

You are cordially invited to the Branson’s for Emily’s Sixteenth Birthday Masquerade
Saturday, October 31
7pm
Please wear a mask

A masquerade! My heart leaps at the thought of fancy masks, feathers, and ballgowns. I can’t let the twins know about it. They’d never let me go. I burn the invitation.

I count down the days until the ball. Back in the dark of the closet, I have to fight to pay attention, counting meals and bathroom trips. I can’t miss the party.

The hole in the wall is almost me-sized. The pieces are stacked in the back corner of the closet, as far from the door as possible. The ladies haven’t seemed to notice.

I wish I knew why they kept me in here. I wish I could tell them apart. Every time I thought I had a connection with one of them, the other would show up and confuse me again. All I wanted was to get out of this closet.

Saturday comes. Dinner is served. The ladies settle in downstairs for the evening. The soft blare of the tv reaches my ears, muffled through so many walls and doors.

The hole in the wall is big enough. I’m amazed the ladies haven’t caught me. The thought disappears once I wiggle into the space and find my way outside. I had to break another hole in the outer wall, but freedom is worth any price.

I don’t have a dress. Only the rags the ladies saw fit to allow me to wear. I run into the woods near our house. Their house, I remind myself. It was never mine.

Leaves crunch under my feet. Twigs snag my clothes and snap. I fashion a mask from sapling twigs, pliable and strong, and leaves stolen from trees. Acorns adorn the sides where jewels and feathers should be.

I am ready.

People at the party give me a wide berth. I want to dance, but no one crosses the gap between them and me. This makes me want to flip tables over, but I don’t because that would make me a bad guest. I want nothing more than to stay here.

I eat the food and stalk the edges of the crowd. No one speaks to me, but everyone watches me from the corners of their eyes.

A mirror reflects my image as I make my rounds around the room. A waif of a girl stares back at me. Dingy clothes, matted hair, a mask made of the wilds. I don’t recognize myself.

Grabbing the nearest heavy object, a crystal vase with real roses in it, I smash the mirror. The crash satisfies the beast inside me.

The music stops. Everyone stares at me, the wild girl with feral ways and bared teeth. I growl at them. They take a collective step back.

The ladies glide through the crowd, confident and calm. Without a word, they grasp my arms and guide me home. Not to the closet, though. I’ve become too good at escaping for that.

I don’t know what lies in store for me at our home. Their home. It was never mine.


Originally posted at https://burntheboxdown.wordpress.com/ for the story prompt “identical twins, a party invitation, and a locked closet.”

 

Ocean’s Pull

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Photo by Lisa

Nothing’s been the same since Pa left us last year. He got up early one morning, said he was going for some cigarettes, and he never came back. Ma said he left us for that bimbo secretary of his, but I know different.

He left us for the sea.

And now the same waves crest and crash in my soul. I’ve been trying to ignore it for Ma’s sake. She needs me. But the pull is strong and I can’t resist anymore.

It’s a wonder Pa lasted out as long as he did. I’m not as strong as him.

So tonight, when the moon is high and the night is deep, I’ll pack my things, kiss Ma’s sleeping forehead, and leave. She’ll understand. She’s got to.

Pieces of my Heart

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Photo by Lisa

“It’s not what it once was,” I said. We stared at the run down house, trying to imagine it in its prime.

I blinked back tears at the gaping windows and falling roof and porch overgrown with weeds. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

You placed your arm around me and I tried to stop shaking. As you squeezed me tighter, heaving sobs surfaced and I buried my face in your chest. I soaked the front of your shirt with my tears.

“It’s okay,” you murmured in my ear. Over and over, a mantra I clung to. I wanted so badly to believe you, but I knew it would never be okay.

They say you can never go home again. I finally believe it.

The Void

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Photo by Lisa

Silence lives on the other side of the door where the Other Family dwells. No one believes me when I tell them people live there.

“That’s just the pantry,” they laugh and open the door to show shelves full of cans and vegetables. “There’s no one living in there.”

But I know the truth. Every time I go past, light leaks around the outside of the door. I place my ear to the rough wood, hands splayed out in front of me as I balance myself, and try not to get splinters. There is nothing to hear. Not the comforting murmur of adults or the laughter of children.

There is nothing but the brilliant white void that leaks around the door. Vast, blank, and deafening.