By Amir Ghazi
Opening his mailbox on his way home from school was the most exciting event of this rottenly cold, late November day in the innocuous life of Allen. He took the parcel and shoved the letter into his hip pocket. He fished out the spare latchkey stashed beneath the flowerpot and went inside.
Before changing into his mint-green pajama set, he brought out the letter and flipped it over. His name and address were written in emerald green letters. Rarely had he received letters from anyone apart from the endless piles of tax letters and bills which filled his mailbox.
He flopped onto a sofa near the window, and ripped the letter open, then began reading it. A mixture of sadness and maddening jubilance welled inside him as he approached the end of the letter – sadness due to his grandfather’s death and jubilance regarding the two-thousand-dollar check enclosed and the house in a small town he had never heard of that the old man bequeathed him. His sadness was tempered by distance from the old man: The last time he’d met his grandpa was twelve years ago. This letter ended with his lawyer’s request to visit him at his office tomorrow in Orono, to sign some papers.
Allen had never seen that amount of money in his life. His current measly job left him constantly short of cash. He shook the check out and looked at it with amusement. Then to make sure it wasn’t a joke, he read the letter once more, this time more carefully. It was no joke at all. He’d become rich.
That night he celebrated his fortune in the small restaurant two blocks down from the school he worked in with his colleagues, and the next morning he took a taxi to Orono, Bangor. Around nine o’clock he was ushered into a small office with an oak desk in the center of it. Behind it, a small man with a paunch and hair parted to one side was holding out his hand. Allen shook it companionably.
“Have a seat, please,” the lawyer said, smiling. His rimless glasses glistened in the cold sunlight darting through the windows. “Please accept my condolences, Mr. Foster.”
“According to the will, you’re the owner of two thousand dollars and a vintage house in Ista. So I asked you to come here to sign the documents and give you the keys, and of course,” He paused, looked at Allen over his spectacles, then proceeded, “to tell you some facts about the town where your grandpa’s house is located.”
“Facts?” Allen asked nonchalantly.
“Well, you’ll surely meet odd people there,” He had taken off his spectacles and was polishing them now. “They dislike newcomers, you see. They may even try to change your mind about living in that house.”
He slipped his glasses back on again. “Do you believe in ghosts?”
Allen impatiently responded, “Never believe in such things.”
“I knew you’re a man of logic and science, after all you are a teacher.”
“So,” Allen said, wetting his lips, looking lecherously at documents on the desk. “Can we get back to our business, if possible?”
“Oh, yes, of course,” the lawyer said, smiling.
He opened the documents and reached into his front pocket, producing a snazzy pen; but Allen took out his own pen. He read them and signed them in large, sprawling letters, using his old fashioned fountain pen.
Henginson slid open his desk drawer then looked up at Allen. He fished out a rusty, silver key and held it up in front of his client.
Allen held out the palm of his hand.
“Just one more question, do you like cats?” asked Henginson, the key still in his hand.
Allen resist the urge to punch him in the face for his inane question. “No,” He snatched the key.
Half an hour later he was out in the street, yellow documents tucked under his arm. He set off into the busy crowd, planning for the upcoming Christmas holidays.
December arrived with snow, promising cold, promising a season of death. A taxi pulled up in front of a parlor during a commotion filled afternoon. The car’s door flew open and a gangly young man, bundled up in a gray overcoat and faded jeans stepped out onto the frozen cement walk. Allen looked around. On his left, not far from his grandfather’s vintage house which stood desolately on the highest hill in the town, the wreckage of what seemed once to be an aircraft dotted the white landscape. The other side was bordered with shops, a bar, and houses. Eddies of smoke rose from the smokestacks and dissipated in the lavender sky. A shop sign was creaking as it swung back and forth in the wind. Two boys passed by him, throwing snowballs at each other. Allen stamped the snow off his boots and entered the bar, dragging his luggage along behind.
Inside, the bar was pleasantly warm and hushed. Most of the chairs had been upturned on the tables. Behind the counter, the owner, his tie undone and his shirt cuffs rolled back to show his hairy wrists, was peering solemnly at Allen. Half of his face was lit by the fitful yellow light of the blinker, and Allen could make out the gash right beneath his cheek. Two men with unfiltered cigarettes jutting from the corners of their mouths were sitting in the far corner against the window.
Allen ordered a hot chili and sat at a table with his back to the entrance. He drummed his fingers on the table, waiting for his hot chili. Some minutes later, the bar’s door opened, letting the wind accompanied by flurry of snow into the bar. A cold, heavy hand patted him on the shoulder, causing him to glance back. He was a burly man about seventy with iron-gray hair and beard, draping a bleached, olive-color coat over his broad shoulders with a silver eagle, just like the one Allen had seen on the wreckage of the aircraft, stitched on its front pockets. He limped around the table, his cane thumping the floor in counterpoint.
“You must be the grandchild of Herb Foster, ain’t you?” he said as he sagged into the opposite chair, resting his cane beside the table.
Allen opened his mouth to speak but the bartender came with a hot bowl of chili and set it on the table.
“Thanks,” he said, trying to be as polite as possible.
The stranger ordered a beer and the bartender wandered off.
“Yes, sir,” Allen looked with trepidation at this enormous, muscular man addressing him from across the table. “You knew my grandpa?”
“Ayuh, we were old friends,” he said in a flat Yankee drawl. “Did I introduce myself?” But before Allen said anything the man raised his hand imitating a military salute and proudly stated, “Greg Ollander. Number 2130, a surviving veteran of World War the second.”
The two smokers in the dark corner blew out brays of laughter.
Big wind boomed and shook outside, causing the shop sign to hit the archway entrance wildly.
The bartender came by, carrying a mug of beer. He handed the coffee to the old pilot and left again.
Allen remembered what Henginson had told him, but these people didn’t seem to want to harm him and hadn’t threatened him in any way.
Allen looked down at his sweltering chili, then looked up at the convivial old man. “I guess both of you were in the World War, right?”
Greg drained off his beer, grimaced, and said, “I can’t say we met in the war, but he saved my life after my aircraft crashed into that field.” Painfully, carefully, he lifted his right leg, stretched it out, then rested it on the floor again. “Herb helped me to regain my health, gave me a job and let me marry Norma, his maid.
“I couldn’t do anything for him, shame on me. But I’m going to save his only grandchild. Listen to me, sonny,” Greg pitched his voice low, shot a glance sideways, then leaned forward as if to impart a secret. Allen caught a whiff of a cloying sweetness as he opened his mouth and whispered, “don’t go yonder in that house. It’s cursed, it’s bewitched…by…by something. None of its residents survived. They’re all dead.”
Outside the wind rippled a swatch of canvas somewhere. Allen slurped up his bowl of chili and wiped his lips with a Kleenex he had gotten from his inside pocket.
“Mr.Henginson had warned me that some folks here do not like strangers. But I assure you I’m gonna live in that house and I’m pretty sure no ghost or any supernatural creature will manifest there.”
It seemed he was talking to a stone, because Greg was looking solemnly at him.
“My wife did live in there, you have to hear her first. She–”
Allen broke in. “I’m a teacher and I’ve read lots of books about ghosts and fairy creatures. These are just superstitious notions that only dumb people believe.”
He sat up abruptly, and his knee bumped on the corner of the table. He paid the bill and asked the bartender if he could use a telephone, but the bartender informed him that there were no telephones in the town and the only way he could send a message was by telegraph.
Furious and weary, he started his way up the hill with his luggage and backpack. The path dipped, then rose to the top of a hill. It was getting dark when he saw the first edges of house just peeking out of the darkness. He stopped to catch his breath. His hand grabbing the handle of the luggage was numb and pale. He hitched up his backpack and went on trudging up to the porch steps.
This was the gloomiest, most depressing house Allen had ever seen. As he mounted the steps, the boards wailed under his weight. Finding the key, he opened the door. A musty, stale smell filled his nostrils. He stood in the doorway, the hem of his overcoat flapping around his waist in the wind. Inside was blinding dark. He groped for the light switch, but another hand was already there. Allen yanked back his hand so violently that his elbow hit the door frame. He put the palm of the other hand over his mouth to stifle the scream.
A shudder rolled through him. He had just imagined it, he thought, maybe because of the old geezer’s talks or something in the hellish chili. The walk up to the house had exhausted him and stirred his imagination past its norm. Yes, that must be it. It’s just superstition! It’s just superstition! It’s just superstition!
He lit his electric match and stepped inside. He was wary of his surroundings. The furniture presented as so many humped black shadows before him, casting long shadows on the decrepit walls. He located the toggle switch that controlled the two, bare, dangling light bulbs and turned it on before being attacked by a fresh bout of the shivers. The hall glowed in the lurid orange color of the lights. Dust coated the floor and furniture like fresh fallen snow flurries. The Black Forest cuckoo clock kept time on the far wall. In front of him was a scorched stove with soot around it on the floor. There was a colossal table in the center of the hall. Resting on it, a little off the center, were two silver candlesticks with a strand of cobweb bridging them.
Allen dumped his backpack on the sofa near the stove, kicking a cloud of dust into the air. The kitchen was dingier than the other rooms. It had a wooden floor that had been scrubbed nearly white. The curtains were tattered and moss had grown through the tiles. He advanced toward the back stoop.
The back lawn consisted of a small, fenceless field slanted steeply down toward a vast expenses of dark, misty forest. Allen stood on the back stoop with an armful of roughly chopped wood logs tucked under his arm and looked around. On the left side of the stoop, against the railing, where logs had been piled up to the eave, was a defunct charcoal brazier. From where he was, he was only able to see the top of pines craning their necks to peer around through the sea of floating opaque fog.
He spent the next two hours cleaning the dust off the furniture, coaxing the stove back into work, and removing the drop cloths that covered some of the sofas.
To his surprise, the second floor had no electricity at all. It had a narrow corridor with a window at the far left, a grimly, claustrophobic bedroom in the middle, and a bathroom at the other end. He changed all stubs of candles with new ones he had found in the kitchen cabinet. The corridor flickered with the glimmering light coming from the candle holders on the wall. There were also paintings nailed to the wall opposite the candle holders , all by artists unknown to him.
He was too exhausted to clean up the mess on the second floor so he decided to sleep on one of the sofas downstairs. He started a fire in the stove with kindling, stoked it up to a blazing heat and lay on a sofa. His dinner that night was a homemade sandwich and a Coke.
With his belly full and the warmth radiating from the stove, he drifted into a deep sleep. He woke up famished the next morning. He set out down to the town to buy necessary stuffs for the house. It was Christmas Eve day, and the limited array of shops in the small village were crammed with people. Allen pushed his way through the crowd to the counter.
“Allen,” a voice called out from behind.
Allen’s head jerked back. Greg was leaning against his cane. He beckoned him over with a nod of his head. “I’m sorry for the last night, my son,” he said. “I hope you accept my invitation for a delicious breakfast in my home. My wife bakes the best cupcakes here, and she is waiting for both of us now.”
Allen’s churning stomach provided all the incentive he needed, and he gladly accepted the old man’s invitation.
Greg’s cottage was located in the shadow of an old, gnarled tree that dwarfed the cottage itself. He hobbled up the stone steps and opened the door for Allen. The scent of baking bread wafted in from the kitchen.
Greg put chunk of wood logs in the fireplace and sat in a wicker chair.
“Norma,” he called his wife. “We’ve a guest, dear.”
She turned off the faucet and came out of the kitchen, drying her pink, chubby hands with the flour-caked apron that ran just below her huge bosom. She was a porky woman with blond hair that was dark at the roots. Her hair was drawn back loosely under a kerchief and a golden crucifix hung around her neck.
Allen stood up and shook her hand, his hand swallowed up in the voluminous flesh of hers. Meanwhile, Greg lit a cigarette and was puffing on it. He tossed the burnt match upon the fire. “Our new friend is hungry. Is the breakfast ready, hon?”
Norma brought out hot cupcakes and fresh milk. They sat by the fire and ate them. The logs crackled and popped in the fireplace.
“How was the first night?” Greg’s bushy eyebrows raised and his brow crinkled in a humorous way.
At first Allen wanted to divulge his horrid experience of the mysterious hand on the light switch that had met his, but he decided to tell him that it was an ordinary night.
“As I’d told you, Norma did live in that house for a couple of years.”
Allen smiled disdainfully and shoveled another cake into his mouth. “Did you…observe anything odd?”
She fiddled with her fingers, then looked at Allen. “Odd is not the proper word for describing that place. I worked for years in that house, and every night something terrible happened,” she said, quivering, and Allen observed that she was shaken and fighting back the tears.
“In all of the time that I lived alone in that house,” she stated, wiping a tear that slipped down her collagen-rich cheek, “I swear to God I’ve closed more doors than I’ve opened.”
Her words made the hair on Allen’s neck prickle. He set his glass down and gaped at her. He bit down on his lips. He was afraid that he might throw up if he opened his mouth.
Norma pressed on, “I always thought Gloria, my cat, had a staring problem… she always seemed fixated on my face. Until one night, when I realized that she was always looking just behind me.” Now the tears were flowing down her cheeks like two silver streams.
“What happened to the cat?”
“She’s dead,” Greg said, soothing her wife by patting on her hunched shoulder.
Allen shuddered at the idea of returning to the house, but he found himself treading back up the hill anyway. Twined around his fingers were drawstrings of brown shopping bags with small letters on them. The stories about the house, Norma’s shaken demeanor, and the mention of the dead cat troubled him deeply.
He entered the house cautiously, but everything seemed in order. He chuckled softly to himself and again dismissed the stories as a bunch of silly nonsense, though his mind kept drifting back to them. A quick rinse was all he had time for, so he stripped to its shorts, put them into the hamper, and shuffled toward the bathroom. The door stood ajar. He was sure he had closed it this morning. Allen peeked inside. He felt more gooseflesh ripple up his bare back as he saw a dark shape behind the semi-transparent curtain. He mustered his courage and took a tentative step forward, his heart pounding so hard he felt it might choke him.
He swished aside the curtain and to his relief the tub was empty.
That afternoon he went out to have a look around the grounds. The farther he walked from the house the safer he felt. He stopped two hills down from the one he lived on and sat on a saddle-shaped rock. He looked off to the horizon, where the silky, purple sky was stitched firmly unto the white ground with invisible threads, painting a soul-stirring portrait before his eyes.
He reached into his inside pocket, found a pack of cigarettes, and shook one out. Ghosts and jinns did exist only in children’s books; and he, as a man of logic and science, was sure that all he had heard and seen were just hallucinations – tricks of his mind on the suggestions of these silly villagers. Maybe they were making joke of him, or maybe the bartender had spiked that chili with something stronger than peppers the very first night. The jumble of thoughts rolled over in his mind.
He let the butt of cigarette– he had smoked it all the way down to the filter– fall off between his fingers. Tonight was Christmas Eve, and he didn’t intend to ruin it with foolish thoughts taken from children’s ghost stories.
By the time he reached home, the snow flurries had begun drifting, like cold ashes descending from the sky. Allen looked up at the tarred, starless sky, studying it carefully for the last time in his short life.
Although Greg had asked him to spend the night with them, he returned to his grandfather’s old house to correct his students’ workbooks in his bedroom. Practical work would provide the cure for all the fanciful notions about the house. He went over to the window, looked out into the darkness, and watched the snow fall outside, filling the world up with blankness. The people were celebrating the Christmas in the town now.
Ten minutes later he was sleeping deeply amid the scattered papers of his students’ assignments. Outside the wind gusted and hooted around the eaves, and the building groaned. At some time past two a.m. a telephone shrilled away persistently downstairs. Groggy and disoriented, he got up to answer it, scattering papers on the floor as he half-fell out of the bed. Its ringing echoed through the cold house.
He had taken no more than two steps toward the hall when he realized there was no telephone in the house. He ran upstairs and rushed for the basin in the bathroom, sure he was going to vomit everything he’d eaten that evening. He hung over the basin, eyes closed and mouth open. He produced one burp and leaned there a moment longer. When he was finished, he rinsed his mouth and spat.
There was a knocking on a glass. He glanced back sharply at the small, round window behind him. At first, he thought the knocking was coming from that window, from a branch outside in the wind; but then he realized it was a tapping coming from the very mirror he was standing in front of. He backed a step away, fighting down the fear rising in him.
All at once he went feral and punched the mirror. The reflection was suddenly split by a jagged, silvery crack. The mirror fell on the floor and shattered at his feet, leaving only the plastic ring to stare at him like a blinded eye. Allen backed slowly out of the bathroom, a towel was wrapped clumsily around his hand, once yellow, it was now all bloom and full of blood. He was too flabbergasted to think.
A cold draft blew up through the stairs into the dimly-lit hallway, extinguishing the flames of the candles attached to the wall, leaving him alone in darkness. Fear seized him. He stayed rooted where he was. The moonlight shone through the window, revealing the small body of Gloria in the middle of the corridor, her luminescent cat eyes staring blankly at him. Suddenly Norma’s words ringed in his ears. Until I realized that she was always looking just behind me. The words echoed in the foggy maze of his mind. Allen felt a wheezing breath behind his neck, it sent chill down his spine. He knew if he looked back, whatever it was behind him, would definitely knocked the sanity out of his mind.
The cat tensed its haunches down to spring at him. Allen bolt toward the bedroom, shouldered its door open, and banged it shut behind him. His chest rose and fell with rapid breath. He peered through the keyhole, like a soldier peering over a foxhole after an artillery barrage. It was too dark to distinguish anything out in the hallway.
He locked the door and sat on the edge of the grubby bed. His head was lowered, his hair hung down, obscuring his paper-white face. He stared up at the poorly-built attic. The papers swirled around in the gust of wind coming from under the door. It whirled around his head. After an endless time, he blacked out.
Greg Ollander couldn’t rest that night. He was worried about the young man who hadn’t come to the party. He lay in his bed, listening to the sleet patting gently on the frosting window of their bedroom. A horrible premonition came to him. What if young Foster was in a trouble? Why hadn’t he partaken in the party? They had been expecting him. He felt too flustered to mull those questions with any satisfying clarity in his agitated mind.
To prove that there was nothing to worry about, he got dressed and picked up a lantern, and then went out. Small flurries of snow whirled in the howling gust, hitting persistently against the light shield of his coat and casting giant shadows on the ground under his feet. He wrapped his shawl tighter around his neck. The town was now forlorn of folks. Greg passed the shop. The yellow blinker, behind him now, made his shadow appear and disappear on the frozen walk in front of him.
The last thing Allen saw distinctly was his alarm clock flashing 4:07 a.m. before a hideous body pushed its knife into his neck, its other hand muffling his screams. His body broke out so painfully in gooseflesh that he writhed on the bed and sat bolt upright. He was soaked in cold sweat.
He was relieved it was all only a dream, but a glance at his alarm clock on the nightstand only read 4:06 a.m., Allen heard the closet door creak open.
A bobbing lantern appeared through the darkness. Greg plodded up the porch steps, snow melting in his beard. The door hung completely ajar. He peered around and went in. The only sound was the ticking of the Black Forest cuckoo clock in the hall.
He went upstairs slowly. The corridor was illuminated with the candles’ shimmering flares. Greg stood lingering at the bedroom door, holding the lantern tightly in his hand, and knocked thrice with his other hand. No one answered.
“Sonny, are you there?” he said, knocking again. There was a wheezing sound, followed by two weak thuds.
The old man cocked his head and listened again.
He kicked the door open and reeled backward suddenly, as if struck hard across his face with an invisible spade when he saw Allen lying completely naked at the foot of the bed. A deep, red gash ran diagonally just below his right ear and down across his throat to his Adam’s apple. Blood was draining out of him, following the thick liquid flow to the accumulating crimson puddle on the floor beneath his head. He kneeled beside him. The smell of the brew of fresh blood, urination, and sweat floated in the air nauseating Greg.
Allen clutched at his sleeve, trying to pull himself to an upright position. His dreadfully dry lips parted open, gushing the hot blood onto old man’s face and neck. No words came out of his mouth but a deep, strangled gurgle. He was choking on his own blood. Greg pressed his hand against the opened cut and felt the rush of hot blood and the repulsive movements of Allen’s Adam’s apple over his palm. It seemed like to prevent sea water from reaching a boat by slamming a hand over the soon-to-be-broken crack.
Allen’s thin, hot fingers made a feeble grasp of Greg’s wrist, slipping off like cooked spaghetti, and his body began to shake as his soul began to sever its ties with his body. The temperature of the room had skyrocketed.
“You’ll be okay, boy, you’ll be okay,” Greg babbled. He could make out the mordant shine in his feverish eyes.
Allen’s upper body raised from the floor and slumped back as the last painful puff of air abandoned his deflating lungs through his mouth and badly mutilated throat. And, for just a heartbreaking heartbroken moment his body was as still as the floorboards.
Greg had never seen such depressing, gruesome scene, even when he was at war.
Something soft and purring brushed past his waist. In the yellow glare of the lantern he recognized his wife’s cat. Her purring metamorphosed into a moaning. She was looking over Greg’s shoulder as the door clicked shut, closing away the corridor’s light.