By Nikolai Pike
2020 Horror Short Story Contest- 3rd Place
“You’re getting warmer, over!” little Susie hears over the crackling radio as she walks around the living room.
Excited by this message, she explodes up the steps, and while panting heavily, presses the down on the toggle to her walkie talkie.
“How about now?” She exhales.
The device lights up and a gentle voice responds “Warmer…”
Susie can’t be any taller than four feet but still tries her best to lift herself up on the tips of her toes to look for her grandmother Cynthia. She checks over the table, below it, behind the curtains and inside of unreasonably small cabinet spaces which nobody could ever possibly fit inside.
“Cici?” She calls out.
Susie has difficulty pronouncing her seventy six year old grandmother’s name because of her lisp. Words with a T-H are a constant hassle- so she has labelled her “Cici”- instead of Cynthia
“Scalding, it’s burning!” Susie hears over the radio.
She walks into her grandmother’s bedroom. She examines the room for the best hiding spots. Susie grabs a pillow off the bed, places it under her knees and checks under the bed, but Cici isn’t there.
Tired of looking and with her short attention span drained, she calls out.
“Where are you!?”
“You’re on fire! The heat… It’s too much to handle!” emanates now from the walkie talkie. Susie realizes that she can actually hear Cici from inside the room. She walks up to the large maple closet near the window and opens it.
“I found you! I found you Grandma!” Susie exclaims jumping up and down with excitement.
Cynthia steps out, stumbling over jackets and grabs little Susie. She gives her a large twirling hug.
“Yes you did sweetheart!”
Cici sets her down, realizing how much heavier she’s gotten just in the past few months.
“How about a sandwich huh? You must be hungry.”
“Nah, I’m not hungry.” She says while skipping out of the room towards the staircase. Cynthia follows her down the stairs into the kitchen regardless. She knows that by the time she finishes making the sandwich Susie will have changed her mind. For as difficult as it may seem to entertain an eight year old tom-boy, nothing makes her happier. Being retired and happily divorced for the past twenty years gave her both the privilege and curse of complete privacy for years. Her house has been quiet for so long that joyous screaming and chit-chatter echoing throughout her large wooden ranch house makes her feel warm again.
Susie, then again, is at the innocent phase where everything she does entertains her. In Susie’s eyes there’s nothing she can do wrong.
Susie runs out of the screened-in door and to the backyard. She slips on her zip-up, one size too large boots, and runs around, stomping in puddles of mud and picking up dandelions. She rushes to a dead tree stump after exhausting her short burst of energy. She looks at her walkie and scours through channels.
Susie is convinced that with the power of her incredible piece of technology she could reach an underground government agency, or alien planet or… whatever crazy idea she heard on tv.
She turns a dial- “Hello, this is Susie over!”
She releases the lever only to hear static as a response.
“Copy and over, we read you miss the president!” She replies to herself.
“There’s a super secret mission and we want you to be a spy to save th- the world, over?
“Over and out, anything you need me to do.” She responds again.
Now things are getting exciting. This is the most important conversation she’s had all day.
“You need to destroy the evil machine the bad guys are making in their super secret lab!” The little president insists.
“I read you, over. I will do my mission” She replies. Susie gets up and does a karate style kick, then throws three consecutive strikes. Her imaginary enemies fall to the ground in front of her. She battles a score of bad guys in the backyard.
“Mission success.” she says.
Susie picks up her radio and yells “Over and out!”…
“Over and out!” Something responds.
Susie stops, confused. It did not sound like it emanated from the radio. She looks out into the large thick array of tall trees at the edge of the yard.
Cici’s ranch house is almost entirely surrounded by thick woods. Tall trees, green shrubs and fall leaves from the season long past loom over her.
Susie looks into the dark shadows of the woods directly in front of her.
The voice that responded sounded very similar to her own, but had a rusty and deep gargling undertone. It did not sound like a normal person, rather like something learning to speak for the first time.
“Susie, your sandwich is ready!” Cici calls out from the kitchen window. She runs inside, excited to plinge her teeth into some soft white bread.
Later that night the living room slept with a late afternoon slumber. The warm tungsten lamps fight the cold blue light emanating from the TV in the corner while Cynthia sleeps with her head drooped downward on the couch. Susie sits close to the TV while cartoon network plays out in front of her. She is far more engaged with the extravagant display of toy soldiers in front of her however. They are strategically placed to battle one another on the carpet.
Susie notices a cold breeze come through the open screened-in door, a small burst of wind that makes the peach fuzz on her neck stand up- so while holding onto her favourite G.I Joe, she gets up and walks over to close it. As soon as she reaches the door and places her palm on the handle however, something else catches her attention- the dark trees, bushes and shrubs she heard a response from earlier that day.
Still wearing nothing but her short pink socks, she walks out into the backyard.
Susie walks up to the tree stump and stands in front of the green void. The forest and it’s trees are grown so tightly together, that it looks like an encroaching wall.
“This is Susie over?” She calls out while squeezing her toy.
She waits for a few long paused seconds before trying it again.
“This is Susie over.” She repeats.
“… This is Susie over.” Something whispers from inside the woods.
There’s a short moment of silence.
“Who are you?” Susie asks.
“Who- are you” it responds. It sounds like it has difficulty pronouncing each word.
Susie giggles. She finds the way it speaks humorous.
“You speak funny!” She says while laughing.
The thing imitating her in the woods doesn’t respond.
“Hey Mister you there?” She asks again.
“You speak funny hey. Mister you… there…” It responds, practicing.
“My name is Susie, what’s your name?”
“My name is… What’s yours…”
“No, that’s where you say what your name is.” Susie explains.
“That’s ok though, my mom tells me that I have to practice too. I have speaking classes every Tuesday after school, it’s really annoying. Do you have speaking classes?”
It doesn’t respond, but Susie can hear it slowly murmuring everything Susie said back to itself.
“This is my G.I Joe, he’s really strong and has a sword and can fight like a ninja, do you have any toys?” She asks.
“Toys.” It responds.
“That’s ok, if you don’t I can give you one of mine. I can’t give you him, but I have like a lot and I mean if you promise to give it back you can maybe have one… “
Silence dominates for a second.
“Yeah, I’ll give you one- I’ll be right back!” Susie says.
She joyfully skips to the backdoor.
“Just th-ree seconds.” Susie yells out as she runs inside the house and up the stairs to the guest room which she has made her own over the past two weeks. She opens a small droar and shuffles through her action figures, hot-wheels, stikbot figurines and piles of drawings.
She finds an army soldier similar to the ninja she holds dear to her and runs back down the stairs. Cynthis is now awake.
“Hey Sweetheart what are you doing?” Cynthia asks her.
“Nothing, just playing with my new friend.” She casually remarks while running outside. Cici, puzzled, follows her.
Susie runs up to the tree stump and places the army soldier on the ground.
“I got you a U.S Marine, they’re tough and I like this one because he has a cool hat but you can have it if you want, for now.” She says.
Cynthia watches from far back, worried.
“Susie, who are you talking to?”
Susie, excited, runs back to Cynthia and tugs on her arm.
“My friend, look– This is Susie, over?” She calls out towards the woods.
They hear nothing but crickets.
Cynthia is taken back. “Did you see anybody? Was there a person you were talking to?”
“No Cici, just look, it talks to me. This is Susie, over?” She yells again, this time louder.
The voice doesn’t respond.
“But I swear it was– I don’t get it.” Susie explains, disappointed.
“Come on Susie time to go to bed.” Cynthia insists.
She leads the curiously disappointed kid back inside and unlike usual, makes sure to lock the backdoor for the night.
Morning arrives and Cynthia is awakened at her retirement standard time of seven o’clock. She takes the pot of coffee off the stove and pours the steaming hot beverage into the stained china mug she’s cherished every morning for the past ten years. Wet summer fog looms over the grass in her backyard while Susie is still sleeping upstairs in her room.
Cynthia drops an egg into a boiling pot of water when she hears her phone ring.
“Hey Sweetie how are you?” Cynthia answers having reccognized the number.
“Good, what time is it there, it’s not too early is it?” The daughter responds. She has a tired raspy voice and yawns between every other word.
“No no, it’s perfect. Susie’s doing good, we’re having some fun with those walkies you got for her birthday and we’ve been playing a lot of games…” Cynthia says while sipping on the coffee.
“That’s good, she loves those. Thank you again, we should be back I think in… three days?” Cynthia can hear her daughter Anne put the phone on her shoulder and ask her husband Marcus something.
“… Two days actually. Susie starts school next week so it should be just in time.” She explains.
“Do you need me to pick you up from the airport?”
“No that’s fine we’ve got it figured out, I just wanted to call you real quick and check in- Suzie’s not awake is she?”
“No she’s still sleeping, I can wake her up-”
No that’s fine. I’ll call you later ok? I love you, and tell Susie mommy’s coming home soon of course.”
“I will. Have fun alright, love you too” Cynthia hangs up the phone.
She turns off the gas to the boiling water and takes out the scalding egg, but burns her finger and drops it in the sink. She picks it up and runs it under cool water when she looks outside at the wall of trees and is reminded of the toy Susie had left outside.
While peeling her egg, she steps out into her backyard and towards the tree stump. She looks to the ground for Susie’s toy but can’t find it. The toy Susie left near the woods has disappeared.
Susie’s mother is supposed to pick her up tomorrow, but the only thing she seems excited about is her imaginary friend in the backyard. Cynthia will observe from afar as Susie talks to what she can only hope is a figment of her own imagination. It’s perfectly normal to have imaginary friends at her age, especially when the kid is as creative and imaginative as she is. Granted- it’s not like she has many friends except for Cynthia to play with anyway… But the conversations don’t appear to be playful, instead serious. It looks as if she were spewing all of her thoughts into a diary, casually swinging her feet back and forth atop that tree stump confessing her feelings. Cynthia walks upstairs when she notices a trail of dirt.
She looks to the steps and the wet mud trail leading up to their bedrooms. She follows it up and into Susie’s bedroom. There’s a pile of dirt at the foot of her bed.
Outside Susie continues to talk.
“Do you like anybody you know?” Susie asks.
“Do you like anybody you know?” It repeats back. It’s voice seems to have improved tremendously. It now sounds excruciatingly similar to that of Susie’s. It is imitating her inflection, her pitch and speech patterns…
“Maybe.” She responds giggling.
The thing in the woods laughs as well, giggling like Susie, but harder than she.
Cynthia storms into the backyard.
“Susie, how many times have I told you to take your boots off before coming inside!?”
“But I didn’t! I didn’t wear them inside.” Susie urges.
“It’s time to get inside ok? Enough playtime. I want you to get the vacuum and clean up the mess you made.” Cynthia insists.
“I didn’t make any mess.”
“Don’t lie, come on inside now.”
“No buts, that’s enough! And you know what- I don’t want you talking to your friend anymore. It’s time to spend some more time with your Grandma Cici instead ok?”
Susie gets up with a humph and storms back inside repeating “It’s so unfair!” to herself.
Cynthia stands in the backyard and looks to the woods.
The thing in the woods stares back.
It’s night and all of the doors are locked. Susie sleeps comfortably in her bed, completely unfazed by her short spurt of anger earlier that day. A small pink suitcase is neatly packed. Inside she has packed away all of her toys and clothes. She hugs her personal favourite G.I Joe on the pillow beside her. The dirt is all gone and the room is cleaner than it has been in weeks. Cynthia was insistent that she did a good job in mopping it so that no trace of mud would be found after she left.
The wind screeches up against the paper thin window of her room.
“Susie?” Something calls from outside.
Susie doesn’t wake up.
“This is Susie over.” Something calls out in a whispering tone, imitating her voice once again.
Susie tosses around in her bed. She sits up and looks around.
“Susie, over this is Susie.” She hears from outside.
She gets up and tip toes towards the window in her small baby blue socks. She opens it and looks outside.
“Hello? Is that you?” She asks.
“Hello. Is that you.” it responds and proceeds to imitate her giggling.
“I’m sorry about earlier… But I don’t think I should be talking to you–”
The thing in the woods interrupts with “Clean up the mess you made!” -This time imitating the voice of Cynthia.
Susie looks back towards her bed and knows she should be sleeping.
“I don’t think we can be friends anymore. I’m gonna go now ok I’m sorry.” Susie says. She quickly closes the window and runs to bed. She jumps inside and covers herself with a warm heavy blanket head to toe.
There’s a moment of silence as Susie tries to close her eyes and fall asleep again.
“This is Susie, over.” It taunts.
Susie doesn’t respond.
“This is Susie over!” It yells aggressively.
Nothing follows after. Just silence.
Cynthia helps load the bags into the trunk of her daughter’s car.
“Thanks again, I really can’t say enough about how much it meant to me. She’s been telling me about how much fun she’s had.” Anne tells Cynthia while rubbing Susie on the head.
“No problem, anytime you need me to, I can always be here for Susie. You have keys to my place anyway, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find your way around soon, hopefully.”
Marcus lifts up little Susie and gives her a big hug. She is excited to see her parents.
“You know what, next weekend I think we’ll all come over and have dinner together, it’s the least we could do- is that ok? What do you think?” Anne asks.
“I’d like that. Saturday maybe?”
“Yeah, saturday works for me”.
She gives Cynthia a big hug and gets into the passenger’s side of the car. She rolls down the window.
“You want something to eat before you leave?” Cynthia asks.
“To be honest I just want to sleep, I’m pretty tired. It was a long flight.”
Cynthia looks at Susie in the backseat.
“I’ll miss you.”
Susie smiles. “I’ll miss you too Cici, I love you!”
The window rolls up and Marcus shifts gear into reverse. Susie turns to look out of her window and at the woods. She waves.
The grey SUV pulls out of the aged driveway. Cynthia walks back to her front door, but before entering looks back towards the area of the woods where Susie waved.
She sees a figure. Something standing deep in the woods, unmoving and staring right at her. Whether or not it is a man, an animal or merely a disfigured shadow formed by the low hanging morning light is unclear, but there was something.
One week later…
Susie looks out the window to Cici’s house as she returns for the first time in a week. The sight of the lodge already feels foreign merely a week after being home and back into the routine of school. Susie has told everybody at school about her time with Cici and is excited to come back, even if it’s just for dinner. She holds the walkie talkie in one hand as they approach the house. The car pulls into the driveway. Susie turns her walkie on and before her parents get the chance to exit the car speaks into it.
“This is Susie, over?” She asks.
The radio crackles to life. “This is Cici, over” Cynthia responds.
Anne looks to Susie in the backseat. Her smile stretches ear to ear.
Susie unbuckles her seatbelt and jumps out of the SUV.
“Susie is near, over!” She says.
Anne walks up to the front door holding a bag full of groceries and unlocks the door.
They enter. Anne and Marcus immediately go to the kitchen and begin putting the fresh vegetables and red meat into the fridge.
“Susie when you find Grandma tell her I brought the food.” Anne tells Susie who’s already started the searching game.
“I’m downstairs over.” Susie tells Cici through the radio.
“Cold, very cold” Cici responds.
Susie makes her way to the living room and looks around, she checks the closet, behind the TV and around the couch. None of the lights are on despite it already being dark outside.
“I’m searching the living room…” Susie remarks.
“Freezing cold… Colder than ever.” Cynthia giggles uncharacteristically.
Treating it like a spy mission, she walks to the foot of the stairs and looks upwards. Step, after short step she sneaks up the stairs.
“Warmer…” Cici’s voice crackles over the walkie.
She reaches the top and pushes the door to the room she slept in over the summer, but she’s not inside.
She steps back into the hallway and goes to Cynthia’s room.
While swinging the door open she asks “Cici, am I close over?” through her walkie. The room is neatly made. Susie kneels down and looks under the bed, but doesn’t find her there. Suddenly, she turns to look at the large maple closet and realizes that Cici must be hiding inside. Clothes have been tossed out, and it’s the same hiding spot she found her in last time.
“I found you Cici!” She yells.
Susie runs up to the closet, grabs the handle and jerks it open, smiling.
That smile fades away quickly however, because as soon as she opens the door, a corpse falls out from the closet and onto the floor directly in front of her. The corpse of Cynthia.
It’s torn apart, similar to how a predators feast would look after being consumed. Her limbs dangle off the body, but do not bleed. Her eyes have been bulged outward and her entire body is a pale shade of white and blue from rotting for days.
Susie steps back and trips over herself screaming.
“You’re getting warmer, over.” Susie hears through the walkie.
Susie grabs the radio and while shaking presses the down on the toggle.
“You’re not my grandma! Who are you!?”
“You’re not my grandma. You’re not my grandma! YOU’RE NOT MY GRANDMA!” It replies festering in pleasure.
The radio goes silent.
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