Glenn D. Hayes
Hattie Mae was excited. She nudged her husband’s shoulder as she climbed into bed beside him.
“Cleophus, sit up, I want to show you something.” She reached over to the lamp on the night table by the bed and switched the three-way bulb to its brightest setting.
“What’s that?” He didn’t move, keeping his eyes closed.
“It’s a journal. It was in that bundle of books that I bought for two dollars at the goodwill store. I thought it was a children’s book at first because it has a picture of a baby pig on the front.” She was rubbing the book with the palm of her hand. “1991, it says on the cover. You’ll be asleep in two minutes if you don’t sit up.”
After more than forty years of marriage and raising five children together, Cleophus knew that Hattie Mae would not be denied. Reluctantly, he sat up beside his wife, squinting from the brightness of the reading lamp.
“Hope you got something spicy there, at least,” he said, yawning.
Hattie Mae adjusted the pillow behind her back, reached into the night table by the bed, took out a pair of reading glasses, placed them on her face, and opened the book.
“What beautiful handwriting,” she said, and began to read.
“Friday, August 2. We moved into the house today. I still can’t believe the great deal that we got-it’s almost too good to be true. The house is not perfect. It’s been unoccupied for many years, still needs a lot of work, and borders on a “risky” neighborhood. Jack says that we have to have that old pioneering spirit to appreciate what we are getting compared to the two bedroom co-ops that some of our friends bought for the same amount of money. Two and a half acres of corner property, five bedroom Tudor with two massive marble fireplaces, three and half bathrooms, detached two-car garage in the back, huge kitchen, dining room, a living room, you would not believe, with decorative wood beams and plasterwork, attic, cellar…I could go on and on. Oak and maple trees surround us.
Jack says that once he finishes renovating the place, we’ll have a country mansion in the city. He believes that the political trends in the city will make this place quadruple in value in no time at all, and we have all the space that we will ever need. I’ve never seen Jack this happy or excited. I hope that he’s right because in spite of all that the house has to offer, I’d prefer to be in an apartment in midtown-in the center of the excitement.”
“Ooh wee! 1991, that’s almost eleven years!” Cleophus said, “I bet they’re sitting pretty now.”
“Sounds beautiful, too.”
“Tuesday, August 6. Jack is at the office. I’ve spent the whole day scrubbing and cleaning. After only a few days of work, I’m having negative visions of a big stone and wood vacuum cleaner sucking up all of our money. I can’t wait for all of the work to be done!!!”
“Some pioneer she is,” Cleophus said. “We’d still be at Plymouth Rock, if all the pioneer women were like her.”
“Excuse me, but we’d be in Africa.” Hattie Mae looked at her husband over her reading glasses.
“You’ve got that right.”
“Friday, August 9. No scrubbing and cleaning today. It’s too beautiful to stay inside and my hands need a break. I put Bryanna in her bassinet and took her into the backyard. There is an old bench back there, so I read a book while she slept. Two and a half acres is a lot of land for a city girl like me. We have a lot of work to do outside, too. Now, now, think positive. In a little while, we’ll have a beautiful garden with all types of flowers, herbs, and, maybe, some vegetables. Bryanna and I will come back here while Jack is at work. I’ll read her stories, play games, and she’ll help me with the garden. Whenever a breeze blows, we’ll enjoy the floral scents, and whenever a bird sings…that’s strange, I haven’t seen or heard a bird since we moved in. I know they’ll come when we have a garden.”
“Birds don’t need a garden,” Cleophus said.
“I love their baby’s name…Bryanna. Sssh, now, and let me read.”
“Saturday, August 10. Jack and I went around the house talking about our plans and visions for each room. He’s so alive in this house; I can feel his excitement. It’s uncanny how well he knows the layout and the details already, but then again, he and his family have been in the construction business for many years.
As he spoke, the house transformed. I could see the rooms decorated for birthday parties, cocktail parties, and romantic evenings with flowers from our garden and wine selected from our cellar. I couldn’t keep my hands off him, even tried to persuade him to make a detour to the bedroom, but he wanted to show me his plans for the cellar. He has his equipment and tools down there, but nothing is organized.
The cellar was damp, dusty, and there was a thick, horrible stench that grabbed my throat and took my breath away. I had to leave because I thought that I was going to either get sick or faint. Jack said that he didn’t smell anything. I found that difficult to believe. Anyway, he wants to put in a complete workshop, and that’s where he’ll do a lot of the work for the renovations. He said that once the cellar is cleaned up that I wouldn’t smell anything at all. I hope so, because I can’t get that stench out of my mind. It’s been hours now, and I can still smell it.”
“That’s weird,” Hattie Mae said, “why would the odor linger like that?”
“That’s work she’s smelling,” Cleophus said. He adjusted his pillow more solidly against his lower back.
“You got enough room?”
“Sure, I’m fine.”
“Wednesday, August 14. I woke Jack up last night because I thought that I heard someone walking around downstairs. He checked, but found nothing. He said it was probably Abner, our cat, playing in the dark. I apologized because I knew that he was extremely tired. He’s been getting home from work a lot later than usual.”
“Thursday, August 15. I heard the footsteps again last night. I got out of bed to get Bryanna, but was too afraid to walk down the hall in the dark. As much as I hated to disturb Jack, I woke him anyway, and he got Bryanna for me. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I’m acting like a three year-old. Imagine being afraid of the dark at my age.”
“That poor girl, she’s scared in that big ol’ house,” Hattie Mae said. She kept her hand spread over the book in her lap, so that the pages would not close.
“The dark’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“Oh no? I’ve seen you get up many times during the night to check our doors and windows.”
“That’s because we probably live in that “risky” neighborhood that they border on,” Cleophus said. “What I do is different.” He rubbed his bony, arthritic knees under the blanket.
“Don’t think I’m complaining.”
“Tuesday, August 20. Jack was working late again, and I was watching television by myself. Actually, I wasn’t alone. Bryanna had started to cry, so I had gotten her out of the crib and was holding her on my lap. I was very relaxed. I had already changed into my nightclothes and was savoring a nice glass of red wine after a scrumptious late dinner. I was sitting in our loveseat with my feet propped on the edge of the coffee table being very careful not to disturb Abner, who was sprawled on the same table, just below my feet. An old movie was on, but I wasn’t watching really. Instead, I was relishing the ambiance of the light and the sound, along with, the incense and the candle that I had lit. I had just started to think how much better the mood would be with the fireplace working, when Abner stood alert. His eyes were focused on something behind me. I turned my head to see, but nothing was there. I looked back at Abner and watched his eyes move until they stopped, just to my left, above Bryanna’s head. His ears went back, his fur bristled, he started to hiss, and then he bolted from the room. Bryanna’s eyes were open and she was smiling. She reared her head back as though she were looking at something above and behind her. She raised her left hand over her head and wiggled her fingers slowly, but by the way her hand and fingers moved, I would swear on a stack of bibles that something had lifted her hand and was playing with her fingers. I took Bryanna’s hand in mine and stood up. I held her tightly to my breast and faced the room behind me. Something was there, looking at me. Even though I couldn’t see it, I could feel it. A chill ran down my spine. I sensed that whatever was standing there didn’t like me, so I turned on every light in the room.”
“Lord have mercy!” Hattie Mae said. She placed a plump hand on her full bosom and glanced at Cleophus over her glasses to see his reaction.
“The girl just let herself get spooked, that’s all.”
“You think so? What about the cat? He saw it, too.”
“Cats do that all the time.” Cleophus scrunched up his face, nodding his head for emphasis.
“I never saw Santa Claws do that.”
“I have,” Cleophus said, scratching the right side of his mostly bald gray head. “In fact, the other night, when you were at choir rehearsal, I was reading the newspaper in the living room, and he did the exact same thing.”
“Oh Lord! Don’t tell me that!” Hattie Mae said, turning and looking at Cleophus, wide-eyed with curiosity. “What did you do?”
“Nothing, but continue to read my paper,” he said, nonchalantly.
“I hope to God that he never does that when I’m home alone. And, if he runs out of the room, I’m going to be right behind him.” Hattie Mae raced the palms of her hands past each other in a flash to indicate how fast she would run.
“Heh, heh,” Cleophus laughed. “You’re crazy!”
Hattie Mae picked up the book, finishing the passage.
“When Jack got home, he wanted to know why all the lights were on. When I told him what had happened, he made a silly face, wiggled his fingers in front of his eyes, and said, ‘Ooooh, how much wine did you drink tonight?’ I told him that I didn’t appreciate his making fun of everything then followed him from room-to-room until we went to bed. Bryanna slept with us again.”
“Her husband shouldn’t have acted like that,” Hattie Mae said. “She didn’t need that.”
“He just got home from work.” Cleophus shrugged his shoulders.
“That’s no excuse. Men always think that a hard day at work gives them free rein to do and say whatever they want.” Her nostrils flared a little bit, and Cleophus easily recognized the signal that his wife was perturbed.
“Ah…ok, let’s not get sidetracked. What’s next?” Hattie Mae turned the page with a little extra emphasis.
“Monday, August 26. Jack is spending more time in the cellar. He says that he wants to get his workshop setup, so he can start the renovations.”
“Thursday, August 29. Jack is still working late, but now when he comes home, he goes directly to the cellar. We hardly talk. I don’t know how he manages on so little sleep. Abner ran into the backyard this morning and hasn’t been seen since.”
“Friday, August 30. I got out of bed around 2AM and crept downstairs to get a drink of water. The cellar door was open, and the light was on. I heard heavy footfalls on the cellar staircase then the light went out. I called down to Jack, but he didn’t respond. The hallway toilet flushed, and Jack came out walking towards me. Frantic, I told him that someone was in the cellar. ‘I was just down there,’ he said, brushing past me, flicking on the light, and bouncing down the cellar steps. ‘There’s no one down here, but us ghosts,’ he yelled back.
Later, in the afternoon, I phoned Mom and told her what had happened, but all she said was, ‘Make sure Jack fixes that switch; that could cause a fire.’”
“That boy is burning the candle at both ends, and that’s never any good,” Cleophus said.
“Uh, huh,” Hattie Mae agreed, halfheartedly. She was thinking more about the footfalls.
“Thursday, September 5. I wake up now feeling tired and unhappy, and that’s my mood for the rest of the day. I don’t like the aura of this house…it’s unwelcoming. There are certain parts of the house that I can’t stay in. I either feel chilled to the bone, or as though I’m suffocating. ‘It’s an old house’ is Jack’s answer for everything. He’s doing all of the work in the house now. I refuse to help…I can’t.”
“I’m not surprised,” Cleophus said.
“Monday, September 9. Jack crawled into bed last night reeking of that horrible cellar stench. It was unbearable; I told him to get out and take a shower. He said that he did, then stormed out of the bedroom to sleep on the sofa.”
“My…my…my!” Hattie Mae said, shaking her head.
“Thursday, September 12. I’m spending more time in the bedroom with Bryanna. When Jack’s not home, I’m too afraid to walk out of the room. I stay in my bedclothes. Jack is losing patience; he told me to go out and do things. He’s still angry because I won’t let him sleep with me. He stinks like the cellar all of the time now.”
“Friday, September 13. I told Jack that we should sell the house and move back into the center of things with our friends. I saw a side of Jack that I hadn’t seen before. He became enraged and ranted about how he had wanted this house for the longest time, that I’d never fully appreciate what he had to do to get it, and that we’ll be the envy of our friends in a few years. As far as the house is concerned, he doesn’t care what I think.”
“Good for him,” Cleophus said. “He’s got a gold mine there, and she wants him to walk away from it.”
“A gold mine is more important than his wife?”
“I didn’t say that, but the man is only thinking about what’s best for his family.”
“That could be.”
“Tuesday, September 17. Mom called suggesting that she come for a visit and that she, Bryanna, and I could go shopping. I told her to wait a little while longer until the house is more presentable. The visit had to be Jack’s idea, since Mom didn’t offer much protest.”
“Wednesday, September 18. We’re going to have company anyway. Jack invited an associate to dinner. He wants to celebrate the completion of the infamous project that had been causing him to come home late every night. Her name is Valerie.”
“I knew it,” Hattie Mae said, “all this working late business.”
“That’s women’s lib for you,” Cleophus said, jokingly.
“Don’t start.” She put her hand to her mouth and cleared her throat.
“I’m going to get a drink of water,” Cleophus said. “Do you want one?”
“Yes, please.” Hattie Mae gently stroked the front of her neck. “My throat is getting a little parched from reading.”
“I figured so. Don’t read any more, ’til I get back.” Hattie Mae turned the opened book face down on her lap. Cleophus returned with two glasses of water, drinking from one, he handed the other to his wife.
“Thank you,” she said. Hattie Mae took a long, cool drink and placed the now half-empty glass on the night table. Cleophus finished the rest of his water, placing his glass beside his wife’s. Hattie Mae waited until Cleophus climbed back into bed, before she began to read.
“Thursday, September 19. Jack has moved Bryanna’s crib downstairs with him because he feels that I’m not taking care of her properly. I don’t pick her up anymore; she cries whenever I touch her. The last time she cried, I cried, too. He’s going to get a nanny.”
“She obviously needs help,” Hattie Mae said.
“He’s the one who needs the help.”
“Friday, September 20. Jack took off from work today to stay with Bryanna. He’s calling child-care centers. I can tell by the tone of his voice that he’s exasperated. I think he’s running into problems because of her age.
I heard the footsteps again last night, but this time they were coming up the steps towards my bedroom-jarring, noisy steps…the tread of a heavy man with boots walking with a purpose. As the steps came down the corridor to me, the walls reverberated with the most ungodly sound as though a strong angry fist or a sledgehammer pounded them. I screamed for Jack as loudly as I could. He ran up the stairs and came into my room. I grabbed the pillow and put it over my nose-he reeked with that stench. He kept repeating, ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’ I looked at his bare feet then yelled at him to get out. He cursed, said something about not calling him anymore, left the room, and went back downstairs. I got out of bed, sat in the chair by the window, and waited for the sun to rise.”
“It’s time for girlfriend to get out of that house,” Hattie Mae said.
“The girl sounds bananas to me.” Hattie Mae ignored Cleophus’s remark.
“Saturday, September 21. I tried to get Jack to cancel Valerie’s visit, but he said that I could stay in my room with the door closed if that would make me happy. I called Mom, and we chatted about the weather and shopping. I said that everything was fine. I can’t sleep.”
“You know that little pig on the front of the journal? That’s Jack,” Hattie Mae said. “She should have told her mother about what’s been going on in that house though.” Cleophus said nothing, but was peeking over her shoulder, trying to read ahead. Hattie Mae pulled the book to her chest, slowly lowered it, and started to read again.
“Sunday, September 22. Valerie visited today. Jack was taking her on a tour of the house, and as they passed my room, I heard him tell her that I was resting. She laughed as though he had told her a private joke, so I got up and got dressed.
When I finally made my entrance, Jack was in the kitchen preparing dinner, and Valerie was in the living room holding Bryanna. They looked like a happy little family. Valerie was younger than I had expected and quite pretty. She gushed about how tremendously fortunate I was, and how much she envied me, and how much she just adored Bryanna and the house. She had a lot of decorating ideas that Jack endorsed enthusiastically with comments from the kitchen. I reached for Bryanna, but she looked frightened, hugged Valerie tighter, and buried her face into Valerie’s neck. Not wanting to cause a scene, I stepped back. I asked Valerie about the smell, but she obviously didn’t know what I was talking about. I didn’t like her patronizing attitude. Feeling cold, I excused myself, and went to my bedroom to get a sweater, but once there, I couldn’t leave. Something was lurking in the corridor-I heard a rattling whisper then a deep, sorrowful moan. I thought of calling Jack, but didn’t dare. I sat in the chair by the window. The happy sounds of conversation and laughter coming from downstairs reminded me of some of my early memories with Jack. The sounds from Bryanna were the most agonizing of all. No one came to get me. I feel stupid, useless, and horribly alone sitting here waiting for the sun to rise.”
“How could he leave her up there by herself?” Hattie Mae asked. “And that Valerie, she seems like a weasel to me. I wouldn’t trust her.” She took another drink of water, returning the glass to the night table.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Cleophus said, scratching his head. “She seems okay to me. Think about it. If you were a guest and one of your hosts left the room and never came back, what would you think? You can’t put that on Valerie.”
“I know women, Cleophus…and did you notice how the baby preferred Valerie?” Can you imagine how that poor mother must have felt?” Hattie Mae straightened her twisted nightgown, while looking at Cleophus for confirmation.
“Not good…that’s for sure.”
“Monday, September 23. Jack stayed home again today. I was lying in bed when, surprisingly, he came into my bedroom. He looked peculiarly pale and tired, and was carrying a tray with soup and crackers. I knew that it would stink of the cellar, so I asked him to put it on the dresser. When I told him that I couldn’t sleep, he responded unsympathetically, ‘Sleep? Join the club!’ then he said, ‘What do you want me to do about it?’ and went back downstairs.
Later, I heard him say something to Bryanna about let’s go get something for Mommy. Soon after, I heard the front door close. I was in bed waiting for sleep when a thick dark cloud of that cellar stench came over me. Struggling to breathe, I got out of bed and staggered towards the door, but it slammed forcefully in my face, causing me to fall. I tried desperately to get up, but I couldn’t move. I must have fainted because when I heard Jack return, I was still lying on the floor with my nose buried into the crook of my elbow. I wanted to call out to him, but the heavy-footed sound of his boots climbing the stairs and coming down the hall terrified me. He opened the door, placed a small bottle and a glass of water on my dresser near the tray, and said, ‘These should help you to get some sleep.’ Even though I was still groggy and on the floor, he gave me a disgusted look and went back downstairs. Something in that house was trying to kill me, and Jack didn’t care. I knew that for sure now. I had to get out of that house and take Bryanna with me.”
“Remember when I said that she should get out of that house?” Hattie Mae said. Her body tensed as she scanned the room, “Gee, I hope nothing followed this book here.” She closed her eyes, bowed her head, raised her right hand, and prayed, “I will fear no evil for thou art with me.”
Cleophus waited until she had finished, “My Granny used to say, ‘Ghosts can’t hurt you; they cause you to hurt yourself.’ Like that girl, I’m surprised that she didn’t jump out the window.”
“She fainted, Cleophus.” Hattie Mae was glancing at the page, trying to spot where she had left off.
“I can’t believe that boy bought a haunted house,” Cleophus said. “Poof! There go his quadruple values!”
“Serves him right.” Hattie Mae had the journal in her right hand with her index finger stuck inside to hold her spot. “That Jack’s a damn fool for giving her a whole bottle of sleeping pills and leaving her by herself like that. Why does he hate her so much?”
“He doesn’t hate her,” Cleophus said, “but he doesn’t want to be controlled by her either. Know what I really think? That boy’s got two kids in that house. His wife’s a spoiled brat who has always gotten her way, and what we’re reading is a journal of an adult temper tantrum.”
“You can’t believe that!” Hattie Mae said, astonished by her husband’s comment.
“Remember when Janelle was small,” Cleophus continued, “and she used to cry, fall down, and hold her breath whenever she wanted something that she couldn’t have? We nipped that in the bud. Well, this journal is about that same problem, only the adult version. A buddy on the job used to say, ‘If the parents don’t, the psychiatrists will.’”
“That’s downright nonsense! You’re wrong, Cleophus,” Hattie Mae objected. “If the girl got her way all the time, why isn’t she in a midtown apartment near her friends? He’s got her all locked up in that big ol’ house doing whatever he wants. What’s gone her way? I don’t see it; I’m sorry. She’s not spoiled…just isolated and beat down.” She paused for Cleophus’s response, but since he didn’t say anything, Hattie Mae reopened the book, turned the page, and continued reading.
“I threw on some clothes, grabbed my bag, went downstairs, put on my coat, and wrapped Bryanna in her blanket, but she started to cry when I picked her up. Jack looked surprised when he entered the room saying, ‘Where the hell do you think you’re going?’ I stomped my foot and yelled that I would not spend another second in that house. When he stepped towards me, I told him that I was going to Mom’s and that I was taking Bryanna with me.”
“Jack had his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, so I knew that he was going into the cellar to work. ‘Good. Go ahead,’ he said, glaring at me, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’ He jerked open the cellar door, and I saw that dark, putrid vapor churning inside. I yelled for him not to go down there, but as he descended into its murky blackness, I saw two arms and hands with long cadaverous fingers form out of the swirling mist and encircle his back. I stood petrified, frozen by fear and disbelief, hearing Jack’s heavy footfalls thumping on the staircase in synch with the pounding in my chest. Bryanna jolted me to my senses. She was bawling, and struggling frantically in my arms kicking and twisting, leaning and reaching for the eerie mass creeping out of the cellar towards us. I pulled her to my breast and ran out of the house. I will never, ever go back!!!”
“I…uh…I…uh,” Cleophus stammered, at a loss for words, stroking his chin, and finally concluding, “the girl just hallucinated…that’s all.”
“Cleophus, you can rationalize a flying pig,” Hattie Mae said. “Why must you explain everything?”
“Wednesday, September 25. Mom gave me some sleeping pills that knocked me out for a couple of days. She’s been great to Bryanna and me. My loving baby’s back, and I feel much better…refreshed. Jack’s descent into the cellar seems surreal to me now. My most vivid and recurring memory though is the night of Valerie’s visit, sitting by the window waiting for the sun to rise, and seeing her car leave our driveway shortly before dawn. I didn’t tell Mom about what happened at the house; she assumed marital problems. She may be right. Jack hasn’t called, nor have I.”
“What’d I say about that Valerie,” Hattie Mae said, looking at Cleophus over the top of her reading glasses, with a smirk of vindication.
“Thursday, September 26. I still haven’t heard from Jack. Mom says that he should be the one to call if he cares about his family.”
“She should have called him by now!” Cleophus said.
“Hell will freeze over before she calls! After what that Valerie did…in her house…with her husband? I don’t think so!” Hattie Mae fiddled with her reading glasses, trying to get them to focus. “Wait a sec…I can barely read this next one. The writing’s kind of scribblyscrawly.”
“Saturday, September 28. Jack’s dead. A heart attack. No! Something killed him! Something in that house!”
“Oh my…! Forgive me for the bad things that I said about Jack. One shouldn’t speak ill of the dead,” Hattie Mae said. “That’s it…there’s no more.” She closed the journal, looking very startled. Cleophus stroked his chin, looked perplexed, and, for once, had no comment.
While placing the book onto the nightstand, Hattie Mae noticed a textured edge of paper sticking out of the bottom of the journal, near the back, among its unused pages. She retrieved the book, opened it, and discovered that the textured edge was an old newspaper clipping.
“Cleophus, I found something,” she said. Her hands trembled nervously as she slowly unfolded the article. He had slipped under the covers, but sat up again. They read the clipping silently together:
By Herb Bloom
MetroCrier Staff Writer
Jack Cawley was found
dead in the cellar of his
home apparently of cardiac
The man’s body was
discovered by Valerie Lasker,
a family friend and business associate of the deceased, who said that she went to the residence when Mr. Cawley
failed to show up for work
and did not return phone calls. Ms. Lasker called the police
when she smelled a peculiar,
foul odor coming through a
Mr. Cawley is survived by
his estranged wife and baby daughter who no longer resided at the address.
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