I never thought much could be worse than travel by boat. That was until I was sat for days upon a train. Still, somehow I have discovered a method of travel even worse still, hiking by foot through a dense godforsaken swamp. Normally it is not heard of for a woman to travel such a distance unaccompanied yet I had no choice in the matter. Life sends us troubles, seldom with any warning. And we must ride with the waves lest we risk going under. My journey was on its final leg and my arrival gave me enthusiastic energy. This energy let me trudge away from that old train depot and toward the sanctuary I knew was somewhere in these humid swamplands.
The woods were darker than I imagined they would be. Not because the sun was not shining, but because the mist was much too dense to see through. It was almost suffocating. I felt as if I were completely alone swallowed by the sticky white vapor. Yet I could hear sounds bouncing off the swampy forest walls. Howls and croaks shooing me away. Go on. Get away from here. Run. Mud splattered my old rain boots as I tried to evade the deeper puddles, whilst swatting away increasingly aggressive mosquitoes with my free hand. Nature was a beast itself, it felt like a singular force I was in combat with. Unfortunately, it was winning. My luggage containing the remains of my most treasured belongings sat quite heavily in the sore, stingy fist of my left hand.
The trees were not completely unfamiliar though, yet it had been a whole decade since I had seen them last. Eventually, the trees and deep milk-white mist gave way to a house. As described to me weeks before, it was exactly twelve miles from the nearest town and only a few, if that, from the nearby marshy swampland. The house was constructed from dark, damp wood and seemed to be holding the home together on pure goodwill alone. The air was thick with humidity and the dense vegetation surely hid a manner of beasts and ungodly creatures. The sounds of distant yelps and howls echoing around me confirmed this theory. I could feel what felt like the eyes of more than just mosquitoes and gnats watching me. Had I not been kin to the residents I would have turned on my heels instantly, yet I knew better than any that I had nowhere else to go. My own family had been ravaged by disease. Month after month I was forced to watch idly by as first my father and then mother slipped away. I was then left horribly alone in a city much too large for my own taste, forced to go and find the remainder of my family. Now across an ocean or two and without a similar amount of parents, I stood on the dilapidated porch of my distant aunt.
Before my knuckles could rap the door it was opened from the inside. But whoever answered the door remained hidden inside the shadows of their home, leaving the door mostly closed. With just enough space for a watchful eye and corner of a bearded mouth to peak through, he spoke.
“Who are you?” the watchful eye said, “Whaddya want?”
“Err…uh” I sputtered uselessly. I hadn’t rehearsed my introduction nearly well enough and probably seemed like some sort of solicitor.
“You better get lost.” the eye said sternly before beginning to turn away and shut the door.
In almost a desperate attempt I shouted “Henry?”
There was a moment of thoughtful hesitation, “Who are you? How do you know my name?”
The man who stood behind the door had changed immensely but I recognized both his eye and the sound of his voice. Without a doubt, there stood my estranged cousin.
“It’s me Abilene,” I said
“Who’s there Henry?” A voice simultaneously croaked and boomed from inside the house.
“You should go.” Henry said again more seriously this time and then turned his head back into the house to say, “It is nothing mother.” He then turned back to me “Go.”
“Do not lie to me boy.” the voice replied so intensely that it could be heard clearly from where I stood, yet she wasn’t shouting.
The silence after her statement hung in the air as I, Henry, and whoever sat inside held our tongues.
“It is our Abilene mother, she has come to visit,” Henry finally said back to his mother, my aunt, as if he hadn’t attempted to make me leave at all.
Henry opened the door a bit wider allowing me to see his full face. It was completely different from the small red-tinted one I remember, now it was quite pale and hidden in a bundle of course black hairs. But his blue eyes remained the same, yet they certainly didn’t twinkle as they seemed to before. They were tired and surrounded by dark bags. Henry eyed me sternly without a glimpse of recognition and never broke the eye contact he had initiated. He appeared wiry and thin, much like he was as a boy, but he now stood towering over me.
I stepped through the doorway and into the entrance hall, which had a staircase to the right, and at the end of the hall was the sitting area. As soon as the door was ajar in came a scent that acted as a time machine. I was no longer stood in that dim dusty hallway, but I was in the same house with the same people only ten years earlier. I was now a little girl curled up next to my Aunt as the fire crackled in the distance. The room felt warm, like no matter where you sat you were wrapped in a blanket. I could smell dinner cooking in the kitchen. Uncle Ernest is puffing a pipe in his recliner blowing cool grey rings of stinky smoke, and Henry’s off somewhere playing soldier. He’ll soon be called in, which of course will be met with staunch protest. The flowery perfume of Auntie Erasmus hadn’t changed a bit. It was still just as pungent, smelling of honeysuckle and white flowers.
“Abilene, be gentle with mother she’s aged terribly so,” Henry said to me, pulling me back to the present.
As I moved past him he spoke harshly under his breath, “Leave. Don’t make me force you.” I was disgruntled by Henry’s words but had nowhere else to turn, my only choice was to take my chances. Yet the sight of his glare made me wonder if I could make it back to the train depot before nightfall.
There was a long dark hall that led to a sitting room, in this room sat my aunt before an empty fireplace. Maybe the firewood got wet.
“Oh bring her to me, Henry. My sweet Abilene!”
I assume Henry was referencing her disability. I can only imagine the burden of caring for your elderly blind mother in this hellish swamp. Yet she had been blind since birth and as long as I had known her she had moved both with great confidence and exuberance. Maybe as the day grew older and time caught up with her as did her handicap. She had even called me by my first name. I could not recall a time when she had not called me Abbi. Though it had been at least ten years since I had seen her so I thought nothing of it.
“My dear Abilene, it has been ever so long,” swooned the voice before its owner could be seen. “Come to your Auntie.”
I rushed toward the familiar voice as she rose from her cushioned seat before the fireplace, my arms open to return her embrace. Not much about my aunt had changed, she was the same size and stature yet there were a few things I found peculiar. Instead of wearing her dark-tinted eyeglasses as she had for years before, she had donned a black veil. It was not dissimilar to one worn by a widow to a funeral procession. Despite this, I gave my aunt a hug of the utmost strength and it was returned warmly. The other thing I found quite odd was her aroma. Not her signature perfume, no underneath that I could detect another subtle, yet sour, unmistakable scent. The pungent, musty smell of wet mildew.
“I have missed you so,” she whispered while we remained locked in each other’s arms
“I am so grateful that you have been brought to me.”
Taken aback by her insensitivity to the tragedy which caused my arrival I merely smiled and nodded.
“I have missed you too Auntie. Where is Uncle?”
Auntie paused a moment and almost as if on cue Henry spoke,
“Let me show you your room Abilene. You can set your things down.”
I was puzzled but glad to set down the horrid briefcase I had been lugging around. I knew about the horror of sickness and death all too well and didn’t press the topic. It at least explained the veil. I would shed a few tears for Uncle when I was alone, it didn’t feel right at the moment.
My new room was quite small but nicely furnished. Everything in the room had been untouched for at least several months, I knew this because along the window seal and dresser top was quite the layer of dust. I set down my luggage, then Henry turned to face me.
“This swamp is dangerous, ” He spoke sternly, but with a purpose
“I’d watch my step, a lot of things move about in the dark. Best you don’t stay long.”
Before I could explain I was essentially homeless, he dropped his aggressively persistent eye contact and left the room.
I fell asleep for a bit but awoke feeling the urge to use the ladies’ room. The house was quiet, the only noise came from outside, where a cascade of crickets, cicadas, owls performed for the world. They were all making their mating song, war-cry, or death moans, yet the house felt extremely still despite this. Maybe this is because for some reason I felt an inkling of fear in my heart, a bit of trepidation. I don’t know whether it was simply the remoteness of my location or the hostility of my cousin but as I left my room to use the restroom I felt dread. I moved down the hall, my bare feet moving quickly across a small rug sat outside my room. As I hustled I heard another noise, a noise besides my quickened breath, some movement. I stopped in my tracks, I do not know why, I had no reason to be afraid. I was not in trouble, nor out of line. Yet still, I froze instantly at the sound of whoever else was awake. Downstairs I could hear someone moving, not in a normal step pattern, something far different. It sounded more like a step and a slide, or a slop. Almost as if someone was mopping the floor, but who would be mopping at this hour. It must’ve been at least three in the morning. A step-schlop, step-schlop. It was sickening, it sounded unnatural, and it took everything in my being to not look over the railing at whatever was happening downstairs. That’s when I heard, even quieter than the steps, whispering.
It sounded like Henry murmuring in a quiet angry type of whisper but whoever he was speaking with was too quiet for me to hear,
“No. I will find another.”
“Really?” then a long pause, “You can?”
I squeezed my eyes shut as I held my breath and tried to step backward, away from the bathroom but towards my room. Unfortunately, as I did I stepped onto a small rug sat in the hall, and slipped onto my bottom. The loud thud was accompanied by my short high-pitched yelp of pain. My bottom was already sore from days of riding on a train and the fall was just too much. I froze. The sound downstairs stopped and then it seemed like everything stopped. The sound, my heart, my breath, the world outside, my bladder, everything. Then as if the world fell back into motion someone began charging up the stairs. The thudding was fast and heavy, they were running. Fortunately, I was closer to my room than they were fast and made it there in time to shut the door and dive into bed.
A minute or two later, a knock came from the other side of the door. I was frozen in place, and much too afraid to get from the safety of the blankets let alone open the door. Another knock came and with it a voice,
“Abbi open the door.”
I crept out of bed and opened the bedroom door slowly. There stood Henry fully dressed, eyeing me seriously.
“Didn’t think I needed to say this, but its lights out after dark” he said quietly.
“But I had to use the bathroom,” I said in disbelief at this sudden strict ruling.
Henry looked at me for a moment before speaking again “When the sun goes down, its lights out. Do you understand?” he said still whispering before walking off without another word.
I woke the next morning and ventured downstairs after dressing. The house was still despite the rays of the midday sun shining through the windows. The wooden floors looked inviting covered in the bright beams. The pools of sunlight were warm on my bare feet as I walked around the house. I called out “Hello!” to no response. I used this moment of solitude to explore my new home. I examined the kitchen, a bit unkempt but relatively clean. The sitting area needed a bit of dusting, but seemed properly cleaned and swept. It seemed as if Henry kept a tidy house, I assumed Auntie can’t accomplish much housework in her condition. I walked up and down the hall looking into the framed pictures hanging there. Auntie E and Henry, accompanied by his father. I followed the photographs until I came upon a door, assuming it led to a basement; I tried to open it. The door had a mean-looking deadbolt along with the lock on the doorknob. The door was locked stiffly, so in response, I jiggled the handle persistently. As if on cue the front door swung open to reveal Henry. I let go of the doorknob at once and put both my hands behind my back.
“What’re you doin?” He said, beads of sweat streaming down his red face.
“N-noth- I was jus-loo-“
“Don’t go in there, it is where Mother rests. Don’t be botherin’ her. Her health is worse than it seems.” He snapped, his eyes deathly serious, “Now come on, I got somethin’ I need yer help with.”
Henry led me to the kitchen and began explaining the chores and duties of the day.
“I’m going to town to pick up some stuff, while I’m gone I need you to make sure dinners cooked. I assume you can cook?”
I nodded quickly, my mother had taught me to make a fair amount of different dishes before she passed.
“I got the ingredients to make a stew tonight, all that’s left is the chicken. And I should be back before nightfall with plenty of that”, Henry said gruffly.
“I just need you to focus on making the broth for me and yer Aunt.”
“Of course, I’ll have it ready by the time you return,” I said as I opened the cupboard to examine the ingredients. Henry nodded and turned to leave,
“Oh before I go,” he said “I pulled some water from the well, it’s on the kitchen table there. ” Henry then turned to leave.
“The well?” I asked curiously, but Henry either didn’t hear me or pretended not to. I was now left to my own devices.
I worked efficiently in the small kitchen and was getting along quite nicely. The dark clouds outside had given way to a light shower of rain. It pattered against the glass kitchen window and acted as a sort of music as I worked. I eventually had an assortment of chopped vegetables and was ready to add them to the already heating pot of water. Yet as I went to add a handful of carrots, a bolt of lightning louder than a rifle shook the kitchen entirely. Pots pans dangling from hooks above the sink fell striking the floor. This caused me to not only flinch but almost jump out of my skin. Unfortunately, the pot of now nearly boiling water was knocked off of the stove. It sent scalding water flying past me and onto the floor. I thanked God for sparing me of the burns but soon realized I now had no water to provide broth. The derelict home had no running water, Henry had provided the water for meals and bathes alike. I felt panic setting in as my breathing quickened. Henry would be furious to find that I hadn’t accomplished my one goal. Before the tears could overwhelm me I closed my eyes and took nine deep breaths, just like mother showed me. By the time I reached the ninth breath I had realized the solution, it was so simple I was ashamed of myself. I’d just fetch more from the well, Henry would be none the wiser of my blunder. I saw no well in the yard when I arrived a day earlier and a heavy search of the backyard revealed nothing. I was back to panicking quite quickly. Again I used the breaths and the numbers to steel my mind, and again it was fruitful “the basement!”
I stood before the door, it sat quite stiff in its frame. No amount of jiggling, prodding, or poking was going to convince it to open. The intensity of the security perplexed me, was he trapping Auntie down there? Was she even sick at all, was Henry taking advantage of his mother? Maybe waiting on her demise to keep the house, being the sole heir left behind. I wanted to dismiss these theories as ridiculous but for what other reason would someone lock their mother in a damp, cold basement. I jiggled the handle again as if this would reveal some sort of answer. I thought to myself, where would Henry leave a key? He seemed to be very busy, cleaning, and previously cooking all by himself. Much too busy to keep retrieving and replacing the key in some hiding spot. It had to be somewhere out of sight but easy to get to. I went to the kitchen, grabbed a small wooden chair from the dining table, and returned to the basement door. Standing on the chair I ran my hand across the top of the door frame until my fingers came across a small metal key, “Not clever enough”.
The door opened painfully, making a monstrous amount of noise. It revealed a long stairway, leading down into the dark basement. I could see no light switch nor a dangling string attached to a bulb. Yet I could tell by both the texture and smell of the air, that the well was surely nearby. I went back to the kitchen to retrieve the bucket and returned to the doorway. There was no reason to be fearful, the basement was usually an eerie place in any home but this was a familiar one. Henry and I would play down there as kids pretending to be knights and princesses, or ogres and wizards. Yet it seemed so different now. I crept down the first few steps. The room was no longer full of the daylight bleeding in from the small windows near the roof. The windows were still there but now they were black, seemingly painted over. The sun was almost completely blocked. This room was devoid of light, warmth, or any sort of human comfort. I made it to the bottom of the stairs, the only noise being my ragged breath, steady ominous dripping, and my furious heart rate. All of these creating a symphony of anxiety in my eardrums. Now at the bottom of the stair, I can see the well sat in the center of the room. I kept my eyes locked onto it, fearing what may be lurking in the corners of the dark shadowy room, just out of sight. With the bucket in hand, I crept to the mouth of the well, but to my dismay, the top was clamped shut. There was some sort of metal plate covering the well. I set the bucket down and painfully pulled with the tips of fingers on what essentially was a manhole cover. I quickly realized this would not get me anywhere and scanned my surroundings for anything useful. The room was far too dark to peer into. But not far from where I had placed the bucket sat a crowbar. This must’ve been what Henry used to open the well. But why lock it in the first place? Even with the crowbar, it took several minutes to scoot the cover more than an inch. While sweating, grunting, and struggling I failed to hear Henry enter the house.
“WHAT’dYA THINK YER DOIN”,
is all I heard as Henry rained down upon me. I was promptly snatched from the well which was now ever so slightly slid open. In what felt like two strides Henry was up the stairs, he threw me onto the ground where I landed in a heap. Without a word of apology, Henry barked at me, “The Key! Give me the key!”
At this point I had enough of Henry, the boy who used to be a close friend was now a man treating me like vermin. “I do not appreciate being treated like this Henry!”
“Abilene. I need the key.” Henry said his voice now low, but still dripping in urgency.
“Not until you tell me why you’ve been acting like this. Or why Auntie must stay in a wretched place like that,” I said pointing toward the now closed basement door. “Where is she anyway?”
“Don’t you see? That isn’t your Aunt. She died years ago with my father.”
I was speechless for a moment, “That makes no sense.”
Before Henry could answer, a noise from below caught his attention. From down in the basement something could be heard climbing stone steps. But they weren’t footsteps, it was the same sound from the night before. The sickening step-schlop, step-schlop. This time sliding up the steps growing louder with every passing moment.
“What is that?” I asked Henry. His face was now dripping in sweat, the bags under his eyes darker than ever. Maybe it was because his face was as pale as fresh snow.
Henry was wracked in both fear and sadness, it was as plain to see as the nose on his face. Despite his thick beard, he looked like a little boy again, afraid of what moved in the dark.
All at once, a crash came upon the door with so much strength that it seemed like it would come off of the hinges. Then again with equal ferocity came another crash. After that what sounded like sobbing could be heard, accompanied by water slowly pooling from underneath the basement door. Dark murky water with that same foul mildew smell. “Let me innn Henry”, the voice said in a sad tone, mimicking my Aunt and Henry’s mother.
“I’m sorry Abbi,” Henry said looking to me, tears now actively streaming down his face. “It said if I helped it, it would bring Pop back. I’m so sorry.”
“What’s happening Henry?”
“It came from the swamp.”
Then slowly, the doorknob began to turn. And whatever was masquerading as my Aunt was upon us.Recommended1 Simily SnapPublished in