The holidays are past and most of us are back at the day job. But writing is still what oils the cogs and wheels of daily life at our house. Around Halloween, I wrote a story for the Creative Frighting contest sponsored by our publisher, Jolly Fish Press. Both Andy and I had fun writing Halloween stories and he has already posted his. (Scroll down the blogs to see "Trona Honeymoon.")
But I never got a chance to post my story. Somehow, it didn't seem appropriate during the Christmas holidays. So now that dreary weather is upon us, we'll put the candles back in the jack-o-lantern. Hope you enjoy.
Sighing contentedly, Millie slowly closed her book. She had feared the story wouldn’t end right. She hated stories that didn’t know how to end, but this ending was perfect. Relishing the moment, she sat immersed in the book’s final, triumphant scenes when a sudden unfamiliar noise jolted her from her reverie. Disoriented, she stared up into a room engulfed in nighttime blackness. Except for a crisp circle of light on her lap, everything else was hidden by darkness.
Her aging eyes didn’t see well in the dark any more. Her husband, Gregory, had gotten tired of watching her squint when she tried to read in the old house’s dim lighting. “Your face is all puckered up like a prune, trying to read that page,” he’d complained. Last Christmas, he had presented her with a bright, battery-powered clip light that she could take with her anywhere around the house. Right now it dangled from a hook on the wall above her, encasing her in a narrow shaft of light.
She sank back into the softness of her over-stuffed chair and closed her eyes, feeling suddenly weary. The waning autumn sun had gone down unnoticed while she read, and the big, creaky house still needed to be shut up for the night.
When Gregory was out of town on business, Millie was careful to close windows and lock doors before the sun went down, but this evening she had been distracted. She wasn’t scared to be alone, but the neighborhood had changed in the last few years, as old friends moved to warmer climes or smaller homes, and the newcomers were not as neighborly. Millie had suggested to Gregory that they move to a newer, smaller house, but he wouldn’t hear of it.
Irritated, Millie sniffed and immediately crinkled her nose at the unpleasant scent. The old house always had a musty, dead smell, so on warmer days, she liked to throw open the windows to collect as much fresh air as possible. With the cooler fall weather, she now opened only the downstairs windows. It had been weeks since she had last unlocked and opened any of the upstairs windows.
Rising stiffly from her chair, Millie reached for the clip light behind her, but her hand brushed it off the hook before she could grasp it. With a loud crash, it smashed into the hard-wood floor, shattering the bulb and sending broken glass tinkling across the floor in all directions. Everything was suddenly enveloped in the inky blackness of the night.
Millie stood still, her bare feet frozen in place. With broken glass all around, she dared not take a step until her eyes adjusted to the darkness. The dark shapes of the larger pieces of furniture began to appear, but strain as she might, she could not make out the tiny glass shards she knew were scattered around her.
Millie’s locked knees began to complain, making her fear they might buckle. Swishing out her breath in frustration, she was about to take her chances in the dark, when she was startled by that strange, unfamiliar noise again--like someone whispering far away, saying something she couldn’t quite understand.
Alarmed, she took a quick step forward, and immediately, a sharp pain flashed in the heel of her right foot. The glass shards! But, fearing the strange noise more, she kept moving. On tip-toe, protecting her injured heel, she groped towards the backdoor, where she knew a light switch waited in the dark. Miraculously, she did not step on any more broken glass.
When her hand finally touched the wall, she paused to listen, but all was silent. Taking a shuddering breath, she followed the wall until she found the door, and then the light switch beside it. She flipped the switch up. Nothing happened. All was still dark. Frantically, she flipped it again, repeatedly. Still nothing.
Millie tried to calm her rising panic. Staring out the window in the backdoor, she wondered why someone would shut off the power to her house. Suddenly, she realized that not just her house was dark. She could see several houses to each side of her backyard as well as many of the houses across the street from these back-door houses. All were black. She could not see a single light in any of these homes that were normally filled with warm, living lights.
Relief flowed through Millie. No wonder her light switch didn’t work. The power in her neighborhood must have gone out while she was reading. She smiled, able to laugh at herself a little. The power outage was strange, since there had been no storms for days, but now there was a logical reason, rather than a diabolical reason, for why her lights didn’t work.
Suddenly, as if carried upon a wisp of wind, that distant, unfamiliar noise came again. Like a breathy whisper, the sound came together as a single word, “Millie.”
Sure that the sound had come from outside, from somewhere in the backyard, she called through the door, “Who’s there? What do you want?” She was answered only by silence.
Millie struggled to calm her breathing. It’s just my imagination, she thought. I’m the only one here. I need to get a flashlight and get all the downstairs windows and doors closed and locked. And get that piece of glass out of my heel!
Gregory always kept a flashlight in the kitchen tool drawer, and Millie wanted that flashlight. After making sure the back door was securely locked, she felt along the wall until she reached the large den window. Everything outside was quiet and dark. The breeze coming in through the big open window was cold, icy cold.
Suddenly, Millie remembered that the weather forecast in the morning newspaper had said there was a chance of frost tonight, and she was immediately angry with herself--she should have shut all the windows hours ago. The house was going to be freezing cold all night if she didn’t get all the windows shut up now as fast as possible.
The den window did not slide smoothly, so she had to use both hands, one near the top and one near the bottom, to get it closed. Tugging hard to close the final inches, she distinctly heard that breathy whisper again, “Millie.”
Someone is out there calling my name!
Frantically, she pulled the window shut, and with shaky hands, slammed down the metal latch. For long moments, she sagged against the wall, struggling to slow her ragged breath before peeking out through the window again. Nothing moved in the darkness, but it was hard to tell. It was so very dark. There wasn’t even any moonlight.
It wasn’t my imagination, Millie thought stubbornly. Someone is out there calling my name! Whoever it is can’t see in the dark any better than I can, but I know where the phone is, and I’m calling for help right now.
The kitchen phone hung on the wall between the kitchen and the den. Feeling her way into the kitchen on tip toe, she stopped when her fingers gently touched the phone. Carefully, she lifted the phone from its cradle and held it to her ear. There was no dial tone--the phone was dead. She jabbed at the flash button several times--still no tone. Now, this was not logical. Even when the power went out, the phone still worked.
For a moment, she felt an insane urge to rip the phone out of the wall and throw it.
Okay, she thought, as she slowed her breathing again, calm down. This isn’t going to help. I don’t know why this phone is dead, but my cell is upstairs in my bedroom. I still need to lock up the downstairs. Once everything is safely locked up, I’ll go upstairs and call for help.
With renewed hope, Millie felt her way quietly over to the window above the kitchen sink. She stopped at the window to listen, then reached up to slide it closed, but even before she touched the window sill, a low, deep voice whispered through the window, “Millie.”
For a moment, her heart stopped. Biting back a scream, she slid the window closed and locked it before backing away from the sink. In her panic, she put her full weight on her right heel, and crumpled instantly to the floor, gasping in pain.
For a long time, she lay huddled on the floor eyeing the kitchen window, expecting to see a black figure peering through it. When nothing happened, she sat up with a sense of urgency and dragged herself over to the tool drawer. Getting up on her knees, she pulled open the drawer and fished around inside until she felt the flashlight. Dropping back on the floor, she covered the end of the flashlight with one hand, so the light couldn’t be seen from the outside and pushed the thumb switch up. To her dismay, the switch wouldn’t go up, but it would go down.
The flashlight had been turned on already. It had been sitting in the drawer; turned on for who knows how long and now the batteries were completely dead. If Gregory had more batteries for this flashlight, Millie didn’t know where. Why was he always gone so much?
For a moment, Millie thought she might cry in pure frustration when she had a sudden flash of inspiration. Sliding over to another drawer, she fished around until she found a box of birthday candles and a pack of matches. In yet another drawer, she fished out a box of band aids.
Crawling over to the broom closet, she squeezed in and shut the door. First pushing some cleaning rags under the door to make sure no light leaked out, she struck a match. Glorious light burst forth. She almost sobbed. With trembling hands, she lit a candle and inspected her foot. What a bloody mess it was, and still bleeding. She must have been tracking blood through the house wherever she went, but the wound was not wide and she could see the end of the piece of glass poking out. Carefully, she pulled the glass out of the wound and covered the cut with several large, thick band aids.
Millie was tempted to stay hidden in the closet until the sun came up, but she knew she would be safer if she got the rest of the house locked up, so she blew out her candle and slowly pushed the closet door open. Everything was still pitch black. After listening carefully for a few moments to silence, she pulled herself to her feet and felt her way gingerly out of the kitchen and into the dining room. She still avoided putting her full weight on her right heel, but now she could walk more normally with only slight pain.
Once the dining room door was locked, she inched up to the edge of the dining room window. She dreaded standing out in front of the window, but didn’t know any other way, with her small frame, to get enough leverage to push the window closed. Taking a deep breath, she stepped out, grabbed the window frame with both hands and threw her weight into it. Before it could shut completely, the deep moaning voice whispered, “Millie.” It sounded so close!
Stop! she wanted to yell. Stop saying my name! Who are you? How do you know my name? She was sure now that the voice of her tormentor was the voice of a man, but not a voice she could recognize, and he was somehow watching her in the darkness make her rounds as she shut up her house.
Watch on, she thought. I’m almost done, and I’ll get my cell phone and help will come.
She felt bruised and sore, in both body and soul, but she could move more quickly now with no glass in her heel. Feeling her way into the front room, she could see faint starlight shining through the open window. She was sure her tormentor would be watching for her, but she did not hesitate. She grabbed the window and began pushing it closed. Immediately, a voice from out of nowhere, but seemingly close by, whispered, “Millie!”
No matter how much she thought she was ready for that voice, the whisper still twisted her insides each time she heard it, and yet, in some weird way, its tones were beginning to sound almost familiar. Feeling as if she were nearing the end of a marathon, she limped carefully over to the front door and locked it securely. Shaking all over, she backed away from the door, across the large entry hall and leaned against the banister at the bottom of the stairs, feeling totally drained, but relieved. The house was all locked up. She was finally safe.
She had done it. In spite of the darkness and wounds, she had done it. Her tormentor was locked out. In a minute she would call the police, and they would be here, here at her house, and it would be her tormentor who would be looking for a safe place to hide. She smiled grimly. She hoped the police would be as merciless with him as he had been with her.
Standing at the bottom of the stairs, catching her breath, Millie began shaking uncontrollably. She realized she wasn’t shaking because she was scared--she was cold, really cold. A draft of freezing air, was sliding down the stairs, blowing its icy breath down her back.
But, there should be no draft. None of the upstairs windows are open!
Millie turned to look up the stairs and could feel the cold wind blowing in her face, but her eyes could see nothing. Everything was still pitch black. Then, she thought she heard something. With every fiber of her body, she listened, and suddenly, a board in the landing at the top of the stairs creaked. That board had creaked as long as Millie could remember. It always creaked when someone stepped on it.