The Cottage (Short Story)

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The Cottage

Written by Shelly Moore

The cherry red paint on Charlotte Gurdy’s ‘89 Chevrolet Beretta was nearly pristine, other than a tiny patch of rust under her driver’s side door. Once a week she washed it with the attention to detail that a brain surgeon would give as he navigated through the parts of his patient that store the ability to solve math equations and remember his children’s birthdays. Her father told everyone that he had bought it for Charlotte’s 15th birthday present, though the truth was he had bought it for her at 15 so she would have a full year to pay him back before being able to call it her own. She worked her ass off for it by scrubbing toilets and bussing tables at the restaurant her mom managed, and because of that, the pride she had for this vehicle was, as her mom would say, “Deeper than the Holler”; a reference to an old song by twangy country singer, Randy Travis.

Charlotte had celebrated her 22nd birthday with her friends and family in her hometown in semi-rural Ohio. Her hometown, Coltonville, was perfectly nestled between city and country. If she wanted to go bar hopping with her friends downtown, all it took was a twenty-minute drive south. If she wanted to throw a blanket over the hood of her car, drink cheap wine coolers and stargaze, all she needed was a short drive north and she’d be surrounded by nothing but corn fields; no city lights for miles to obstruct her view of the wide-open Ohio sky.

Coltonville was a town in which the parents all knew each other because they, too, had been born and raised there. Everyone knew everyone else’s business, and secrets simply didn’t exist because gossip may as well have been the city’s currency. Although she loved her town almost as much as her beloved Beretta, she itched to stretch her legs and see the world, not unlike most twenty-somethings.

Her birthday party consisted of a grill loaded from one end to the other with burgers and dogs, a table full of pasta salads and burger fixin’s, five large coolers full of ice cold beer, a handful of friends, and her entire extended family, which in Charlotte’s book was the textbook definition of perfect. Mikey, mom’s cousin who was more like her big brother, made his way over to Charlotte with his can of beer snugly nestled inside a grass green beer koozie which read, “Still a better gift than a Michigan jersey,” so that he could introduce his new girlfriend, Claire.

Claire had long, wavy, blonde and gray hair, which was parted down the middle in true hippy fashion. She had a dainty silver nose ring, a shirt that fell off the shoulders to reveal a large floral tattoo which reached across her left shoulder and back, and wide smile that radiated the genuine warmth of a thousand mid-summer suns. She hugged Charlotte as if she had known her for years, and Charlotte couldn’t help but love her immediately.

“So nice to meet you, Charlotte. Mike just adores you,” she said.

“Claire’s into music big time like you are, Char. Tell her, Claire,” he said, winking and playfully nudging Claire with his elbow; cigarette firmly gripped between the half of his mouth that wasn’t being used to speak.

“Everyone likes music, Mike,” she said sarcastically, “Everyone with a soul, anyway. Mike says you play guitar?” she asked Charlotte.

Charlotte nodded as she sipped from her beer bottle.

“Well I’m not quite that talented, but I toured with the Dead for a few years. Used to hop trains to catch shows. Lived in the woods with others doing the same. I’ve seen the whole country thanks to Jerry,” she laughed.

That was the very moment the seed was planted deep in Charlotte’s brain. This seed, as it turned out, only needed two days to sprout and grow large enough for her to act on it, and act on it she did.

Being the frugal little worker bee that she was, Charlotte had saved quite a bit of money in a rainy-day fund she had started her junior year of high school. She checked her account balance on her laptop, which reflected quite a bit more than she had anticipated, then began the planning process immediately. She spent hours on end googling words like road trip and solo vacation, and calculating the cost of gas and the cost of hotels and motels versus sleeping in her car. She ran outside to grab an old map she knew was buried underneath the seat of her dad’s pickup truck, and using a bright pink highlighter she planned her route from start to finish.

She’d start by heading north on I-75 toward Lima, where she’d then head west on Route 30 toward Fort Wayne, Indiana, which is where her friend Lucy had moved the year prior with her fiancé. She hadn’t seen Lucy since her move and this was the perfect excuse to surprise her with a bottle of her favorite pinot and a large chicken, bacon, and pineapple pizza from Cincinnati-based LaRosa’s, which was Lucy’s favorite.

She used the following day to pack the necessary supplies and go over her routes again and again, making small changing here and there to accommodate her desire to see a handful of landmarks she had always wanted to visit. She didn’t want to spend too much time in one place; her goal, she had decided, was to drive in a big circle around the states, beginning in Ohio, through Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, to South Dakota; then through Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, etc., until making her way back up to Ohio. This route would bring her through the sites she most wanted to see and then back home before next semester began. She was elated, and felt more alive than ever.

Two days later, Charlotte was driving west bound on Route 30 now and had been for about a half hour, which according to the map meant she’d be entering Fort Wayne, Indiana within the next hour or so. Tool’s “Forty-Six and Two” played at maximum volume, which in Charlotte’s option was the only proper way to listen to it. She drummed along on the fluffy, leopard print covered steering wheel, blissfully unaware that six miles back her rear left tire had picked up an unwelcome hitchhiker in the form of a nail; a four inch long tire destroyer, and was now rapidly losing air.

Once the tire deflated to near empty and the car began to ride its rim, Charlotte turned down the music and finally realized the predicament she was now in. She cursed as she eased off the side off of the road and down the short exit ramp. She drove, slowly and noisily as the tire thudded with each rotation, to a small gas station just off the exit with one gas pump and a large advertisement for Marlboro Reds in the window. She left her car at the pump, slammed the door behind her, made a few proper adjustments to her pants after having been seated for so long, and then made her way toward the small building to seek the clerks help.

It was about 6 pm and the sun was just beginning its final decent into the expansive corn fields that abutted the old gas station and roadways. She pulled on the metal door handle, which she quickly realized was locked. She pushed her face and hands to the glass and peered into the building to see if anyone was inside, to which, unfortunately the answer seemed to be a hard no.

She cursed once again, kicked the door just hard enough to instantly regret the pain it caused her big toe, then walked back to her car while mumbling other obscenities that would surely make her mother blush. She opened her door, grabbed her phone, pushed the button on the bottom angrily and said, “CALL DAD.”

No signal.

“Of course!” she said out loud with an exasperated, sarcastic laugh, “of course there’s no signal! Are you kidding me right now?”

She threw her phone onto the passenger’s seat, slammed her door shut, and leaned against it, arms crossed and eyes closed tightly. She needed to think.

Did she know how to change a tire? She watched dad do it once, how hard could it be? Dad barely knew how to change a light bulb; mom did most of that stuff for him. Dad was Rain Man when it came to accounting, but when it came to getting his hands dirty, it just wasn’t his thing. Mom grew up with younger two sisters and a father who had wanted boys but got girls, so being the eldest of the three, she was taught fairly young how to do everything from changing her own oil, replacing belts, and jumping batteries, to replacing toilets, laying tile, and using every power tool known to man. Her mother was five foot four, blonde, and every bit as capable as any man Charlotte had ever met.

Over the years, mom had taught Charlotte quite a bit, but her older brothers tended to rush to her every beck and call so there wasn’t much of a need to learn how to be completely self-sufficient. That’s what big brothers were for, after all. One time though, Charlotte’s dad had taken her with him to visit his mother while in hospice care, and on the drive home they, too, had suffered a flat tire. It took him nearly three hours and enough sweat to fill a five-gallon bucket, but surprisingly he did manage to get the donut onto the truck and they made it home where Charlotte’s mother met them in sheer shock, not that they had come home three hours later than expected, but from learning that her husband of twenty years had changed a tire “all by himself.”

“I can do this,” Charlotte thought aloud. “If Benjamin James Gurdy can change a tire, Charlotte Grace Gurdy can, too.”

She opened her car door once again, reached beneath the steering column to pop the trunk, then made her way around the back. She lifted the trunk, pulled on the fabric handles to raise the liner, and to her disappointment and utter astonishment, it was completely barren.

No spare.

No tire where a tire should have been.

She realized in that moment that she had never once since owning this car ever even thought to check to see if there was a spare tire residing where a spare tire should reside in a 1989 Chevrolet Beretta, and her father surely had never thought to check upon purchasing it years ago. It was likely the spare had been utilized in its past life; the life it had before its relationship with Charlotte, and this, Charlotte realized, was not good for her situation in the least.

Defeated, she slumped to the ground and sat with her head in her hands, knees drawn to her chest trying to think of her next move. After a minute or two, she suddenly heard the unmistakable sound of children giggling and playing somewhere nearby. She dropped her hands to her sides and sat up straight, eyes wide, trying to pinpoint which direction the sound was coming from. Now as alert as a hunting dog that had caught its target’s scent, she scanned the horizon in all directions waiting to hear them again, and she did.

It seemed to be coming from just up the road from the gas station. With sunlight fading fast and no real other option in sight, she stood, grabbed her phone from the car, then walk-jogged down the empty, cornfield-lined roadway in the direction where she had thought she had heard the children. Where there were children, there were bound to be parents, she thought, and parents can help. Parents can call Triple A. She could still make it to Lucy’s before nightfall.

Charlotte heard the sound of the children drawing nearer, and her heart-raced at the anticipation of finding help. She had gone about a mile, picking up her pace as her anticipation grew; just until the gas station and her precious but crippled vehicle were out of sight. She stopped again to listen, but heard nothing.

She stood still for another moment or two listening intently.

Silence.

“Screw,” she mumbled under her breath. She realized she must have gone too far, but she wasn’t sure how that could be considering she hadn’t passed any side streets, playgrounds, or anything resembling civilization whatsoever. The only thing she had seen on her short walk was corn stalk after corn stalk. She listened for another moment, and after hearing nothing but the wind passing through the fields, she decided to head back to her car to see if maybe she had missed something.

She had only taken a few steps when she realized the road she faced now had a slight incline, which couldn’t possibly be right because this very road, just seconds earlier, was as flat as a sheet of paper. Unsure of how to process what it was that she was now looking at, she stood, mouth agape and brows furrowed, trying to figure out how to take her next breath without totally freaking out.

“What the actual hell,” she said aloud. She told herself maybe she just hadn’t noticed it because she was so focused on listening for the children.

She took one step, and then another, and decided the only thing she could really do at this point was to keep walking back toward her car. Once she reached it, she decided, she would drive it, defunct tire and all, back onto Route 30 where some passerby would surely stop to help a pretty young thing change her tire. Then she’d be happily on her way to Lucy’s, once again, and this would be an incredible, albeit unbelievable story she could share over several… several glasses of wine.

As she walked up the slight hill, her legs began to ache. She was reasonably fit, but the incline was beginning to get steep, as nonsensical as she realized it could be, and her muscles strained to keep up. She stopped for a second to rest and scanned the horizon once again, listening for the sound of children giggling, playing, or whatever the hell it was they were doing when she had heard them before.

When she turned to face the direction from which she had just come, there, at the bottom of the hill that shouldn’t exist, right where she must have been standing just moments before, was a small pond.

“I am absolutely losing my god damned mind,” Charlotte said in shock.

The pond had a small, weathered, red canoe upside down beside it, and a dock that extended into the water a few feet. Behind the pond, set back from the road several hundred feet, stood a small, brown cottage with smoke reaching from the chimney to the clouds.

“What the hell was in my coffee,” she asked herself, and then she heard the children again. It sounded like they were down there; down by the pond and cottage that weren’t there just moments before.

Without realizing she had even made the decision to do so, she found herself running downhill toward the sound of the children. She estimated she had about an hour left of daylight and she sure as hell didn’t want to get stuck here.

When she reached the property line she noticed a small, creepy doll laying in the grass near the pond. It was an old doll and looked handmade. It was missing a button eye, and its hair was made of yellow yarn which had been braided and tied at the ends with blue ribbon. It had on a blue dress with little white flowers, also hand sewn, and looked as if it had been in that spot through a few dozen rough winters, which upped its creep-factor significantly, Charlotte thought.

She yelled out, “Hello?” hoping to see a flock of children peek around the corner, curious as to who this stranger was trespassing on their property, but both saw and heard nothing.

She walked around the pond, past the dock, which she was able to now see was in a major state of disrepair, and then finally up to the front door of the modest crapshoot of a dwelling. She leaned back a bit to peek into the widow to the right of the door, but heavy curtains inside prevented her from seeing much of anything at all, other than a hint of light from within.

She knocked twice, cautiously knocked twice more, then waited.

She looked around the property while she waited for someone to answer. To the left of the cottage were corn fields, and to the right there stood an old barn. The barn was beautiful, she thought, but also weathered and such a state of disrepair that she could clearly see its contents through its one missing wall and half roof, but more alarmingly, as far as she could see there were no vehicles. No cars in the dirt driveway, no trucks; not even a hint of farm machinery which she thought surely they’d need to plow these fields.

She knocked again, this time louder and more aggressively, then shouted, “Hello?”

Silence.

She peeked through the window again and decided lights on inside must mean someone is home, not to mention the kids she heard playing somewhere nearby. She smelled food, as if bread had been freshly baked, and thought maybe the occupant was busy in the kitchen and hadn’t heard her. She knocked again, and putting her mouth close to the door she said, “Hello? Is anyone home? I’m really sorry to bother you so late but um… my car, um… I got a nail in my tire, and I need some help.”

Just then she thought she might have seen something, or someone, just for a moment, pass by the window and block the small sliver of light peeking through the curtains.

She knocked again, this time in the match-in-the-gas-tank rhythm, but without the final “boom boom.”

“I don’t have any reception on my phone… if I could just use yours to call my dad I could –“

The door opened, but only slightly. Whomever had opened it now stood behind it, apparently not wanting to be seen.

Charlotte spoke to the empty opening. “Hi, my name’s Charlotte. Look, I’m really sorry to bug you, but –“

“You sure do talk a lot,” a woman’s voice said from within.

The door shut abruptly, which startled Charlotte, but then reopened, revealing a wrinkled, frail old woman with a sharp nose, age bitten skin, and long, stringy grey hair that reached down to her hips. Charlotte was never any good at guessing ages; one time her mother’s friend, Tilly, had four too many margaritas and asked a then ten-year-old Charlotte to guess her age.

“Just guess. Go on! I bet you won’t get it. Everyone always guesses wrong. Go on, Char, what’s your guess?”

“Um… I dunno. Like, forty-six?” young, naïve Charlotte replied.

Her mother roared with laughter, but Tilly’s reaction was quite opposite. She slowly set her margarita onto the table beside her, reached up to pull her sunglasses down just low enough for Charlotte to see her eyes, and said, “You’re funny. That was funny, wasn’t it, Annemarie? You’ve raised a little comedian here, I see.”

Charlotte wasn’t trying to be funny, but she decided she’d better run off while she still could and escape whatever else this drunken woman would throw her way. Charlotte could hear Tilly chattering a mile a minute to her mother about how she’s “barely thirty-five” and how she’s “never smoked a cigarette in her life” and how “everyone usually guesses twenty-six.”

If the grey-haired woman that stood before Charlotte had asked her to guess her age, however, Charlotte would have guessed a solid three hundred and five, give or take a year or two. More realistically however, she would say certainly no younger than ninety.

“Come on in then, I suppose,” the woman said toward Charlotte, but not to her as she turned her back and walked further into her home. “I don’t have a phone, but you can stay here until Chester comes home.”

Charlotte didn’t know who Chester was, and quite frankly didn’t care enough to ask.

“Do you have any neighbors that might have a phone?” Charlotte asked.

“No. No neighbors out here. Did you see any neighbors while you were wanderin’ about my property?” she asked, and this time Charlotte thought she heard a hint of annoyance in her tone.

She still hadn’t looked Charlotte in the eye. She made her way to an old wooden rocking chair, carefully sat down, and picked up a half-finished embroidery of some sort that she had clearly been working on before Charlotte had interrupted her.

Charlotte sighed an exasperated sigh, crossed her arms in front of her, and looked around the interior of the cottage. To her right was a stone fireplace with a small fire and a stack of wood beside it; on the mantle, there were two antique picture frames, although empty, which Charlotte found odd but fitting for this creepy little dwelling and its creepy inhabitant. The room in which she stood had modest furnishings; a sofa that looked nearly as old as the woman, her rocker, and a bookshelf with about three dozen books covered in a thin layer of dust. Beyond the living room there was a small kitchen with a hotplate and tea kettle, a small sink with no dirty dishes within, and beside it a small table and two chairs.

“Is Chester your husband?” Charlotte finally asked, breaking the silence.

“Are you hungry?” the lady replied, ignoring Charlotte’s question. “Dinner is cold by now, but there are a couple of biscuits leftover and some fresh cream on the table. Help yourself.”

“Thank you, but I’m okay. Will Chester be able to fix my tire?”

“Chester fixes everything. If it’s broke, Chester can fix it,” she said, the last part almost in a singsong way. She continued to sew.

“Do you know when he’ll be home?” Charlotte asked.

“Any moment now. Chester will be home any moment now.”

“I heard children while I was walking; do you have children around here?”

The old lady stopped her needlework suddenly, but her eyes didn’t leave her needle.

“I saw a little doll out by your pond, I thought maybe you –“

The lady dropped her hands to her lap and stared into Charlotte’s eyes and shouted, “Why were you snooping around my property? What the hell are you doing here, huh? Why do you talk so much?” The anger spilled from her as she spoke, or rather hissed, and Charlotte took a step back, completely caught off guard and shocked as she watched spittle fly from this woman’s lips with each angry word.

“No, no! I swear… I… I’m not even from around here,” Charlotte spoke quickly and apologetically, trying to pacify the situation quickly, “I just… I was just driving by and I got a flat… I tried to get help at the gas station down the road, but no one was working, but then I heard children so I thought if I found them, I could find help, and then the road… it became a hill… and…” she stopped, realizing how insane her words sounded.

Charlotte then noticed the woman had begun her needlework once again, and had also once again calmed completely.

“I have a little girl. Her name is Lila Belle. She’s with Chester.”

Charlotte was beyond freaked out at this point, but decided her best bet would be to just keep her trap shut for now and wait for this Chester guy to come home to help her.

The woman continued her needlework and Charlotte took a seat on the sofa, as far away as possible from the creepy old woman.

A grandfather clock that Charlotte hadn’t noticed before chimed loudly from the back corner of the living room, which made Charlotte come painfully close to needing a new pair of pants, announcing through its deep chimes that it was now eight o’clock. Realizing she was in fact hungrier than she had thought, she stood and walked to the kitchen to grab one of the biscuits the bat shit crazy lady had offered her before things went all Twilight Zone. She took her seat at the couch again and began to nibble. She hated to admit it, but it was hands down the best biscuit she had ever eaten in her life. It was obviously made completely from scratch, and she thought even her southern grandmother would have been in awe of its flaky, buttermilk perfection.

She finished, wiped the crumbs from her lap onto the floor, casting a quick glance over at the lunatic in the rocking chair to make sure she hadn’t seen, then reclined a bit on the couch, crossing one leg over the other. She may as well get comfortable, she thought. Who knows when this Chester guy will show up.

With the warm fire crackling beside her and the old, worn couch cradling her tired body, she fought to keep her heavy eyelids open but lost the battle rather quickly, and she dozed off into dreamland before she could so much as think another thought.

In the moments just before she awoke, when she was still in that space that’s not quite a dream but not quite reality, she thought she heard her mom calling her name. She opened her eyes expecting to see her lavender bedroom walls and her sheer white curtains that adorned her large bedroom windows, but instead she saw a large, burly, bearded man in a red and black hunters cap standing above her, staring down at her.

She jump-startled awake, and realized immediately her clothes had been changed. She was now wearing a hand-sewn blue dress with little white flowers, and her hair had been made into two long braids with yellow ribbons tied into bows at the ends. Her feet were tied together and then secured to the foot posts of a bed, and her arms were tied at the wrists and then secured around wooden posts on the headboard.

She screamed a scream she didn’t know she was capable of screaming. She screamed again, and again, and then once more. The man just stared at her, waiting for her to finish.

“Stupid girl, you’re gon’ hurt your throat. Ain’t no one gon’ hear you out here, stupid girl,” the man said to her. His voice was gravely and sounded like his vocal chords had been shredded with a cheese grater.

Charlotte had a billion and one questions running through her mind, but she couldn’t think clearly enough to formulate any of them coherently enough to ask this lumberjack-Hulk of a man what the hell he was doing with her. He spoke before she had to.

“Don’t be a stupid girl and Rose will be good to you, ya hear?” he said.

Charlotte just stared at him, no words yet able to escape her trembling lips.

“Rose done you up like this. You ate them biscuits she made, didn’t you, stupid girl. Shouldn’t have done that. That’s how she catches you, with them biscuits, you stupid girl. She caught you,” he said to her.

He tugged on the ropes at her ankles to make sure they were secure, then walked up to her hands and did the same.

“Rose is makin’ me breakfast, but she gon’ come be with you for hers.”

The man, Chester, she assumed, started to walk out of the room, but Charlotte stopped him in his tracks by asking, “Wait… are you Chester?”

“Yeah, that’s me,” he said, then he kept walking.

“No, no please, wait, please, help me, Chester, please,” Charlotte pleaded.

“She’s too old,” the crazy old woman suddenly said from the doorway. “She’s too old, and I don’t like her. She was poking and prodding around our property, Chester. Snooping around like a curious little cat. I hate cats. They piss everywhere.”

“Well she’s whatcha got, ain’t she now, and you ain’t got much of anything else in a long while Miss Rose, so you’d better be happy she poked and prodded,” Chester said to Rose.

“I don’t like her, and I don’t want her,” the nasty old woman said as she crossed her arms in front of her as if she was a toddler throwing a tantrum.

“Please let me go, Rose. Just let me go. I’ll just walk out of here and back to my car and –“ Charlotte pleaded.

Rose laughed a loud, cackling, hideous laugh and said to Chester, “Hear that, Ches? She’s just gonna walk on out of here and go back to her car and go about her life, while we rot out here in the middle of nowhere, all alone. Why’d you use the yellow ribbon on her hair, Chester, dammit, I told you I wanted blue to match the dress! You done ruined her! I don’t want her, I don’t want her stupid yellow ribbons, and I don’t want her talkin’ no more so sew her wicked mouth shut!”

“No, no, no, no please… please don’t sew my mouth shut. I won’t talk anymore, I promise. See?” Charlotte pressed her lips together as if to show they were now forever sealed and completely rendered incapable of producing any more sound.

“Rose, how’s about you go make yourself some tea and calm down a bit? How’s that sound? How’s about you go relax and I’ll get her ready,” Chester said as he gently took Rose’s hands in his and led her out of the room.

Once they both were out of sight, Charlotte began fidgeting with the ropes around her wrists in an attempt to loosen them, and to her delight she realized she could likely easily slip her small hands out of them when the time was right. Next, she focused on her ankles. They were certainly tied a bit tighter, and would require a bit more work.

Chester re-entered the room. Charlotte glared at him.

“You done gone and upset Miss Rose, stupid girl,” he said.

“Chester, what does she want with me? What is she going to do?”

“That ain’t none your business, stupid girl. Now shush.”

“Is she going to kill me?” Charlotte asked.

“Yep.”

Holy shit. Charlotte wasn’t expecting an answer, let alone one so blunt.

“Wait, what?! Why? Why would she kill me? She said she has a little girl… um… god, what was her name…. um… Bella? No, no, that’s not right… um… oh god, um… Lila! Lila Belle! What if Lila Belle comes home?”

Chester rolled his eyes.

“Ain’t been no Lila Belle ‘round here in decades. Rose thinks she gon’ come back, but she ain’t. She dead, just like you fixin’ to be if you don’t shut your stupid mouth, stupid girl.”

Charlotte realized no one knew where she was. Not a soul on the planet had any idea where she was in this moment. Lucy didn’t know she was coming; it was supposed to be a surprise. She had told her mom the night before, but her mom never asked details as to which roads she’d be taking and when; Charlotte had only said she’d be heading north, then west, and then south. She hadn’t even seen her father before she left; he had left the morning prior for a business trip in Maine. Her phone was in the back pocket of her jeans, but what good would it do out here in the cornfields of Crazyville? Besides, who knew where the crazy old bat had put her clothes; for all she knew they had been tossed into the fire and destroyed forever.

“What can I do to make her not kill me, Chester?” she finally asked, realizing how stupid her question sounded only after having asked it.

Chester stopped and turned to face her. He looked genuinely perplexed. He said, “None of them others ever asked me that before, stupid girl. She gon’ kill you though. She always end up killin’ ‘em,” he said almost under his breath.

“Them?” Charlotte asked, swallowing the lump that had now formed in her throat, “There are others?”

“Yep,” he said.

“Why?”

He stopped what he was doing and put his hand to his beard to stroke it, as if half annoyed by Charlotte’s questions yet also, maybe, Charlotte hoped, enjoying the interaction.

He stroked his beard the way men with beards do for a moment or two as if contemplating what she had asked, and then took a seat in a chair next to the foot of the bed.

“Well listen, stupid girl,” he said in a much quieter tone, glancing toward the kitchen where Rose was making her tea. “I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you because you asked, and ain’t no one ever asked before. Usually they too scared to ask.”

Charlotte shuddered.

“Rose lost her little Lila. She done drowned in that pond out there,” he nodded in the direction of the pond outside. “Long, long time ago. Before you was born. Hell, before I was born. Lila drowned and Miss Rose couldn’t save her. That’s what she told me, anyhow. Rose’s old man, his name Chester too, he was a bad man, but he tried to make Rose happy so he’d take kids from the street and bring ‘em home to her. Steal ‘em. Take ‘em from their back yards while they played, or when they parents sent them to the store for bread and smokes. Chester would snatch ‘em up and bring ‘em home to her. Tell her she could keep ‘em. Miss Rose would dress ‘em up, make ‘em real nice clothes herself and feed ‘em good and keep ‘em. She don’t like it when they talk back though. One girl ‘bout six or seven called Rose a nasty old woman, so Rose sewed her mouth shut. Girl ended up dead few days later cuz Rose said she was ugly and useless now, so Chester threw her in the pond and let her drown.”

Charlotte felt warm tears fall down her cheeks and into her hair. She continued to shudder, and at this point it became more of a constant shiver, her body subconsciously trying to shake off the horrible things that she was hearing.

Chester continued, “Mean ol’ Chester, he done run out of little girls to steal so he started snatchin’ up little boys. Miss Rose was real unhappy ‘bout that, so she’d just tie ‘em up and throw ‘em in the pond herself to teach ol’ Chester a lesson, I s’pose. Chester stole me from my mama when I was just a lil’ thing. Couldn’t even talk yet. Told her she could raise me like a girl. They took away my parts that made me a man and dressed me in dresses and bonnets, they did. ‘Till one day I got too old and Chester wanted to kill me off and get another kid. Rose said she liked me too much, so she saved me. She fed ol’ Chester one of her famous biscuits and threw him into the pond, too. She told me I’m the man of the house now, and started callin’ me Chester. Ain’t no kids came ‘round since I me, stupid girl… ‘till you.”

“I’m not a kid. I’m clearly not a kid. So why kill me? Just let me go, please. I’ll never tell a soul, I swear it. I’ll never speak about you or Rose to anyone. Please, just let me go,” Charlotte pleaded.

Chester hung his head and seemed to contemplate her words for a minute. He interlaced his hands behind his hanging head, then rubbed the back of his head with his palms. He looked up, and cocked his head to once side, cracking the bones in his neck. He stared at Charlotte.

“She’s crazy. She’s out of her mind, you see that, right? I mean, you get that now, right Chester? Now that your grown?” Charlotte said imploringly. “You can leave, too. You can come with me. We’ll find your family. We’ll get you help. You can get away from her!”

Chester let out a long, drawn out sigh, then looked behind him toward the room where crazy Rose must have been sipping her tea and working on her needlepoint.

“Rose don’t just kill these kids, stupid girl. Don’t you think I would leave if I could? Do you think I’m stupid, too? She took my manhood, stupid girl, not my brain!” He had begun to yell, but caught himself, leaned closer to Charlotte, and whispered, “Rose won’t let anyone leave. She won’t let you leave, she won’t let me leave, and she ain’t never gon’ let them kids leave either.”

As if Charlotte’s state of confusion could possibly stretch any deeper, she squinted her eyes and shook her head, trying to make any sense at all out of the nonsense this sad, scary unic was spouting off to her.

“What the hell are you talking about? She killed them. They’re dead. Gone.”

“They ain’t gone, stupid girl. They ain’t gone.”

He hung his head and shook it slowly from side to side. He rubbed his palms against the back of his head once again, then quickly pointed with his right hand to the floor.

Charlotte stretched her body as far as she could so that she could see what on earth he was pointing to.

Then, she saw it.

Drawn in what appeared to be dried blood on the wooden floor beneath the bed she lay on, was a reversed pentagram. Hundreds of unlit but clearly used black candles encircled the bed. Little shoes, which she quickly assumed must belong to the children of which Chester spoke, were placed at both the head and foot of the bed. Perhaps the most disturbing thing she saw, however, were all the little bones atop the dried blood which outlined the pentagram. Too big to be rodent bones and too small to be bovine bones, Charlotte now wanted to scream. Chester, sitting at the foot of her bed, placed one hand firmly on her ankles and brought the other to his lips, telling her to stay quiet. He looked in Rose’s direction to remind Charlotte of the importance of keeping those lips of her pressed firmly shut.

Charlotte closed her eyes in another attempt to gather her thoughts.

“I.. I don’t understand… is she some sort of devil worshipper or something?” she managed to ask through a voice too mouse-like to be her own.

“Something, stupid girl. Something,” he replied somberly. “Alls I know is… she keeps their little souls.”

At this point, having crossed the threshold of crazy about a hundred times over, Charlotte thought little else could shock her, but this… this was too much to comprehend.

“Keeps their souls? You have to be kidding me. That can’t be a thing. That can’t be real. You can’t just keep people’s souls. That’s like some B grade horror flick bullshit; now your just playing with my head-“

Chester held his finger to his lips again, and that’s when Charlotte noticed the tears swelling up in his eyes. Holy shit, he wasn’t joking. This nasty old woman was enslaving the souls of these poor little kids. She cried. Hot, heavy tears fell from her eyes, wetting her face and hair as she laid there in this stranger’s bed, tied at the arms and legs, and all she could think about was the children. Charlotte realized it must have been the children she heard playing. The trapped souls of these poor children, trapped here by this monstrous woman. She couldn’t think, she could only weep.

“You kill her yet?” Rose yelled from the other room, startling both Chester and Charlotte.

“No, no, Miss Rose. Notchyet. Soon,” Chester yelled back to her. He gave Charlotte’s ankle a good squeeze and a pat, then let go and stood from his chair.

“What are you waiting for, Chester, for god’s sake just kill her and be done with it, dammit!”

Charlotte found herself less focused on escape at this point, and more worried about the poor, helpless children the woman had kept here as prisoners even in death. She went through every television show she had ever watched about ghosts and death trying to figure out if she knew a way to help free their innocent little souls. She had nothing. She didn’t know squat about this kind of thing. Hell, until three seconds ago, she didn’t believe it to even be real, but her assumptions had been based upon little evidence other than terrible t.v. shows in which the guys who claim to be professional “ghost hunters” seem to think every creak and groan of an old building sounds just like a supposed demonic voice saying, “I’m going to kill you.”

“Chester, please untie me. I can take her. I can run past her and out that door. No one has to die tonight. Please, just let me go.”

“She already done some sort of voodoo witch spell on you, stupid girl. How you think you got here? She knew you was comin’. No one can see this place unless she wants them to see it. She got some sorta spell on it. You already trapped here, stupid girl. She already done you wrong before you ever even walked in that door. Why you think I ain’t leave yet, huh? You think I ain’t tried takin’ that old sack of bones out there down? You think I ain’t tried running away? Oh, I tried. I tried, stupid girl.”

Chester walked up to Charlotte and leaned down so they were nose to nose, then whispered, “I stuck a knife in her throat myself, stupid girl, and no blood ran. None. She the devil. It don’t work like that. She got you. You hers now.”

Charlotte felt defeated. She couldn’t think her way out of this one like she had when the cops busted her and her friends underage drinking in French Park one night when she was seventeen, but, she thought, maybe she could help the children. Maybe that’s what brought her here. She had always been a big believer in the whole everything happens for a reason thing, so maybe this was why she was here. That’s what she chose to believe in this most critical of moments, anyway.

She needed to save those children. They couldn’t be saved in life, so the least she could do, she felt, was save them in death.

“Chester, I need you to listen to me, okay? Listen to what I’m about to tell you.”

Chester pursed his lips, stood, and turned his head slightly to one side as if interested in what she was about to say.

“Chester you have to kill me. I’m okay with it. Alright? Just do it. But before you do it, please let me eat one of those biscuits so I can pass out. I don’t want to feel any pain. I’m scared of the pain, not death itself. Death, I think I can handle. They say it’s just like passing from one room into another. I hope that’s what it’s like, anyway,” she said. Noticing the confusion now weighing heavy on Chester’s face, she continued, “I need to help those children. Okay? After you’ve… done the deed… I need you to take soap and water and wash away a part of this pentagram beneath the bed, okay? Got that? A part that she can’t see, a part that’s hidden beneath the bed. Okay?”

Chester listened attentively.

“Then I need you to burn all those little shoes. Every last one of them. Burn them. Burn them until only ash remains. Got that? That’s important.”

“Why?” he finally asked.

“Well, I’m really just grasping at straws,” she said, “but I’m hoping it’ll release their little souls, and I thinking breaking the pentagram might get rid of whatever is keeping people trapped on the property.”

“But you’ll be dead,” he said.

“Yes, I’ll be dead, and that’s okay. I think maybe I’ll be able to help more if I’m on the other side of things, you know?”

“No.”

“Well, it’s a long shot, but what the hell. I need to help them, Chester. We can’t keep them here. It’s cruel, and it’s unfair. Maybe we can save your soul by saving theirs,” Charlotte wasn’t sure she believed that last part, but it sure sounded good, and she hoped that Chester believed it more than she did.

“Okay,” he said.

“Really? You’ll help me?” she asked him.

“Yeah. I’ll help.”

Chester stood and walked to the kitchen. He came back seconds later with the biscuit. He stood above Charlotte, then held the biscuit to her mouth. Charlotte closed her eyes, took a deep breath, prayed a silent prayer, then ate the biscuit.

“Don’t forget to burn my shoes too, Chester. Okay?”

Chester nodded.

Her eyes grew heavy and tears fell as they closed.

Again, Charlotte found herself in the state just before awakening, but not quite sleeping. Again, she thought she heard her mom call her name.

“Charlotte…” she heard again, but this time it was the voice of a little girl.

“Charrrrlotte,” a third time she heard her name called.

Charlotte awakened and looked around her, still a bit groggy. She was laying in grass. Soft, green grass that she could smell all around her. She blinked the blur of sleep away and noticed children standing around her, curiously looking down where she lay.

A little girl in a blue dress with white flowers knelt down beside her. She had long blonde braids with blue ribbons tied in bows around the ends. Her smile was sweet, and she tickled Charlotte’s nose with a blade of grass.

“Get up, get up,” the little girl said in the sweetest little voice. Then she giggled.

“Where am I?” Charlotte asked groggily.

“You’re dead,” a little boy said from behind her.

“Thomas!” another little girl scolded. “That was rude!”

Charlotte was now fully awake and alert. That did the trick.

“Wait, what? I’m dead? Like… like, for real, for real?” she asked the kids.

“Yep,” the little girl with blonde braids said, “but don’t be sad. We’re dead too. It’s not sad.”

Charlotte pushed herself up with her palms planted in the grass, then took a head count. One, two… nine… twelve. Twelve of them. Twelve children whose ages ranged from what looked to be about three to maybe ten. She looked around and noticed the cottage in the distance.

“But you’re…. you’re okay?” Charlotte asked, still trying to get a grip on this new reality.

“Yep,” said a few of them simultaneously. Some just nodded.

“Speak for yourselves. I want out of this hell hole,” the oldest boy said.

“She’s fixing it for us, Thomas,” another girl said. “Be patient.”

“You’re fixing it, right? That’s what you told Chester. You told him you would help us,” another little redheaded girl said to Charlotte.

“I’m trying. I mean, I don’t really know if it’ll work, but I think Chester is actually going to fix it, I mean… fix things. Make it so you all aren’t trapped here,” Charlotte explained, “that is, if he does what I asked him to.”

Charlotte looked down at the little girl who had tickled her nose with the blade of grass. “Are you Lila Belle?” she asked.

The little girl nodded with a shy smile.

“She don’t talk much,” another girl said.

“Can I get into the cottage while I’m…. you know… um… like this?” Charlotte asked the bunch.

“You mean dead?” Thomas said. “It’s not a curse word, you know. It’s just a word. You can say it.”

“Okay then. Can I get into the cottage.. dead?”

A few of them giggled. The redhead nodded, “Yup. How do you think we heard your plan to save us?”

“Okay, I need to go make sure Chester does what I told him to do. You children stay put.”

“We’re coming with you. It’s not like they can see us,” Thomas said.

A few of the little ones giggled again.

As they walked, little Lila Belle reached up to hold Charlotte’s hand. Charlotte took her tiny hand in her own and squeezed it affectionately. After a few steps she said, “I’m so sorry you all went through what you went through. You didn’t deserve it. None of you did. It was cruel and terribly unfair,” she said somberly.

The children didn’t have much to say to that. Nothing needed to be said. They continued to walk briskly toward the cottage.

“Hey, wait. Look…” Thomas said suddenly. He stopped and raised his arm to point toward the chimney. The smoke that escaped was no longer a muddled grey, but instead seemed to sparkle like glitter when the sun catches it just right.

“What do you s’pose that is?” the redheaded girl asked.

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen it do that,” Thomas replied.

The group stood and watched as the shimmery smoke left the chimney and reached toward the heavens. Transfixed for a moment, Charlotte now realized Lila Belle was no longer holding her hand. She glanced down to where Lila Belle was standing moments before, but saw nothing but grass where she should have been. Charlotte looked around her and all twelve of the children had vanished into thin air. The sun’s intensity brightened in that moment, and Charlotte knew in her heart that Chester must have kept his end of the bargain and burned their little shoes, releasing them from Rose’s spell.

Charlotte wept and watched the diamond-like sparkles as they dissipated and became mere chimney smoke once again. She was overwhelmed with joy for the children, but quickly realized she needed to go inside to make sure Chester was able to find her own shoes and burn them as well.

She ran to the cottage and tried opening the door to no avail. Couldn’t dead people just like, walk through walls, she thought? She tried and failed, yet again. Walls were just as solid in death as they are in life apparently, or at least they were in this hell house. She ran around to the back of the cottage hoping to find a back door, and finally with a stroke of some sort of luck, she found not only a door, but one that had been left slightly ajar, just enough for her to be able to squeeze her way through and into the kitchen where the tea kettle still sat atop the hot plate. The living room stood empty; no Rose and no Chester, so she made her way to the bedroom.

There laying on the bed next to Charlotte’s own lifeless body, was poor Chester; an axe protruding from his forehead, his eyes and mouth open, with blood covering his face and dripping down the side of the bed and onto the wooden floor where it had pooled. Rose sat in the chair in the where Chester had sat earlier, working diligently on her needlepoint.

“I know you’re there, stupid girl,” she said quietly. Tauntingly.

Charlotte ran to her and hit her with every ounce of strength she had in her. She punched and kicked and smacked until Rose began to laugh.

“You can’t touch me, you stupid girl.”

Charlotte stood motionless, unable to think. Unable to move.

“You made me kill my Chester, you stupid girl. I knew I didn’t like you from the moment you opened your stupid mouth.”

Her eyes never left her needlework.

“Chester wasn’t too smart, unfortunately. He was good company, but there were a few screws loose up top, if you know what I mean. I think my old Chester was a bit too rough with him when he was a boy and messed his head up a bit.”

She set her needlework down on the dresser beside her, picked up her cup of tea delicately, and took a sip.

“He burned the shoes, so my children are gone. That’s your fault, stupid girl. I won’t forgive you for that. You’ll pay for that.”

She sipped her tea again.

“Then my Chester, my sweet, dumb Chester came to me and asked for soap, and I thought, now what in the world would he need soap for when he’s supposed to be killin’ you? So I asked him. I said, “Chester, what on earth do you need soap for?” and you know what he said?” she laughed, then set her tea down beside her.

“He said, “Miss Rose I need to scrub the floors.”

The old woman laughed so loudly she cackled. It was terrifying.

“So I got him his soap, then I followed him to the bedroom. I wanted to see what he was up to. When I saw that he had already killed you and hadn’t told me, I knew something was amiss. So I walked out back and grabbed my old axe there, and came back inside to see Chester on his big, dumb hands and knees trying to scrub away all my hard work. So I had to stop him, and it’s all your fault you stupid, stupid girl.”

Rose lifted her stare to meet Charlotte’s. Her eyes were cold and black; soulless and hollow. Rose stood and walked slowly to Charlotte, their noses so close a single sheet of paper could hardly fit between them.

“You will pay for this, stupid girl. You’re mine now.”

Charlotte didn’t budge. She stood her ground and stared back into the cold eyes of this insane, evil murderess. She said calmly, “You can have me, you ugly, old witch, but the children are safe now. That’s what matters.”

At that moment, she felt a little hand take hers. She looked down, and to her surprise there stood Lila Belle at her side, in her little blue dress with white flowers and her blonde braids with blue bows.

Rose stumbled backwards.

“Lila? My Lila Belle? Is… is that really you, my girl?”

Rose’s entire demeanor had changed. Overcome by emotion more powerful than herself, she dropped to her knees as tears poured from her eyes. Her lips and limbs trembled as she outstretched her arms toward the ghostly little girl.

Lila Belle didn’t let go of Charlotte’s hand, but she did look at her mother. She looked at her and firmly said, “No. Not your girl,” then looked back up at Charlotte and smiled her sweet smile.

Both Charlotte and Lila Belle faded away together; their edges burning away like the delicate paper of a cigarette until no trace of them remained in that room with that wretched woman.

 

{The End.}

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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