A writer finds an old photograph and discovers a horrifying secret...
The Photograph of Carolina Stump
When my grandmother died she left me her old two-story house in southern California. A year later, after going through a mangled marriage and a devastating divorce, I decided to move into Gram's old place and write the book I had always dreamed of writing.
The house was odd, not odd because of who lived in it, but odd the way you can sense something's not quite right about a place. It slumped down like a tired old man in an overgrowth of weeds and ferns that wove their spidery webs together into a green embroidery of cascading bougainvillea, laurels, palms, and fragrant eucalyptuses. I had hoped that all it really needed was a bit of repair and a new coat of paint, but the way the house sagged, it appeared as though paint would simply slide off. There had been an earthquake way back when, and looking at the place from the roadside, it seemed to squat upon its foundation like a hungry ogre patiently hiding in the bushes and waiting to be fed.
Inside it was huge, filled with rooms within rooms, and each equipped with mysterious little dwarf doors that led into crawlspaces secreted in the walls. It was behind one such door, I discovered while exploring, that I found a long-forgotten cigar box buried beneath a pile of cobwebs and a skin of dust.
Before I could see what was inside, a whisper of chilled-breeze shot through the cramped space and blew right through me. It smelled of old meat gone feverish with rot and decay and made a noise like air blown across the mouth of a pop bottle. The eerie sound sent a host of ghostly spiders crawling along the back of my neck and down the staircase of my spine, and I had an overwhelming feeling that something was with me, standing right at my side.
The squeak of the dwarf door turned me with a start, and I watched in horror as it slowly began to close. With my heart rattling in its cage of ribs, I hurried out as if I were outracing a shadow of descending doom; but once back in the warm sunlight of the bedroom, my fear quickly subsided, and I scolded myself for acting like a frightened child.
I sat upon the corner of Gram's old bed and took a few deep breaths to calm my nerves. It was then that I remembered the cigar box gripped tightly in my hands and opened it.
Inside, I found several antique photographs of people unfamiliar to me. They were dressed in drab, black clothes from the early 1900's. In one there was an image of a stately gentleman sporting a large handlebar mustache with a cigar shoved into his rotund face and looking as though he were posing for the two-dollar-bill.
I shuffled through the rest of the photos, and noticed that none of the people were smiling. They all wore stern and serious expressions; their faces appearing troubled and unhappy as if they had just returned from a funeral, or perhaps they were merely trying to show how much 'hard bark' they had left on them.
The last photo I came to was creased and crumbled as though someone had wadded it into a tight ball in their fist to throw it away, but then, thinking better of it, had smoothed it out again and put it back in the box.
The picture was of a young woman sitting in a rocking chair, dressed all in black as the others had been, but glaring at the camera. She had sharp, bird-like features, long, unkempt hair, and dark eyes that appeared filled with bewilderment, confusion. I was reminded of the glazed look I had seen in newspaper photos of recently released prisoners of war.
Flipping the photograph over, I saw writing on it. "Carolina Stump," I read aloud.
The photograph intrigued me, as well as the name -- more than intrigued -- I was inspired. This strange, pinched-face woman with a dazed look and heavy black dress moved me deeply. I thought she was definitely someone worth writing about.
Quickly grabbing my laptop, I propped the picture against the monitor screen, and began.
Jebediah Stump, steel mogul, proud and pitiless husband, father-to-be, paced behind his house beneath the large eucalyptus trees that were at war with the wind. His sausage-sized fingers drummed impatiently inside the deep pockets of his black trousers as his shadow puddled irritably about his feet.
As the wind soughed through the trees, cooling his hot skin, the wail of a newborn drew his worried eyes to the upper-story window.
He heard a shuffling of feet, and then the back door creaked opened and the gleam of Doctor Higgins's bald head shone brightly in the afternoon sun.
"It is done, sir," the doctor said solemnly.
"And my wife?"
The doctor dropped his eyes, unable to look directly at the man. Dapples of sunlight slipped back and forth across his weary face. "As you know, your wife was very frail and..."
The color drained from Jebediah's cheeks and his expression turned slack and doughy. "Oh, my God...no..."
"I'm extremely sorry . . . it was a breech birth . . . " the doctor stammered, "and in her weak condition, I'm afraid she was unable to withstand . . . "
"Enough! I don't want to know anymore."
Jebediah looked up at an ocean of blue sky that stretched from horizon to horizon. The sky blurred above him, and though he pressed his trembling lips tightly together, the taste of salt seeped in at the corners of his mouth. It was the beginning of the end. Softly, he said, like a whisper at a window, "And the child . . . what of the child?"
"It's a girl, sir," the physician said, "healthy, but . . . uh, she may have brain damage. Of course, we won't know for certain until she is older. The wet nurse is with her now. I am very sorry for your loss."
"Thank you, Doctor Higgins, I'm sure you did all that you could."
"Your wife, sir . . . just before the end, called the girl . . . Carolina."
"Yes, that was the name we had chosen, but I do not want her."
"Don't want her . . . but why?"
"She is a killer."
"A killer? She is but an innocent child and had nothing to do with your wife's death."
"Didn't she? She's killed the only woman I ever loved."
"These things happen, Jebediah, it is no fault of the child's."
He shook his head. "It is an ill omen. Mark my words . . . she'll kill again."
The story flowed out of me like a bad dream. I tried to stop, but my fingers continued to fly across the keyboard.
I stared with wide-eyed wonder as page after page filled seamlessly with words that were not my own, and when I looked at the photograph, I could have sworn Carolina Stump was crying; her head sagged, chin on her chest, and then she looked up at me with anguish and desperation.
I stood with a jolt, pushing the laptop away like some venomous snake, my heart pumping as much terror as blood.
My God, what is this? She moved! I saw it! She moved!
Within the walls of the house, I heard a soft sobbing like a lonely pigeon trapped among the rafters, or the misery of a windblown gull; and riding the crest of the lamenting wave was a whisper that was almost a moan.
Like bullets, the words punched through my mind with such terrible force that I winced. My scalp prickled, and after rubbing my eyes, I again stared at the photo only to find it completely normal and the strange noises gone.
Jesus, I must be losing it.
I put it off as a result of my recent divorce. I still felt physically exhausted, mentally numb, and emotionally fragile. Looking around my grandmother's room, I saw the antique rocking chair made of walnut and the overly-soft feather mattress and down comforter cradled within a classic four-post bed.
The bed looked inviting, but the rocking chair held my attention. It looked identical to the one Carolina Stump sat in when she was photographed.
I searched the drawer of the nightstand and found a small magnifying glass that Gram had used for late night reading. Grabbing it, I scrutinized the photo.
Engraved into the headpiece of the rocker were networks of vines. Looking at the chair in front of me, I saw the same spiral of flowing vines across its headrest.
It was the same chair.
In those days, things were made by craftsmen who took pride in their work. People never threw stuff away, they couldn't afford to, and Gram was no different. Everything in her house was ancient, but built to last.
My head swam from lack of sleep. I couldn't fight it any longer, and stripping off my clothes, I crawled into my Gram's old bed.
It smelled of heavy perfume: lilacs and wild flowers, and reminded me of Christmas hugs and the gentle white-haired woman whom I sorely missed. It wasn't long before I drifted off to sleep.
A barrel-chested man with a large handlebar mustache moved through the house. He checked closets and under beds, shouting as he went along, "Carolina! Carolina, where are you? Come out, girl. NOW!"
He hated this -- hated having to raise a child that had no more sense than a common animal, weaseling her way into the walls of the house like an attic rat. He knew, after everything was said and done, she would get the house. At least that would be something -- one small thing he could do out of respect for his dead wife. "Carolina!"
Against his better judgment, he had raised the girl, but locked her away upstairs, out of sight and out of mind. "Carolina? If I find you, I'll beat you good! Do you hear me? Carolina!"
Hiding beneath her father's large oak desk, Carolina sat with her knees squeezed up into her chest, arms wrapped tightly around them, and tried to make herself as small as a spider. She dipped her head into her knees, thinking that if she couldn't see, she couldn't be seen.
The day the housekeeper died, her father had beaten her -- beat her until her backside bled. She had pleaded with him, told him it wasn't her fault, told him that Beatrice fell as she tried to drag her back into her room, her bony grip hurting, hurting arms that were already bruised from previous bouts of defiance. But she was bigger now, and in a desperate struggle, she pushed the old woman away, and then suddenly the iron grip was broken, and Beatrice Cromwell, the prune-faced housekeeper, fell over backward and down the stairs like a wind-up toy.
Her father had been furious, called her terrible names, and at the height of his anger, beat her with all of his strength -- beat her until she passed out.
There were no more housekeepers after that, no more nannies, and no more nurses. She spent her days alone, locked in her room with little or no food, and a large porcelain pot to do her business in. The pot provided only after the stench of excrement in the corners of her room began to waft down the stairs.
She noticed that her father had been distracted of late, often times forgetting that she even existed, sometimes neglecting to feed her, or empty the pot when full.
Once, during one of her escapes, she had overheard him talking to his business associates about steel, and the stock market, and all his investments going under so that his estate wasn't worth a plug-nickel. Carolina didn't know what that meant, but from the way he spoke, it sounded bad.
Hiding beneath the desk, she heard him enter the room, his black boots thundering across the hardwood floor. Shuddering, she swallowed a hard lump in her throat and bit down on her lip, waiting for the inevitable.
He sat down, his legs almost touching her, and then pulled open the top drawer and took out something heavy and set it on the desktop with a thud. It sounded as if he was sobbing, but she wasn't quite sure since it wasn't something she had ever heard before.
She listened as he lifted the heavy object from the desk, and then heard a mechanical click like the mainspring of the old grandfather clock down the hall, and then a long silence, followed by a boom that made her skinny body jump from the floor.
She let out a startled scream, even as her father's legs kicked out and pinned her against the back of the cubbyhole. Blubbering, she begged for forgiveness, because now that he had found her, he would surely beat her again. But his large mustached-face never bent down to look, and what at first appeared to be a stream of spilled ink flowing over the edge of the desk, pooled and splashed on the floor, and then splattered on her hand. As she held it up to her face, she realized it was red and not ink at all.
In the haunted neighborhood of my head, I tossed and turned in bed, the surrounding dark a heavy blanket that threatened to smother me.
The dream continued...
Carolina was free.
At first, she ran through the house as if it had no walls-no boundaries, exploring room after room with unlimited passion. But all good things must eventually come to an end, and Carolina's were no different.
A thunderstorm approached and the sky was pregnant with undelivered rain. With the storm came a knock at the front door. When Carolina answered it, she stared at a stocky, stern-faced woman who claimed to be Martha Stump, Jebediah's sister, and her fat, acne-scarred son, Colin.
Carolina couldn't remember ever having an aunt, but they pushed their way past her and into the house like robbers that have discovered no one at home. From that point on, Carolina's life changed from a momentary breath of free will to merciless brutality and terror.
This new branch of Stumps seemed only interested in one thing, and in the days to come, they scoured the house for anything of value that Jebediah may have squirreled away.
Carolina watched with building horror as the old grandfather clock, the paintings on the walls, even her father's large desk, disappeared.
After days of this, their attention focused on Carolina.
One night, as the three of them sat before the fire, Martha knitted furiously. Then, no longer able to contain her exasperated greed, she came at Carolina with an animated vengeance. "Where is it, young lady?" the old woman demanded. "Jebediah Stump was a very wealthy man. He must've had a safe somewhere in the house. Tell us where it is!"
Carolina knew nothing of a safe or money, that had been the world of her father. Her life had been filled with nothing more then continuous confinement. "I don't know what you mean, Aunt Martha. There is no money. There's nothing left but this house, and the man from the bank said it was all mine. Everything."
Martha's hand lashed out faster than a snake, striking Carolina across the mouth.
Covering her head with her arms and hands, she screamed, "Leave me alone! This is my house! Mine!"
Martha signaled her son with her eyes and he swooped in behind Carolina and roughly grabbed her arms. Cruelly, he jerked them behind her and pinned her to the chair.
Martha loomed closer. "This should have been my house, not yours, you half-minded little twit. I demand what is rightfully mine," she hissed, "even if I have to kill you to get it."
Carolina's lips were red from the vicious slap. She reminded Martha of Carolina's mother, whom she hated from the very first day Jebediah had announced their marriage, and had rejoiced happily the day she learned of her death. But the rift that had grown between her and Jebediah had been too great to mend, and when she thought she would be called in to help take care of the child, she was never summoned, and had since stewed in her own false pride and arrogance.
Now it was her turn. The wheel of fate had left the place to this snip of a girl who didn't have enough sense to come in out of the rain. Martha Stump vowed to have it all, no matter what the cost.
She was filled with a sudden sense of madness, and pulling the long knitting needle from its nest of yellow yarn, she moved forward. "Perhaps you think I'm not serious, but I assure you I am. I will have this house and everything in it. If you try to get in my way, or decide to withhold secrets from me . . . " She reached out and pinched Carolina's face between her thumb and fingers. "Then I can help you with that." She pressed the steel point against the fleshy part of the young girl's mouth, and then shoved it through, skewering her lips and pinning them shut.
Carolina recoiled in pain, jerking in her seat, her heart pumping like a hard-driven piston, her mind spinning like a flywheel. The pain was so intense that her lungs seemed to cinch shut like drawstring purses, and she felt the heat of her own blood running down her neck.
Martha stepped back and admired her handiwork, the corner of her mouth turning up in the faintest smirk. "There . . . now isn't that pretty."
Wearing a beard of blood, Carolina struggled to free herself from the chair.
I awoke with a start, my body aching with a cramp of fear. The dream had been so vivid I felt as if I had been standing right there in the room. I could still see the woman's face, with all the charm of a snow shovel, as she plowed her knitting needle into Carolina's lips.
Unable to sleep any longer, I crawled from the bed and slipped back into my clothes. I sat in Gram's old rocker, rubbed the sleep from my eyes, and flipped open my laptop. The photograph of Carolina Stump lay inside. I held it in the palm of my hand and felt an eerie surge of energy like opposing magnetic fields. There could be no doubt that the presence of this woman filled the house. I knew I would not be able to rest until I had finished the story, there was no escaping it.
Carolina couldn't sleep, her pain fully awake again, awake and raving, turning her lips into fever-pits. The throbbing heat burned her mind and she felt herself dwindling, dwindling away, and approaching the point where she would cease to be.
A soft knock at her bedroom door brought her back to burning Hell.
"Carolina? Carolina, are you awake? It's me, Colin." Without waiting for an answer, he opened the door, his reddish eyes fixed stolidly in front of him, his large belly pushing out his sweaty white nightshirt. "Are you feeling better?"
Refusing to speak, she instead glared at him.
"I know Mother can be cruel sometimes, but if you could tell her what she wants to know, things would be a lot easier."
Silence filled the room.
"Please, Carolina . . . I want to be your friend. Isn't there something hidden that perhaps you may have forgotten about, like some important papers, or maybe jewelry? I promise I won't tell Mother."
Her eyes lifted. "Jewelry . . . you mean like a necklace?"
Colin's eyes widened. "Yes, yes, do you have a . . . necklace?"
Thinking that perhaps the end of her torment was close at hand, she quickly entered the small dwarf door and returned with a cigar box. "It was my mother's," she said, then hesitating, "you promise not to tell?"
"Of course, it'll be our little secret."
She opened the box and pulled out a stunning pearl necklace. "It's all I have of hers besides some old photographs."
The pearls glistened in the faint yellow light of the oil lamp and Colin had to resist the urge to reach up and grab them from her.
As she returned them to the box, her nightshirt hung open at the neck and she caught Colin staring at her breasts. He moved in beside her on the bed. "You know, we can have fun together," he said breathing heavily, "lotsa fun." He put his cold sticky hand around her shoulder. "Mother need never know."
He grabbed her around the waist and kissed at her neck -- a heavy, wet thing slobbering its way down her back. She pulled away, and he grabbed her roughly around the throat. Perhaps thinking he just might see how many times he could turn the crazy bitch's head around before it popped off the stem.
Pushing her flat upon the bed, his belly shaking like jelly on a plate, he covered her with his body, and kissed at her breasts. She struggled to get away, but his weight held her.
He lifted her nightshirt with his other hand, and her breath caught as if on a thorn. As he explored her, an expression of trapped horror froze her face and her heart tried to cram its way up her throat.
His hips moved in against hers, and she felt the hard, coiled tension at the center of him nudging against her belly. His lips covered hers and the smell of him made her want to vomit. Then a monstrous bolt of pain stretched through her loins and she tried to scream.
"If you scream, I'll smash you until you squeak," he spat. Carolina bit down on her sore lips to stifle a cry.
He pumped several times . . . grunted, and then released her. She felt a thick wetness drooling down the inside of her leg.
The door burst open.
"What in God's name is going on here?"
Colin sat bolt upright on the bed.
"Colin! Explain yourself!"
He scrambled to pull his underwear up. "She wanted to do it, Mother. She begged me!"
Martha slapped at his head with both hands as he ducked for cover.
"Mother, please, she has a necklace!"
The woman backed up. "A necklace? What do you mean . . . where?"
"In the cigar box. She showed it to me. They're pearls!"
Carolina tried to grab the box, but Colin snatched it up first and gave it to his mother.
"You promised not to tell!"
Martha Stump opened the box with a gleam in her eye, and seized the band of pearls like a pirate.
"They're mine!" Carolina screamed, reaching for her most precious possession. "Give them back!"
Martha pulled them out of her grasp, looking at the smear of blood on the crotch of her niece's nightgown. She clenched the necklace in a tight ball behind her. "Not anymore, you filthy animal!"
"Please . . . please, they were my mother's."
"All the better," she sneered, then slapping her son once more on the head, "Get out, Colin. NOW!"
He jumped from the bed and scurried out of the bedroom door.
Once again, Martha's hateful glare fell upon her niece. "Clean yourself up, you whore!" Then she turned and stormed out of the room. Carolina heard the scratching of the key at the bedroom door, and then the click of the lock, a sound all too familiar to her.
The wind blew against the upstairs window and threatened to burst in with all the fury of an invisible being. I stretched my tired muscles, set my laptop on the bed, and stood from the rocker. Even though the sun had already began to lighten the sky, it was deathly cold in the room and I built-up a comfortable fire in the hovel of the hearth.
A deep chill filled my bones that even the warmth of the fire couldn't reach. I flexed my cramped fingers as if I had just discovered the first pangs of arthritis. The pain reminded me of my wife, my home, my life.
I had to think of my future, my book, but fifty-five was too old for dreams of the future. At fifty-five you had to keep running just to escape the avalanche of your past.
I returned to the rocker, picked up my laptop, and began again.
Pacing back and forth like a caged animal, Carolina plotted her revenge.
She opened the dwarf door in her room and entered the crawlspace. Using the hammer she had left there, she moved the false wall that blocked the back, and then crossed over the stairwell to the other side of the house.
Silently, she opened the dwarf door and stepped inside Colin's room.
The hammer hung heavily in her hand as she hurried to his bedside. Without even hesitating, she swung it down with all her might . . . once . . . twice . . . three times for good measure, obliterating Colin's pudgy face until it became raw fatty meat and bone.
She left the hammer embedded in his skull, her eyes shining brightly. "Oh, Colin, look . . . you have lard for brains."
She giggled insanely, spun on her heels, and re-entered the dwarf door.
Martha Stump was tucked snugly within Jebediah's old bed, laying upon her back and snoring. When Carolina entered the room, she found her mother's necklace on the dresser. Taking it, she looked into the mirror and fastened it about her neck.
On the nightstand beside the bed was the ball of yellow yarn, the knitting needles jutting from the center. Carolina crept forward, clasping a metal spike in each hand. Then leaning over her aunt, she poised the needles just above her eyes.
Martha's nose twitched and her hand sleepily rose to scratch at her eye.
"Maybe I can help you with that," Carolina said flatly.
Martha Stump suddenly awoke, and as she attempted to rise, Carolina thrust the knitting needles into her terror-filled eyes, pressing her upper body upon her hands and driving the spikes through the back of her aunt's head, pinning her to the mattress.
The old woman screamed, her body thrashing, legs kicking up and down. There was a lot of blood, more than Carolina had expected, and it spurted up in an arc, spraying her in the face.
"There . . . now isn't that pretty."
Carolina turned and hurried back toward her room, the heat of her blood-lust cooling into an icy fear, her body trembling like a leaf. As she entered the crawlspace, the entire house began to shake as if it too had been repulsed by her act of vengeance. The shake became a growling rumble that rained dust from the eaves and into her eyes. The house wobbled on its foundation knocking her off her feet as several beams crashed down around her.
Crawling on her hands and knees, she reached the false wall, but something blocked it from the other side. Then she felt the house begin to sag, and in a panic, she turned around and tried to make her way back. Another beam fell, this one landing on her leg and she heard the brittle snap of bone. She shrieked with pain as the raining dust caked in her eyes and filled her lungs. Clutching the strand of pearls that hung around her neck, she yelled for her mother until another beam fell and sealed the crawlspace with deadly silence.
I looked up from the monitor screen. My God . . . the earthquake trapped her inside the walls!
I threw my laptop on the bed and rushed for the dwarf door. Flinging it open, I hurried inside, my eyes slowly adjusting to the darkness. When I came to the wall, I saw a large beam lying diagonally across it, and putting my shoulder beneath its highest point, I was able to lift it out of the way.
I pressed my hand against the wall and felt it give, and grabbing the top corner, I pulled it to one side.
I saw a shape against the wall, covered beneath a blanket of dust and debris. I knew right away who it was. She had been trapped here and her body never found.
Bending to one knee, I cleared away a broken beam and saw a glint of bone. It was a human leg, shattered just below the knee. Another beam rested over the lump of bones and dust, and moving it out of the way, I saw the small frail skeleton lying beneath it. The skull slumped in an odd angle and below that, hanging delicately from a wisp of spinal cord, was the string of pearls.
Tenderly, I unhooked the clasp and caught the pearls in my hand. "You can rest now, Carolina, your story is finished."
When I returned to Gram's room the place felt unnaturally cold. I crawled into her old bed, covered myself, and then studied the necklace. It was caked in dust, but as I rubbed at it, the pearls began to glisten. I never thought this is how it would turn out. All she ever wanted was the necklace. I sighed heavily thinking of what Carolina had gone through to keep those pearls: confinement, torture, rape, and finally cold-blooded murder. She really was a killer, just as her father had predicted.
Deep in thought, I floated toward sleep again, but this time there were no dreams, and I slept heavily.
I awoke to the creaking of the rocker.
A woman dressed all in black sat in the chair next to the bed. Her head hung down, and her hair fell forward and covered most of her face. Her hands were busy in her lap. She was knitting.
"Carolina?" I sat up as she moved her hair from her face and glared at me.
Suddenly, she bolted upright from the chair and came at me with the knitting needles.
They're mine!" she screamed. "Mine!"