by Than Pence
SCREAMS Winner: Harold finishes a story for Caroline. But something strange is happening.
|Closing the book, Harold says, “The end.”
On his knee, Caroline repeats “The end.”
“The end. Now it’s off to bed.”
Nearby, the fireplace crackles just before his granddaughter scoots off his lap. In this moment of quiet, Harold hows he is in heaven. Nothing could get better than this.
As Caroline stands, her braided blonde hair drapes over Harold’s arm, reminding him of a snake.
She turns as he stands. “Grampa, I’m always glad when the dog barks loudly. It means he finds his way home.”
Looking at the children’s book in his hand, Harold smiles. The mottled puppy on the cover of The Dog Barked Loudly certainly looks to be in peril: he is stuck on one side of a tall fence and his family is all on the other side with no way of finding him.
Meeting her gaze, he says, “I’m glad too, kitten. Now, time for be--”
KNOCK… KNOCK… KNOCK…
Flinching, Harold checks his watch. 9:30. Who could be at the door this late, and with a little angel about to go to bed? Caroline looks scared: her skin blanches slightly and he can see her trembling. “Grampa, who is it?”
“Don’t know, kitten,” he says, setting the book in his leather reading chair. The fireplace continues to crackle, adding the perfect ambiance to a suddenly-eerie moment. “I-I’ll check it out.” Moving past her, he turns quickly and crouches down to her level, looking over his reading glasses to stare into those shining blue orbs. “You go on upstairs. I’ll send them away and we’ll all go to bed. ‘Kay?”
Caroline nods once and slowly moves to the lesser-used back stairs. The creaking boards tell him that she eventually makes it up, but he can tell she is hesitant. Gramma is already up there but she's been asleep for an hour already.
Coming from the living room, Harold approaches the front door, passing the front stairs and the formal dining room. “W-Who is--”
His flesh crawls. Harold licks his lips and finds himself unable to wet his mouth. Putting himself against the door, he pushes his ear to the cold wooden surface.
Moving his eye to the peephole, he wonders how many people he’ll see staring back. The potential answer unnerves him enough to reconsider looking, but he knows he has a wife and granddaughter to protect. He looks.
The full moon is enough to show Harold that his front porch hosts not one soul.
Jumping, he lets out a small whoop. He draws his hand to the back of his thin neck and rubs. Pulling his hand from his neck, he wipes the sudden sweat on his slacks.
The knocking sound didn't come from the door: it come from inside somewhere.
Turning, he slowly walks up the hall. He sends a glance upstairs and only sees darkness. Good. Caroline went to bed. No reason for her to get… scared. A new sound catches his ear: a low murmur. Was it coming from the dining room?
Answering his question, Harold heads for the formal dining room. A prickled spine and chilly sensation accompany him.
Sitting at his long dining room table are four shadowy shapes. Shaped like people, Harold can't see any discerning features on them. The shapes, moving subtly, are making the sounds.
Two sit on each side of the table with all four of them reaching to touch the bowl of fruit in the center. They sway gently and the murmurs start to find purchase in his ear. What stands out most isone phrase: his name.
Harold Jarling, Harold Jarling.
It is a strange sensation. What do these specters want with him, with his family?
His unease slowly turns to distemper. “What--”
Saying one word is enough to startle him, stop him. Where the fruit bowl sits, a bright triangle glowed.
The four specters stop moving, stop talking.
Silence starts to close in around Harold, suffocating him. “What do--”
The glowing triangle shines more brightly, drawing gasps from one or two of the shadows. Licking his dry lips, Harold tries to reason with what is happening. Was he hallucinating? Does the triangle truly glow when he speaks?
A creak on the back stairs sounds like a gunshot, forcing Harold to exhale hard. One of the shadows jumps. He goes to the living room with quick strides.
Standing before his reading chair is Caroline. In the short time she’s been upstairs, the fire has died down to smoldering embers. A soft orange glow acts as her backdrop. In her hands is her favorite book. “Grampa, remember the dog?”
Smiling, briefly forgetting about the strange happenings in the next room, he chuckles. “Yeah, kitten. Yeah. He barks loudly. So his family…” Harold’s eyes start welling up. What’s happening? But Caroline doesn’t say anything else.
A new smell enters the house. Harold doesn’t like it. It smells like burned pine straw. Now whispers come from the dining room. Turning to look at the living room entrance, he wonders how he’s going to deal with these specters.
With this thought, the living room brightens considerably, enough to make Harold turn and see if the fire came back to life. In looking back, he doesn’t see Caroline. And the room is considerably brighter because it appears as if daylight is fast approaching.
He checks his watch again. It still reads 9:30. With a scowl, Harold moves to the dining room, harboring hopes that he can convince the ghosts to leave his family alone.
Rounding the corner, he is stunned to find four people. They are sitting in the same positions as the four shadows had been. And in the middle of the table isn't a bowl of fruit, but an ancient-looking ouija board.
Harold gulps once before starting to speak. “You kids can’t just…”
As he speaks, the triangle on the board starts moving by itself: everyone holds paper and pens. He steps closer and can't help noticing that not one of them acknowledges him. It is unnerving and annoying.
The looks on their faces don't stop them from staring intently at the board and the letters the triangle has spelled out. Harold growls and shouts “Get out!”
The triangle spells it out for him. The younger people smile and nod. Relief floods their faces. He looks to see what one of them has written: “You kids cant just get out.”
Rolling his eyes, he thinks he’ll blow a gasket and then he realizes that the brightness of the house isn't the only thing odd. Some of the furniture around him looks strange. A panic starts to make his chest beat and he quickly moves up the stairs.
Stopping first at his bedroom, he pokes his head in to see his wife. But she isn't there.
His dread compounds as he moves down the hall to Caroline’s room. Opening the door, he sees no hint that she has ever been there. Where her bed had been, there is a large desk. Instead of a toy chest, there stands a tall shelf full of books.
“Wh-what… Where?” is all he can get out as he starts sobbing. Where is his family? What's happened? He begins to sob uncontrollably. A moan he’s never produced comes out. It is guttural and raw.
Stepping into his granddaughter’s room, he turns and slams the door. Only seconds pass before he hears a patter of feet scramble up the stairs. He thinks of Caroline and her friends racing to her room. It brings a moment of joy to his heart…
... but when the door opens, it isn't Caroline. It is the four strangers in their weird clothes. Have they done this? Have they driven his wife and Caroline away?
The four gawk at the door, at the room. They talk to one another but it only sounds like muted buzzing to Harold. Taking a deep breath, he calms himself and thinks about Caroline, about reading her bedtime stories and how he had hoped to do that for his little kitten forever.
Then these four specters - spectators - ruined that. Thinking about it makes Harold’s heartbeat hammer in his head. He grinds his teeth. Sucking in a deep gust of air, he holds it, his glare focusing on these intruders. One by one, they all stop talking and finally notice of Harold. The look in their eyes tell him all he needs to know: they are suddenly very afraid.
Letting his breath out, he screams, "GET OUT!!"
The four vanish…
… and Caroline stands before him. They are in her room. She holds her favorite book before her, smiling. “Ready for stories, Grampa?”
Looking at her, his heart melts. “I’m always ready, kitten. I am always ready.”
He guides her down to the living room so they can read by the firelight before it is time for her to go to bed.
Word Count: 1,479