By Emily McGuff
It had been months, even years since someone last visited me in here. My lungs drew in a great breath, trying to quiet the pounding of my exhilarated heart. Today is different.
The orange chair creaked, revealing its age. Dingy cream stuffing peaked from a grinning rip beneath my right leg and a wayward spring threatened to break through the tender ribbons of fabric. I wiggled, trying to redistribute my weight, but only succeeded in digging the rusty spring further into my nether regions.
They tried to sell this place as a retreat, somewhere you’d willingly go. But most of the people here, including myself, had been checked in by forces beyond our control. “Moonlight” in a name didn’t exactly lend itself to the bright, shining image of smiling faces sitting beneath a grove of trees, sun rays peaking between the leaves, as plastered on their advertising signs.
Before me, I had painstakingly set up a checkers game. In this place, finding a game with all the pieces still intact was a miracle. About a third of the pieces were scrounged from various couch cushions and forgotten drawers. A few buttons and a scrabble tile filled out the reds’ ranks, while about 35 cents in change completed the black side.
I remember when my grandfather taught me the game. It was only a year before my mother had lodged me in this place, her eyes brimming with salt-soaked drops and ringed with blue and burgundy coils. Grandfather’s hands were creased with years of labor, and yet lifted the circled checker pieces with delicate care. Despite the fond recollections I held in the recesses of my mind, my memories of him always seemed to be tinged in a red light, as if I were wearing blood-tinted glasses.
My eyes glanced to the ticking hands with impatience, willing the caged clock to move to 2:00. You see it was Sunday – visiting day – and my grandfather was finally coming.
A soft knock sounded at the door and I jumped excitedly, but was met with disappointment: it was only Harold, the sweet-voiced nurse who worked my ward on the weekends.
“You… expecting someone?” He asked, his eyes drawing up in a bit of confusion.
I smiled, glancing down at the table. “Yes. My grandfather.”
“Your… grandfather?” The wrinkles between his eyebrows deepened becoming ravines that could house rivers.
“Yes. I haven’t seen him in years. I wonder if he still likes tea,” I began to ramble, contemplating all of the things he used to adore. Simple Pleasures he called them. “Can we get some tea? And some milk and sugar too?”
“For… your grandfather?” His voice drew up an octave and the normally warm, red hue that adorned his cheeks drained as if it had been sucked up by a demented vacuum.
“Yes sir. And if my memory serves me, I’m pretty sure he just loved these biscuit cookies. Like they weren’t soft or chocolate or anything, but he dipped them in his tea.”
“Biscuit cookie?” Why was he just repeating me? Was there something wrong with him? He never seemed to be the brightest, but he normally had something original in that oddly shaped head of his.
“Yes.” I drew out the word a bit, wondering if he had been hit on the noggin one too many times.
“I’ll ask the kitchen,” he finally muttered after a solid minute of just standing there, staring at me mutely.
“Thank you, Harold. It is quite appreciated.” I looked back to my lap, smoothing the wrinkles on the worn gray skirt. Tufts of fabric puckered where Joanie, another nurse, had offered to darn it. I wish they’d just give me a needle and thread – that lady had no idea what she was doing, though her heart was in the right place.
“You going to offer me some tea or what?” A gruff and yet sugary voice sounded before me, only a few steps away. It was like chocolate in the front, so sweet and smooth, and followed by a burning liquor as it whisked down your esophagus.
“Grandpa!” I yelped, smiling widely. His appearance had caught me by surprise – I’d never even heard the door creak open on its oil-lacking hinges. I looked around wildly, wishing I had something more to offer him than a lukewarm bottle of water. “Harold said he was coming with tea. I’m sure it will be piping hot. With some milk and sugar of course. He’ll be back soon I think,” I glanced nervously at the door, not wanting to displease my grandfather when he had only just arrived.
“Don’t worry about it, honey. I’m sure he’ll be back soon.” He nodded slowly and I was transfixed by the skin as it stretched taut over crackling bones. Deep-set wrinkles reminded me just how ancient he really was. My mom had been an old maid when she had me – almost 40. The last birthday I remembered celebrating for my grandfather was when I was 15 – he had turned 75 and a colorful gravestone had jokingly been set in the middle of his cake.
“Yes, of course. How have you been?” I asked, my eyes subverting themselves as was habit around him.
“Well, I’ve missed you,” he hummed, reaching his hand to settle on my wrist.
“Thank you. I’m so glad to have you here.” With my free hand I flipped one of the blacks’ ranks coins between my fingers, threading it through with flicks of my knuckles.
“Tea now?” He asked, gesturing toward the steaming pot on the table before us.
“Where did that come from?” I wondered aloud, glancing around the room. I didn’t remember Howard returning with either biscuits or tea, but I also didn’t want to make grandfather wait any longer.
He held his cup aloft and I skittered to fill it. Quivering hands took over my arms as I lifted the kettle from the crooked table, attempting not to spill a drop on the tiny plate in which the cup rested. He hated when I did that. Bitterly hated how clumsy I could be.
Swallowing forcefully, I moved once more to poor the tea into his waiting cup, but my breath caught like a hook in my lungs. Reeling me in, my eyes struggled to comprehend the wound steadily growing on my grandfather’s hand.
“What,” I began breathily, “is that?” My breaths were shallow and my spit felt like peanut butter clinging to the roof of my mouth. The spreading rash on his arm was pink, puckering flesh. At the center it was bright red and I was sure I glimpsed a sliver of white. Bone? The welt smiled, glistening in a pool of yellowing pus and watery blood.
“Oh that? It’s nothing,” he purred. “Biscuit?” In his fingers, he delicately held the biscuit, dipping it slowly into his tea and letting the liquid soak in. Drops of pus splattered against the teacup plate, settling in haphazard spheres around the edges.
“Sha…sure,” I stuttered, tearing my eyes away from the lingering drip-drop. My fingers still clung to the handle of the teapot, knuckles white against the shining obsidian.
Terror grew in the pit of my stomach as I stretched my hand toward the plate of biscuits. From my grandfather’s thigh a black sheath grew – with a clarity I could not explain, I knew it was attached to a blade. A serrated thin blade – like I might use to cut open an avocado.
“How did…” My thoughts trailed off as I shoved myself back from the table. Uneven table legs shook with the thrust. The checker pieces scattered, some clattering to the floor with clacks and tings. Biscuits cracked and crumbs rained. But the worst thing, the thing that set my teeth chattering, were the drops of tea that splattered against the table’s off-white surface.
“You…” He growled, low in his gut, “You always ruin everything.” My eyes widened as I began to reverse, reaching blindly to remove the encumbrances.
“I’m… I’m sorry,” I stammered. His heavy boots slammed the tiled floor as he rose to gargantuan height, towering over me by an easy eight inches. When I hit the wall with my outstretched palm, I knew there was nowhere I could go. No way to escape his wrath.
“Help,” I called, my voice hoarse and quiet.
“No one can hear you.” His eyes matched his voice now, growing blacker by the moment. Tiny red demons danced in his pupils, turning pirouettes quicker and quicker to mimic the beats of my heart.
“This is your FAULT!” He roared, shoving the table aside as easily as a lion tosses back his head to swallow his fresh, dripping kill.
My hands were pressed into the wall, back flattened as much as my body would allow against the flower-coiling pattern of the decades old wallpaper. He approached slowly, menacingly, and I stayed glued to the spot. The cushioned soles of my socks suctioned to the tile.
I gaped at the figure still advancing – and then he froze. Ice seemed to fill his bones and from within his chest sprouted the knife – the same knife that had been thrusting from his leg only moments before.
His eyes turned the same color as the teapot: black as a moonless midnight. Although his feet were motionless, his entire body began to quake, phasing in and out with his surroundings like a radio station attempting to maintain its signal. Blood leaked from his shivering lips in thick, clotted clumps. His skin stretched further still until it began to crack, split, showing his skull being birthed from the opening. Somehow his eyes grew darker still then – a black hole sucking my soul from my body.
Curling in on myself, I crouched against the wall. My arms wrapped tightly around my cranium, begging my eyes to unsee. But trickling from my own gnawed fingernails were pearls of burgundy. A scream bellowed from my core, calling for anyone, everyone, no one.
Somewhere to my right, I heard a crumpling crash as another being burst into the room.
“Ava! AVA!” Hands grasped my shoulders, shaking me to a different rhythm than I already shivered. “What is it? What’s wrong?” I shook my head, refusing to move, sure Howard would see what I had done. To the man who I once called grandfather.
“No. No. No. Nonononono.” Rocking, I clutched my hands to my eyes, causing tiny spasms of pain to ricochet from my fingertips. “The tea…” My vocal chords abandoned the thought midway through,
Slowly, gently, he peeled my fingers away from my face, pushing me to lean on him, raise myself from the ball I had become on the grimy floor. He led me to the bed, but I refused to open my eyes. I couldn’t bear to see him. The man who had helped to raise me. The man who had taught me right from wrong. The man who had put his hands on me when I needed help learning.
I heard Howard leave. His receding footsteps scraped against the floor: swish-swish… swish-swish. Hesitantly, I opened my clenched eyelids. Taking a moment to adjust to the light, my eyes scrunched as instinct demanded. My throat was still raw from my screams, but the threat had dissipated as smoke from a smoldering cigar.
No one was there.
Not even a teapot.
- Was. Alone.