The old woman sat in her rocking chair, creaking back and forth, back and forth. Her gnarled fingers moved the knitting needles slowly and she counted to herself, muttering under her breath. If I let my mind wander, they sounded like spells, banishing me to another world. She didn’t want me there. It was just a favor she was doing for my mom, after all.
I lay on the red velvet couch under an old afghan blanket that smelled like death. But she’d told me to do so—lie there and be a good little girl. When she’d felt my fevered forehead, her bony fingers were like ice. They burned, and when she stepped away the coolness lingered. So I lay there, obedient, watching her rock and knit and conjure.
Rain pelted the window outside in a steady stream, the wind howled in harmony and thunder shook the couch beneath me. The firelight played tricks on my eyes, revealing a sweet woman’s face one moment, then contorting it into a skull with shadows the next. Her smile did nothing to hide the demon who peered out from shadowed sockets. A gray cat sat beside the rocker, indifferent, his green eyes otherworldly. He watched me, seemed to see things around me floating in the air. Moths? Dust? I didn’t want to imagine worse.
“Back in my day, little girls wore dresses.” Her croaking voice disturbed the silence. Her eyes flicked up, locked on mine, whipped back down to her crafting. “They had manners, knew when to curtsy, how to engage in polite conversation.”
I held my breath. Part of me wanted to impress her, the other part wanted to stab her ancient hands with those needles. With a sigh and a roll of the eyes that had gotten me in trouble before, I tried: “Well, the weather isn’t very agreeable today.” The word ‘agreeable’ sounded foreign on my tongue, a vocabulary word resurrected from last year’s writing class, but one I thought she might appreciate.
“Indeed,” she said, not glancing up.
The flames in the fireplace danced and the wind howled outside. The windows rattled, the cat meowed.
“Would you like me to get another candle for you?” I offered, hoping she might see my effort at kindness. The electricity had been out for two hours now—not that there was even a TV to watch. And the old radio in the corner looked like a museum piece rather than a functioning device.
Her eyes shifted up to me, her hands not even pausing. “Young lady, my hands remember how to knit so well that I could do this in the dark. We had to make our own clothes, you know. Children today…” Her lips pursed. “You have everything handed to you.”
Crabby old bat, I thought, wishing I was anywhere else—even math class with Mr. Thompson who spit on those of us in the front row when he talked. But lucky me, I had to puke on the way down the stairs this morning, and here I was, in the house time forgot.
The tall clock in the corner chimed, marking the dragging minutes.
“Almost time for tea,” she muttered, more to her cat than me. He meowed at her again. “That’s right, Lazarus, you’ll get your treats.” She stopped rocking, glanced over at me and down her nose. “I have a task for you, young lady. While I prepare a snack, you can fetch my extra needles from the attic. And another ball of yarn. My granddaughter packed them up, didn’t expect me to have an apprentice. But you might as well make yourself useful—commit those fingers to something other than trouble.”
I watched as she placed her project on the table beside the rocker, then braced herself to rise. As she leaned forward, her gnarled hands grasped the armrests tightly, and she shifted her weight onto shaky legs. I shrank back, like her age was an infection.
Underneath her house dress, nylons sagged around her ankles, and I wondered if her skin also collected here. She wore sensible shoes that belonged to another time but seemed to support her well in her old age. I counted to myself as she stretched out her torso, finally standing, ten Mississippis later. Shame flushed my face as part of me fantasized about toppling the chair forward, tossing her onto the floor like old laundry. I was caught between this mischievous voice and one that controlled such behavior. I imagined a devil and an angel, like I’d seen in a rerun on the Cartoon Network.
I felt my lower lip poke out as I sulked, longing for a TV to appear out of thin air. All the delicious shows I was missing on this sick day, ever since mom had to go back to work. Once she had doted on me, tucked me in on the couch like a taco, with one half of a comforter under me and the other on top of me. There was a little teapot reserved for sick days where she’d brew chamomile tea and serve me cinnamon toast—all that was appropriate for an upset stomach. She’d smooth my hair and place a kiss on my forehead, tuck the covers under my chin and stand guard until I fell asleep with the TV lulling in the background.
But I was ten now, too old to be babied, too young to stay home alone. After Dad left, she’d had to go back to work and I had to grow up, act like a young lady. It was a favor, she’d said. I needed to be grateful to Mrs. Miller, this stranger whose house smelled like old people and felt clammy all over my body. There were cold breezes that snuck in through cracks I couldn’t see, strange creaking noises that crept up behind me when I wasn’t looking. Mom had abandoned me to this ancient tomb.
“Suck that lip back in this instant, young lady.” Her voice startled me and I looked up to find her looming above the couch, the skin on her face stretching down like a used candle. “There will be no pouting in this house. You’ll drink your tea and you’ll like it. Now fetch me the needles and yarn from the attic.”
“Fine,” I muttered, trying to sit up.
“Yes, ma’am is the appropriate response,” she spat, a gnarled finger accusing me.
I glared. “Yes, ma’am.” If she heard the sarcasm in my voice, she didn’t show it. I watched as her small frame hobbled from side to side as she shuffled to the kitchen and disappeared through the door.
Lazarus the cat watched with large green eyes as I started up the steps, the wood groaning beneath my feet. The railing was cool under my hand, sticky with wax that was either cleaner left-overs or grime from other hands. I could feel my heart beating in my head, like it always did when I was ill. I placed my hands on my temples but they did nothing to help. I wanted to cry but knew it would make things worse—both in my head and in the old lady’s eyes. A whiner, she’d say, not as tough as children used to be.
I paused on the balcony, glancing out the peaked window to weeping gray skies. The beads of water pinged against the glass, streaked down in long tears. The cat crept up the stairs after me, watching with curious hesitation, then followed me as I continued up the next flight to the second floor. The pounding in my head grew louder with each step.
As the dim light from the window diminished, I felt like I was walking into a cave—maybe something’s lair. I peered around an open door to see a canopy bed, topped in white lace. The bedspread was matching with delicate throw pillows and an aging teddy bear. There was a dressing table with beautiful perfume bottles, a neat row of lipsticks, and a fancy hairbrush with a corresponding hand-held mirror. There was even a pitcher with a basin on the bedside table, like something out of a story book. It made me wonder how old Mrs. Miller really was. Ancient or not, she was stuck in the past and had nothing but disdain for children like me.
The cat stared at me accusingly, then followed me like a shadow as I searched for the door to the attic. The next one I opened was to the bathroom, a clean but old-fashioned setup with a claw-foot bathtub and no shower. I noticed the claws because my mother loved them, had always wanted a bathtub like that. I thought they were creepy with knuckles and nails that might move if I stared long enough. I swallowed the thought, tore my eyes away. Poised on the side of the tub, a soap dish held a bar with a flower carved into it, like it had not yet been used. There was also a blue glass bottle marked ‘rose water’ that lay beside it, its cork not quite in place. Slippers sat barren by the door, waiting for feet, and a granny bathrobe hung from a hook on the far wall.
The cat brushed my legs, urging me on, then reached up to stretch, its claws digging into my jeans. I moved just before he drew blood, resisted the urge to kick him.
Little demon, I muttered under my breath.
Heading back down the hall, I passed a table draped in a doily that reminded me of my grandmother’s house… or at least the pictures I’d seen of it. She died when I was four, so memories of her were fleeting. Two unlit candles stood tall, like soldiers, guarding the dish that sat between them. It was a clear glass, thick and heavy, and held an assortment of candies. There were red and green balls enclosed in clear plastic, and yellow disks in gold wrappers. I selected a one that looked like the sun, unwrapped it, and popped it into my mouth. Butterscotch. Gross. I spit it back out into the wrapper and placed it back into the bowl.
Lazarus meowed as if to chide me.
“Shut up,” I said, and moved toward the next door on the left. The knife in my head stabbed—punishment for a bad attitude.
The stairs that lay beyond were steeper than the last set. The air that wafted out was dusty and stagnant. I could only imagine what things contributed to the unique smell—moldy wallpaper, old books, decaying rodents, all things creepy-crawly. I fumbled to find the light switch and remembered it didn’t work, rolled my eyes at myself for being stupid.
I backtracked to the candy table and took one of the candlesticks, hunted through my pocket to find my lighter—the only piece I had left of my Dad. The silver top leaned back gracefully and, like I’d seen him do so many times, I brought the flame to life with a flick of my thumb. The smell was familiar and brought with it his face, then it backed away into the dark, into my memory. I swallowed the lump in my throat and stood tall, determined to be brave like he would expect me to be.
Holding the candle out like a torch, I climbed the stairs, the air becoming colder and thicker as I went. Lazarus stuck by my feet, not trusting me, but not confident about this exploration either. See, Dad, I can do this. Even without you.
The stairwell walls were lined with thin wooden planks, textured like someone had taken great care to lay them neatly, but warped with time. As I crested the top stair, the candlelight spilled out into the room, reached up to the peaked ceiling that loomed above me, dissipated into the rafters. A shudder crept over my shoulder, and I fought the urge to run back down the stairs. I gritted my teeth, sucked in a breath. I wouldn’t let my Dad down; I was his brave girl.
The patter of the rain grew stronger, its rhythm beating down on the roof over my head. Lightning threw a glow through the windows on either side of the rectangular attic. The thunder boomed shortly after, vibrated the air around me. I was thankful for the candle, casting a glow on dust particles that floated through the air. They danced like fairies, confetti in celebration of a new guest. Something had been waiting for me.
White sheets clung to large objects—likely furniture, but could be treasure chests or secret closets to other worlds. I weaved among them, interested instead by the knick-knacks that lay scattered about the old wooden shelves. One for cooking with solid-looking skillets, a rolling pin, and an open recipe box, a hand-written card poking out of the top. Another for photographs in the midst of being filed into albums, and another for what looked like sewing materials. This must be where the needles and yarn were stored. The candlelight fell on the pair, gleaming white spikes, maybe ivory. I pictured the elephant from which they were plucked, running around Africa toothless. I hung my head in shame for the old woman—a thief of nature. My social studies teacher, Mrs. Latham, would have been horrified. I thought of her wildlife rights posters, pictures she showed us of her protesting animal testing in college. The old woman must be evil.
I imagined the needles were ice picks, pursed my lips as I considered jabbing them into Mrs. Miller’s eye socket. If I was a wicked girl, that’s what I’d do. I’d whisper, “Is this how young ladies are supposed to behave?” then stab, stab, stab. Of course, no one would believe a child would do such a thing. Especially if I said a crazy man had broken into the home when the electricity was out and attacked us. And secretly, it would be an elephant’s revenge.
Who would tell on me, the cat?
Lazarus meowed as if he sensed my thoughts. No, he was not that clever. I ignored him, grabbing the stolen teeth and a ball of gray yarn, which I hoped wasn’t spun from puppy fur. My stomach threatened to spill over as I thought of the tusks in my hands, but I choked down the nausea and focused on the sound of the rain. I was in no hurry to rejoin the old witch, so I lingered, searching the dimly lit attic for treasures.
I moved through the aisles of boxes, dust covers, and discarded wall hangings like a shopper in a department store. There were ceramic knick-knacks, a tarnished silver tea pot, and a collection of small records in faded paper covers. I remembered my cousin mentioning people paid a lot of money for old records, though I didn’t know why. As I turned the corner, I stared for a moment, catching a figure out of the corner of my eye. An old wedding gown hung on a styling mannequin, yellowed in some places, torn in others, frozen in time and waiting for a seamstress to mend. It was ghostly, an image of what Mrs. Miller had once been. Taller, thinner around the middle, perhaps elegant (though that was hard to imagine). Her body now was birdlike, a ball of a woman up top with skinny legs poking out from her housedress. My mind went back to the sagging skin that looped her ankles and I grimaced.
As I approached the corner haunted by the bride, the dress seemed to shift under my gaze, echoing a breeze from the rafters. Its satin was soft, lined with delicate lace meant to provide modesty. The bust line met the lace just in time to hide cleavage, and the frill traveled up an imaginary neck like a noose. What had once been white, or off-white, or eggshell, was now five shades of yellow in various places. I followed the train behind the silhouette, where the smell of cat urine wafted up from where Lazarus squatted. The giggle escaped through my nose as a snort. Maybe he wasn’t Mrs. Miller’s confidante after all. “Nice,” I hissed, and his green eyes peered back, haughty.
“So, that’s the game,” I whispered, suddenly fond of this mischievous cat. “Let’s raise the stakes.”
The china set was delicate, an artist’s paintbrush on a white backdrop. The pale blue flowers were exotic, lined with gold and rimmed with indigo. “Perfect,” I whispered, cocked and eyebrow and tossed a glance at the cat, my captive audience.
I hesitated for a moment. Would she hear? No, that old lady was almost deaf. Besides, anyone selfish enough to steal animal parts and foolish enough to leave fine china laying about was just asking for trouble. She deserved it.
“Back in my day, young ladies wore dresses.” My voice croaked out of my throat, ugly and poisonous, mimicking hers. I lifted the plate above my head and let it fall. It met the floor with protest and splintered into pieces. I shrugged my shoulders. “Ooopsie.”
I grabbed a saucer this time, wound up my pitch. “Back in my day, young ladies used manners,” I spat, then tossed it at the wall behind the dress like a frisbee. Crash. “I’ll show you what you can do with your tea.” I grasped the dainty handle of the teacup, pulled my arm back, and let it fly, waiting for the satisfying shatter. But none came.
It bounced off the wall intact and landed behind a wardrobe whose door hung sadly on one hinge. Determined to see it through, I climbed over boxes, book shelves, and errant pillows, then peeked behind the wardrobe to find the cup resting on an old quilt. But as I made my way around the final bend, something caught my attention on the other side of the attic.
At first, I thought it was Lazarus, investigating the treasures or chasing a frightened mouse. But he brushed against my leg then, and I realized it couldn’t have been him. So, what had cast the shadow? Something had passed before the round window, which now let in faded light in the storm’s wake.
I strained my ears to hear, turned around the attic to catch any movement. My breath was loud in my ears. My heartbeat began to drum, head pulsing. I was not alone.
“Mrs. Miller?” I said, hesitantly.
Nothing. Thunder rumbled in the distance like a response.
Terror filled my belly. It made my blood hot, skin cold, teeth clench. My breath came fast. If I stood still, I didn’t know what would come. If I moved, it might see me.
Lazarus’ growl was all I needed to get moving. I jumped back over the boxes, tumbling them in random directions, legs moving faster than the rest of me. I shot down the stairs, the nausea kicking in, and behind me I could hear it. Someone was breathing.
As I stumbled down the stairs, I missed one, then another, then I was plunging into darkness. My face hit the door with a thud and the candlelight that remained back up in the attic went out. All that guided me was the soft glow creeping in through the windows upstairs, reflecting onto the attic eaves.
“Help!” I screamed, grabbing for the handle. “Let me out!”
My voice grew more desperate, the air cold and clammy around me, seeping into my hair, my mouth, my soul.
My voice went up an octave, “Help!” Then the words dissipated into feral cries as I grasped for the door handle, its knob turning over and over again, not catching. I pounded, used my shoulder, kicked. And then turned the knob the other way.
I spilled out into the hallway, now lit by the other candle on the table with the candy. Relief flooded into me and I sprang up, swung the door shut just as Lazarus leapt to safety. I backed away from the door, not wanting to turn my back, not trusting what was on the other side. The stabbing pain returned, a headache to punish the guilty.
It was embarrassing to recall—what I’d just done. Panicked. Let my imagination get the best of me. I was even good sport enough to laugh at myself, but thankful that no one had witnessed the scene. The realization that Dad would be disappointed floated in, then out of my awareness. I heard his voice in my mind: You shouldn’t have broken the china. You should apologize.
And you shouldn’t have left, I muttered under my breath, to the ghost of Dad who was my constant companion.
In my distraction, I backed up all the way into another room. The door creaked open slowly, its hinges protesting all the way. The windows were covered in a sheer fabric draped to the floor, the only light outside filtered through a stormy sky. It smelled of baby powder—a scent of childhood that brought with it images of my mother and feelings of safety. It was a strong contrast to what I’d just escaped.
Reluctant to rejoin Mrs. Miller and curious about the baby powder room, I lifted the other candle from its guard beside the butterscotch disks. The light revealed a girl’s room, decorated in pink and lace and filled with old-fashioned toys. This bed had a canopy, too, but not like the one in the other room. This one had frills and ribbons climbing up the posts, and a delicate footstool meant to boost a child into the sea of pillows.
There was a bookcase with hard-cover fairy tale books. I pulled out the copy of Hansel & Gretel, wondered at the elaborate illustrations, noticed how much Mrs. Miller looked like the witch luring children. There was a jewelry box on the bookcase as well; when I lifted the top, a ballerina spun round, with a soft tinkling of a familiar tune. The Nutcracker, I thought, recalling my Mom’s favorite ballet she dragged me to last year. There were lockets and trinkets inside the box, not cracker jack prizes, but engraved necklaces and what looked like a diamond bracelet. This was a spoiled child, I thought, if stuck in another century.
I moved to the corner nook, where toys sat as if in mid-play. A tower of wooden blocks was piled high, like it was in the process of becoming something… a castle perhaps. A circle of marbles and a collection of jacks, neither of which I knew how to play. A silver slinky, silent and bored, resting on its side. And a table set up for a tea party with tiny plates and cups ready for entertaining. The saucers had M&Ms on them and I grabbed a selection, popped them in my mouth.
It was then that I noticed the doll, sitting as a lonely guest at the table. She was unlike any doll I’d ever seen, about the size of a toddler. Her blonde hair was in ringlets, her eyes wide open with what looked like real lashes. Her dress was ancient—something out of Little House on the Prairie, I guessed—bratty Nellie, not farmgirl Laura. She sat in a black miniature rocking chair, a frozen look of delight on her face. The bib around her neck said “Eleanor”.
The more I looked at her, the more I was convinced she looked back at me.
I backed away, not wanting to disturb this place, this museum. But as I turned to exit, the light from the candle reflected in a mirror, grayed out with age, but still hanging proudly. It was enclosed in a gold frame, elaborate with flourishes and faces, disappearing into one another. The surface was tarnished, I could only imagine from time. Maybe mirrors were made differently back in the day—in whatever century birthed Mrs. Miller. There were silver and gold streaks that seemed to climb through the surface, making my reflection hazy. I moved closer, the flame dancing, tossing shadows behind the frame and onto the wall. The light played tricks on my eyes, making the faces swim and claws appear from the decoration.
This was something that belonged to a princess. She’d sit on her high bed of pillows with her ringlets like gold, her grandmother bringing her chamomile tea and cinnamon toast, her father coming home to kiss her on her forehead. Princesses always had fathers.
The mirror was a dream, pulling me in, lulling me to sleep. The girl who stared back at me looked foreign, her eyes larger than mine, bluer, darker.
And then she smiled.
But I wasn’t smiling.
I gasped, dropped the candle, ran out the door as fast as I could move. Lazarus bounded down the stairs beside me, hissing.
Mrs. Miller stood at the bottom of the stairs, arms crossed, her face like stone. Despite my fear, I was so taken aback by her expression that I froze in mid-step, hand on the railing, mouth wide open.
“I see you met my granddaughter,” she said, sternly.
The realization washed over me like a cold sweat.
“Eleanor, what did I say about little girls? They are polite. They don’t bother guests.” Her face shifted from anger into something else. Something… worried. It was then that the smell of burning reached my nose.
“Eleanor, what did you do?” Mrs. Miller shrieked as she pushed past me and up the stairs. “What a bad little girl!” she shouted.
It was the last thing I heard before running out the front door.
Mary Leoson teaches English and psychology courses at the college level in Cleveland, Ohio. She loves to write with her dogs at her feet and survives on decaf coffee and protein bars. She holds an MA in English & Writing from Western New Mexico University, an MS in Psychology from Walden University, and is an MFA Candidate at Cleveland State University (NEOMFA – Fiction). Her writing has been featured in the Twisted Vine Literary Journal, TWJ Magazine, The Write Launch, GNU Journal, The Gyara Journal, Genre: Urban Arts, Obra/Artifact, and on NPR’s “This I Believe” series. You can learn more at www.maryleoson.com Facebook: @marywritestoheal Twitter: @74marebear74 Instagram: @maryleoson.