By Tyler Markham
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
The late summer sun came through John’s old Ford Focus windows as he and his “girlfriend” made their way from Boston to North Reading, Massachusetts. The backs of his knees were damp with sweat, and it took him a great deal of effort not to look at the GPS’s display. The last time he checked, they were thirty minutes away from their destination, and every minute closer tightened the bolt in his stomach.
“Don’t worry, they won’t bite your tongue off,” Jessica said. Her fingers were wrapped tightly around John’s wrist.
“I’m sure they won't.” he answered “I’m just worried they won’t think I’m good enough for you. I don’t have anything to offer. No money, no family business. Hell, not even any family.”
“You have this car!” Jessica said. She smiled and squeezed his hand tight in hers and patted him on his leg. On queue, his piece of garbage hatchback hit a pothole, shaking the car on its rusted suspension. He’d meant to get it looked at before the trip, but didn’t have the cheese to spread on a fix.
“My dad loves the Red Sox, and you love the Red Sox. That pretty much seals the deal in his eyes.”
John scoffed. “And your mother?”
“She’s a little tougher to crack, but as long as you use your manners you’ll make it out alive.”
John laughed nervously and set his hands back at the wheel, 10 and 2 like the good little boy he was. Except he wasn’t.
Since he and Jessica had started their little fling, he had gotten worse. Physically, he was peachy, even gained a few pounds that he desperately needed. But mentally? Forget about it.
When he first saw her in their introduction to computer science class, his stomach was empty except for the free coffee they handed out in the student union, and had been for the past day and a half. She sat just below him, and what caught his eye wasn’t her simple auburn hair or long nose, but her expensive clothing. Jessica with her Louis Vuitton hidden in her closet. Her brand new macbook pro and her expensive makeup. She was unremarkable, and the perfect victim for John.
When class let out, he was sure to walk slightly in front of her, and dropped his books in a clatter that hit her feet.
“Oh god. I’m so sorry.” he said. She smiled up at him and bent down to grab a notebook.
"Happens to the best of us. My name's Jessica” she said, and extended her hand. It was soft, and kind of nice, John thought to himself. But he wasn’t there sweeping books off the floor to meet cute.
“John, pleasure is all mine. Hey, I was just on my way to the cafe up the block, want to join me for a quick cup? Not a date or anything but I honestly didn’t listen for a second in class today. Figured you could help me out?”
She laughed, and said yes, her face growing rosy. That was the start of their friendship.
At the near end of the winter semester John finally worked up the courage - that's what he told her - to ask her out. She was delighted, her face turning a sunset pink and her hands crawling towards her hair to pull a lock of it behind her ear. He had gotten her, and that is when he started to steal from her. Not a lot, at first. A few tens here and there when she didn’t notice. It helped with groceries, and at one point he actually stole a fifty from her wallet to buy some flowers to give her. He felt a little guilty about that, but who needed it more? The trust fund kid, or the fucking orphan going to college?
After a few weeks, the stealing became exhilarating for him. Starting out of desperation, this naughty habit slowly turned into an addiction that he struggled to satisfy. A snickers bar from Walmart wasn’t enough, and it had gotten to the point that there wasn’t much else he could take and sell without her noticing. So, when she suggested he meet her parents he returned a dubious smile and agreed wholeheartedly.
“Really? You’d meet them?” she had said.
“I’d love to. Gotta know where this beautiful face originated from.”
She smiled and wrapped her arms around his neck, giving him a light kiss on his cheek. His heart panged in his chest. He had begun to feel bad for what he was doing, but he didn’t have the time to think about right or wrong. With no family left, and a shit job at the library, he needed to eat, and pawning expensive things was an easy way to satisfy both his stomach and the itching feeling in his brain.
“Turn right on Hawthorne Lane in one half mile.” The GPS said in a flat and toneless British accent.
“I know it from here!” she said. “After you take a right on Hawthorne it’s going to be on our left in like half a mile.”
“Sounds great love.” He forced a smile on his face, which was returned wholeheartedly. Her hands were clasped tight between her thighs that swayed from side to side. Her feet were tapping lightly on the floorboard of the car, a quick thump-thump-thump. She was nervous too, he thought. Oh god. It could just be regular nerves or excitement, but it made him feel uneasy.
The house surely was on their left. It was impossible to miss. Among the fields of swaying knee-high corn and soybeans, a large ring of hedges clouded an overgrown lawn and drive that led up to an invisible structure atop a low hill. He did not ask her if it was it, because there had been no other buildings visible for miles.
“Wow.” he exclaimed. He craned his neck and tried to see over the hill as he drove through a near two story wrought iron gate.
“Yeah, I know. Crazy place to grow up in. Lot’s to do, and nothing to do all at the same time.”
“Did you like it here?”
Her face contorted for a moment. It seemed to be a hard question for her to answer.
“Yes, and no. It was pretty lonely as an only child but it’s what made me move to Boston, and that’s where we met. So maybe, yeah.”
His heart ached again, but was overshadowed by the view as he pulled up over the crest of the hill. It was something out of a British period piece. A towering brick manor sat among tall uncut wheat grasses crowding its exterior. There was no garage, and two cars sat out front gathering dust in front of a once beautifully designed landscape. The way it looked now, it hadn’t been tended to since the short bushes and trees began to sprout leaves in the early spring. A shiver went down his spine for no reason at all, despite the heat of the day. He was getting cold feet.
“It’s seen better days.” she said and chuckled.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s beautiful.”
“Wait till you get inside.” she whispered in his ear. Goosebumps crawled from his neck down his right arm.
He parked the car behind the others, and stared up towards the sky that had begun to darken. Wisps of clouds glowed with the slight spectrum of the rainbow, but from where he stood, the shadow of their home crowded around him, chilling the air. The large, ornate doors at the front of the home opened and out walked her parents. Glenn and Alissa Birch, the elusive millionaires who seemed to go nowhere, evident by the dusty Mercedes out front.
“Oh sweetie.” her mother said, and ran down the steps to wrap her daughter in a hug. She paid no mind to him as he stood with his hands in his pockets, still staring at the brick facade of the home.
“Pretty place, isn’t it?” Glenn said. John lifted his hand and shook his.
“Yes sir, amazing. My name is John. John Moore. Pleasure to finally meet you, sir.”
“I appreciate the niceties but you just call me Glenn. Come inside, we’ve got dinner ready for you both!”
Jessica and her mother Alissa walked arm in arm in front of them, climbing the steps in twos and disappearing into the depths of the dark home. John felt, for just a moment, that he should turn around a leave immediately.
“Grabbing the bags, John?”
“Oh, yeah. Give me a second.”
He went to the trunk and grabbed Jessica's full-to-the-brim, brand new Louis Vuitton luggage, and his own dusty duffel he’d had since he was fifteen. It was light, but that was on purpose. Glenn stood at the stoop and waved him up, where the doorway revealed a dark, cathedral ceilinged entry way with a glass dome resting on top. A staircase to the left crawled up the wall towards the coved ceilings. The banisters had a thin film of dust on them, and the air smelled damp, with a tinge of raw sewage.
As if he could read his thoughts, Glenn began walking and said. “Sorry about the smell, septic has been on the fritz and the damn company we used went under.”
“No bother to me. I’ve smelled plenty worse in Boston.”
“Sure, I’m sure.” They made their way towards two open french doors, where a candlelit dinner sat perfectly plated.
“You from Boston, John?”
“Yes sir, born and raised.”
John’s face screwed up, his brow raising.
“Yeah, how’d you know?”
“Accent,” Glenn laughed. “I’m sure Jessica has told you how much I love the Sox. You a fan?”
“Die hard since I was born. I was David Ortez three years straight for Halloween.”
“Atta boy” he said, and clapped him on the shoulder. “Not sure where the ladies went off to, but go ahead and set those bags down and grab a glass.”
“I’m sorry sir, I’m not twenty-one. Thank you though.”
“You’re going to tell me you’ve never had a drink before?”
He set the bags down on the floor, the sound echoing off of the quiet walls.
“Well, I mean, yeah. Here and there.”
“Don’t be shy then. Let me pour you a glass.”
“Okay.” John said, and gave one last look to the front door before sitting down at the dinner table.
Jessica and her mother came in the door like little school girls, still whispering to one another and giggling. The taste of whiskey coated John’s tongue, relaxing him. There was nothing to be afraid of. Just some shut-ins and their only child.
“Welcome, you two.” Glenn said. “Is my daughter going to give me a hug?”
“Yes, sorry. Mom was just showing me the room. Love what you’ve done with it!”
As she hugged her father, his eyes wandered to Alissa and froze. She was staring right at him. Her face showed no expression, a dull featureless mannequin. He smiled wanly, and as if she exited a trance, she returned the same and sat.
“Well, I hope you all are hungry.” Alissa said. “I worked on this all day, it’s Jessica’s favorite!”
Glenn poured John another glass as he scanned the table. From the time he spent with Jessica, what he knew as her favorite was Sushi. It was obviously nowhere to be seen, and a basic bowl of spaghetti and meatballs sat in the center.
“I thought your favorite was sushi, Jess?” John said, and lifted the glass to his lips. He stopped when he noticed all of them staring at each other for a moment, then returning to him.
“Well, yes I love sushi. But my mother knows how to make a mean spaghetti. It’s all homemade!”
“Oh, gotcha. Well thank you Mrs. Birch, it smells amazing.”
“Anything for my little girl.” Alissa said, and smiled at her, when he was the one who spoke.
The whiskey had begun taking a hold of him. His eyes grew droopy and the anxious butterflies in his stomach calmed to a low flutter. The candle light of the room and the soft cutting and chewing began to feel comforting to him. A family dinner was something he hadn’t experienced in what, ten years now? He relished in the moment, closing his eyes. It would be the last one for a while. He didn’t plan on getting invited back.
The conversation at dinner eventually led to the Red Sox, and the mediocre season they were having. Jessica talked to her mother about how amazing Boston was and how they should visit them soon. His palms grew sweaty, and he began grabbing empty plates to excuse himself from the awkwardness that only he was feeling.
He opened the garbage can in the dark, wood paneled kitchen, and stopped. In the trash were two jars of Rao’s pasta sauce, and an empty bag of frozen meatballs. Why would Jessica have said it was homemade? Did she not know? Or did she, and he was the one with the wool over his eyes? He scooped his pasta in, and set his plate in the sink.
“Room for any dessert?” Glenn asked as he returned.
“I think I’m stuffed. It was delicious though, Mrs. Birch. Thank you. Is there a bathroom down here?”
“Yes, just down the hall and to the left.” Jessica enunciated the word left, a subtle way for her to tell him that the other end of the hall was off limits. Alarm bells began to ring in his head. They didn’t trust him. At all. Maybe even knew that he had been stealing. But why would she have brought him there in the first place if she knew that?
He nodded to them all and started down the long corridor to the back of the house. He looked left and right, a single steel door placed to the right, entirely out of place in this wooden and brick castle. What would they need a steel door for in this place? To hide things. Expensive things, he thought. He tucked that information into the back of his mind and entered through a dark open door with a visible vanity to the left. The smell of sewage had grown stronger as he crawled towards the belly of the house, but as he walked away from that steel door and into the bathroom, it eased. On the toilet sat a photo that he picked up while he was relieving himself. A photo of Jessica, her mother, and father all standing in front of their home. The landscaping was immaculate, and the grass was clean cut. Maybe the money was disappearing, because they sure weren’t working.
He was close to the dining room again now, and tried to make out the conversation they were having. Low whispers could be heard, but nothing discernable. What if they were talking about him? He looked at the front door again, barely visible in the dark foyer, and took a deep breath.
Glenn clasped his hands together in excitement and stood.
“John! Another glass my boy?” He wanted to refuse, but the palpitations had gotten worse in his chest from the sight of the photo. There was something off he couldn’t place. That photo couldn’t have been taken more than a year ago, and the house was in this much disarray? Maybe they were getting old, or getting poor. He nodded yes, and let Glenn pour him another. The alcohol was the only thing keeping him normal.
The remainder of the evening was spent in a lively sitting room, completely contrasted to the rest of the home. The wallpaper in it was a light pink with roses, and well lit with a hanging chandelier made of hundreds of small glass bulbs. Before John noticed, he was drunk. Really drunk. He began to spill the beans about his family, when his mother passed away and where he thought his father was. They all sat and listened, and he began to notice that he was the only one drinking now. When Glenn offered another glass he shook his head and refused.
“You know what, I think I’ve overdone it. I don’t want to make a fool of myself.” he laughed. “Probably too late.”
“Nonsense! You’ve been great company John. Isn’t that right?” Glenn said to Alissa. She nodded and smiled that flat, uninterested smile.
“John? I’m getting a bit tired, I think I may head up to bed. Want to join me?” Jessica said, with a sligh wink. He knew what that meant, and stood quickly.
“Absolutely. Glenn, Mrs. Birch.” Her mother had made a point of not extending her first name to him. “It has been lovely. Thank you so much for letting me into your amazing home.”
“Anytime, pal.” Glenn said, and Alissa nodded, that same fake smile pasted on her face. He very much liked Glenn, but began to feel Alissa knew he was up to no good.
He and Jessica shared a horrible bout of sex. John couldn’t get it up, so they both rolled over frustrated. He fought at the edge of sleep, many times dipping in and out with a gasp. He checked to his right to ensure Jessica was out, her chest rising and falling evenly. The alcohol, along with his courage, began to slip as the hours passed. He wanted to be one-hundred percent sure that they were all asleep before he began snooping, grabbing the things he thought would go unnoticed.
He slowly lifted the covers, and began inching his way out from under them. Jessica stirred slightly and turned on her back. He froze, waiting for her to wake. Her breathing evened out, and her mouth slumped open like it always did when she was deep in sleep. He made his way out into the hall, now on the second floor, and scanned the doors to ensure they were closed. He let out his own breath that he had been holding, and descended the stairs on stocking feet. The whole house seemed to creak and whisper in the wind, making John’s bowels loose. There had to be something worthy of stealing in this place. If not, he wasted all this time coming up here just to be eye shamed by her mother.
The only light came from the glass dome of the roof in the foyer as John landed on the first floor. A blinking and flickering pale blue moonlight that felt cold, and untrustworthy. He should not be doing this. He should go back to bed, wake up the next day, and go home. He should break things off with Jessica before shit gets too messy. If her mother found out she’d probably pull some strings to land him in jail for years. But, the need to explore was great, to find some forgotten treasure that he could pawn.
He made his way into the kitchen, rummaging through the drawers as quietly as possible. He felt eyes on his back at every moment, and turned periodically to look into the dining room or the empty hall and saw nothing but the moving shadows of the clouds above.
The kitchen was a bust, so he began making his way back towards the corridor with the steel door. He wanted to know what was behind it. Endless possibilities ran through his head. A wine cellar full to the brim of vintage bottles worth more than all the debt he had put together. Maybe there were filing cabinets down there, stuffed with long forgotten physical stocks. Maybe even jewels or antique jewelry. He held his hand up to his face as he got closer, the smell a wretched stain in his nose. Even through the sleeve of his MIT sweatshirt, the smell was ever present and ungodly revolting. The only time he had smelled anything similar was when an upstairs neighbor of his had expired. They were all moved out of the building and put into hotels until the mess could be fixed. He swore, even weeks after, that in passing he could still smell it.
He was face to face with the door now. Sweat trickled down his brow despite the cool wooden floor under his feet. His breath was ragged and harsh and his shoulders and jaw tight. His hand extended towards the knob, and as he did, feet could be heard coming down the stairs. Soft, quiet footsteps. It seemed intentional. Maybe Jessica was up and looking for him. He quickly grabbed the handle of the door, and to his surprise it sprung open on silent hinges. The smell was unbearable now, but he had no choice but to enter. He groped for a light switch on the walls, feeling unfinished studs and electrical work, but no light. Carefully, feeling every step with his feet, he made his way to the bottom. It was dark, darker than anything he had seen in his life. He waved a hand in front of his face and saw nothing. Panic began to settle in. He had to get out, but if there was someone up there, he would be caught, and in the middle of the night like this? The cops would be here shortly, dragging him off. Bye-Bye to MIT, and goodbye to any chance of getting out of the poverty hellhole he was in. He wanted to be down here anyways, so why not peak around for a moment?
He forced his shoulders to relax and began groping towards the ceiling and wall for any source of light. Though he could not see, the basement felt vast around him. The clanging of pipes and the soft hum of the furnace was the only discernible thing he could tell was down here, besides that god awful smell. He groped and felt a dangling cord, and pulled. The naked bulb illuminated the short ceilinged basement in a moldy yellow light, blinding him for a moment. His vision came back slowly, the imprint of the glass bulb fading, and that is when he saw the source of the smell.
His blood froze in his veins and an agonized groan tried to escape his gaping mouth.
On the floor, in a heap of clothes and dark, thick liquid, lay three bodies, writhing with a colony of maggots. There were no discernable features, besides bone, teeth, and hair. But that was all he needed to see. Jessica’s blonde hair, still tied in a ponytail, her fathers dark brown hair, and her mothers gray and blonde strands hanging in the active decay they laid in. He began to scramble up the stairs when the door opened.
Jessica stood at the top of the stairs. No, not Jessica, something else. It had to be because the way her lips curled towards the corners of her mouth was not natural. No, her mouth was forced into an impossible grin, stretching towards the sides of her face almost to her ears.
“Shh. They’re sleeping.” it said, and began descending the stairs towards him.
Tyler Markham is a writer and horror enthusiast. Whenever he is not writing, or shivering under his covers with a scary story, he likes to spend time with his wife Chloe and their cranky ten-year-old dog Maggie.
About the host
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.