THE RETURN

By J. T. Seate




The day had been dismal and wet befitting Allison’s mood. The two-story house, with its slanting angles and sloped roofs, stood against the horizon like a cardboard cutout in front of the sky’s diminishing light, waiting expectantly. It was long unused, dying if not already dead, a place filled with ghosts. Most of its paint had peeled off revealing a gray scaly skin beneath. The windows looked like eye sockets in a face of wood. Spider webs of cracked glass crawled along their windowpanes. A remaining shutter hung askew from a broken hinge like a dangling eyelash. Some of the gutters around the eaves drooped loosely, bent and rusted, long since having lost their ability to catch water. And yet, the place where Allison had grown up still hypnotized her.

Although the wooden porch drooped in places, it still cloaked the front of the house. Most surprising was the faint sound of wind chimes that had been removed from the porch even before Allison left. Bare spots in what was once a yard mingled with knee-high saw-grass, the only thing that looked naturally alive. The shell of an abandoned vehicle and bleached lumber was scattered in haphazard piles, all looking as forlorn as the house. Back in the day, Allison’s father had planted two saplings, now overgrown and untended. Some of their branches hung from the trunks like dislocated arms, two of them reaching out toward the house like a skeletal mother reaching for her stillborn child. She found little comfort in this creepy place where, within the house’s walls, death had once been its occupation.

As a child, she had felt things she could not explain, feeling the presence of “others” even before she learned the cavernous dwelling had once served as a funeral home. Within the confines of the basement, spirits of the departed seemed to cast shadows. And now, after so many years, she stood before the old house, brooding and bleak, silhouetted in the wash of twilight, still holding its secrets and looking back at her as if holding its breath to see what she might do. She had returned to the place where she had grown up, a place with a mental door left ajar, a door her father and mother had died trying to close.

The sight of it made Allison shiver as she observed its façade a final time. If not intimidating enough, the fact that the front door was open just a smidge…anticipating company. She had come too far to stop now. She climbed the rickety steps, walked upon the porch planks as they groaned in complaint, hoping they wouldn’t send her crashing into the space below where fright as well as injury would await. She reached the oak door upon which traces of paint the color of dried blood still remained. She pushed the heavy door all the way open and entered…

 

* * *

 

More than thirty years earlier, Alice and her sister, Margie, sat next to each other on the front steps. Their mother sat on the porch, her rocking chair creaking back and forth, a book face down on her lap, her hands folded atop it, daydreaming about what her life might have been while rustling wisps of her hair gently blew to and fro like the lace curtains from an open window.

At ages six and eight, the little girls looked equally shiny and new in brightly colored Easter dresses. Margie held a doll that Allison coveted. She thought it prettier than any of her own, but that’s the way it seemed to be; Margie first and Allison second. Her sister had been one of those classically beautiful children who looked like a Dresden figurine with wide eyes and flawless skin. Allison, with her mousy brown hair and bigger nose, not so much. Allison had been convinced her parents only wanted one child, one golden haired daughter to light up their lives. And Allison? Nothing more than an accident. Her feelings wound around her heart, tightening over the years, slicing into her flesh. Her sister, Margie, had been the favored child.

Sometime later, an older boy told them about their home’s original purpose. He said their basement was a place where bodies had been transformed into presentable corpses suitable for public viewing in the parlor above. As a young girl, Allison never went down alone to stoke the coal furnace. It was bad enough knowing her mother or father or older sister were down in that dark shadowy place in the company of the ugly leviathan. To her, the door leading there was like the crossroads from light to darkness where the beast lurked. It was a monster with a hungry mouth that ravenously swallowed its dinner of coal or split-wood. It squatted like a black octopus with frightening metal tentacles that crawled up to the heating ducts to the floors above. On cold nights, she could hear its guttural beckoning like a siren from the depths of the earth with its blasts of warm air humming an unpleasant, insistent lullaby capable of swallowing one’s soul.

Was it a guilty conscious looking for subterfuge that brought Allison back to this haunted place, the only survivor in her family, returning at long last to find out if spirits of the departed were still captives within its fiber, lingering like a bad smell, suffused so deeply in her psyche it could never completely wash out?

Once past the door and inside, the remembered vision of the house’s interior settled in. The rooms were filled with ghosts of old furniture. The tomblike emptiness accelerated the smell of rot and age, the mustiness of neglect strong. Varnished tongue-and-groove wainscoting and patterned wallpaper, now peeling, had dulled to a smoke-smudged, oily tan. Dark stains bloomed on the ceiling and along the baseboards. In the kitchen, none of the latches on cabinets quite closed.

She was alone in the house where she was born. Well, not quite alone. There were the whispering voices in the corners. Enough light seeped in through the windows to climb up the stairway that led to the second floor. She crept to the room that belonged to her sister. Allison could easily imagine the way it had once been, every edge and corner sharp and clear, filled with pretty things she herself had admired, a shrine to the dead princess.

Growing up, Allison often felt helpless, unable to connect as Margie began blossoming into a young woman. As a teenager, Margie had friends beyond the world of sister’s. Still, she was the first at her father’s knee and at her mother’s side.

Allison remembered pulling the traditional younger sister routine when Margie was asked to a dance. “I don’t ever want to go out with a stupid boy,” she declared at the dinner table over a steaming bowl of tomato soup. She’d wanted to dump it on Margie’s head. She wouldn’t have looked so prissy then. Still, she wished to be more like Margie. That might have solicited the affection her parents seemed to shower on her sister. But the household was never the same after the family loss.

 

* * *

 

Margie was seventeen and Allison fifteen at the time of the event, a mystery never solved. Margie was the apple of her parent’s eye one day and nonexistent the next. The wooded and watery areas in and around the town of Doddsville were searched. Investigators investigated, search-parties searched, but all efforts failed to uncover a body. No closure had taken place; no one spoke about heaven having a new angel.

On some level, people believe the worst thing their minds can imagine: a young girl in the bloom of life, taken by some loony, they theorized. It happened somewhere all the time. Allison’s parents had visions of Margie carried off by a cruel and heartless man who defiled, killed, and buried her in some unknown place never to be found. Allison had busied herself in her mother’s garden during that terrible time so as not to dwell on the thick sadness within the house any more than necessary.

Once the shell of normalcy is cracked, it can never be seamlessly put back together. The family dynamic became as fragile as spun glass. A brittle balance struck between she and her parents ensued. No more perfect Margie, only Allison, who could hear her mother’s heartbroken sobs from behind a closed door. Her father would go days without speaking. They would sometimes wander out of a room like an unfinished sentence and Allison would sit with her mind in knots searching for a way to be the new number one daughter.

When her mother started spending large chunks of time on the porch looking wistfully into space, her father took to crawling inside a whiskey bottle, both thinking about how their lives had unraveled. The light had gone out in her parent’s eyes and nothing Allison could do would rekindle it. No matter how hard she tried, she continued to feel inferior. It was clear she would never be Margie’s equal in beauty or charm, forcing her further from normalcy, hearing voices, and seeing things out of the corner of her eye.

The parents never healed from the shock of Margie’s disappearance. They kept vigil the rest of their lives hoping she would magically return. “The pain of discovery would be more bearable than the pain of uncertainty,” her mother said.

Allison was not uncertain. She had been aware of ghosts since she and Margie first sat on either side of the Ouija board. The game’s planchette practically flew around when they asked their questions. It had certainly been right about which of them would die first.

After Margie’s “disappearance,” Allison thought she saw her now and then hiding in a corner, or standing like a marble statue near a window gazing with sightless eyes upon a world taken from her. Although startling, Allison never screamed or said anything to anyone about these visions because she wanted to believe it was her mind playing tricks rather than black magic. Still, from the time Margie was gone and ever after, Allison looked at the house’s windows differently, as if they were looking inward, keeping an eye on what she might do next. She got nervous whenever the furnace hummed with fire or belched out too much heat, but worse was when her father burned trash and newspapers that produced bits of ash and char she could see floating above the roof, dancing and fluttering in the air. It was a horrible reminder.

Allison remained with her folks until she was out of school, old enough to find a job in another part of the country, and escape this house filled with unhappy memories, ensnared with lost souls both living and dead. She talked to her parents by phone but rarely visited. When she did see them, the sad wrinkles on their faces as they withered away like houseplants deprived of water was too much to bear. The old house with its history and memories were best left to those without her predilection for seeing and hearing strange things. She never put the house up for sale after her parent’s died — couldn’t somehow.

 

* * *

 

Allison left her sister’s room and went down the hallway to the one that had been hers. It had seemed dull by comparison. She made an effort to recall the hopes and fears she’d experienced within its confines. When alone, she would sometimes put a pillowcase around her head like a veil and pretend she was a princess. One of her stuffed animals became her prince charming. Although a brief smile came with the memory, she was still not free of the house’s scrutiny. Murmurs of others could be heard in the walls while another part of the house called to her — the underground room where the evil monster lived. She reluctantly made her way downstairs and to the basement door that held her worst fears.

A patch of light from the kitchen led to the dark, cavernous abyss that seemed to stretch down endlessly before her. Could she ignore the siren song from below and leave now, or allow fate to determine a different destiny? With the beam from a small flashlight she’d thought to bring along, she forced herself down the creaky steps, each footfall unsure, the smell of mildew strong.

The place the furnace monster once shared with embalming procedures held a secret. As Allison descended, the past and present began to mix together in a supernatural salad. She halfway expected to find the furnace glowing and groaning like a death-knell as it shoved hot air through its tentacles. For now, however, it was dark and quiet, as neglected as the rest of the old house. But the secret could not be forgotten. She’d often wondered if the furnace, or the house itself might reveal the secret never meant to be revealed. Wasn’t that the real reason for her return?

The dark secret.

Yes, the one she shared with this despicable mass of metal. Margie had never run away. She’d been home the whole time, first in the furnace as charred bones and later, as separated parts, buried around the property, bone by bone.

Allison had killed her sister and stuffed her body in the furnace. Scenes from the fatal day flickered across Allison’s consciousness like an old silent movie. At fifteen years of age, she was tired of getting only the leftovers of affection. For the rest of her life, she would have had to live up to the standard of her parent’s sweet Margie who could seemingly do no wrong. Allison had gone into the basement with her sister and knocked her out with iron tongs. It had been like clubbing a baby seal.

She covered Margie’s mouth in case she should come to while Allison stuffed her into the large mouth of the giant beast. She worked quickly at stoking the furnace with more coal and leaving her sister to melt away in the conflagration. Although she shut off the flue in hopes the odor would not escape through the pipes and fill the house with the smell of cooking flesh, the intensity of the heat must have made quick work of Margie. In the aftermath, it was a good thing Allison had shown an interest in gardening. It gave her a reason to spend so much time outdoors.

Initially, Allison escaped the torment of her actions. She never feared Margie’s dead spirit or any of the others that whispered to her because she didn’t believe the dead could harm the living. But her act had taken its toll, her life clouded by the memory of those days, carrying with it a lurking sense of impending tragedy. After leaving home, the years to follow were marked by depression and the bitter knowledge that loneliness would forever be her lot. She chose a path without the comforts and pitfalls of a husband or children. This led to a rather aimless, unfocused life lacking the ability to find contentment, joy, or warmth, shuffling from one noncommittal relationship to another. Generosity and selflessness were never in her character. Others told her she sometimes looked haunted. Maybe those people were able to see beyond her exterior into her soul.

 

* * *

 

Thanks in part to her actions, death still hovered about the old place. And now, Allison felt sure Margie was back along with the rest. She would have to face what she had done, the act which had prevented her from the chance of a happy existence. Moreover, she felt the house itself had come alive with her reentry, and it needed to be fed.

It was a new kind of reunion, here where spirits resided. Allison was again at the crime scene. The hatch on the furnace, closed before, was now open. Was she dreaming or was it something…far worse? The monster in the basement suddenly sprung to life, a functioning entity complete unto itself reminding her of Dante’s Inferno, wondering which level it represented. After Margie, had it developed a taste for something besides wood and coal? Would Allison be forced to relive the day she disposed of her sister, her body and soul leaving by way of the smoke stack and the heating ducts? Or would Allison be thrown into the fiery furnace and enter hell’s kingdom herself? What powers did this old house hold? How many ghosts haunted its hallways?

Clutching the flashlight so tightly her hand was cramping, she turned away from the monster and headed back toward the basement stairs when what seemed impossible occurred. A figure stood in the basement’s dark corner, studying her. Allison heart stalled. She gasped and felt something akin to the touch of a live electrical wire. Could it be the blurry ghost of a teenage Margie, blond hair, blue eyes, waiting all this time, seeking retribution?

With an honesty only possible when life is stripped down to its naked fundamentals, what words could be groveling enough, sweet enough, true enough? “I’m sorry for what I did, so awfully sorry,” Allison managed to whisper, her heart palpitating in fear.

When she blinked, the figure sharpened. It wasn’t Margie at all, but a dirty boy instead, approaching her from a dark corner.

“You’re gonna be a lot sorrier,” the boy said straight out as he came closer. He held a length of pipe.

She backed away and raised her hands in defense, everything happening too fast. “You can have my mon — .”

  

* * *

 

The very alive boy swiftly swung the lead pipe. A hard whump interrupted Allison’s scream as it connected with her head fracturing her skull. She fell like a marionette cut free of its strings. The boy looked the woman over. No purse, only pockets that held nothing of value. Maybe her goodies were stashed inside whatever vehicle she arrived in, he hoped.

It had only been a matter of time until someone showed up. He was glad it had been someone he could take advantage of. It was also time to take his drugs and move out of this creepy place anyway. He’d been up and down the creaky steps throughout the old house dozens of times without incident, but this time, when he emerged from the house, the planks between the front door and the porch steps gave way. A splinted board caught his neck on his descent, impaling him through his chin. The house swallowed his final utterings. The only things to bear witness to the final gurgling breaths were the rusted car, the tinkling of non-existent wind chimes, and the tree that was as dead as he would soon be, as dead as the woman who had returned to the scene of her long ago crime for reasons known only to her. He was in a place where two more dead spirits could converge.

 

* * *

With nothing left to resolve, silence settled over the house. It would be of no consequence if the whole place went up in flames. Perhaps it would set empty for another twenty years, empty except for any lingering spirits until it collapsed in on itself. A final groan emerged from somewhere within its bowls, probably from the basement, a sound audible to only the dead of which Allison was now a part.       

Retribution had come not from the cast iron monster but at the hands of vagrant. Not a supernatural finale, but just as effective. She no longer endured hallucinations. On this plane of existence, what she could see and hear was as real as she. Voices in the walls and around the corners became more distinct — chanting, troubled voices. Allison saw the first of them. It wasn’t Margie as she might have expected, but a different being had found her in the basement. Its hair stood on end and a long, white burial garment trailed to the floor. Her expression was one of betrayal. Who knew how many revenants dwelled within the passages of time while the old house had stood as witness. How many had been offended by what the new one now amongst them had done, all drawn to this place where they had died or been prepared for the hereafter. How spiteful might the waiting dead be? If alive, Allison would have screamed, knowing she might have to answer to them all, one by one.

Never had she thought much about what she’d deprived her sister of. But what about now, when Allison was no longer anyone, as dead as the rest of the spirits she sensed around her? This was a new playing field where the phantoms were equal to whatever she herself had become. Once again, the unexpected sound of the wind chimes. Once more, the voices in the walls became louder. 

And finally, rising up from the dark basement was another wraith. The cacophony of voices raging through the old house faded into insignificance as a more dominant presence took over. Allison felt fear certainly, but extreme sadness washed over her as well, her guilt at long last surfacing. All the birthdays Margie never saw. The rivers of hot tears Margie never shed over triumphs and tragedies. In every young girl she had seen since, she saw a fragment of her dead sister. Allison remembered the little eight-year-old Margie in a yellow pinafore and the seventeen-year-old Margie in a felt skirt. Ghosts that outlast all others are the ones that never got the chance to fully live, she suddenly understood.

This time it was Margie. Above the blouse and felt skirt, her death ensemble, a face levitated as shiny like candle wax. It possessed layer upon layer of emotions — truth and falsehood, youth and age — all going back to that moment, all those years ago, when Margie was betrayed by her sister. Slowly and relentlessly she floated toward Allison. It was time for the younger sister’s mission to be fulfilled.  

Allison’s spirit tried again. “I did it because you got all the attention. They loved you the best, but I’m sorry for what I did, Margie.”

Too late to be sorry, sister. Much too late was the unspoken response that floated along the aching joints of the old house.

Margie’s clothes began to change. They turned from an array of colors to an ashy gray. The melting flesh blackened and drooped from her skull. A miserable history from deep within the house began to rise up through the floor like the smell of rot. A heavy moan of dread escaped Allison, for that was the only sound she had the ability to make. Margie’s arms stretched forward to embrace her sister with hands, face, and body now as charred as the clothes that had burned off of her. 

The dead are patient, but the time had come — that moment when a being turns a flashlight on their soul and inspects it for will and courage. Allison knew she had arrived at this place for a reckoning as had many others, even though they had been physically gone for years. They were all here now…finally, here to engulf her.

The house was complete. Her death had brought her back where so many dark spirits remained, especially the specter of the girl she had betrayed. The structure felt like a great maw that had swallowed her whole as Margie had, at last, found her.

The sound of the reawakened furnace belching fire mixed with the rusty laugh from Margie’s ghost. If anyone had been within a hundred yards of the old house that day, they might have heard the groans within the walls or a final murmur of wind through the eaves that sounded like the words, “I’m pleased that you returned, Allison.”

With the moon at its zenith, ethereal light shone down on the old house. It was a place where anything horrible was possible.With the moon at its zenith, ethereal light shone down on the old house. It was a place where anything horrible was possible. Absolutely anything.



J. T. Seate is author of eight stories in the popular Inspector Basham series.  “Turn About” (November, 2012), “Letting Off Some Steam (July, 2013), “The Case of the Open Grave” (October, 2013),  “Basham's Theory” (April, 2014), “St. Andrew’s Cross” (August, 2014),  “Cat and Mouse” (December, 2014), “Winds of Change” (March, 2015) and The Chopper (April, 2015).

Eight non-series stories have also been published here on omdb! — The Accomplice  (October, 2015), “Moments To Remember” (June, 2015), “Light My Fire” (March, 2015), The Thompson Kid” (December, 2014), “The Songbird” (August, 2014), “The Constant Reader” (April, 2013), “Mask” (March, 2013), and “Montezuma's Revenge” (January, 2013).

The author’s other publishing credits include six novels/novellas, a dozen one-author anthologies, and more than two hundred short stories and memoirs.

Recent publications can be found at www.melange-books.com and www.museituppublishing.com for those who like their tales intertwined with the paranormal. See it all at www.troyseateauthor.webs.com and on amazon.com. You may also wish to visit the author's blog.

Copyright © 2015 J. T. Seate. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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