Marietta Morgenstern begrudgingly left the comfort of her home to attend school, like every child, on September 21st. In her 9th year, Mari learned how children worked, how a routine worked, and how she didn’t like it. A quiet child, Mari never caused problems for her parents or her teachers. Teachers, in fact, were quite fond of her. That didn’t help Mari very much. Mari attended school with the intention to learn and to grow. Other children often got in the way of this.
By the second day of the new school year, she devised a plan. Day after day, Mari left the safety and familiarity of her bedroom. Then Mari did what Mari did best. She studied. The object of her studies was one Gertrude Miller. From the first day Mari ever raised her hand in class to speak, Gertrude made her the object of her ire. The exact opposite of Mari, Gertrude was loud, brash, and always in trouble. That’s what Mari needed to be, temporarily of course.
A typical day in the school life of Gertrude Miller included playing keep-away with Mari’s lunch, writing words not suitable for a young lady on the teacher’s chalkboard, and pushing smaller children to the point of tears. Each activity provided Gertrude with immense satisfaction, but earned her the disdain, and oftentimes brutal punishment, of her teachers.
So when Mari approached Gertrude under the guise of wanting to be more like her, Gertrude contemplated the idea of passing on her knowledge and didn’t like the thought. She did, however, like the idea of a scapegoat, someone to pass the blame onto and save her hide a few tannings. So she accepted Mari’s offer.
Mr. Lockheart, their current teacher, took quick notice of Marietta’s complete change in character. At first, Gertrude took the blame, being a bad influence and all. As the behavior continued, he sat the two on opposite sides of the classroom. When that didn’t work, he separated them at lunch and at recess. Still no luck. Gertrude and Mari became the two funniest pranksters, and two cruelest bullies their class had ever seen. Eventually, Mari left him no choice. He sent a note home with Mari for her parents to read, detailing her newfound behavior and indifference towards punishment. Gertrude advised Mari to “lose” the note on her walk home. That note was exactly what Mari wanted, however.
Mari approached the wrought iron gate to the cottage that served dually as her beloved home and her father’s funeral services. She inhaled deeply, prepared for whatever punishment he deemed necessary, as long as she got her way in the end. And she did. She pushed the gate open and walked towards the doorway to freedom, her shoes clacking against the stone walkway with each step. Her mother greeted her as usual and eyed the letter pinned to her blouse. She cast a wary look at Mari as she unpinned it. Her parents’ eyes scanned the letter from Mr. Lockheart then dropped in disappointment. That moment, perhaps, hurt Mari more than the subsequent spankings. In the end, however, her father decided the schoolhouse left a bad impression on the girl. Instead of teaching her arithmetic and spelling, it taught her misbehavior.
From that day forward, Mari was homeschooled. No more gross, sneezy, children with sticky hands. No more raucous laughter and screams on the playground. Only peace and quiet and all the books she could read. Paradise lasted only two weeks. Shortly after Mari’s new life of quiet rooms with garden views, papers full of numbers and letters, puzzles she could solve in solitude, her father’s chilled basement began to quickly fill.
First, her classmate George came to his final rest in their parlor. Mari’s parents tried to instill in her that death was only natural, even if, occasionally, the deceased seemed too young. But after George came Loise, then James, followed by Ruby and Elizabeth. After Gertrude ended up in their home, Mari herself fell ill. At the start, Mari’s skin burned with the fire of a summer sun even though the year nestled well into November. By nightfall, all the blankets in the home couldn’t warm her frozen, aching bones. Her throat ran raw with every cough, the kind of cough often associated with old men who’ve smoked for decades, not bright young girls with all of their life ahead of them. Within days, Mari’s breathing labored her so much she spent all her efforts concentrating on a function that should occur without thought. Her eyes played tricks on her as her heart raced out of her ribcage. Then Mari, too, joined her classmates in a cold wooden box, under the frozen earth.
Kaylee approached the wrought iron gate of her home after a long Friday. Her second week of her new job in a new town passed, and just like the week before, some of the friends she’d made headed out to dinner and a bar. Of course, she’d been invited, but after five days, eight hours a day away from her cozy home and surrounded by small talk and gossip, she needed the respite saying “no” provided. She went last Friday, after all, they said it was to welcome her to the group. How could she refuse?
She walked up the stone pathway to the cottage, slight guilt weighing on her mind. She knew well enough this was a new opportunity. Staying in afforded her the mental wind down she needed, going out afforded her friends. Kaylee’s thoughts scolded her, telling her this time was no different than any others. Keep saying “no”, turn down invitation after invitation, and they’d stop coming. Like every job before this one, and university before that, she got along great with the people around her. But they soon became “work friends” or “school friends”, leaving Kaylee with nothing and no one outside of work. She cherished her alone time, but every so often, the peace turned to an ache. Every so often, she wanted to be a part of something more. She just wished it wasn’t so exhausting.
She pushed open the front door, tossed her purse aside, and relieved her aching feet of their high-heeled prison. The entryway flooded with natural light that vanished into deep shadows as she headed toward the living room in the back. When she stepped from hardwood to velvety carpet, muscle memory kicked in and she flipped on the light and continued walking into the room. The familiar click from the switch registered in the back of her brain, but the room remained dark. Confused, she took a step back and flipped the switch again, still nothing. Up, down, up, down, up, down, rapidly she worked the switch a few more times before the light finally flickered on. She raised an eyebrow and twisted her lips, contorting her face in perplexity before carrying on as if nothing were out of place.
Kaylee fell backward onto the couch and turned the TV on. Flipping through the channels, nothing caught her interest until the sound of shattering glass startled her to her feet. She froze for a moment, taking in her surroundings. Then she headed into the kitchen. In the middle of the tiled floor, as if thrown from the counter, lay a thousand tiny pieces of glass. On the counter, about to leap into the pile, crouched a small bundle of black fluff. Kaylee flew into motion as her kitten sprang into the air. She caught him, mid-flight.
“Oh no you don’t.”
The kitten hung limp in defeat in her arms. She carried him into the bathroom, the closest room with a door, and shut him in before going to clean his mess up. Pens, small trinkets, hair ties, this was far from Bastien’s first incident. It was, however, his first foray into large, breakable items. After picking up the large pieces, sweeping the smaller ones, and sweeping them again, she headed back into the bathroom. On the other side of the old and heavy wooden door came the muffled hissing of Bastien. Kaylee opened the door to catch a glimpse of the arched back, puffed up tail, and unsheathed needle-like claws before Bastien’s dead-lock gaze on the doorway broke and he bolted out. Maybe he expressed anger towards her because she locked him in there, or maybe because she cleaned up his conquest before he could revel in it. Either way, she wanted a bath. He’d be back to cuddly in no time.
She left the door open as she ran the water, just in case Bastien wanted to join her. As the water flowed from the faucet she tested it with her hand, adjusted the knobs, and tested again. Once she was satisfied, she poured a purple liquid under the flow creating clouds of bubbles. While the bath filled, Kaylee grabbed her music player and set it near the sink. She slipped her work clothes off and tossed them in the laundry basket. Hot water stung her toes as she eased into the tub. Slowly, her body acclimated to the water and she sank into a relaxing pose. Eyes closed, her favorite music playing, this was exactly how Kaylee wanted to spend her Friday evening.
When a fight broke out between her brain and her body to stay awake, she knew her bath was coming to an end. She took a few deep breaths, preparing herself to open her eyes and return to reality. Her bathroom slowly came into focus as her eyes peeled open. A dark streak filled the open doorway for the briefest of moments. She snapped her head in that direction, her eyes fully alert now, but the shadow passed without a trace. Before she could process what happened, rule a trick of the light, her sleepiness, before the oncoming fear could settle, the door slammed shut. Kaylee gasped and banged her hand on the faucet. She stumbled on the slick tub and fought the water to stand up. She dried off quickly and wrapped the towel around her.
Her hand grasped the doorknob coated in condensation. She froze, the mystery slamming into her like the door. She pressed her ear to the wood instead, listening. Dead silence filled her ears for one breath...two breaths...three. She heard no footsteps indicating an intruder. She heard no breathing on the other side, no rifling through her things. Then the door shook back and forth, vibrating against her cheek, and a repetitive scraping of rough wood echoed in her ears. She stepped back, sure Bastien wasn’t large enough to slam the door, but she forgot all about that as soon as she heard his pathetic mewling outside the door. Not long ago he complained about being locked in, now he was complaining about being locked out. She pushed the door open carefully and full, green eyes stared up at her out of a void. Bending down to pick him up, she noticed his fur was still ruffled and his tiny heart was pounding. Something had scared him.
She stroked his fur as she held him close to her chest, “It’s okay little guy. One quick stop and then we can curl up in bed and stay there all night.”
As promised, she made a stop in the kitchen to grab some snack cakes and a cold coffee bottle before heading up to her bedroom. At the foot of the stairs, the outline of the old basement door popped out at her through the paint. She had never paid attention to it before. The whole mortuary area had been sealed off long before she bought the place. She stared absentmindedly at the outline for who knows how long before a demanding meow brought her back. An odd feeling washed through her body, filling her with an unwanted sensation of unease. Quickly, she hopped up the stairs. She moved down the hall to her room fast enough to outpace the unknown fear behind her, but slow enough she could convince herself she wasn’t afraid of anything.
The rest of the evening passed with Kaylee in a robe and Bastien in a bowtie curled up on a mattress with sitcoms playing in the background. At some point, Kaylee slipped into a light sleep. At midnight, she woke up again.
Static blared through the room, shocking Kaylee awake. Briefly panic flooded through her, until she got her bearings. It was unusual for static to fill the channel, but it nonetheless emanated from the television. She threw herself off the bed to silence it as quickly as possible. Once the overbearing noise abated, Kaylee controlled her breathing and sat back on the bed. She swore she could still hear the noise in her head. Glancing to her left, she found Bastien perched on her windowsill, staring wide-eyed at the garden below. His back once again arched high. Kaylee moved to soothe him, but no sooner had she turned her back to the door, it began rattling uncontrollably. She snatched up Bastien, pulling him to her. Together, they cowered against her headboard, wrapped tightly in her comforter.
The shaking grew more violent and louder, filling Kaylee’s ears and infiltrating her thoughts. Cold air permeated her room, chilling her faster than if she stepped into a freezer. She tucked her and Bastien completely under the blanket. Her heart raced. Her thoughts panicked. Her body tensed tighter and tighter until every muscled ached. Then, it stopped. A loud POP, and as if it never happened, not even an echo left behind, silence once again shrouded her. Slowly she poked her head out of the blanket. Her room stood in pitch black. One limb at a time, she relaxed her muscles.
For a long time, she sat on her bed unwilling to move. In her mind, she still heard the static, the rattling, the thudding. The incessant, steady knocking wouldn’t leave her. In fact, it seemed to be growing louder. Slowly she realized, there had been no thudding in the night’s earlier antics. It sounded like someone knocking at her front door. The pounding rapped too softly to be her bedroom door. An overwhelming urge to stay put forced her securely on the bed. Under her door, she eventually noticed the light in the hall still worked. With a tiny amount of reassurance shining back at her, she extended her long legs over the edge of the bed.
Stepping as softly as possible on the creaky, old floor, she headed to her door. With all the courage she could draw up, she placed her hand on the knob and twisted. From pitch black to white light, her eyes took a moment to adjust, but as she stepped into the hallway and towards the stairs, her ears needed no adjustment. The bottom of the stairs rested against the back of the house, while her front door obviously stood on the exact opposite end. There was no mistaking that the knocking came from the sealed-up basement door. Kaylee’s body felt numb as she stepped excruciatingly slowly backward. She reached her room once more, determined to lock herself in and stay awake until sunrise. In the sanctuary of her room, she pressed her back firmly against the door, debating what to do. Bastien once again planted his tiny paws on the windowsill and his eyes firmly on the garden below. Condensation had spread corner to corner on the window except in a few, precise locations. Sprawled through the moisture, Kaylee read the words, “This is my room.”
She knew she wasn’t alone, and as long as she stayed in this house, she never would be.