Contest #185 shortlist ⭐️

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Horror Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

CW: Death, grief

I couldn’t even bring myself to throw out your mug.

It wasn’t even a nice mug. The rim was chipped. The ceramic was lumpy—I was almost positive you’d made it yourself—and for some reason, you’d painted it the color of pea soup. Out of all of your things, this should have been the easiest to get rid of. And instead I stood in the kitchen for fifteen minutes, like an idiot, just holding it, and then I put it back on the shelf. You hadn’t even liked this mug.

“I was planning on throwing that away anyway,” I could imagine you saying. “Not my finest work. Literally, I was about to throw it out when I died.” And then: “Holy shit. Motive???”

I ignored the imaginary you.

Imaginary you said, “Be honest. Do you think the mug wanted me dead?”

I put the mug back onto the counter near the trash can so I could at least pretend I was planning on getting rid of it and had been interrupted mid-action or something. I had never been a hoarder. I was, generally, a very neat person—we argued about it all the time, because you left your shoes in the hall where people could trip on them and quite possibly had never heard of a coat hanger in your life and left all your dirty laundry heaped onto the nearest piece of furniture. 

But when I talked to your parents, they said I could have everything but the money, just to donate your clothes to Goodwill and your books to the public library and what-have-you, and I said, Yes, of course, I’ll do that as soon as I can. 

It had been a week since that conversation, and I still had not opened the door to your bedroom.

I’d left your heap of jackets abandoned over the couch and your shoes cluttering up the hall and even the really creepy Frank Sinatra mugshot poster that you’d printed out and hung over the sink. 

Your bedroom I had left completely untouched.

The last time I was in there, a week before that, I’d been in the middle of stealing one of your nice shirts to wear to a party when I’d gotten the phone call and some polite, pitying police officer had told me you had been in an accident, so I felt my reluctance was understandable.

The memory was contagious. I looked at your bedroom door, which was right at the heart of our floor plan, so you could see it from every room in the apartment, unless you had your door closed.

I’d come to hate that stupid door. Hate it, and fear it a little. Sometimes,  when it was quiet, I heard footsteps, or music, or voices from behind it. Some kind of grief-induced auditory hallucination, I figured, since I’d been having a lot of those lately. I’d started keeping the TV on at all times to cover up the noise. It was probably killing my electricity bill, but I couldn’t find it in me to care.

I didn’t know when it had started happening, exactly, because I hadn’t been paying attention to much of anything lately. All I knew was that sometime in the week after you died, when I was leaving your funeral early and letting all my calls go to voicemail and eating nothing but instant ramen while I watched trash TV, I started to notice a light under the door when I hadn’t turned the light on. During the day, I liked to imagine I could open that door and find you sitting on your bed and reading a magazine, trying to ignore your homework, listening to some bad music. At night, I couldn’t look at it. I dreaded having to turn the hallway light off before I went to bed and then having to walk past your door, hearing the muffled sound of someone trying to stand very still just behind it. Sometimes I panicked and ran past it, which was a mistake. Once you started running, it was so hard not to imagine there was someone chasing you.

I'd sometimes wondered if it was you in there. I liked that idea. My own personal haunting. But I couldn’t have actually opened the door, because there would be nothing in there—at least, nothing recognizable. Better to pretend.

Imaginary you said, “That’s not how it works.”

I had already made up my mind to ignore you. I changed my mind again and put the mug back up on the shelf.

***

“Have you started thinking about a new roommate yet?” Marge clutched her paper Starbucks cup like a lifeline and stared at me with wide, beseeching eyes.

I had nothing against Marge, in general. She was a nice enough person, even if she was the most nosy neighbor I had ever had in my life. But I could have happily gone another two weeks without talking to her. At this specific moment, I felt like I could go an entire lifetime without ever speaking to Marge again. I hadn’t even invited her in. She’d knocked—I couldn’t pretend not to be home, because I had already done that twice today, and I was never anywhere but home. I was paying extra to have my groceries delivered to the apartment. So I’d answered the door and she’d practically pushed her way past me.

“Well, sure, eventually. But—I mean, it’s a little soon. It hasn’t even been a month. I’m doing okay on rent and everything, so…”

She made an understanding noise and bobbed her head so violently, it seemed like an invisible puppet master had yanked too hard on her strings. “Well, of course, of course. But, I mean…if you just wanted to think about it.” She looked around the apartment with an expression that was politely alarmed. I hadn’t been keeping up on the housekeeping. Trash was accumulating.

“Mmm.”

She leaned forward and took hold of my hands suddenly enough to startle me. “Honey, if you ever need anything, just let me know.”

“All right.”

She added, “I do tarot readings on the side. If you ever want to come by…it’s only five dollars per reading.”

“Okay.”

She released my hands and went out the door, humming to herself. She’d left a bowl of fruit and a sorry-for-your-loss card behind.

I ended up having that fruit bowl for dinner that night, sitting by myself in the kitchen with the lights off. Well, mostly by myself.

“Man, this is just sad,” you would have said. “Come on. Let’s start getting into the stages. What are we on now, denial? Bargaining?” You were not a very sentimental person. You never cried during movie nights, even when a dog or a baby or something died. If it had been me who died and not you, you probably would have handled it better.

I looked at your bedroom door. There was light spilling out from underneath the crack. I hadn’t left that light on; it had been off an hour earlier. When I listened, I could distantly hear the creak of a floorboard, the sound of someone shifting just slightly on the other side.

I found the TV remote and turned up the volume.

You would have said, “Nothing good is waiting for you in there.” You liked to shout helpful instructions at the characters in horror movies. You would have had advice for me.

I watched the shape of feet move under the crack. If I was quiet, I thought I could hear the faintest sound of footsteps, maybe the creak of a floorboard.

You would have said, “Never hold on to an empty space. You don’t know what will come crawling in to fill it.”

***

I woke up in the middle of the night to the wet, heavy smell of dirt.

It took my brain a second to kick in. In little red letters, the alarm clock glowed 3:00 AM. Despite it being mid-July, the room was freezing. My arms were covered in goosebumps. The room was dark, except for city lights coming in through the window. Some drunk people were having a noisy argument on the sidewalk below. 

I turned over on my side and stared directly into the eyes of a dead body.

It was probably your body, except it didn’t look much like you anymore, having been in the ground for a while. Your skin was swollen and lobster-red, and also covered in mud. Thank God the people at the funeral home had closed your eyes before they buried you, because they were still closed now. 

I got out of bed. The body didn’t move or sit up and start moving, or any of the horror movie stuff I was waiting for. It remained a dark, bloated shape curled in fetal position on the mattress. I hadn’t noticed a smell before, but I was noticing it now. 

I went out into the hall. I turned on all the lights as I went, and then I took a knife out of the kitchen block and sat behind the kitchen counter.

I waited a really long time—the clock over the sink said an hour–and then I heard the squeal of a mattress, and then a wet, meaty thud. Then nothing. Then a shuffling sound and some more tiny thuds.

I looked out from behind the counter and watched the body drag itself back into your room. Whatever consciousness was in it didn’t seem to have mastered the limbs. It dragged itself slowly and laboriously on its stomach, the legs and arms sometimes seizing and kicking at odd angles. It left mud like a slug trail behind it. 

I watched it vanish into your bedroom—the first time I’d seen that door open since before you died. The lights weren’t on tonight. The body vanished into the complete dark beyond the threshold.

Going back to my bed would mean having to walk past that door, which I was absolutely not willing to do. I stayed in the kitchen until the sun came up.

At some point, I said, “I am going insane.” And then: “Or else being haunted.”

I was suddenly worried that if I tried to imagine you sitting in the kitchen with me, I would only see the corpse. I closed my eyes and tried to summon up something happier.

If my version of you had looked anything like a corpse, I would have started screaming and not been able to stop, but you looked like you always did on a lazy Saturday morning. You wore the clothes you’d had on when the last time I saw you, which was not the awful Stepford-housewife dress they’d put on your body, but a Bugs Bunny T-shirt and sweatpants. I couldn’t help imagining the dried blood on your hair—whoever had done your hair for the funeral had missed a spot. But that was the most alarming thing about you.

You would have said: “Yikes. I have not aged well.”

“Don’t tell me not to open that stupid door,” I said. “It’s open now, and I’m not going anywhere near it.”

“Who stays in a haunted house?” I heard you say. “Sell the place and move, idiot.”

I put my head down on the cold kitchen tiles until my cheek went numb from the chill. The dead-body smell had dissipated. “Mmm,” I said, watching the ceiling fan spin. “I don’t think I will, though.”

****

Getting complacent was a mistake.

I had a system worked out. During the day, you were fine. I kept the door to the bedroom shut. If the sun was out, it would stay shut, and you never did anything other than move around a little and mess with the lights. At night, it was different. Once the sun set, the door to your bedroom would open and your body would make its nightly appearance.

You were looking for me, I think, but it was hard to be sure. You never opened your eyes. I didn’t sleep in my bedroom anymore, though, because even if I locked the door to keep you out, I’d have to lie awake listening to you scratch at it before you eventually dragged yourself back into the other room.

I started locking myself in the bathroom and sleeping in the bathtub instead. Sometimes during the day, I made myself go and sit in the living room to watch TV or eat some chips or something, but I didn’t like to move too much. Too much energy.

It was on one of those evenings when I was in the kitchen forcing down a sandwich with bread that was a little stale and possibly expired that I lost track of time, or wasn’t bothering much with the time at all, when I saw the door to your bedroom swing open out of the corner of my eye. 

I put the sandwich down and looked up. 

The light was off again, just a black void beyond the threshold of the door, and then your scabby white hand scuttled itself over the threshold, followed by the bloated arm, and then the head, which was so awful I couldn’t look at it. 

You didn’t move very fast, which was good, because I couldn’t have run. I was so tired. I just walked to the bathroom and listened to you try to haul yourself after me, and I locked myself in again. 

Your entire body hit the door—I heard something pop that might have been your shoulder. The door shuddered under the impact, but you didn’t have the motor skills required for actually breaking it down. You just pawed at it like a cat wanting to be let in, and then you started—

It hadn’t occurred to me that this version of you might be able to talk, and you honestly couldn’t do it very well. It just came out as a wordless, grating garble of sound that could have been anything. It could have been your name, or mine. 

I almost opened the door right then, because I hadn’t heard your voice in so long, not outside my own head, and the sheer wanting almost killed me. It wasn’t self-preservation so much as lack of energy that kept me from doing it.

The sounds died off after a while, and then there was just quiet. In that quiet, I made a decision.

I let imaginary you get your argument out. You told me to call my sister, burn some sage, sell the apartment. You told me to buy a self-help book and make an appointment with a therapist. You said to eat something that wasn’t stale bread. You told me to let go.

I listened to this list of alternate ways to end the story, and then I said to you, if you were listening, if the thing that might have been your ghost could hear me, “You can’t tell me to do any of that because you aren’t here. You left me.” 

Your ghost didn’t materialize to tell me not to do it, so I stood up and unlocked the door. I went out into the hall. It wasn’t quite morning yet, but the sky was slowly turning itself from black to gray outside the window.

The door to your bedroom was shut already, but the light was still on. A warm amber glow came out from under the crack, familiar, welcoming. I could have knocked, and you would have asked me to come in. I could already picture these last few weeks melting away like a nightmare. I was ready to wake up from it.

I opened the door and went in.

February 18, 2023 00:47

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9 comments

Carina Caccia
19:48 Jul 01, 2023

A very talented writer 👏

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Chad Jowers
16:47 May 04, 2023

This is fantastic, Sophia - wow! Love where you're going as a writer. So proud to be related ;) Keep it up!

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Amanda Lieser
00:45 Mar 09, 2023

Hi Sophia! Welcome, welcome and congratulations on the breathtaking shortlist! I was utterly shocked by this piece and found myself curling up closer to my husband afterwards. I thought you did an excellent job of addressing some of those really challenging topics that come with death. My favorite line was the way Marge gripped the MC. I felt that character’s need to say the right thing and how shocking it was for our MC. NICE WORK ON THIS ONE. :)

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Wynter Porter
18:50 Mar 06, 2023

I think the story was amazing it had the suspence in the beginning but then it got to the middle it began to get more intesting i love horror so this really made my day FROM: Rehobeth

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Philip Ebuluofor
14:21 Feb 27, 2023

First-timers always appear with a bang. Welcome and congrats.

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Wendy Kaminski
17:08 Feb 24, 2023

Sophia, excellent! And congratulations on shortlisting this week with this story - spot-on! :)

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Sophia Jowers
04:04 Feb 25, 2023

Thank you!

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Rebecca Miles
06:58 Feb 24, 2023

The rawness of not being able to let go. I like how it has a physicality here. Plenty of tension too with the conflict of the MC's more lyrical mourning and the departed's blunt and no- nonsense missives which are just so hard to act on. The bedroom is at the heart of the floorplan and is the structural centre of the story; good that the MC gathered the strength to go in and behind looking their loss on the eye. A solid piece, welcome to Reedsy!

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Jack Kimball
03:17 Feb 24, 2023

Yes, not let go. She joins him at the end. I sensed an honesty about losing someone even deeper than the macabre ghost, like you lost someone and wanted him back, at any cost. Lot’s of great imagery here Sophia: You just pawed at it like a cat wanting to be let in, and then you started— just holding it, and then I put it back on the shelf. You hadn’t even liked this mug. I looked out from behind the counter and watched the body drag itself back into your room. Whatever consciousness was in it didn’t seem to have mastered the limbs.

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