The Worst Kind of Fear

Submitted into Contest #239 in response to: Write a story where a regular household item becomes sentient.... view prompt


Fiction Horror Suspense

“Careful. . . Careful. . . easy does it, oh—”

A loud scratch sounded, the one of hardwood scraping into drywall. Carla panicked and jerked the dolly back. The dresser it held wobbled and it took every ounce of Carla’s strength to set the heavy piece of furniture down. Once she did, she inspected the damage and found a large gash in the wall. 

“Nononono. Stupid Wayfair junk furniture!” Carla cried and stamped her foot before she wheeled about, threw her back against the wall, and sunk to the floor. She gave the dresser a good kick and sunk her head into her hands.

“Uhhggghhh. Now, I gotta patch the wall. Great. Just. . . Great. I get everything out just fine and, of course, the last piece of furniture is when I mess up.” 

That was a lie, of course. Carla knew the dresser wasn’t the last piece of furniture. There was still the study to clear out, but that wasn’t something she wanted to think about. She hadn’t taken the best care of herself since her father died two weeks ago. She was the only one left in her family and dealing with all the mortuary affairs had taken its toll. She spent all she had in the last few months and didn’t have enough money to hire movers, so she had to pack the entire house herself. She barely had enough money to rent the U-Haul to move everything to a storage unit near her house in Denver and wasn’t even sure she had the money to pay for the gas to get there. 

After a bit of sobbing, Carla stood up and loaded the dresser into the U-Haul. After she covered it with a moving blanket, she stood on the porch and looked out over the dead yard. Carla stuck her hands in her jeans pockets and brought her arms tight to her body. The late winter wind pushed the Carolina pines into a swaying, afternoon dance. She never understood why her father lived out here. The tall pines isolated each house into compartmentalized spaces, divided by many acres of dense foliage. She would have thought that after mother died over a decade ago, her father would have wanted to live in a community home where there were others to talk to, but he detested this greatly.

“If I am ever gone to the point where you have to put me in one of those god-awful prisons, just pull the 12 gauge out of the safe, and put me out of my misery as humanely as you can. Those damn community homes are death camps.”

Carla laughed. She took care of her father for the three years after his cancer diagnosis and every day she was with him, he found ways to make her laugh. From his unique humor to his practical jokes, Carla’s father was alive till the end. Even when he was too weak to move, he still rattled off dad jokes when she would visit his bedside. She never understood how he could be so cheerful while also coughing up blood every day. 

Carla’s smile faded. Those hacking coughs were the worst—a constant reminder that death was creeping closer. She could hear them while her father was in the study and— 

The study. . .

Slowly, she dragged the dolly back up the steps, entered the house, and stood in the hallway that led to the study. The door was closed, just as it had been since the last night her father closed it. The hallway seemed to stretch and grow the longer she stared at that large wooden door—its brass knob a gleaming eye that watched her every move. 

C’mon you wimp, Carla thought to herself, it needs to get done. What would father think if you left all his most valued things to the bank? 

She walked forward and the floorboards creaked with each step until she grasped the door knob. Her arm tensed when she felt that it was cold as ice, but with a hefty effort, Carla twisted it and pushed. The door creaked open, slowly revealing the light that poured in from the tall windows at the opposite end of the study. Goosebumps pimpled down her pale skin as she dared to take her first step into the room that filled her with such fright as a child and it was all because of. . .

Carla’s nervousness built as she fixated on the ornate mahogany desk at the back of the room and nothing else. She could feel the burn of fear all around her but she walked around the desk and sat down in her father’s leather chair; not lifting her head. 

“Oh God. . . Oh God. . .” Carla whispered and then thought, it isn’t as bad as you remember. You refused to come in here while father was alive but you need to be brave for him now. Just look up on the count of three. . . one. . .

Carla took a deep breath and raised her head. She was immediately faced the horrible eyes of all the paintings. They stared down at her from their high perches, unblinking. They were dreadful creatures—with fangs and claws and murderous eyes—each painted as if it were about to emerge from its canvas prison, jump down, and come at her. A shiver of dread ran down her spine. Carla had no idea what her father’s fascination with these awful things was. They scared the crap out of her. She looked at the large canvas that hung opposite the desk and shuddered. It was a ghoulish abomination, with wretched limbs that sought to tear flesh and feed its ravenous mouth of yellow teeth. 

Set fire to this place, a voice inside her screamed, the world will be better without these dreadful paintings. Why, oh why, did father love these evil things? He had lung cancer, not dementia!

A loud thump behind her made her jump to her feet. She wheeled about and faced the large antique bookcase. It loomed over her, its wide shelves filled with old books. Her eyes scanned each row, heart thumping. There was a sound of a book opening at her feet and her eyes darted there. 

“Oh God, no!” she cried and scrambled back against the desk. On the floor was a book, but not just any book, a hardcover copy of the complete works of H. P. Lovecraft; the very book that—with one story—had given her such terrible nightmares as a kid. Her father loved the author but, after hearing Pickman’s Model, Carla begged her father to throw the book away. Her father tried to read her another but she started to cry and that was that. 

Carla was about to kick the book away when it suddenly stood up and launched itself at her. She screamed and jumped out of the way and the book landed harmlessly on the desk. It stood up and faced her, the red eyes of the shadowy figure on its cover staring at her with a predatory glare. 

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear,” the book shouted, “and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

Carla had no idea what to do but when the book moved toward her, she shouted, “Stop. No. Please.”

“I shall never sleep calmly again when I think of the horrors that lurk ceaselessly behind life in time and space.”


“Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness.”

The book twirled, landed on its spine, and opened to the first chapter. 

“Hell no!” Carla said and ran for the door. The book jumped. It soared over her head, hit the door, and the door slammed shut with a loud wooden bang. The book landed in front of it and stood up. The red eyes stared Carla down like it was one of the paintings on the wall.

“A real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear,” the book said as it waddled forward. 

Carla, too terrified to move, stood stiff. It was only when the book bumped against her foot that she reeled in horror. She shuffled back, tripped up on the carpet, and fell over. She immediately looked up at her attacker, but the book fell back on its spine again. It opened to the first chapter. 

“Come and have a look,” it said, “You’re never too old to read a book.” 

Carla leaned forward, her eyes widening as she breathed the words of the first line, “You needn’t think I’m crazy. . . ”

Yes, yes, there you go,” the book said, “Read the text from long ago. The story of Pickman, remember remember. The ghoulish models too, remember remember. Have a seat and take a look, you’re never too old to read a book.”

Carla’s hand moved as if guided by unseen fingers. The whole room seemed to pulse and writhe. The figures in the paintings neared, eager to see what she would do and judge her accordingly. The ghoul’s open mouth widened as its blood-blotched eyes narrowed on her. Carla grabbed the book and pulled it to her. She read the first line again and then tried to slam the book shut, but it resisted, and Carla quickly gave up. 

“I can’t do this,” she sobbed, fearful tears running down her cheeks, “This is my father’s book, not mine. I would have never bought this awful thing. I would rather burn it than read another page.”

“But you must read, you must,” the book said. “It is the only way.”

Carla shook her head and wiped the tears from her eyes with the back of her sleeve.

“I’m too scared to read this by myself,” she said. 

“Then let me read it to you,” the book said, except, it wasn’t the book's voice anymore; it was her father's. 

Carla straightened—her fear-laden stare, softening. 

“Dad?” she asked.

The voice she heard wasn’t her father’s voice when he was at his end, but rather, that of when he read to her as a child. It was robust, full of vibrancy and wonder, cheer and pleasure.

“You needn’t think I am crazy. . . “ the book began and as it told the story of Pickman’s Model, the paintings of the room seemed to fade away into obscurity. It was just Carla and her father's voice. The light faded outside and darkness crept into the room as a welcome guest. 

“Well—that paper wasn’t a photograph of any background, after all,” the book said, “What it shewed was simply the monstrous being he was painting on that awful canvas. It was the model he was using—and its background was merely the wall of the cellar studio in minute detail. But by God, Eliot, it was a photograph from life.”

The story finished and the book closed. 

“No,” Carla said, “Please. . . please continue. I want to hear another.”

The book opened to the second story and began to read again, its words surrounding Carla like a warm blanket. She stared up at the ghoul painting as she listened, observing it in ways she never had before. The book rolled through each story, pausing briefly only when it flipped a page. The wind howled outside. Night came and Carla turned on the desk light. The study came alive in a warm glow and she lay back on the floor, listening and observing. 

Perhaps, Carla thought, Father bought these paintings and liked these stories because he wanted to remind himself that death was always near, hiding in plain sight. It was a reminder to live and laugh as a horrible end was as near as the other side of the room. 

Carla wasn’t sure when she fell asleep, but she did, and when she awoke and saw that it was morning, she got up from the floor and packed up the study. She carefully handled each painting as she took them down and wrapped them in bubble wrap. Each book was treated the same and she loaded everything into the moving truck. 

As she drove down the long driveway, she looked at her father’s house in the rearview mirror and smiled. 

“Tell me a story, please,” she said. 

In the passenger seat, the H.P. Lovecraft book opened and began to speak. 

“Bear in mind closely,” it said, “that I did not see any actual visual horror at the end.” 

February 26, 2024 22:35

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RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

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