by P. M. Raymond
This one is a creepy short story perfect for Halloween reading! This story originally appeared on Dark Fire Fiction website. Trigger warning for child death.
The ornate iron frame encased the black and white photo like dangerous vines that snaked through a fence. The image itself was a leafless tree with branches spiraling out from its tall base like an ancient goddess. The dusty earth beneath starved for moisture. Katherine rested a confused gaze upon the relic in her hands.
“Why would Aunt Lydia leave me such a thing in her will?” Her grip began to shake. The frame was too substantial for the image beneath its glass.
My fingers skimmed the turquoise and diamond bracelet dangling from my wrist. Our aunt chose to leave me this heirloom. I didn’t ask for it. Nonetheless, I whirled the trinket around and around, hoping my fidgeting would wick away my guilt.
“Remember what we talked about? Giving Aunt Lydia a bit of grace on this one?” I took the photo from Katherine to give it a thorough inspection. “Well, Kit Kat, I can see how this might suck. Really suck.” Over the years, I managed to understand what pinpricks could upset Katherine. Aunt Lydia seemed to understand them, too.
I drifted to a distant memory of Katherine and I tangled in a tire swing, laughing, inviting the wind to take our ponytails higher, while mosquitos feasted on our bare ankles. It was the hiatus before tenth grade. The last summer Aunt Lydia’s blueberry cheesecake would be the best sweet I ever tasted, the last time Katherine would be a natural blonde, the moment when we blossomed out of Judy Blume and skidded into Jackie Collins. The very summer Aunt Lydia went through…what she went through. Before we knew Katherine would go through her own similar version of purgatory.
“Maybe I’ll hang it over here.” We stood in her daughter Mariah’s bedroom, all pink and glittery, sad and terrible. Katherine motioned above the tufted blush headboard and started to climb on the twin bed. She teared up and whispered, “Maybe this is Aunt Lydia’s last Gotcha.”
Gotcha. Another childhood memory. It was a game that Aunt Lydia devised to keep us busy out in the middle of nowhere. The rules were pretty loose but whoever coaxed, i.e. battered, bullied, or frightened, the loudest scream out of the other person was the winner. Hide and seek, pinching, or tickling games counted. Anything that caused a heartfelt scream of shock and awe. The only rule, unwritten, of course, was no drawing blood, safety first and all. In retrospect, I think this bloodless competition was a sadistic measure to keep us under control.
I put my hand on Katherine’s shoulder to halt her. “Honey, don’t hang that right now,” I muttered, partly to her, mostly to myself.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Katherine said, irritated, stretching her cell phone out as far as her arm would allow. It was our daily check-in call. She was more distracted today than usual even if I accounted for any side effects from her new medication. Years of depression and anxiety symptoms had ramped up after the birth of her only child and never let go.
“What are you doing?” I asked. The video swooped from left to right and back again, Katherine still in frame but on a diagonal.
“Can’t you see the static on the screen?” Her stare seemed to come through the phone and past me.
As Katherine moved the phone to her right, I caught a glimpse of the dining room table. One of Mariah’s fabric dolls, with red knitting yarn for hair, sat upright in a chair. The head slumped forward but not all the way. The doll’s exaggerated black almond eyes seemed to peer up from beneath its lashes. At that angle, its thin curved smile simulated a scowl of disapproval.
“Listen, Kit Kat, we need to talk about Mariah —?”
“Why?” Katherine turned to observe the doll at the table. Just as she turned her head, Katherine’s lips parted into a broad grin. An unpleasant cool rush prickled through me.
“I…I guess I thought maybe you needed someone to talk to. It isn’t easy to…” My sentence drifted off. Having no children of my own, I didn’t quite have the words for this conversation, a much-needed conversation, about someone else’s child.
“Children grow up so fast and out of the things they used to love,” Katherine stated, without any hints of sentimentality, then returned to our conversation.
Katherine’s Mariah was named in honor of Aunt Lydia’s Mariah. I never thought this was a good idea, but my sister was rock solid on doing it anyways. Our aunt did not outwardly object, but she didn’t give her blessing either. Just kept her thoughts to herself on the matter and we all went along as if nothing were wrong, so horribly wrong about it.
Katherine lowered her voice. Her eyes were glazed much like the ragdoll behind her. “Mariah has been, I don’t know, kind of off the past few days. I’m not worried…”, she lowers her voice even more, “but sometimes I can hear her talking to herself in the middle of the night.”
As gently as I could muster, I sighed and asked, “What is she saying?”
“I can’t make it out.” Her whisper quivered. “I’m just being a worrywart, right?” Katherine smoothed out her chestnut hair and smiled her trademark crooked smile that resembled an emergent giggle swirled into a scream.
The next day, Katherine missed our daily call. She texted vague excuses and promised to catch up on the weekend. I accepted her emoji-filled apology even though the intent behind the smiley faces and hearts seemed hollow. Katherine was prone to bouts of gloominess that could shutter her away from the world from time to time but would find her way back in a day or two. I decided to let her be.
Rain pelted the roof like a hail of marbles thumping against the shingles. I questioned if my Saturday morning errands were worth the trouble in this dodgy weather, however, checking in on Katherine was non-negotiable. That would happen.
Before heading out, I rang Katherine to make sure my trip would be worth it. When she answered, she didn’t turn on her camera which was highly unusual. Katherine never shied away from her reflection. She knew she was a stunner on the outside, even when mired in melancholy on the inside. The world had told her so from the moment she was crowned Miss Corndog Queen freshman year in high school.
“No cameras, Kit Kat? I’ve seen you with the stomach flu so I can handle whatever you throw at me!” I shuddered thinking about the chunky brownish globs of vomit I cleaned from Katherine’s hair during a particularly brutal bout with the virus a few weeks after Mariah was born.
Katherine’s face appeared in the rectangle of my phone. Her luscious locks were matted like a dog that needed a bath, her complexion, drained and splotchy.
I did not recognize the woman who stared back at me.
Through Katherine’s screen, I glimpsed a corner of the kitchen. Dirty pots and pans soaked in brown water in the sink. A tsunami of rubbish escaped from the trash bin. Small micro-movements of flies hovered over the discarded beer bottles, fast-food wrappers, and pieces of raw scraps the insects found to feed on.
Aunt Lydia’s dubious picture sat on the floor by the bottom row of kitchen cabinet doors.
Whatever hesitations I held before were gone. I was ready, now more than ever, to confront Katherine.
“It’s been crazy around here,” she said, squirming with combustible nervousness. A tangled chunk of hair fell over Katherine’s left cheek. She pushed it away, her fingers crusted with dried mud. She plopped to the tile floor in a cross-legged fashion and rocked back and forth as if she were on a demonic magic carpet ride. Her phone acted as a steady cam swaying with every erratic movement.
“Crazy?” I asked. The screen couldn’t conceal the dampness of Katherine’s black tee shirt, soiled jeans with muddy feet poking out the frayed ends. I couldn’t comprehend any of this. “Kit Kat, why do you look like you’ve been swimming in a mosh pit?”
“Oh, this?” She tugged at the hem of her shirt. “I was just doing a little gardening.”
“In the rain?” I shook my head, “I’m on my way over—”
“NO!” Katherine shouted, a hesitant peek over her shoulder. “Um, I mean,” half yelling, “I’ve been meaning to give Aunt Lydia a piece of mind about that picture. Geez! What was that old goat thinking?” The expression on Katherine’s face took my breath away. The last time I experienced a sensation like this was plunging five feet into a dunk tank at the county fair.
Katherine processed her guilt about Mariah, Aunt Lydia’s Mariah, by losing touch with the world sometimes. Was it 19, 20 years since it happened?
Every visit with Aunt Lydia was a treat and that was due in no small part to her Mariah. We doted on our cousin like the little sister we knew we would never have. I remembered it clearly. It was late July 1999 on a Tuesday. The year Katherine and I had marked the days as we wondered when everything Prince had sung about would come true. On that warm and sticky morning, I headed with Aunt Lydia to the library in town. Katherine volunteered to stay with Mariah but only because she had secret plans. Those plans were named Davey Kirkman, a bright blonde-haired boy who lived near the cabin.
Katherine’s sixteen-year-old hormones made decisions that would come back to haunt her. I don’t know the chain of events. Katherine never gave a full accounting of them, only a basic outline, doling out morsels of misery in doses she could stand. What I did know, what was evident by the outcome, was that she allowed a five-year-old Mariah to play on her own while she and Davey did some dirty dancing in the work shed near the house. Mariah somehow got tangled in the tire swing rope and accidentally hung herself. Her little white sneakers were mere inches from the patch of worn earth beneath. Aunt Lydia’s scream was a Gotcha scream that we never forgot.
As I tried to soothe Katherine, I started gathering my keys and pulled my rain slicker from the closet. She went into a fervent ramble about her Mariah. The tension in her voice spiked as she recounted being awoken last night. She assumed it was by the little hands of her Mariah asking for a glass of water.
“It was the hands of a full-grown stranger,” she squeaked. “At least that’s what I thought. When I rolled over, there was no one there.” She took a deep breath. “I called the police.”
“Sure, sweetie, that was a smart move. What did they find?” I asked.
“Nothing,” her voice wild and breathy, “but they had no idea what to look for. No idea at all. But I do. Boy, do I know it now.”
Katherine broke down. “I think…” She paused, wet, bloodshot eyes digging into the camera, “I think that crotchety old bird gave me MORE than a picture in a frame. I swear to God, she gave me something else with it.”
The mud, the dirty water, Katherine’s wet clothing. A clear realization surfaced that I wished I could shake. She was trying to bury the picture.
En route to Katherine’s, her hysterical incoming call animated my dashboard – “It’s Mariah! Oh God, MARIAH!!”
I could barely keep my wheels on the road, skidding and hydroplaning, in my desperation to get to her. Thick sheets of rain covered my windshield, metronomic swipes keeping up with the torrent. I treated the twenty-five-mile drive like a NASCAR event that I had not signed up for.
My voice sounded like a lunatic as I yelled into the dash pleading with the 9-1-1 dispatcher. The curt, efficient woman was calm and collected. She’d probably heard worse on any given day, but for me, it couldn’t get any worse. I screeched onto Katherine’s manicured block nearly rear-ending a car with blue lights pulsing on its roof. More cars just like it lined the street, all were directed toward Katherine’s house. The police had arrived in full force.
I drove as close as I could, threw the car in park, and jumped out, the engine running, soft rock playing on the radio. I pushed past nosy neighbors and towards the first uniform officer I could find. I had to wait outside of the house while men in medical blue shoe coverings walked in and out. A woman in a white protective jumpsuit and mask entered. The ambulance on standby was empty. A good sign or a bad sign? I was told to wait as a team of hunkered down officers searched room by room. For what, I didn’t know.
The last vestiges of raindrops dissipated as the sun shooed away the clouds and baked the air. By the time I was ushered into the house, my pulse threatened to burst through my veins. The lead detective steered me into the kitchen. My nose wrinkled. I recognized the sweet chemical smell, its gentle dizzying properties that made my salivary glands tingle whenever I filled up at the Kum & Go on Route 54.
The detective began to speak but I did not hear him. Didn’t want to hear him. Katherine had fallen and broken her neck. (Sorry for your loss. Can you make an identification?). A freak slip and fall.
“These accidents happen,” said the detective with a pockmarked face, his grey overcoat two sizes too big.
My mind raced. Through a sheen of tears, I asked, “Why are all these cars here for a…” the words staggered out, “for a slip and fall?”
The detective carried himself with a no-nonsense demeanor. “When there is a child endangerment call,” he raised an accusatory eyebrow, “we respond. Given the chaotic nature of the call, quite frankly, we weren’t sure what to expect so we came prepared.”
“What to expect?”
He continued, his words strained, carrying a bit of anger, “Ma’am, your sister called 9-1-1 and said she was going to burn down the house with her and her daughter in it. That’s a pretty serious threat.” He retrieved a small notebook from his pocket and flipped a few pages. “Um, Mariah, your niece? We need to locate her.”
“What? What are you talking about?” I cried inside but screamed on the outside, “No, no, no!”
The detective’s eyes narrowed with frustration. “I know this is a shock but minutes, seconds,” he emphasized, “count when it comes to finding a missing child.”
Through gasps of air, I wiped tears from my eyes, black streaks of mascara smudged on my fingertips. I answered the man, the silly man that had no clue. “Detective, Mariah, Katherine’s daughter? She died as an infant.” I couldn’t say that it was due to a strap in the crib bedding getting caught around her.
The detective’s previously stoic look contorted into the look of someone who had heard and seen it all. Until now. “Ah, well, the room down the hall—”
“Yeah, she changes it every year. Like it somehow keeps Mariah…I don’t know, alive.”
“Well, I guess that explains her,” he caught himself before saying crazy, “behavior.” He put the notebook back in his cavernous coat pocket. “The department has grief counselors if you need one.”
I sat at the kitchen table while the professionals who dealt with death – dealt with this one. Katherine had already been moved to the silent ambulance. I looked around at the dried smears on the floor and took in the absurdity, the eventuality of it all. The wet mud on Katherine’s feet caused her to slip, fall backward, and hit her head in the most improbable way. A few inches to the left, she would have landed on the floor with a nice concussion. Unfortunately, her head hit a few inches to the right and the base of her neck absorbed the full brunt and snapped.
Aunt Lydia’s final offering to Katherine, the ornate picture frame covered in clumps of dirt in the scrollwork, lay solemnly on the kitchen table. The picture was gone.
“Excuse me?” I said to one of the white jumpsuited investigators who was packing up her tools. “There was a photo in this frame. A tree,” I raised my hands into an opening arch motion, “in black and white? Have you seen it?”
The investigator held up her pointer finger to let me know to sit tight. She returned with a plastic evidence bag marked with a police description of its contents.
“We found this in your sister’s hand. It will need to be processed but call the station in a week or two to see if you can get it back.” She agreed to let me look at the bag after handing me two tight latex gloves.
“Why in the world would she be holding—” That was when I saw it.
Katherine was right. The picture Aunt Lydia left her came with something else. A very specific intent – to crumble a woman who had already crumbled beyond repair. Katherine saw what I couldn’t see, didn’t want to see.
The tree in the picture. It was where our cousin, Mariah, died two decades ago. The note on the back in Aunt Lydia’s elegant cursive read:
You took my Mariah. I took yours.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories including more Halloween short stories in our mystery section. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. Also listen to our new mystery podcast where mystery short stories and first chapters are read by actors! They are also available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and Spotify. A new episode perfect for Halloween listening went up this week.