This story is by Jean Sylvia Anker and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Who knows, perhaps a trick of the mind, or some lost souls walking by,” said Gretchen. She spoke in a low raspy voice, meeting my gaze with her right eye that looked hard and clear as turquoise glass. Her left eye was milky, mostly hidden behind the dark purple bangs she pushed back with a gnarled finger.
Gretchen was my elderly neighbor who I had just confided in. I wanted to tell someone and knowing her history as a circus acrobat, plus her regular visits to a local psychic, she seemed the perfect choice.
“Do you think it might be the previous owners, the psychiatrist or his artist wife? Did they have children, because one of them looked shorter?” I asked, unable to stop thinking about the ghostly figures I had seen the night before.
“Their heights or even their faces are beyond the gates of memory. Nor do I recall any progeny.” That seemed to be all she had to say on the subject, as her still wiry body retreated towards the door.
Then she turned around and added, “I’ll keep my eye out tonight, you do know there’s an old gate in the back that connects our yards, should I hear you scream.”
Inside my own head, I made a joke, will that be your good eye, Gretchen? I hope so, although what could a seventy-eight-year-old woman do if I did scream. I guess she could rouse her 90-year-old husband who was confined to a wheelchair and never left the bedroom without Victor, his aide. Maybe Victor would help me, but I doubted it, since he was overweight and could barely summon the energy to push old Charles around the block.
At around seven I poured myself a glass of gin and then topped it off with a shot of limeade. In a way I was no different than the looky-loos on the freeway staring at a car wreck. But I still intended to sit on the patio, all night if I had to, hoping the ghosts would reappear.
As any pretense of daylight began to fade, I was still able to see the outlines of the monkey fountain from my patio. The ruin-like fountain came with the house. It featured the three wise monkeys with intricately carved faces and their hands over their ears, mouth and eyes. I had considered having it removed, but the man I was seeing at the time found it both bohemian and charming, so I decided to keep it. How often do you find a fountain with three monkeys and a quote from Pythagoras in the suburbs of Los Angeles?
As I relaxed on the chaise lounge sipping my gin, I thought about the two apparitions I had seen for the past few nights. I was experiencing a bout of depression after the death of a friend, so I had been drinking a lot and taking pills. Still, I was pretty sure they weren’t just figments of my imagination. I shuddered to think if the short one in the newsboy cap was a child. The taller one wore a veil, but I couldn’t see either of their faces. Just a luminescent outline of clothing and shape for a few seconds, a gradual fading and then they disappeared completely into the hedges. Still, they haunted my thoughts, especially the little one with the newsboy cap. I wondered if it was me or the house itself that attracted them.
As the night wore on, I finished the gin and dozed off, I woke when I heard voices in the night. It was then that I realized my whole body including my head was covered with a coarse blanket.
My heart started thumping as I sucked in oxygen feeling the roughness of scratchy fabric against my mouth. I couldn’t remember having a blanket and I never allowed anything to cover my face. I needed to pull the blanket off, but I was paralyzed with fear at having something over my head. Then I heard a raspy voice say very distinctly,
“You’ve got to dig faster,”
I recognized the voice and sat up automatically, pushing away the blanket.
They didn’t see me as I walked towards the fountain. There was moonlight and my eyes adjusted to the darkness. All my senses were keenly alert, I could hear the wind, smell the lavender and see Gretchen standing behind Victor who was furiously digging a hole into the ground. Why was Victor digging a grave in my backyard? After a minute Gretchen turned around to face me, without any of her usual pretense of neighborly friendliness.
“If I scream now, it will be because of you and Victor,” I said loudly as I were addressing a mountain lion or a coyote.
“If you know what’s best for you, you’ll go back inside your house,” she said coldly. Then she handed me a thick envelope. “I don’t wish to harm you, she said, I’ve merely come here to retrieve some property that should rightfully belong to me. The contents of this envelope will explain anything you need to know.”
Victor turned around for a moment and she yelled, “Keep digging, she’s a helpless alcoholic and won’t do anything.”
“I think I found something,” said Victor.
I switched on the lights for the fountain. I wanted to know. The lights were even brighter than I remembered. Gretchen’s good eye was squinting as we watched Victor’s gloved hands pull out what looked like a long piece of bone.
“Is that a skeleton?” I demanded.
“No doubt,” she answered.
“But I don’t understand.”
“I told you my husband was an actor, I even told you the name of the show, ‘Charlie and Family,” she said. Vaguely I recalled the show about a swinging bachelor who after being stranded in Africa returns to California with a family of chimpanzees who were always getting into trouble. I had seen it a few times on reruns but never connected it to Charles my elderly next-door neighbor.
I fumbled for the envelope and opened it. Inside was a large black and white photo of four beings. But only one of them was human. At the bottom it said ‘Charles Mossley with The Killer Family, Archie, Annabel and Little Augie.’ Annabelle was wearing a short veil as she raised her leathery black hand to show off what looked like an engagement ring. Someone had scribbled on the photo in black ink and drawn an arrow directly to the ring. But the biggest shock for me was the smallest of the three chimps wearing a newsboy cap. It was him; I knew it was!
“It was a pretty well-kept secret,” said Gretchen. “The studio bought both houses but this was their home. Charles and I always lived next door, but we had to sell this place to my psychiatrist to raise money. You’d be a little crazy too, if you had a husband who buried a chimpanzee with an expensive diamond ring. He told me they were all repatriated to Africa, but I guess he was too cheap to send anyone besides Archie. Even though he promised they would all be buried together. But that ring is probably worth over $250,000 dollars now. And we need the money.”
I took a deep breath. And then I reread the inscription on the base of the fountain, I later learned was paid for by the estate of A Killer:
“Animals share with us the privilege of having a soul.”
But when I thought about Charles’s broken promise to Archie, Annabel and Little Augie, I wondered who was really privileged.