This story is by Maureen Duffy and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
ALL HALLOWS’ EVE
It all started with Aunt Martha’s death and the bequest of her home to me with the stipulation that I be present in the house for All Hallows’ Eve. Her lawyer said failure to do so would result in forfeiture of my inheritance and the house being sold by public auction. Although hesitant, I complied with her odd request.
Just after 6:00 p.m., on October 31st, I pulled up and parked in the driveway of Aunt Martha’s house. By that time, many children were already out trick or treating. The houses on either side of her home were decorated with hanging tree ghosts, gargoyles and stringy cobwebs. Jack-o-lanterns lined their pathways leading from the street. One of the houses even had a complete graveyard on their front lawn. A red spotlight shone down on an open casket with a skeleton that moved its head up and down while the theme to the Adam’s Family blared from speakers in the background.
Piles of fallen maple leaves had accumulated on the sidewalk leading up to the house and faint shadows of tall evergreens spanned the length of the front porch. Shrubs bordered either side of the stairway leading to the main entranceway. A stench of mold and musty air tickled my nostrils.
My hands tingled as I grasped the metal-pole railing, climbed the weather-worn stairs and walked the short distance across the porch towards the front door. The floorboards heaved and groaned under the weight of my body. Something brushed up against me, but when I snapped my head around, there was nothing there. My stomach twisted.
I fumbled with the key, inserted it into the lock and heard it click into place, grabbed the corroded doorknob and pushed open the heavy oak door.
My teeth chattered as I stepped inside and the darkness enveloped me. I ran my searching hand across the wall looking for a light switch. My fingers found the button, pushed it inward and the room erupted into light.
Several mismatched pieces of antique furniture scattered the floor. A mahogany coffee table, perched in front of a long floral-print couch, faced a wood-burning fireplace. Two matching end tables sat at either end. The living room was much as I had remembered it from my childhood visits with Aunt Martha.
My aunt had been a bit of recluse for most of her life. Her house, once owned by my grandparents, was situated twenty miles outside the city in a small village. She’d never married, worked as a housecleaner and went to church on Sundays. Outside of that, no one really knew much about her, except from whispered stories shared over glasses of wine and scotch by my other aunts and uncles. Aunt Martha, they said, had a ‘gift’ of sorts. She talked to dead people and had visions.
The click of my shoes on the hardwood floor echoed as I walked towards the bottom of the oak staircase that led to the upstairs. When I looked upwards, my heart skipped a beat. In the dim light, I saw a life-sized portrait of Aunt Martha hanging on the wall at the top of the stairs. The eyes peered downwards. They were open but there was something mystical and unsettling to them. I swallowed hard and clasped the handrail on the stairs with my left hand. There was still time to leave.
I steeled myself and moved slowly up the staircase never taking my eyes from the picture. Something tickled the back of my neck and I used my free hand to swat at it. I gripped the banister harder and willed my legs to keep climbing.
As I neared the top, a shadow moved across the hall and a waft of perfume filled my nostrils. Chanel No. 5. Aunt Martha’s scent. A shiver swirled up my spine.
When I turned back to the picture, the eyes blinked and the mouth formed a tight thin smile. Barely audible, it spoke. “She’s waiting for you.”
I let out a screech and turned to run down the stairs but something grabbed me and swung me around. My stomach lurched and bile filled the back of my throat.
“What do you want with me?” I shouted.
The lifeless portrait stared back at me.
I took a step closer to it, my hands shaking. “Why am I here?”
The door to Aunt Martha’s bedroom flung open and there was the sound of shuffling feet. Something banged hard against the floor and a women’s shrill voice called out. “Hurry. I don’t have much time.”
The hairs stood up on the back of my neck and my legs wobbled. I wondered if I was being punked or was the victim of some twisted Halloween prank.
I gritted my teeth, clenched and unclenched my fists, and inched closer towards the bedroom door. The smell of freshly perked coffee and scones permeated the air.
My legs struggled to move. I peered around the doorframe to the bedroom. There, on a small table, sat a tray with a coffee pot, two mugs and two scones neatly laid out on Aunt Martha’s pink-flowered China plates. A cadaverous and frail skeletal female image sat in the rocking chair on the far side of the table. Her pale eyes stared back at me. My knees buckled and I banged into the side of the wall.
She moved forward in the rocking chair and motioned with her hand. “Come in. I’ve been expecting you.”
She pointed to the Queen Anne chair parked across the table from her. “Sit”.
I stumbled into the chair and stuffed my shaking hands into my pockets. “Who are you?” tumbled out of my mouth.
“I’m Charmaine, a long-time friend of your Aunt Martha’s and an inhabitant of this house.”
I leaned forward in my chair. “Inhabitant?”
Charmaine let out a small cackle. “Indeed.”
My eyes widened. “You live here?”
She nodded. “I’ve lived here since before your grandparents bought this house. It was my house before it was theirs.”
I frowned, remembering. My grandparents had bought the place around 1930. They’d died in a car accident in 1975 and Aunt Martha had lived here ever since.
“And you lived here alone?” I asked.
Charmaine stared at me and her face tightened. “I lived here with my husband and daughter, Clarice.” Her voice trailed off. “Until they died in the fire.”
My body hummed and there was a buzzing sound inside my head. “Fire?”
Her eyes narrowed. “I left a candle burning in Clarice’s room and the curtains caught fire. My husband tried to save her but they both perished in the blaze.”
I hesitated. “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand why I’m here tonight?”
Her eyes rose to meet mine. “Because it’s All Hallows’ Eve.”
My mouth twisted. “Halloween?”
She put up her hand in protest. “Halloween’s a Pagan ritual. All Hallows’ Eve is the evening before the Christian holy days of All Saint’s Day on November 1st and All Soul’s Day on November 2nd.”
She reached out her withered hand and her long, bony fingers grabbed and tightened around mine. My body trembled.
With more urgency, she continued. “It’s when the veil between the living world and the world of the dead is at its thinnest. The night when spirits walk amongst the living, the time when we’re most visible. We celebrate those who’ve died in the last year, your Aunt Martha being one of them.”
I stared back at her. “Then why isn’t Aunt Martha here?”
A small smile crossed her face. “She’s one of those spirits who’s already passed through to the other side. She achieved spiritual maturity.”
I thought for a minute before speaking. “But you’ve been dead a long time. Why are you still here?”
Her eyes narrowed and her voice hardened. “Because my soul still has more work to do, to atone for those who died at my hand.”
My throat tightened. “But the fire was an accident?”
Martha’s stared blankly back. “There were others, some you once knew, that also died because of me.”
My mouth gaped open and my heart pounded.
“Martha tried to help me be better, but it wasn’t enough. Your grandmother also tried before her.” She shifted forward and her stare intensified. “Martha said you were the only one in her family she trusted, the only one she thought could embrace the ‘gift’ and save me. It’s why she left the house to you.”
I closed my eyes and swallowed hard. I didn’t sign up for this and I sure didn’t want the ‘gift’ or the house.
When I opened my eyes to tell her “No”, the rocking chair lay empty and her image had evaporated.
In the distance, her voice whispered. “See you soon”.
An ice-cold breeze blew through the room.
I struggled to breath.
What had I got myself into?