This story is by R.C. Wilson and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Emma has grown fearful of the dark since Claude went away two weeks ago. Not that he made her feel any safer, they hadn’t shared the same bedroom in nearly a decade. She thought being alone would be a nice change after fifty-seven years of marriage, especially since the last decade had been so combative.
It all started with that nasty pipe. Ten years ago, Claude retired and as a going away gift, his coworkers thought it a good idea to get the old man a classy cherry wood pipe. She was appalled when he decided to take up smoking the nasty thing and promptly decided it was time for him to move into the attic. She never imagined he would go for it, but he did so quite happily.
He started by smoking in the living room, reading his favorite mystery books and ignoring his wife. He even went to the local thrift store and purchased an old tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows. He strutted around puffing that pipe in his jacket like he was a college professor or something. This infuriated Emma to no end and after a good bit of nagging on her part, he moved to smoking in his attic bedroom. Claude refused to open the one window in the attic and the house would reek of the nastiness. He also stayed in there all day wearing that silly jacket and smoking that nasty pipe, only coming down to eat, go to the bathroom, or to the neighborhood smoke shop for more tobacco. No amount of confrontation would deter him from this new routine.
Then, two weeks ago, it happened. Claude went away. For the first couple of days she expected him to come through the door, explaining how foolish he had been and swearing off the pipe and smoking in the house. She wanted an apology, but she knew deep inside that one would not be coming. Instead she started anticipating the sheriff to knock on her door and deliver the bad news. She knew it was coming and dreaded it, she even quit checking the mail for fear of what might waiting for her on the other side.
Now this evening, lying in bed fearing sleep and the awful dreams that come with it, Emma hears a sound in the house, creaking floorboards. Someone is in the attic above her bedroom. She waits nervously praying she is only hearing things, but there is no doubt sounds are coming from the attic. Could Claude be back? He used to pace back and forth night after night in his attic bedroom, smoking that blasted pipe, mumbling and chuckling at whatever he happened to be reading. Sometimes it was the newspaper, but mostly it was his crime novels. Oh how he loved his crimes and that smelly old pipe. But could he really be back? She works her way out of bed, slips on her house shoes and robe. She slowly shuffles her way down the hall towards the front of the house. At the end of the hall is the door leading to the attic stairway. She slowly opens the door and peers up into the darkness.
“Who’s there?” She says. No answer, the sounds stop. Moonlight casts a beam of light through the window in the attic, the only movement is tiny dust particles passing through the light. After a moment of taking in the stillness and once she’s satisfied no one is there, she quietly closes the door and shuffles to the opposite end of the hallway to the other door, the one leading down to the basement. She puts her ear to the door, listening. Then she slowly opens the door and peers down the steps into the cold, black space. The only noise is the steady hum of the large chest freezer. She nods her head, thankful it is still running, before closing the door and heading back to the bedroom. On the way, she opens coat closet in the hallway and reaches up onto the top shelf feeling around for something. When her hand touches the object she seeks, she recoils and looks at her hand. She quickly closes the door and moves to the bathroom where she washes her hands in the sink. Shuffling back down the hall, she glances at the attic door and then to the basement at the opposite end before disappearing into her room.
Later when sleep has finally taken her, she is awakened by a tapping sound followed by a scraping noise. She waits, breath held, as it continues: tap, tap, scrape, scrape, tap, tap.
Once again, she gets up and moves stealthily down the hall to the attic and opens the door, looking up the stairs for any light or shadow moving in the space once occupied by her husband.
“Hello? Claude is that you?” The sound ceases immediately. She clutches her robe tightly to her chest, suddenly chilled.
When the sounds fail to continue, she sneaks back to the basement door, looking into the darkness, listening for the hum of the freezer. She nods her head again and closes the door.
Another stop to the coat closet, feeling for the object on the top shelf followed by hand washing. This time when she returns to the bedroom, she opens the top drawer of her dresser and reaches into the far back, extracting an old beat up cigar box. She opens the box, inspects the contents, and then nods her head before returning it to the drawer.
This time sleep doesn’t return. Her mind is racing with thoughts of Claude, all the ugly things she said and did to him. No, he would not return to her, not after what she did.
Tears begin to follow the wrinkles in her face when she notices a familiar odor. The smell of pipe tobacco, and not just any tobacco, but Claude’s. She leaves the room quickly without donning her robe or house shoes and heads straight for the coat closet. Reaching to the top shelf, she lets out a whimper when she cannot immediately find the object that was there before. Panic sets in as she pulls everything down, not concerned about the noise she’s making. Finally, she locates what she’s looking for, her old wooden rolling pin. Emma holds the weapon to her face, eyes the dark stains covering it, and slowly heads toward the attic door.
Her breath is labored, her body is trembling. Too much excitement, she thinks to herself, not yet noticing the pain radiating through her left arm. This time she will go into the attic and end this foolishness for good. The door creaks loudly, but she doesn’t hear it.
As Emma struggles to climb the few remaining steps, the air seems thinner, choked out by the overpowering pipe smoke. The pain in her arm and chest has her attention now, she knows the stairs were too much for her.
As she stands at the top of the stairs, she scans the tiny space that Claude once occupied. Her eyes lock onto something, yet her mind can’t connect with what it is. She can’t breathe, her legs give way and she falls to the dusty floor. Laying there, on her side, the last thing she sees is Claude’s tweed jacket with the leather elbow patches slung over the back of the solitary wooden chair. On the desk sits an open Agatha Christie novel and Claude’s pipe. A thin wisp of smoke rising from it.
That nasty pipe, she thinks to herself as the darkness escorts her away.
A week later, with nearly a month’s worth of mail piled up on the front porch, a concerned mail carrier notifies the sheriff department. A well visit leads to the discovery of Emma’s body in the attic. Shortly after, Claude’s body is found in the freezer chest in the basement. His skull had been fractured and his blood matched that found on Emma’s rolling pin. Clenched in his frozen hand was a pipe, the same pipe Emma had hidden in the cigar box in her dresser drawer.
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