This story is by Alicyn Grace and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Goodnight, Pauline,” Grandma clicks off the light and pulls the door shut behind her.
It’s my first time sleeping over at my grandparent’s house. Mom and dad dropped me off before they left for a just-the-two-of-us vacation. All day I heard stories about my grandparents and great-grandparents. I watched my grandpa, expressive and preaching, amazed by every word. My parents named me after Pauline Claybourne, my grandpa’s mom. He showed me black and white pictures of her in long dresses and funny hair-dos. We had waffles for dinner, which I thought was weird. Grandpa even put applesauce on his, so I tried that on mine, too. I think I like waffles with applesauce.
But now, I’m alone and I know that my parents are not in the other room. My mom is not humming and brushing the knots from her long, black hair. My dad is not patting the comforter, encouraging the dog to drag his round belly onto the foot of the bed. The cat is not nudging the door open to my bedroom and sneaking onto my pillow.
It is dark—I don’t even have a nightlight. Mom said big girls didn’t use nightlights.
Alone, I fight back tears. Don’t be such a baby.
I’m not sad. I don’t miss my parents. It is the newness. Everything is different. The bed is so big that I am swallowed in the mattress and the fluffy comforter puffs around me like a marshmallow. The room smells like the old part of the library and the stuff my mom sprays on wood furniture to make it shine. I stare at the ceiling and wipe my stinging eyes.
Above my bed, the ceiling fan clicks like a wall clock that’s going way too fast. I watch it wiggle on the ceiling and imagine that it could shake too hard and fall onto my head. My heart races and I take a deep breath like my mom told me to when I get nervous.
Out of the corner of my eye, a shadow moves in the window. The blinds make the shadow jagged. Claws curl and reach towards me, inching closer along the wall. Eyes wide, I watch in horror as the shadow hand points towards a painting of a house. Dark trees fold around it, hiding the roof and obscuring a pathway. But, the windows are lit and I am sure I see someone moving inside. They have piercing red eyes that glow on their own.
I clutch the blanket even though it’s hot, and I’d rather throw it off.
I am too scared to face the shadow claws and the house with a red-eyed ghost lurking in the windows, so I roll my tiny body to face the other way.
A head sits on the edge of the mantle with hauntingly deep eyes, a bushy beard, and a deep frown pulling towards the neck.
It’s looking right at me. It can see me!
It barks and then growls at me, a big sound that’s wet and rough. I jump, squealing in terror as waves of heat spread from my head to my back.
I tug the comforter so hard that it pulls from the end of the bed and my toes are free, cold under the air of the fan. I squawk again, pulling my knees to my chest. The ceiling fan is clicking as fast as my heart pounds.
Lost in the giant blanket, I tug the edges close so the head cannot see me. I lay flat and wish I could disappear into the massive bed.
Floorboards screech, footfalls come closer and closer. The head! It’s coming!
My hair, black like my mom’s, clings to my sweaty neck and forehead. The static of the comforter makes my hair wild. I claw at my face to get the thick hairs out of my eyes and mouth. The more I struggle, the harder I pant, and the hotter I am.
I pull the edge of the comforter back and peer out at the head. It hasn’t moved, but its dark eyes are already on me, as if it expected me to look out just then.
I scramble under the blanket to the opposite side of the bed and peek out again. The claws creep along the floorboards, pointing up at the haunted house. The leaves around the house move and the creaking floorboards grow louder.
It’s the ghost in the house! It is moving around from room to room, searching for something with its glowing red eyes. My eyes are so wide that I think they’ll pop out and I’ll have to crawl under the bed to get them.
At the center of the mattress, I curl in a ball and it is so humid that my pajamas stick to my skin. I realize that I have to stay in this bed forever. There are severed heads, ghosts, and a clawed hand trying to get me out there.
Don’t be such a baby! I tell myself again.
I don’t want to stay in this hot bed for the rest of my life. I want to see my grandparents tomorrow and I want to eat another waffle for dinner. Grandma and Grandpa would never let a ghost stay in their house. And they would never put an evil head in my room and let me get eaten.
My mind is made up, I have to get out of bed and turn on the light to see what’s in that room.
I squeeze my eyes shut and hold my breath. One… two… three… go!
In a burst, I throw the marshmallow comforter to the side and barrel roll off of the bed. With a thud, my feet hit the hardwood floors and I’m shocked from the cold like static. I flail my arms, deflecting any claws that reach for me, and race to the light.
Just as sure as I can feel my friends reaching to tag me during recess, I can feel the ghost and the head and the pointy fingers about to snatch me and carry me away into the darkness. I stretch up to the switch and light fills the room in a blinding blink.
Behind my fingers, I look back at my bed. The comforter is almost falling to the floor in front of the window.
I sigh with relief. The window isn’t scary. In fact, I can see the shadow of the maple tree outside my grandparent’s house. I saw a swing hanging from a branch earlier in the day and tomorrow I want to play on it.
The head on the other side of the room isn’t so mean. I tiptoe closer to it. I remember seeing that face on a five-dollar bill. My grandpa told me stories about President Lincoln. He has thoughtful eyes and a mouth that is smiling even if it’s down turned. My hands drop to my sides and I smile back at him.
I walk to the painting to investigate the haunted house. But, it’s not haunted. It is a painting with delicate paint strokes. The house is yellow and happy and I think the sun is shining. There isn’t anyone in the windows, just wreathes. In the painting’s corner is written in plain letters: Pauline W. Claybourne.
That’s my great-grandmother! I lean in close to see every detail of the leaves, the sidewalk, and the delicate red flowers in the wreaths. I have painter-blood in me. I suddenly want to paint something for my grandma to hang beside the house.
The door creaks open and I jump, spinning around so fast that I almost bump into the side table.
“Pauline, why is the light on? You should be in bed.” Grandma leans into the room. She looks different without her thick glasses on. She covers her mouth as she coughs and clears her throat. It is the same as the sound I heard when the head barked at me.
I laugh at my imagination and hop back into bed, “I want to paint like great-grandma Pauline!”
Grandma smiles at me and I feel warm and happy all over. “Tomorrow, little dove.”
I pull the blanket up to my chin. “Goodnight, Grandma.”
She says goodnight with a laugh, turns off the light, and closes the door. The ceiling fan continues to rattle.
Before I shut my eyes, I look around the room one last time to challenge my frightened imagination. The shadows on the head give President Lincoln dark eyes, but it’s still him. The shadows on the wall look more like branches than claws. And the house doesn’t have a ghost lurking in the windows.
The floorboard creaks again, so I look towards the door to see if Grandma returned. Instead, I see a black figure with piercing red eyes, bright like two nightlights.