I tip-toed up the wide staircase to my bedroom across from Aunt Freddie’s, the dark wood creaking under my calloused feet. Aunt Freddie and I had sleepovers every week. We would start with a game of pirates or fairies outside, eat dinner, have a nice bubble bath, and end with a story before bed. The narrow hallway led to another banister curving down the secret spiral staircase. Victorian sconces lit the hallway, crystal beading falling from the light. The hallway felt interminable, and each gap in the floorboards left room for spirits to pass through. I would dangle my feet through the spindles of the staircase, teasing death.
It had been a month since I was last at Aunt Freddie’s. Her house carried something dark, and in my last attempt to spend the night, something woke me near midnight and my mom picked me up. I loved Freddie and her home, and tonight I was going to stay the night. The whole way through.
A large, stained-glass window in the front of the house stood tall, looking over the expansive field surrounding the home. The glass depicted a gray tree with hues of blue surrounding the dark clouds and hiding the yellow sun. Perched atop the branches sat an unkindness of ravens. When I reached the end of the hall, above the stairs, I caressed the uneven window. The cool touch sent a shudder down my spine. I stepped into my room.
The bay window across from the bed and the bookcase behind were my favorite features of the room. A great chandelier hovered over the center of the room. My bubble bath was “absolutely splendid” as Freddie would say in her self-taught British accent. I sat down at the vanity and brushed my hair with the heavy boar bristle brush. A pewter handle. I think. I felt like I lived in the era of the home, or at the very least, belonged there. Freddie knocked on the door, and I set the brush down to skip into my bed. I was committing to the night as I tucked my toes under the three sets of sheets. Freddie pushed the door open and crouched to my level.
“You ready for a story?”
I squealed, “Yes!”
She grabbed a classic: A Complete Collection of Works by Edgar Allan Poe. I pulled close to Freddie who sat atop the sheets at my head. She smelled of rosehip and lavender, and though her hands were rough, she turned the pages as if holding an ancient text. The chandelier above flickered as she exhaled into the first words of my favorite story, “The Black Cat.”
I sat up to hear Freddie’s version of the tale. She read with a soft confidence as if she were spilling a secret. She spoke gently until the narrator described gouging out his cat’s eye. There, she sped up and spoke of the narrator’s “damnable atrocity.”
After crescendoing to a peak, Freddie lowered her voice to talk about the almost identical cat the narrator met and how he hated it. His wife, however, loved the cat. I laid my head on the down pillow, closed my eyes, and listened while Freddie rubbed my head. As her fingers relieved each pressure point on my scalp, she continued. Freddie carefully approached the part where the narrator goes to kill the cat and misses.
“I withdrew my arm from her grasp and buried the axe in her brain. She fell dead upon the spot, without a groan…”
Her scalp massage had put me to sleep.
I woke up to a meow coming from the hall. The hair on my arms rose as I noticed the window adjacent to the bed, cracked open. The moon shone behind the clouds, and a damp, heavy breeze crept through. The clock read 3:00. My feet grazed the floorboards, and I took light, lengthy strides to the window, watching for anything lurking on the ground waiting for a chance at my ankles, and slammed it shut.
Before I made it into the safety of the bed, I heard a smack and jumped. Another meow, sounding more like a cat in heat, traveled to my room. Contrary to what the horror movies have taught me to do, I remained in my bed. I wrapped the sheets and pulled the down comforter close to my face, careful to close any and all entrances to the outside air. I wedged my head between the mattress and pillow and waited. After minutes of silence, I took in a full breath, exhaling slowly. Mom would probably get mad if I called her at this hour. I wondered if Freddie heard anything. Very slowly, I lowered the comforter to my nose, then my neck, and finally, below my feet. I donned my slippers and opened the old door. The creak of the door broke the silence. Peering beyond the doorframe, I witnessed the dim glow of the moon, casting shadows of ravens onto the floor. The light glittered off the beads mirroring the dew setting outside. I peered down the hall.
Something glittered on the distant floor. A bead perhaps. Then it moved; I crawled towards the glass. I couldn’t make out the small figure, but I slid towards Freddie’s room to hide behind the rocking chair placed outside her door. My perch overlooked the staircase below and the hallway in front. The glint soon appeared to be two glints, the second dimmer than the first. Scratching screamed into my ears as claws shredded the hardwood floors. Then a thud, thud. There was a second noise.
I pulled the knit blanket hanging off the back of the chair and wrapped it over my head and around my knees. The woven cotton scratched my arms and legs. Feeling the fringe hit my toes, I recoiled, as I had to be fully covered. Absolutely unseen. I pulled the fringe under my feet.
A whisper from the opposing banister called out, “Here, kitty kitty.”
I’d read about intruders, murderers like Lizzie Borden, and the unsolved Villisca Axe murders. Maybe you accidentally ate something. You were playing outside, and you didn’t wash your hands before dinner… What plant could cause this?
“Psst. Psst. I know you’re here.”
The thumping diminished to the creaking of floorboards and the settling of the old home. The voice rasped and struggled to exit his phlegmy throat. His. The voice of a man. I peered beyond the cotton fringe and saw a dim glow, different from that of the sconces ornamenting the walls. A man, stringy and pale, sneaked behind a one-eyed cat. The story was familiar. I pulled the blanket around my shoulders, removing the tight grip from my face. I then wiggled from behind the chair and felt the wicker cling to me. The chair lifted and the three-inch crash to the floor sounded like three feet. Thud. I sat there, a staircase away from the apparition, and eyes wide, I didn’t dare move. I thought as a deer does. If you don’t move, it can’t see you!
With the pits of olives for eyes, an axe in hand, he stared back into my eyes. I surveyed my surroundings quickly, spotting the iron fireplace set consisting of a poker, a broom, and a small ash shovel. It sat in the opposite corner behind him. I moved towards him. Inching.
I shuffled as he lifted the axe to an active, ready stance. The lights buzzed, gradually getting warmer and brighter. The incandescent lightbulbs heated my bones, and my heart picked up pace. I continued to shuffle, my socks sliding on the wood. Until they stuck. The loop of my knit sock got caught on a nail that sat just above the floor. He took a step forward, axe in hand. I ripped the sock from the nail’s grip and fell. From the ground, I looked up to an underlit man: his face ghastly and his teeth yellow. I was just feet from the iron poker. He growled and his lips raised, nose scrunched, and eyebrows furled. He raised the axe above his head.
He turned. An equally raspy but more gentle voice spoke from the staircase
“Poe. Poe. You’re here.”
A woman’s voice. A third glow scaled the staircase below me. His wife, I thought. But as the blush fabric skimmed over the final step, he spoke.
“Mildred! My Milly!”
I scrambled across the floor, my arms reaching and clawing, as my legs pushed my body forward. My hand gripped the cold iron poker, and the air left my lungs. Blood skidded from the nail to the corner opposite my perch, and I could feel the itching pain radiating up my foot. He stepped on my foot. I was trapped. Like a mouse caught in a trap, I waited for my death.
Accepting my fate, I longed for my mother’s hug, but Mildred reached him. She set her ghastly fingers around the base of his forearm, and his face turned to meet her gaze. My fate was not set. My eyelids clenched hard, and I launched forward, poker in hand.
I unclenched one eye then the next to see a green, luminescent fluid coming from the body of the man, Poe. His hands held the post as he looked into my eyes. He grinned, the green fluid slowly falling down his chin. I crab-walked back to the wall as he fell. His body made no sound hitting the ground; only the clang of the poker and hit of the axe made noise.
Mildred let out a silent scream. Her eyes went wide, and her jaw unhinged, yet no sound escaped. She next to Poe, and while her hands caressed his fading face, she wept. She wept tears of green that faded with Poe’s entire body. I could see the light leaving him, the supernatural life going with it. As his body dissipated, the lights on the wall reverted to their yellow haze. The black cat walked back down the hallway, tail raised, and disappeared as he pranced down the spiral staircase.
Mildred laid her head on the floor where Poe once laid in silence. The sun turned the black sky to a blue. The blue light shone through the ravens in the glass. I hadn’t moved in minutes, and lacking adrenaline, my arms finally gave under the pressure of holding my torso up. With the bump of my head, Milly turned to me. She pulled her middle upright and silently placed her knees under her meek body. Her blush dress kissed the floor as she grabbed the banister for stability and rose. Each step she took, I heard her labored breath and faltering step. She made her way down the staircase silently.
I walked towards my room, amazed the noise hadn’t woken Freddie. I entered the doorway and looked to the right. The window was still closed. Good. I tiptoed back into bed and pulled my white sheets far above my face. I laid there till I heard Freddie descend the stairs.
I sat at the kitchen table while Freddie cooked up pancakes and bacon. I smelled the sweet batter on the griddle while I watched our favorite TV show, Charmed. The willow outside the kitchen window swayed in the July breeze. Freddie brought my breakfast to me on heavy pottery dishes. The weight reminded me of the iron poker, but it must’ve been a dream.
“Who lived here before?” I asked.
“A woman. She was single and beautiful to the standards of her time.” My curiosity needed more.
“Aunt Freddie, what time did she live here?”
“Sometime in the mid-1800s. Her name was Mildred, but most folks called her ‘Milly.’ She died with no children, and”—she got close to my face and whispered—“now, I don’t know this for fact, but most people around here said she had a lover.” She wagged her finger at me. “No, not the legal, accepted kind. The kind that could get you in a whole lot of trouble if someone found out. Before anyone had the chance to reveal her lover, she died. Fell down the stairs and broke her neck. Absolutely haunting.”
My chest tightened, and my fork fell to the floor.
“Oh honey, just blow it off, my floors aren’t that dirty. And listen, I heard her lover was Mr. Edgar Allan Poe. Wild story, but it’s fun to believe.”
My dream was something of a dream within a dream. My foot ached, and I looked down to see the bottom of my cotton sock was ripped. Beneath the hole, my foot beat hot and red. As I set my foot down, my gaze drifted toward the window. Outside, a black cat sat. Not meowing or pawing at the door, just sitting. One eye stared while the socket of the other glistened in the morning light. It caught my eye, just to walk away moments after seeing me. His tail stood tall as his hind end bounced back and forth.
“Why haven’t you touched your pancakes, Izzy?” asked Freddie.
“I think I ate too much at dinner or ate something funny yesterday.”
She nodded and wrapped my plate to eat later. Instead of heading to my room, I walked to the living room between the kitchen and the grand staircase. I ran my fingers against the grain of the velvet couch and sat. At the sound of a record playing, I lifted my head to see Milly. The record player hummed the final verse of “Ave Maria.” She stood at the wall, waving goodbye. Her head turned away from me, and she walked through the wall to the outside. I raced to the window to see, but she was already gone, a part of the wind.
Freddie approached the room. “I didn’t know you liked this song.”
I shrugged and laid down on the couch as the old upholstery tickled the space behind my ear. I made it all night. I stared at the stained glass from the comfort of the chair to see the unkindness of ravens now shone on the entryway, somehow kinder than before.