A month ago, my grandmother passed away. It wasn’t exactly unexpected, she had been 94 and suffered from dementia. It some ways, it was a blessing. No more worrying about whether she remembered to turn off the oven or her going down to the basement to do her laundry. To everyone’s surprise, Gram had left the house to me. Lots of anger and resentment over that part of the will, but I was so grateful. Gram knew I was struggling with rent and raising a young child on my own. This gave me a home, rent and mortgage free. No more low cost apartments with shady neighbors, afraid to stumble on a drug deal in the hallway or a stranger walking down the hall with the neighbors television.
Pulling up the shaded driveway always brought back lots of good memories of my summers — the white dogwood tree in front of the living room window, the blackberry bramble high on the hill in the back, the trails in the small wooded patch between Gram’s house and my Aunt Sherri’s. I took to the steps that wound around the back of the house to the sliding glass door that led directly into the kitchen. Unlocking the door, I stepped into the dated eat-in kitchen, breathing in the smell of the house, it still smelled of Gram, a unique smell all its own, fresh baked bread, skin cream, and pastel mints.
The house itself was on the smaller side, just the main floor, basement, and an attic. Gram built the house in ’68, right after Grandpap was killed in a construction accident, and she couldn’t bear to live in the “big house” on the top of the hill with all of the memories. So this smaller house was built for her and my then 12-year-old mother, my aunts and uncles already grown and on their own. I decided to first do a walk through and see what needed done, what few items were left over from the battle over possessions and what repairs would need to be done immediately so my six-year-old daughter Amy and I could move in as soon as possible.
The day went by quickly after I got my cleaning supplies from the car. There were few pieces of furniture left, mostly large items that were probably too heavy to get out, however my Gram’s room was untouched, her small twin bed, vanity and old cedar chest at the foot of the bed. I got the house scrubbed from top to bottom, my nose stinging from the bleach I’d used on the kitchen and bathroom floors. The sun was setting through the living room window. My mom had picked up Amy after school and was going to keep her for the weekend so I could work on moving stuff into the house. I opted to take a shower, scattering a few towels I found under the sink on the floor since I was short a shower curtain. I popped a TV dinner I’d found in the freezer into the microwave. I ate my dinner on the living room floor with my tablet playing Netflix. Once my stomach was full, I decided to climb into bed. I was so relieved that I could crawl into Gram’s old bed, rather than sleep on the floor in Amy’s Frozen sleeping bag I’d brought with me. It was still early, but tomorrow I was picking up the moving truck and my boyfriend said he would help me get our stuff moved.
Pulling the blankets back, I climbed into the tiny twin size bed, hearing a groaning squeak coming from the protesting antique. After so much work during the day, it wasn’t hard to fall asleep…but it didn’t last very long. I startled awake, eyes adjusting to the dim moonlight. What just woke me up? I sat up, straining to listen, I swear it was a sound, but I was greeted only by the distant hum of the fridge and the silence of an empty house. Sighing, I laid back down, determined to get back to the dream about the Jensen Ackles I was pleasantly having. Scratch. Scratch. Knock. My eyes fluttered open. I know I heard it that time. Scratch. Scratch. Scratch. I looked to the ceiling, it must be chipmunks or maybe even a raccoon in the attic, I thought. Scratch. Knock. Knock.
Stupid effing rodents, I grumbled. I laid back down pulling the blankets over my head.
I woke to a knock at the door. “Hold your horses, I’m coming, I’m coming,” I shouted.
I was greeted by the sight of my boyfriend Brant at the sliding glass door, a big smile on his face, as he held up a bag with faint grease stains and a drink carrier with coffee. I couldn’t help it, I grinned as I pulled open the door, ushering him inside. “Mmmmm, thank you!” I said. I sniffed the bag, the smell of freshly fried donuts met my nose, my mouth didn’t even get a chance to water, I tore into the bag like a ravenous toddler.
We had a quick discussion about how we planned to attack the move. Once our coffee was nearly done, we made our way out and back to my apartment, spending our day shuffling boxes and lugging furniture. The day went by in a blur of back breaking work, stubbed toes, and knuckles bruised off of narrow hallways. By dark everything was moved, ready to be unpacked and put away. I managed to get most of the stuff into the big room, which would be mine. It was nearly midnight when I climbed into my own bed for the first time in my new home.
Things have been going great, Amy loves the new house, she loves her new school, she has quickly made new friends, even her new invisible friend Claire. I enjoy my mornings spent on the porch outside of the kitchen sipping my coffee, working from my tiny old bedroom which I’d converted to my office. Brant comes over a few nights a week, we’ve been talking about him possibly moving in. Life has been great. I only have one complaint: The scratching has returned after two months of quiet nights. Amy sleeps through it, I, however, do not. I’ve realized after a good inspection of the attic, there are no openings an animal could get through. It has been an entire week now that I have not gotten to sleep. Last night, I sat up listening and I figured out the sounds are coming from my room, from the cedar chest which has remained unopened and ignored…I had moved it to the big bedroom I now sleep in when we first got everything moved in. I don’t really want to dig through it, but I know I have to. I really need this scratching and knocking to stop. It’s probably mice or something, granted, I don’t remember seeing any holes in the box, but that’s the most likely scenario here. I’m pretty sure I saw the key in the vanity while I was moving stuff around. I’m going to go check and see about going through this dumb chest.
Okay, I found the key and got the trunk open. That was a challenge, the lock was pretty stuck. The chest is more than likely older than my mother, so it’s not really a surprise. What I found inside is a surprise, though. At first it wasn’t too interesting. Just souvenirs from vacations past, old yellowed photo albums, some empty jewelry boxes, and no signs of any rodents. It was when one of those jewelry boxes fell out of my hand and onto the bottom that I started to get curious. Instead of the thunk I expected, it let out a hollow knock, much like the knock I’ve been hearing every night. I felt around the edges and found a little lip that allowed me to lift a false bottom out. Inside, well, that’s what I’m worried about. Inside I found five different dresses, all belonging to little girls. They were old, perhaps from the 1950s, all different, a blue pinafore dress, a green one with white lace trim, but each one with what appears to be dried blood splattered across them. Just as unsettling, each one has a lock of hair attached, they are tied with ribbons that match the dresses, some blonde, some brown, some curly, some straight. Beneath them was an old folder, I opened it and several loose pieces of paper fluttered out. I sat down the folder and picked them up. They were newspaper clippings, each one bearing the smiling school picture of a little girl. I read the articles, each of the girls went missing between 1955 and 1967. Here is one of them:
LOCAL GIRL MISSING, NO LEADS
Police are looking for leads on missing girl, Lillian Brown. Lillian is the youngest of four children born to Charles and Rose Brown of Virginia Road. The missing girl is a second-grader with dark brown hair and brown is 44 inches tall, weighs 53 pounds, she is a top student at Valley Hill Elementary and has received awards for perfect attendance in Sunday school at St. Victors Roman Catholic Church.
According to her mother, Lillian is high-strung. “My daughter is a nervous child. Someone would probably have to kill her to keep her quiet. I am the only one who can calm her down.” She is begging for her daughter’s return, despite her fear of the worst On the evening of June 4th, Lillian disappeared. She was playing in the front yard of her family home on Virginia Road. She was last seen wearing a blue pinafore dress, her brown hair in pigtails. If you have any information that may lead to locating this missing child, please contact Law Enforcement.
Now, I’m not sure exactly what I should do at this point. I put the dresses and folder back into the chest so Amy doesn’t bother with them when she gets home. I’m at a loss, what the hell do I do? I’m hearing the scratching and knocking coming from my room, even footsteps, I refuse to even walk back there at this point, even though it is just my imagination. I’ve tried calling Brant, but he hasn’t answered. I’m just a bit freaked out. Why the hell did my sweet white haired grandmother have bloody dresses tucked away in a cedar chest?
I was relieved when my phone finally rang, it was Brant. He promised he would make it to the house by 7 PM. I cringed, I wish it could be sooner, but I knew that was the most reasonable time. He lived nearly an hour away in the city, the traffic alone would delay him. Feeling resigned, I gathered my computer and a strong cup of coffee, determined to spend my afternoon on the back porch listening to the birds chirp and the bees buzz while I crunched some numbers for work. For the first time, I partially wished I had worked at the company rather than from home. I settled in, thankful to put a closed door between me and my imaginary sounds of scratching and knocking.
Checking the clock, I stretched, enjoying the warm sun that splattered down through the heavy branches of the trees covering the porch. I managed to finish my work, and now it was time to get Amy from the bus stop. I’d decided I would convince her to spend the afternoon outside, with promises of ice cream and pizza when Brant arrived. I made my way down the short meandering driveway just in time to see the bus approach. The brakes making the familiar screech as the flashing stop sign extended from the side. Amy bolted across the road, plowing into me with a tight hug. Smiling up at me, her grin interrupted by missing teeth.
“Mama, I got a star card today! I was super helpful during math class!” she said.
I grinned warmly at her, I have to give her credit, she always made me feel calm.
“That’s amazing princess!” I said and I took her hand. “Let’s go put on some play clothes, we’re going to play outside. Brant is going to be coming over and spending the weekend with us, but first I want to play in the yard.”
Amy jumped, giggling. She has always liked when Brant would come for an extended visit, being that her father left when she was only a baby, she looked to him as her dad. She released my hand and ran up the driveway, excited to go change her clothes. I followed behind, unable to help the smile that put itself on my face. I heard the familiar rumble of the sliding glass door on its tracks, I picked up my pace to follow Amy inside, a slight unease finding the pit of my stomach.
Inside, Amy ran straight for her room, announcing that she was going to be putting on shorts. I glanced around, nothing was any different than it had been when I first secluded myself on the porch. I went to the fridge and pulled out some grapes and apples — it would be a bit before Brant and the pizza arrived. I opened the cupboard and grabbed two water bottles as well, filling them at the sink. Arranging the fruit on a small tray, I managed to balance the bottles and plate well enough to get them through the door without dropping anything. Setting them down, I caught a flash of blue out of the corner of my eye, matched with chiming giggles. I spun around, peering from behind a bush, I saw the form of a little girl. Amy must have snuck past me in the kitchen and made her way outside. “Come on out Amy, I’ve got a snack here for you.” I wasn’t prepared when the little girl stood up, it wasn’t Amy. The girl’s cherubic face was framed by soft brown curls, her impossibly green eyes twinkling at me, her blue pinafore dress standing out against the green of the holly bush.
I stepped backwards, my feet and legs tangling in the power cord for my laptop. I fell backwards landing hard on my backside, my hands scraping against the concrete as I tried to break the fall. Looking back up, the girl was gone. My heart leapt to my throat as I scrambled to my feet, lurching through the open glass door. Inside I heard giggling, not just Amy’s giggling, but what sounded like several girls giggling. Ignoring my protesting behind and skinned hands, I closed the distance to Amy’s room much faster than I thought possible. Stepping through the door I saw Amy, she was sitting on the floor, Barbies sprawled around her.
“Amy, what are you doing? I thought you were changing,” I said.
She looked up at me, surprised.
“Sorry Mama. Claire brought some friends with her today, they already had my Barbies out. I wanted to play with them.”
“Well, that was nice of Claire, but we are going to be outside. So get your shorts on and let’s go.” I tried to keep the panic that was creeping across my mind from showing. Amy dropped her doll and quickly changed her clothes.