My cousin Tommy kept going on and on about how he’d been traveling to Argentina and Italy and Mexico. About how he’d been staying at Airbnbs and renting out his house as one.
Maybe I was sick of hearing about his adventures and wanted to prove him wrong about how cultured he’d become – or maybe I was jealous and wanted to see what it was like.
Either way, I ended up sharing a house with my cousin down in New Orleans. I didn’t want to leave the country, to spend too many hours cramped on a plane, so that’s where I picked.
And that’s where he died.
We never actually met the owner of the house. She was already on her own vacation and had left the keys with a neighbor.
My cousin was the one to rap on that neighbor’s door while I hovered by the mailbox, so I’m not sure what the person said exactly, but I saw the narrow of their eyes, the tilt of their head, the scrunch of their lips.
Of course, when Tommy sauntered back, he was all smiles, the key ring looped around his middle finger so he could dangle it in front of me.
“What did that guy say to you?” I asked.
“Huh? Nothing, nothing. Just that you couldn’t pay him to stay a night in this house.”
His smile grew, so I assumed he was joking. I assumed we would be fine.
That first night wasn’t long. We got in late, so all we had time to do was take a few shots out of the woman’s liquor cabinet, just enough so she wouldn’t notice. At least, that’s what Tom did.
I turned down the bottles as soon as I saw what was spread across them. The labels were scraped off and replaced with stickers — one of a skull and crossbones, one of a spider, and one of a ghost.
Tom kept ribbing me over how I reacted to bright orange and yellow stickers. But that’s what was so terrifying. They were kid stickers. Halloween themed.
There was nothing else to suggest a child lived in the house, no toys scattered across the floors, no drawings pinned to the fridge, no crayon stains on the couch.
And even if the owner babysat someone else’s kid, who would let that kid near an antique glass cabinet stored with spirits? No. The woman must have stuck them there herself, and for whatever reason, that seriously freaked me out.
So while Tom drank, I slept.
That night, I tucked everything except my feet beneath a woolen blanket, headphones stuffed in my ears to help me fall asleep.
And, at about three in the morning, the sounds of my playlist were eclipsed by long, shrill screams.
I yanked the wire so hard that my ears physically bled. I had nicked myself and let out a yelp I could have sworn was inaudible, but ended up attracting Tom.
“What the hell happened?” he asked when he busted through the door.
“Screaming,” I panted. “I heard screaming.”
“No shit. Me too.”
“Really? What did it sound like? A girl? A little kid?”
“Sounded like you. Jackass.”
He made a few more comments about how I was such a baby for screaming over nightmares, about how it was obviously a dream, and after spending an hour looking through my iPod without spotting any glitches, I believed him.
I was sleeping in a new place, with different pillows and blankets and comforters. I was uneasy and I had dreams to match.
It made sense.
The next morning, Tom slept until 8 and I was up at 6, so I had some time to explore. I searched through the woman’s refrigerator. Her library of books. Her china cabinets. I even opened the lid to the garbage and scanned the top with no luck. A few odd things, but nothing incriminating.
Since I was coming up empty-handed, I decided to abandon the search and take a quick shower, splash off the sweat from the night before.
The water felt warm and the pressure was perfect, but when I reached for the soap, I froze. There were three pieces lined across the edge of the tub, each carved into a separate shape. A lollipop. A rattle. And a teddy bear.
When I showed them to Tom, he accused me of overreacting. Said he didn’t even see shapes. Just blobs. Told me to stop trying to ruin our vacation by thinking too hard.
There were a few other tiny things, things that I had pushed to the back of my mind and didn’t bother to mention to Tom. Colorful paintings of farm animals, like you’d see hung in a pediatrician’s office. Hello Kitty bandaids inside of the medicine cabinets. Bendy straws instead of straight ones.
But what did any of that mean? Nothing. I was stupid for thinking otherwise. Tom was right.
For the rest of the day, I honestly believed it — that I was crazy for feeling afraid, that I was subconsciously trying to sabotage our vacation to prove a point.
So I spent the next twelve hours trying to be a good cousin. We walked down Bourbon Street, got drunk off our asses, scarfed down crawfish, and picked up beads we found on the pavement to save as souvenirs.
And when we got back to the Airbnb, we watched the game on the woman’s flatscreen and caught up on things we hadn’t spoken about in years. It was nice.
I had almost completely forgotten about how unsettling the house had made me feel — until I was swapping my street clothes for pajamas. Until I saw a flash of pink beneath the closet door.
The door sat a few inches off the ground, the way a bathroom stall does so you can see if it’s occupied. And, hidden in the blackness, there were two feet wearing glittery pink shoes, the rubber kind, the kind you play dress-up with as a young girl.
I didn’t want to find out what was behind the door all by myself, but I didn’t want to run to Tom and let him know I was scared again either, so I got my shit together and tugged it open.
I don’t know what I expected. An actual child? A ghost? Just the shoes alone, collecting dust?
Instead, I found her. The 80-year-old owner of the house. Wearing a pair of overalls with a striped shirt underneath, her hair in loose pigtails.
“You hide this time!” she said, clapping her wrinkled hands together.
Out of instinct, I slammed the door on her and pressed my back against it, trapping her inside. She must have been in the house the entire time that we’d been staying there. She must have been watching us. Waiting for us.
I didn’t care about her age. I still considered her dangerous. I still considered her a criminal.
I screamed for Tom, telling him to come here, to call the police, or to at least request an Uber to get us the hell out of there.
But I didn’t hear him making any noise from the next room. All I could hear was the woman laughing — no, giggling, like the little girl she was pretending to be. And all I could feel were her saggy skinned fingers curling around my ankle.
I kicked, hopped, and flew across the room, expecting her to bust out at any second.
Instead, she slid a knife beneath the door. Red from the tip down to the handle.
Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck. The word ran through my mind on a loop as I weaved my way out of the house and hailed the first cab I found.
I didn’t have to check Tom’s room to know he was lifeless, blood leaking out of his stab wounds.