It was April 1st on a Friday. School had just finished and the spring weather in Curtisville was warm and sunny. Those that weren’t buried in piles of chores and homework were already making plans for a fun-filled weekend.

At the residence of 2412 E Cochran Rd, eight-year-old Ralphie Briarleigh raced to the bathroom and found that after several frantic twists and turns of the knob, that it seemed to be locked. He paused to peer into the frosted glass window on the upper half of the door.

Ralphie found it strange that the bathroom would even have a window when most bathrooms nowadays had solid wooden doors. A lot about this stately light gray Dutch Colonial was strange, from its old-fashioned speaking tubes and servants’ bells to the frosted leaves and lilies etched into the accent glass on all the twelve-pane windows, and the way it stood apart from its newer-built neighbors, tucked back in the redwoods at the edge of town.

It was one of several houses that were built in the early 1900s by noted contractor Harris Mercer, founder of the still-existing Mercer-Fraser General Contractor and Engineering--for whom Ralphie’s dad was currently working overtime for. Before the arrival of the Briarleighs to Curtisville, the house had been the longtime residence of Margery Cartwright, who was a widowed retiree and gifted amateur artist. It was still in good shape by the time the Briarleighs took up residence. The same, however, could not be said for the overgrown garden crammed full of stuff and the stray cats nor even for Cartwright, who was now convalescing at the Sempervirens Psychiatric Health Facility down in Union Town.

“They had to take her out on a stretcher,” Gerald Boisvert explained a few days after the Briarleighs moved in. “Tried to kill herself by downing a bottle of sleeping pills and slitting her wrists...right after the family tried to do one of those emergency interventions.”

Gerald was nine and a half, and was one of the 'cool kids' who happened to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of weird local history as well as urban legends.

“You know why Old Mrs. Cartwright had all those sheds filled with tchotchkes and stray cats hanging out in her yard?”

Ralphie shook his head. “No, and what’s a tchotchke?”

“It’s Yiddish for a small piece of worthless crap,” Gerald explained. “Fake fruit, ceramic frogs and cow figurines, anything you buy from a dollar store or a yard sale, stuff that even a burglar wouldn’t steal. Well, anyway, the reason Mrs. Cartwright had a lot of crap in her yard was because she was keeping the vampires at bay.”

“Vampires?” Ralphie asked, bewildered.

Gerald nodded. “Yeah, vampires. According to folklore, they’re really obsessed with counting every small thing in sight. Well, what I heard about Mrs. Cartwright was that she was distracting the vampires with sheds full of junk and hundreds of cats running about so they won’t get in her house.”

“There’s no such thing as vampires,” Ralphie murmured. “Just made-up ones like the Count on Sesame Street or on Scooby-Doo.”

Gerald shrugged. “Ever heard of Vlad the Impaler?” he demanded. “That dude was real.”

"No," Ralphie shook his head vaguely. His parents were way too protective when it came to scary books and movies. “But we're in America," he pointed out. "We don’t believe in that vampire stuff over here.”

Gerald frowned and shrugged his shoulders again. “Mrs. Cartwright sure believed in it.”

“Yeah, well, Mrs. Cartwright was probably just some crazy ole cat lady with a big hoarding problem,” Ralphie insisted. “Like one of those people you see on those creepy reality shows.” He stared at his new friend thoughtfully for a moment, then said quietly, “No such things as vampires… or ghosts. Dad said people don’t come back from the dead like they do in the movies.”

“They do around here,” Gerald retorted before abruptly changing the subject.

Despite his initial skepticism of Gerald’s story, Ralphie kept a sharp eye out for any vampire-like activity. Much to his relief, nothing weird happened. All his new friends seemed human and normal enough, indulging in various video games and movies or hanging out in the nearby cul-de-sac or backyard paradise or playground.

Eventually, after much clearing, tearing down, digging and
animal control help, the Briarleighs managed to restore the original English garden look. However, in spite of all their diligent restoration efforts, they still kept finding little tchotchkes, and they weren’t just restricted to the garden area--they were inside the house too, concealed away behind the walls, behind baseboards and under floorboards, even in the hollow spaces of the ceiling beams.

Everyone thought this was strange except for Ralphie who thought it was all pretty awesome. It was like Christmas and Easter combined; some strange new trinket was always turning up in unexpected places. His sisters thought it was all due to ghostly pranksters or house sprites. His parents, being realists, thought it was just more of Mrs. Cartwright’s collection turning up. Ralphie didn’t find the mysteriously appearing tchotchkes a problem. If there was a problem, it was with the bathrooms in the house.

There was really only one decent bathroom in the entire house, and that was upstairs. The other, if you even consider it a bathroom, was a claustrophobic closet space next door to the kitchen that just had a toilet and a shower curtain for privacy. Mom was always harping on Dad to remodel it, but he never got around to it. Spiders and house centipedes seemed to congregate in that one area - presumably because they knew Ralphie was absolutely terrified of them and that he couldn’t use the upstairs one on account of his older sister Lisa commandeering it for her personal beauty salon, leg shaving/cosmetic counter and fashion show wardrobe. At least she didn’t do it every day of the week (which was a relief)… or that his middle sibling, fourteen-year-old Marlee wasn’t a fashion-freak and bathroom hog (even better). He still couldn’t figure out how Lisa always managed to pick the exact time when he was heading to the upstairs bathroom, but she had already barricaded herself inside, humming tunelessly as she devoted herself to yet another marathon make-over session of primping and preening in front of the mirror while posing for imaginary photo shots.

Ralphie wiped his sweating palms on his pants legs and squinted in puzzlement at the dark window. It couldn't have burned out again so soon. Maybe Lisa had it off because she was trying out some weird glitter gel or some hair dye that only glowed in the dark or under black light. Nothing weird about a locked dark bathroom, he told himself sternly. Just Lisa wasting her time as usual messing with her looks. Nothing wrong with that.

Still he couldn’t help staring at the door. His hands clenched a little as a sudden chill crept up his arm.

“Stupid,” he muttered to himself. “You’re being stupid, Ralphie! It’s all just your imagination...nothing to be afraid of here.”

Frowning determinedly, he made himself go over and peer into the window. Pressing his snub nose against the cold glass; he listened with growing concern, then he went and tried the knob again. It was still locked; shifting his gaze back toward the window, and he thought he saw the curtain twitch, but couldn’t be sure.

Ralphie shivered suddenly, feeling again that cold chill prickling his spine and scalp--like hundreds of invisible bugs crawling all over his skin.

He tried not to think about what Gerald had told him just a few days earlier--more about Old Mrs. Cartwright’s suicide attempt. When they eventually found her the next day, she was in the upstairs bathroom with an Exacto knife beside her. Strange how there wasn’t much in the way of blood considering the extent of her injuries or that the wounds were more like jagged teeth marks rather than knife cuts.

Geez, Ralphie! He shook his head in disgust. You’re getting nutty as that old lady Cartwright! Gerald just has a wild imagination, even though he knows a lot of stuff. Nothing to be afraid of here...

Still he stood there, facing the door, rubbing his arms and palms. Where’s this cold coming from? It’s really freezing in here! He looked up and down the deserted hallway, trying to see if a window had been left open. As he was thinking of whether or not to get Mom, a flickering yellow light suddenly came on behind the frosted glass.

Ralphie started, taking a few steps back. Funny how the lights seemed dimmer than before, more a glow from a lantern or many candles rather than a regular fluorescent bulb.

Beyond the door he could hear the steady drip-drip-drip of the water and the click-click of high-heeled footsteps walking away. Squinting, he tried to make out a shadowy silhouette, but there was none to be seen.

“Go away!” an all-too familiar voice suddenly yelled from inside the bathroom. “I’m taking a scented candle sauna bath.”

Oh, well that explains the weird flickering light.

“Well, I gotta go!” Ralphie yelled back. “Really bad too!” A slight frown puckered his brow as he wondered why Lisa had decided to put on horribly uncomfortable sandals rather than her usual cozy slippers when she went to turn on the lights.

“Well, go use the closet one!” Lisa muttered grumpily. “Or if you’re in a real hurry, go use a bucket or the bushes even.”

“Huh-uh! No way, Lisa!” Ralphie’s pulse raced as he pounded hard on the oak paneling. “The closet one’s got creepy crawling bugs that scare the beejeebers outta of me, and I’m not doing it outside like a bear! You gotta come and unlock the door or get out so I can use the bathroom.”

“I’m not leaving this tub!” his irate sibling called out. “Not when Auntie Flo’s paying a visit.”

“What?” Ralphie’s brow furrowed in puzzlement. “We don’t have an Auntie Flo...and what’s all that got to do with you hogging the bathroom?”

“Go ask Mom,” Lisa muttered drowsily. There was a faint sloshing of water as she settled back in the tub. “She’ll tell you.”

Ralphie glared at the door through teary eyes. He fidgeted as he worriedly ran his small fingers through his sandy blonde hair.

“Phew!” he paused, crinkling his nose. “Where’s that smell coming from?”

Scowling, he sniffed several times before recoiling in terror and total disgust. Complete panic engulfed him as he banged furiously on the door. “Lisa! Are you smoking something really gross?’

“Am I what?”

“Smoking something gross?” Ralphie demanded as he cupped his hands over his nose. “Cause it really stinks out here!”

“What?!” Lisa’s voice rose up defensively. “I’ve never smoked anything in my whole life, not even cigars or E-cigarettes. It’s probably just the candles you’re smelling.”

“They stink so bad!” Ralphie groaned, trying desperately to cover his nose with the collar of his shirt. “Smells like that dead cat Dad found in one of the old sheds.”

“Well, there’s definitely something wrong with your nose then,” Lisa replied stiffly. “What I’m smelling is Pineapple Citrus and Coconut Milk Mango. Now beat it before I throw this moldy old loofah at you!”

“We don’t have a loofah!” Ralphie gritted his teeth as he swallowed back a rush of bile. “Okay, that’s it. I’m gonna tell Mom on you!”

He spun around and faced the other upstairs rooms. Before he took off, he thought he heard a faint raspy chuckle, but couldn’t be sure.

“Moooom!” he yelled as he raced down the hall. “Moooooom!! MOOOOOOOOM!!!”

He ran into Lisa’s room and straight into Mom as she was turning with the empty laundry basket under her arm.

“What’s going on?” The tall, willowy woman sputtered in bewilderment, her freckled face showing panicked dismay.

“Mom, Lisa’s hogging the bathroom again!”

Mrs. Briarleigh stared at her youngest child, dumbfounded. “Lisa’s hogging the bathroom again?”

“Yes, Lisa’s hogging the bathroom again!” Ralphie repeated furiously, flailing his arms around in wild frustration. “And she's stinkin’ up the place with her sauna scented candles that smell like roadkill! I gotta go really bad, but she won’t let me in and she’s makin’ me sick. Make her get out so I can go!”

A few minutes of silence followed as Mrs. Briarleigh continued to stare at him, wide-eyed with mouth slightly agape. Then her gaze slowly shifted to over her shoulder.

Baffled at her reaction, Ralphie stared back. Then following the direction of her startled look, he saw, standing in the doorway of a walk-in closet, Lisa neatly coordinated in skinny black jeans and a bright pink blazer. Her flaming red hair was tied back with a bright green scrunchie, the exact matching color of her eyes.

“What are you talking about?” Lisa asked, a deep frown marring her pretty, freckled features. “I was here all along, trying to improve the Feng Shui of my bedroom by re-organizing my entire wardrobe.”

Ralphie continued to gape at her, his eyes blinking like a befuddled frog. The ache in his bladder was warring with the rolling acid in his gut, both threatening to explode any minute.

“And I don’t use scented candles!” Lisa’s indignant tone snapped him out of his shocked daze. “They’re a fire hazard as well as a health risk. Who wants to live in a house stinking like a flower fairy just threw up there...let alone a sun-baked possum casserole. No, thank you!”

“So that wasn’t you...?” Ralphie blurted out.

Lisa snorted. “Of course not. How can I be in two places at once?”

“See, it couldn’t have been Lisa you heard,” Mrs. Briarleigh told Ralphie. “It must have been Marlee playing an April Fools' prank on you.”

“Marlee doesn’t play pranks,” Ralphie grumbled, “and she doesn’t hog all the hot water or use stinky New Agey candles. It sounded more like Lisa talking.” He shuffled his feet, then added, “And I really got to go.”

“Well, don’t go on my licorne fleece carpet!” Lisa cried, looking around wildly for a waste basket. “If you keep listening to all those goddamn kids telling you stories about how Curtisville’s like something out of a Stephen King novel, you’re naturally going to keep imagining things like monsters and weird smells and ghostly voices coming out of empty rooms.”

“Oh, for Kvasir’s sakes!” Mrs. Briarleigh flashed her daughter a look of annoyance. “Will you just listen to him for two minutes!”

“I didn’t imagine anything!” Ralphie yelled at the top of his voice. “It happened just like I told you. There's something else in the house with us, and it's using the bathroom and it smells like something dead and rotten!”

No one answered the door when Marlee knocked and rang several times. After peering through the windows which offered a clear view of nearly all the living room, Marlee unlocked the door with her house key. She pushed the door open, then, dropping her duffle bag and grimy soccer uniform to the floor, she raced to turn off the alarm. After disarming it, she walked to the kitchen for some Gatorade before clumping up the stairs, heading straight for the bathroom, and as she neared the door she froze to a sudden halt with one hand raised to grasp the knob. Eyes wide, she slowly drew her hand back and clenched it tightly at her side. Her skin began to prickle as every hair on the back of her neck and arms shot straight up.

She stood there, eyes riveted on the window of the bathroom. The muslin curtain was gone and she could see right inside the room itself, only it wasn’t the same spacious bathroom she was familiar with. Stained floorboards had replaced the blue and white tile, and instead of the enclosed porcelain tub, she saw a lead-lined, claw foot monstrosity fastened to the right hand wall, with a moldy wrap around shower curtain. Instead of bright sunlight, a pale moon shown in through the window on the far wall.

She cringed with revulsion and cold dread at what she saw next.

Severed, dried human hands with long burning candles screwed into the nails were arrayed around the dismal drab room, casting odd flickering shadows across the lime-coated walls.

Marlee’s eyes widened even further, her jaw dropping. She heard rustling to the right, and then nearly swallowed her tongue in shock when she saw it--a long fingered, bony hand poking through the shower curtain and drawing it slowly aside. The corpse candles flared brightly for a moment, and then went out. The room immediately turned to darkness. There was no moon now peering through a dimly lit window. The room seemed to swarm with squirming, twitching shadows and she thought she heard faint hundreds of rats or roaches crawling all over.

“M-mom?” a small mouse-like squeak escaped as she nearly fell backwards into a bookshelf. “R-R-alphie? L-L-Lisa?”

She never expected to see a tall silhouette emerging suddenly from the darkness beyond the glass panel. She never expected to see the tall mound resembling a lumpish pile of large intestines but sickly bluish-gray instead, and rapidly undulating like a mass of worms, or a pale triangular face peering out between the grisly locks with steel-pale eyes fixed piercingly on Marlee’s incredulous gaze, and then a widening crescent of needle-like teeth glinting in the dim light.

She blinked, and the thing was gone along with the darkness. The muslin curtain was back in place, illuminated by a warm yellow light.

“Marlee?” Lisa’s voice snapped her out of her shock, reminding her where she was.

“W-wh-what?” Marlee stammered.

She could hear the faint sound of splashing of water, and then Lisa’s voice once again drifted out through the sealed door.

“You okay, Marlee? You sounded like you were having an asthma attack?”

“Lisa?” Marlee sagged with relief, her breath coming out in a big whoosh. She tried to laugh, but only managed a choking squeak. “Is it really you?”

“Well, of course it’s me, you silly goose,” Lisa replied breezily. “Who did you think it was? Bigfoot? The Creature from the Black Lagoon? Medusa?”

Marlee’s mouth dropped open as she stared at the door in baffled confusion. "Did Lisa just mention the Medusa?" she muttered. That’s quite a coincidence; she just mentioned it shortly after I saw something very Medusa-like. And since when did Lisa use really age-old expressions?

Shakily, she forced herself to take a few steps toward the door. All the while the logical half of her mind told her sternly she was just being silly and to stop acting like a scared little kid, but the other half urgently told her not to turn the knob or knock, not to take another step closer to the threshold.

“Uhh...Say, Liz?” said Marlee hesitantly. “Did you happen to notice anything weird just now?”

“What do you mean ‘anything weird?’” Lisa asked.

“Well,” Marlee thought carefully before choosing her words. “Like lights going on and off by themselves, unexplained drafts...?”

“Oh, you mean like poltergeist stuff?”

“Yes,” Marlee looked nervously about the hallway. The quiet was making her uneasy. "Maybe I’m just freaking out over nothing," she said quietly to herself. "Maybe I just imagined it all." I know I got really stressed out during practice, and it was also very hot and I knew I should have drunk enough water, plus I just had a microwave burrito for lunch that was rather gross and sickening. So it was either that or our house really does have a portal to Hell in our bathroom.

“Well, I did notice the lights flickering when I came in here,” Lisa replied thoughtfully. “But I didn’t think it was anything weird. Just maybe a defective or loose light bulb.”

Marlee nodded slowly. “Oh, so no blackout then?” Or weird, creepy shadows or monsters appearing and disappearing without explanation?

“Nope, not a thing,” Lisa replied. “Why? Did you see something? Is it something serious I should know about?”

Marlee thought for a while. “Not really,” she said finally. “I just thought I saw the bathroom light blink off suddenly, that’s all.” She shrugged nonchalantly as her mind arrived at the conclusion that what she had just witnessed was actually due to a panic attack caused by stress and dehydration. Lisa will just think you’re weird if you tell her about the horrifying vision you just had. She’ll probably tell all her friends that you’re a spooky, psychic nutcase and she’ll never want to be in the same house with you ever again.

“Well, I’ll just go wash up in the kitchen then,” said Marlee casually. “Try not to stay in there too long or you’ll end up looking like Grandma.”

Turning away, she expected Lisa to answer back with a sarcastic comeback, but instead her sister gave a tinkly laugh.

Marlee stopped abruptly in mid-turn and shot a startled look at the door. Did I just hear my normally bitchy sister give a high-pitched giggle?

Her nose crinkled when she suddenly caught whiff of a pungent odor like burnt resin and singed rope mixed with a combination of skunk, rotten fruit and sweaty arm pit. Oh, she’s smoking a joint. Well, that explains her good humor then. Shrugging dismissively, Marlee turned around and headed toward the stairs. If she gets caught by Mom, it’s not my problem then.

She went downstairs to the living room where she retrieved her duffle bag. As she strode toward the kitchen, she stood still for a moment, looking back and listening intently. The silence here was deafening like it was upstairs, but she felt a current of cold air brushing past her elbow accompanied by a faint but rancid smell. Marlee frowned as she shook her head impatiently. I got way better things to do with my time than to start imaging stuff from all those late night scary movies I watched on Sci/Fi.

She could hear the muffled sound of hurrying footsteps upstairs, and then voices raised in a heated argument with her brother’s whiny voice, being the shrillest, and adding to the chorus. Hmm, sounded like Ralphie was in desperate need of the bathroom once again.
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