Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Keepsake

by Michelle Bobier


He had been in this house so many times, years in the past, before he could refuse. That -- when he started to refuse -- was when he graduated from high school. Now here he was, thirty-six years old, and it was the beginning of June, so it was just about eighteen years since he had said to his parents, No. I won't go there any more, ever again.

He'd been wrong about that, for Great Aunt Ellen had given him the place. At first he had been rendered speechless by the phone call from his aunt's ancient attorney telling him that Ellen had bequeathed her house (her estate didn't involve much else) to him in her Will. Why would she leave him the place where she'd spent her whole life when he'd had nothing to do with her in nearly two decades? True, she had never married, had no children, and had outlived most of the rest of her family. But she had not heard a word from him in all that time save for the perfunctory thank-yous he would write when she sent him a gift for Christmas or his birthday -- always something she made herself, soaps or old-lady-looking sachets redolent of herbs he couldn't quite identify before he threw the odd, ill-smelling gifts away. He always wrote thank-you notes, though, even to his aunt; his mother had raised him right.

His mother. Ellen was her aunt, eldest of the three unmarried sisters of his grandmother, the last survivor of her generation. As he unlocked the front door of the huge old Victorian (beautiful, really, he thought, or at least it could be, if better kept up; the flaking, battleship-gray paint would certainly have to go) he recalled how nervous his mother had been when they visited here. More than nervous, actually. More like fearful, and that fear had communicated itself to his father, and to him.

He stepped into the entryway, reflexively wiping his feet on the old mat inside the door, and felt a tightening of the solar plexus as he inhaled the smell of Aunt Ellen's house. It was exactly as he remembered: stale, musty, the most still atmosphere he had ever encountered. It was as if nothing had ever moved in that air. And underneath, that hint of dried and dusty vegetation. He closed his eyes, and instantly, as if in a time machine, he saw himself as a little boy, standing in this very spot with his parents, clutching their hands to anchor himself.

Opening his eyes, he curved his lips in a shaky smile. He was in charge now. The first order of business would be to get some air into this place. He ran a hand through his thinning, copper-colored hair, then started opening windows. Some of them wouldn't open at all, and those that would did so reluctantly. A desultory, humid summer breeze disturbed the heavy floral drapes in the living room only a little, with a fitful, uneasy motion.

Upstairs, he went to his old room and was surprised to find it spotless and orderly, bed neatly made, as if Aunt Ellen had been expecting him. That couldn't be right; she had died in her sleep, unexpectedly -- though it couldn't have been all that unexpected, with her nearly 94. Granted, she had been unusually healthy, wiry and tough, rarely suffering so much as a cold. Maybe those herbal concoctions of hers had been of some use, after all. He glanced around, reacquainting himself with the small room, the floor of dark, waxed oak, the faded rag rug, the narrow windows through which, as a boy, he had spent so many hours gazing longingly at the world outside. He put his duffel on the narrow bed and went quickly downstairs.

The window ledges in the kitchen were crowded with dusty, empty bottles, some of which bore faded labels with Latin-looking words he couldn't identify. Herbs, tied in bunches with rough brown twine, hung from the low wooden ceiling beams, put there by Ellen to dry. They had a mysterious, astringent, familiar scent, almost a reek; he wrinkled his nose and suddenly recalled the sight of his mother, decades before, hesitating at the threshold of Ellen's kitchen, her shoulders tight. There had always been that hesitation before she stepped into this room.

Squaring his shoulders, he strode firmly into the kitchen. Dried herbs brushed the top of his head, catching at his hair, as he inspected the room. A large cast-iron pot (a sort of Dutch oven, he guessed), familiar from his childhood, sat atop the old, oversized gas stove. On an impulse he lifted the heavy round lid and peered into the kettle.

The lid clanged to the floor as he reeled back, gagging. He fled to the adjoining dining room to catch his breath -- even here he could smell it, whatever it was, though it wasn't so strong -- then, breathing through his mouth, he went back to the kitchen and looked into the pot again.

It was a mess unlike anything he had ever seen. A pool of dark green water floated on a thick layer of vegetation, in which he could discern individual leaves that seemed to match some of those hanging from the ceiling. Islands of mold undulated on the surface of the water. Had Aunt Ellen been cooking up some strange soup before she died, two weeks before? Whatever it was, the stuff was apparently finished; the countertops were clean, devoid of the mess people typically made when cooking. So why was the soup still on the stove? Had she been feeling unwell and simply gone to bed (forever, it turned out), figuring she would put the soup in the fridge and finish washing up in the morning?

Whatever the foul substance was, it clearly couldn't stay. He took hold of the kettle, intending to dump the mystery soup down the toilet in the powder room down the hall, hesitated, then plucked a large wooden spoon from the ceramic jug by the stove. What was in the stuff to make it smell so evil? Gingerly, curiously, he stirred the contents of the pot. After several seconds he jumped back, swore under his breath, stirred some more, swore again, because there was more than vegetation in the pot. There were things that looked like feathers, and things that looked like insects' wings, and things that looked like the legs of small, lizardy creatures, and something that, oh God, looked like the head of a sparrow.

He didn't want to know what else might be in there. Fighting nausea, he carried the pot to the powder room and disposed of the contents in the toilet. When the pot was empty he kept flushing, again and again, to make sure the stuff was far away from him. Then he took the kettle, its lid, and the wooden spoon outside and left them in the alley behind the garden shed. (He briefly considered looking into the latter, but knew what he would find there -- old gasoline-powered mower, piles of rags and tins of nails, stacks of firewood, bags of fertilizer -- and felt too rattled to inspect it at the moment.)

He was shaking when he came back indoors, and had some difficulty opening the kitchen windows to clear away the stink. What the hell had the crazy old bat been up to, anyway? No wonder his parents had feared her. Clearly, he'd done the right thing to put so much distance between Ellen and himself.

The relationship between his household and Aunt Ellen had always been complicated. She wanted them to visit as often as possible, as her phone calls and letters made clear. It could have been loneliness, he supposed; she appeared to have no friends, and had little to do with other family members. Yet she never seemed lonely; there was something self-contained about her, so much so that she had no use for affectionate gestures or expressions of love or any sign of generosity. His father had once said that Aunt Ellen was the only person he ever knew who was completely self-sufficient -- and completely selfish. Hard and strong as that blasted cast-iron kettle of hers, she was.

Yet their visits were undeniably important to her, in spite of the palpable tension that permeated those visits. There was always a tinge of contempt in the way Aunt Ellen treated his mother; Ellen would make comments to her about "the life you chose," as if his mother were a disappointment to her. She ignored his father, seeming to view him as an unavoidable evil. But with her great-nephew... that was another thing entirely. He seemed to be virtually the only person she liked, although liking wasn't the right word for the way she would watch him, a possessive glint kindling in her pale, hooded eyes; he had a feeling that, if she had her way, he would never leave. Once she even used her sewing scissors to cut a small lock of his hair, saying that he had such pretty hair, so like his mother's, and that she wanted a bit of it for a keepsake, and that it was their little secret. One of the reasons he eventually stopped visiting her was because he couldn't bear that possessive gleam. That, and the dead air in the house, and the way his aunt treated his parents, and the dread he sensed in his mother the whole time they were there, and that unsettling hardness about his old relative.

He never could understand why his parents were so faithful about visiting Aunt Ellen. Other than the house, she possessed no estate to make her worth cultivating, and besides, his almost comically unmaterialistic parents -- his schoolteacher mother with her classes of emotionally disturbed children, his attorney father who passed up the corporate pot of gold to specialize in family law -- weren't like that. And clearly their relationship with Ellen had carried no emotional rewards; quite the opposite, in fact. Yet they visited her consistently, at least twice a year, sometimes more often. Unlike their son, they never said no.

How sad, he thought for the hundredth time, that the accident, five years past, that claimed the lives of both his parents had happened as they drove home from a visit to Aunt Ellen. It was bad enough to die that way, in such violence, but to spend your last days with a person like her... Especially since his parents had told him, before that last visit, that they had finally decided to tell Ellen they would no longer be coming to see her so frequently. Maybe, in the future, they would see her every so often, but not as much as before, and not for so long. His mother was almost limp with relief when they told him.

Well, at least Aunt Ellen was no longer in any position to be disappointed about her family, or anything else. No more Weird Sisters potions cooked up on the stove, either; she must've been going senile there at the end. And no more stinky herbs all over the place. He would make it one of his first tasks to get rid of all the dried stuff in the kitchen, so he could clear the smell from the house. Most likely the odor had permeated the woodwork over the decades, but at least he could get rid of the worst of it before he put the house on the market.

Which was what he planned to do. He was sure this was not what Aunt Ellen had in mind when she bequeathed the place to him, but it was what he had in mind, all right. No way would he ever even think of living here. He had always wanted to travel, extensively -- Japan, New Zealand, places far away -- but his parents had spent most of their vacation time with Aunt Ellen when he was growing up, and he had never acted on his wanderlust as an adult. The timing was never right. It always seemed to make more sense to stay put and save his money (even though, thanks to frugality and savvy investing, he was quite comfortable financially), and making sense was important to him.

In fact, making sense was the most important thing to him of all; he strove to be grounded, to refuse to be carried away by irrational dreams or fantasies or passions, to be steady and reasonable. As a result, his life was an orderly one, devoid of the eccentric and the weird -- probably, he realized, to a fault. He knew he was in danger of becoming boring and stodgy, and suspected the way he lived might be a reaction against spending so much of his childhood with someone like Aunt Ellen. She had provided enough weirdness to last him a lifetime.

But there was nothing weird about the value of this house. Judging from the way property values around here had shot up in recent years -- he had consulted a local realtor before making the trip -- he would be able to travel as much as he liked once the sale had gone through, finally open up his life a little without even having to liquidate any of his investments. Small enough compensation for what the old woman had put his family through, but at least it was something.

He wandered around the first floor a while, taking a mental inventory. There was some possibly valuable old silver, porcelain, and furniture; he would have to get an antique dealer in to evaluate it. His pack-ratty aunt had also been saving old magazines and newspapers, which were piled in drifts everywhere, especially around her favorite chair, a huge, overstuffed claw-foot number upholstered in threadbare red velvet. Many a time he had seen her sitting in that very chair, watching him as he read or tried to play in the living room.

It had been a long day of travel, and he suddenly felt fatigue overtaking him. He sat down in the red velvet chair and found it surprisingly comfortable, far more so than the appearance of the lumpy cushions suggested. With a sigh, he settled into the chair. Why not? After all, it was his now. He closed his eyes, and, after a while, opened them drowsily (had he briefly fallen asleep?) to see a photograph of his aunt on the wall near him. She was dressed in black, as always, and wore the same stern expression he had so often seen on her face in life, with her brows slightly lowered and her mouth held in a straight line.

Feeling bulky and clumsy and slightly dizzy, he levered his body out of the chair, went up the stairs, climbed into his old bed, and fell deeply and instantly asleep.

####

He woke later than he intended the next morning in a groggy haze, as if hung-over. After showering he went out for breakfast (he didn't trust anything his aunt might have in her fridge), shopped for groceries, then returned to the house. He was surprisingly eager to get back -- he certainly had never been that happy to see the place while his aunt was alive -- and whistled as he bundled the scant contents of Ellen's fridge into a garbage bag and put away his own groceries. He rubbed his hands together meditatively, wondering where to start, then decided to go through the rooms upstairs first.

His parents' old bedroom looked as if no one had slept there since their deaths, which was probably the case. A tide of sadness rose in him at the sight of the old, dingy flocked wallpaper and dusty lace curtains. If you added up all their visits, his parents had probably spent the equivalent of at least a year in this depressing room. Had they ever made love in that high mahogany bed, beneath the faded quilt? It was difficult to imagine how passion could bloom in such a place. At least the heavy, well-cared-for furniture, gleaming with polish, should be worth something.

Aunt Ellen's room was even more oppressive. Though the décor was almost identical to that of his parents' room, it seemed oddly dark in there, even after he opened the curtains and raised the shade. He switched on the overhead light and poked around for a few minutes. The room was nearly free of the clutter evident downstairs, except for a small pile of books and magazines on the bedside table. He glanced only briefly at the bed where his aunt had died -- the sight of the still-rumpled bedclothes and the pillow with its head-shaped depression unsettled him -- before turning to the ancient twelve-drawer bureau hulking against the wall. There was a jewelry box on top of it, with a few old brooches and rings inside; Ellen never had been much for jewelry. The bureau drawers mostly contained outdated undergarments (where, in this day and age, had the old woman located bloomers?). Each drawer had a few sachets tucked among the clothes, and he was surprised to note the pleasant herbal scents drifting up; the sachets smelled of lavender and lemon verbena, not at all like the things she had sent him all those years. It was a relief to encounter something so refreshingly normal in connection with his aunt.

Next, he inspected his own room. His clothes were still in his bag, so the bureau drawers were empty except for a few of the pleasant-smelling sachets. Nothing of any note here, then. As he turned to leave he glanced at his unmade bed and paused. Was there something sticking out from beneath his pillow? He went to the bed and lifted the pillow -- something he had not done the night before -- exposing a sachet beneath, but it wasn't one of the pleasant-smelling ones; the faint stink he caught was reminiscent of the strange gifts Ellen had been sending him all his life. He always threw them away, and did so now, too, pitching it out the open window as hard as he could.

Feeling obscurely disturbed, he went downstairs, made himself a sandwich, then spent the rest of the day attacking his aunt's clutter. It was satisfying to see the pile of junk in the alley behind the house grow larger and larger, but the sorting and hauling was tiring work, and he went to bed early. His sleep was heavy and dark. Sometime after midnight he was awakened by a noise in the street and found himself in his aunt's favorite chair, with no memory of how he had gotten there; he must've walked in his sleep, though he'd never done so before. He considered going up to bed, but the chair was so inviting, enveloping him almost like an embrace. No wonder it had been his aunt's favorite place to sit. In the end he stayed where he was. He awoke in the morning feeling disoriented, and, once again, groggy and hung-over.

He had discovered a number of burned-out light bulbs the day before, as well as a loose newel on the banister and a few other items that needed fixing, and figured he might as well take care of these things; little details like that could matter to a potential buyer. So after breakfast he headed off for supplies. He felt curiously reluctant to leave, and was even more eager to get back than he'd been the day before, as if some new love awaited him there. Could he possibly be getting attached to the place?, he wondered. It was far larger than the bungalow he owned back home, and nicer, too -- at least it could be, with the proper care. Weird; he never would've thought it possible to warm up to the old house, filled as it was with unpleasant memories. Apparently ownership made all the difference.

After lunch he puttered around for a couple of hours, replacing light bulbs and successfully repairing the newel. "Okay," he said aloud, energized. "I'm on a roll. Time for the basement." The house had been built decades before homeowners began to regard basements as anything more than storage areas, and he was sure Aunt Ellen had never remodeled it, so chances were good that it was the least appealing part of the house.

He was right; it was just as he remembered it from his childhood. The steps (painted long ago, the worn bare wood showing through) led to an unfinished basement with a concrete floor and pipes crisscrossing the ceiling. The smell of his aunt's strange herbs was in the air here, too, along with more conventional basement smells of earth and must. A couple of bare light bulbs with pull chains provided feeble illumination. The clutter from upstairs was magnified here; not only were there the usual stacks of newspapers, books, and magazines, there also was a large assortment of boxes and old furniture. He sighed heavily. There was much work to do here; the house would show better without all this junk making the large basement look crowded and obscuring its storage possibilities. But then, the resale possibilities wouldn't matter if he decided simply to keep the house and stay.

He shook his head. Where had that thought come from? Of course he wasn't going to stay. Being surrounded by his aunt's old belongings must be getting to him.

The corner farthest from where he stood looked especially daunting. Might as well start there. The light bulb hanging near the corner revealed an impressive pile of stuff: ancient Life magazines, a couple of battered end tables, no fewer than three armchairs. There were other chairs scattered here and there about the basement, too. Had the old woman auditioned that many of them before finding just the right armchair for her post in the living room?

He really would have to replace the light bulbs with higher wattage; the pale illumination didn't reach into the corners, leaving them in a dusky half-light. He leaned forward abruptly. Had something moved behind that orange crate? A shape -- indefinable, like a localized gathering of gloom -- seemed to loom toward him as he peered into the darkness, and he stepped hastily back, heart hammering, staring wide-eyed at the spot behind the crate. As he did so, he had a distinct impression of something retreating back there.

Perhaps half a minute went by. Nothing was moving now. Tentatively, he went forward and pulled the crate toward him with his foot: nothing. Just a musty corner, except for a couple of unusually large centipedes that shot from under the crate, scurried past him, and disappeared into the gloom.

He smiled thinly at his own folly. He never had cared for basements, especially ones like this. In such a place, it was no wonder if his eyes played tricks on him. It would be wise to go up and get a flashlight before continuing the basement inventory, lest some shadow give him a heart attack.

As he started to leave the basement he noticed the storage locker beneath the stairs: a cupboard with an oddly shaped door, slanted at the top to accommodate the slope of the steps. Until now, he'd forgotten about it. Many times as a child he had wondered what was in there, but it had always been padlocked, as it was now.

But things had changed, hadn't they? He wasn't a nervous little boy any more, sneaking around in his aunt's basement; he was a grown man, and it was his basement now. If he wanted to find out, at last, what was in the storage locker, who was to stop him?

There was a small tool bench in the furnace room, and it didn't take him long to locate a crowbar. A bolt-cutter would've been preferable, but perhaps a bit specialized for a woman in her 90s; the crowbar would do nicely. In less than a minute he had levered the lock loose from its moorings (gently, so as to minimize the need for later repairs). He felt around in the cupboard until his hand brushed against a chain, which he pulled. A light bulb clicked dimly on, and he stepped into the cupboard.

The air inside was musty, and pungent with the acrid reek of herbs. In the erratic light cast by the swaying bulb he saw that most of the space in the cupboard was taken up with a wooden table -- old, made of dark wood, like so much of his aunt's furniture -- about the size of a small card table. At each corner of the table was a heap, about two inches high, of dried herbs. Atop the dully gleaming wood was a circle of powdery red stuff -- chalk? Dirt? -- surrounding a dollhouse with no roof.

He stood near the door for a minute, absorbing the scene, trying to make sense of it even as he was stunned by its incongruity. A childless woman in her 90s with a dollhouse was strange enough, but to keep it locked up under the stairs? And what was the point of all these herbs and dirt or whatever it was? It all seemed so carefully staged. Maybe she really had been senile, after all.

Despite the absence of a roof, the dollhouse, his stunned eyes finally saw, was a recognizable facsimile of Aunt Ellen's house -- a Victorian, the exterior painted the same dull gray. And outside the dollhouse, in what would be the driveway of the actual house, sat a little toy car, exactly where his own car was parked.

When he realized he had stopped breathing, he exhaled forcefully, then took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to calm the hard, rapid rhythm of his heart. He absolutely did not want to see what, if anything (but he knew in his bones there would be something) was in the dollhouse, but also absolutely needed to know what was in there, as much as he had ever needed anything in his life, it seemed. He took a step further into the small space and peered into the roofless dollhouse.

He had half expected to find the interior of his aunt's house completely duplicated in miniature, but the dollhouse turned out to be furnished minimally. The only room equipped in any detail was the living room, which had a tiny sofa, a couple of floor lamps, a curio cabinet, and an armchair, all arranged in the same way as the furniture in his aunt's living room. The only doll in the dollhouse was in that room, sitting in the armchair. It seemed to be a male doll, and there was something strange about its hair, which was longer than the hair of such a small doll should be, and stuck out at odd angles. He bent closer, reached into the living room, touched the doll's head, and then snatched his hand back, shaking his fingers as if they'd been burned.

The doll's hair was real, not synthetic. He was sure of it. And, looking again, he saw that it was the precise shade of coppery red his own hair had been in his childhood, before it began to fade a bit.

He reeled back, head swimming, tripped over his own feet in his haste, and caught himself against the doorjamb. As he looked down, steadying himself, he glanced under the table and caught a glimpse of something that looked like a small diorama. Little light reached it under there, but as he bent to look he could see just well enough to discern a toy car lying on its roof and two dolls prostrate nearby: a male doll and a female one. Their hair...

The shout he gave sounded very loud in the confined space under the stairs. He sprang back, slammed the door of the cupboard, raced up the stairs, banged the basement door shut. He paced the first floor, muttering under his breath, eventually realizing, with wonderment, that he was hysterical. Another first. He didn't need any more firsts, not in this house, anyway. Finally he forced himself to stand still and breathe deeply for a minute, and his thoughts began to clarify.

So, he thought. He didn't believe in witches -- at least, he never had before -- but if ever anybody could be a witch, it was Aunt Ellen. The implications of the little diorama under the table were all too clear. He couldn't see his aunt setting up the scene after the fact as some kind of gruesome memorial. The unsentimental old woman hadn't set much stock in memorials; in accordance with her wishes, she herself had been cremated with no funeral. He was left with an alternative that raised the hair on the back of his neck, but, since it involved Aunt Ellen, made an insane kind of sense. If she really had, somehow, killed his parents, killed them because they were planning to separate themselves from her... His hands clenched until the knuckles went white. Could his aunt really have been that selfish, that amoral?

Yeah, he thought, with absolute certainty. She could.

As for the scene his aunt had constructed within the dollhouse -- well, she never had wanted him to leave.

"To hell with that, Aunt Ellen," he said aloud. "And to hell with you, too." He would leave, and he would leave now, and he would never return. He could handle all the sale arrangements from home.

Since he had never unpacked, it was the work of a moment to fetch his bag from upstairs. He plucked the house keys from the little key rack by the front door -- and then discovered he was incapable of using them.

He stood in the entryway, looking down at the keys in his hand, wanting to extend his arm and open the door and then close it and lock it, but his suddenly disobedient arm simply hung by his side. He willed himself to raise his arm and grasp the doorknob, but could accomplish no more than a feeble twitch of the fingers; it was as if he were hundreds of feet beneath the surface of the ocean, immobilized by the weight of all that water. Sweat beaded his forehead and trickled down the side of his neck as he silently struggled.

Finally he stopped fighting. There was no use in exhausting himself; it was time to regroup.

"Okay, fine," he said, loudly. "You win, dammit."

As soon as the words were out of his mouth he could move again -- but only, he found, away from the door. He went to the living room, dropped his bag on the floor, and looked at the photograph of his aunt that hung on the wall near her favorite chair. It was the same picture that had hung there for at least thirty years, he would be willing to swear to that, but somehow, it had changed, too. Somehow, the mouth that had been set in a straight line for decades now seemed to be slightly turned up at the corners in an infinitesimal smile.

He must be imagining it. He had to be.

"What do you think you're doing, you crazy old witch?" He had never told her what he thought of her while she lived, but by God, he would tell her now. "Do you think you can keep me here this way? Do you really think."

He stopped in mid-sentence and put his hand to his forehead, swaying slightly as a wave of dizziness surged through him. The dizziness passed after a moment to be abruptly replaced by the most annihilating fatigue he had ever experienced. He couldn't keep standing there; it was impossible; his wavering legs would no longer support him. He needed to rest, and he needed it now. If he could just sit down...

His aunt's favorite chair was right beside him, and he plopped into it with a sigh. The chair felt more comfortable than ever. He sank into it gratefully as the cushions enveloped him. He leaned his head sleepily against the back of the chair, inhaling the aroma of herbs from the nearby kitchen.

The herbs hanging from the rafters. He had meant to get rid of them. Why hadn't he? Their scent seemed to be getting stronger; that seemed strange. But it was so relaxing, too.

Drowsily, disjointedly, on the verge of sleep, he thought of something he had recently read, about how over 90% of all pharmaceuticals were derived from plants.

He opened his eyes wide and, with an effort, pulled his head upright. Oh, God, he really should've thrown out those herbs. Their sharp reek seemed to swirl around him as he shook his head, trying to clear his mind, trying to make sense of what was happening to him. More than ever, he knew he needed to get out of this house. Immediately.

He put his hands on the arms of the chair and pushed against them, but nothing happened. He pushed again, harder, and now it felt as if some immense gravitational force were holding him in the chair, and not just holding, but pulling him into the cushions. The harder he pushed, the stronger the pull.

After a few minutes he stopped struggling and collapsed into the chair, arms trembling from exertion. Breathing heavily, he glanced at his aunt's photograph again. This time he wasn't imagining it; the corners of Aunt Ellen's mouth were curling upward in a small, tight smile. As he watched, the smile grew minutely but definitely larger.

He tore his eyes away from the uncanny sight, shuddering, and found himself looking at a considerable pile of books on the little table beside the chair; his de-cluttering efforts hadn't quite reached this part of the living room, and he had never examined this particular heap of stuff in detail. Desperate to calm his growing panic, he tried to focus on the titles of the books whose spines were facing him: Genealogy Made Easy. Aunt Ellen always had been interested in her family tree. All Quiet on the Western Front. That would surely be a gift from his father, a dedicated reader of historical fiction. And there, on top of the pile, was one that stood out -- a well-worn leather-bound volume that looked as if it could be a couple of hundred years old. He strained to decipher the title, in faded gold script: The Secret Ways.

He had to have a look at that.

Slowly, he inched his fingers along the chair arm nearest the table, feeling as if his arm were weighed down with a ten-foot heap of wet blankets. The more progress he made, the harder it was to move. When his hand was as close to the table as possible he stopped and relaxed for a couple of minutes, breathing deeply and gathering his forces. The gravitational pull of the chair seemed to lessen somewhat as he consciously relaxed his muscles; evidently it increased in response to struggle, like self-tightening handcuffs. He waited, breathing evenly, eyeing the book and trying not to telegraph his intentions. Then he abruptly lunged to the side, and just had time to grab the book before the chair's gravity hammered him back into his seat.

The book had fallen into his lap, face-up and open. The pages were yellow, the print faded. He discovered that by shifting his legs subtly he could cause the book to fall open at different points, so he could peruse it in a limited, disjointed way. The pages were filled with engraved illustrations of herbs, many of which he recognized, along with recipes written in archaic language. No, not recipes. More like formulas.

He looked again at the photograph of his aunt. Her smile had widened again; as he watched, the lips parted slightly, showing the points of her teeth.

With an inarticulate cry of horror and rage, he summoned all his strength, grabbed the book, and heaved it at the photograph. Although he moved quickly, he was careful, too; he was sure he would only get one shot at this, and was determined to show his aunt what he thought of her, determined to do something. The photograph plummeted to the hardwood floor and landed face-down with a crash of breaking glass.

Instantly the chair released him; the strange gravity was no more. He jumped to his feet, shocked, exhilarated. Would he be able to leave, now? He started toward the front door, but as soon as he began to move a plan snapped into place in his mind, a plan that seemed both crazy and right. Instead of going to the front entrance he ran to the basement door, bolted down the stairs, and went into the storage cupboard. Gently, carefully -- his hands were trembling -- he took the doll, the one with his hair, out of the dollhouse and stowed it safely in his pants pocket. Then he sprinted up the stairs and headed for the kitchen door leading to the back yard. He held his breath as he stepped into the kitchen, so as to avoid inhaling the smell of herbs as much as possible; he stopped just long enough to turn on the gas stove, grab a box of matches, and take a green glass bottle off a windowsill before plunging through the kitchen door, down the back steps, and into the yard.

Once outside he stopped to breathe for a moment, hands on his knees. As he straightened he felt a familiar pull urging him toward the house, faint but unmistakable.

So she was recovering, and she hadn't given up. His plan was a good one, then, because this herb-permeated house was dangerous. She was dangerous, still.

"No," he said, in a firm voice. "No, Aunt Ellen. I'm not going to visit you any more. And that's final."

He opened the garden shed, stepped around the lawn mower, and searched the floor and shelves until he found what he needed. The pull from the house was getting stronger, but he was careful with the glass bottle and rags and gasoline. He had never made a Molotov cocktail before, and wanted to make sure he got it right.

After stepping outside the shed he approached the back of the house. He wasn't sure whether the gas had been on long enough, but a sudden surge of gravity told him he could wait no longer. He lit the end of the rag protruding from the neck of the bottle (hands shaking so, he broke three matches before being rewarded with a small, sulfurous flare) and heaved the bottle through one of the kitchen windows.

The blast blew him backward and knocked him off his feet. He lay there for a minute, stunned, then slowly stood. Carefully, he picked shards of broken glass from his clothes. Did he have his car keys?, he wondered dazedly, patting himself down. Yes. They were right there in his pocket, along with the doll from the basement. He cut down the alley and circled around, heading for his car, moving without constraint, fighting no gravitational pull. Good. He'd done the right thing. It was doubtful he could ever convince anyone else of that, but he knew. He knew.

He got into his car, taking a moment to settle the doll on the passenger seat. It didn't bother him to look at it, now; whatever power it had once possessed had really been Aunt Ellen's, and was no more. He was calmly certain of that. Then he started the engine, backed out of the driveway, and took one last look at the house. Flames were spreading already, and smoke seeped from the open windows. A siren sounded in the distance.

He pulled away from the house and accelerated. As he left Aunt Ellen's neighborhood, a feeling of lightness settled over him. He thought suddenly of his long-deferred travel plans. Why keep putting it off? He would start traveling, and he would begin tomorrow -- no, not tomorrow. Now. He would begin at once, relishing every moment of freedom.

To wait any longer simply wouldn't make sense.

THE END


© 2007 Michelle Bobier

Bio: Michelle Bobier's short stories have appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Bellowing Ark, and Dusk & Dawn. Her essays and memoirs have appeared, or are scheduled to appear, in the American Scholar, the Virginia Quarterly Review, the North American Review, the New Oxford Review, Bellowing Ark, and GreenPrints.

E-mail: Michelle Bobier

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