The Ladies of Horror
Picture-Prompt Writing Challenge!
The Insistent Reporter
by Erin Sweet Al-Mehairi
We drove up the rocky drive, the car vibrations chattering our teeth, and the gear shift sticking from so many twists and turns. I fidgeted with the corner of my sweater, feeling a fluttering in my stomach about the invite to the house on the hill. Ben drove as I gripped on to the passenger side car door with wide-eyed anticipation.
Gold-embossed, vintage card stock had showed up in our mailbox one day with a date, time, and location—a Christmas invite for cookies and tea. Leah + 1 at 4 p.m. on December 5. Ben and I had been trying to get a story on a local historic mansion for years, mostly about its architectural reconstruction, but my last-ditch attempt had been a pitch for a fluff piece about the extensive holiday decorations in which we’d heard the owner, Ms. Rebecca King, decked her halls.
The candles lit in each window (which was probably close to thirty of them) gave a warm yet eerie glow. It was dusk, and moonlight cast a strange hue, but the house itself stood with an ominous air ever since the contractors stripped off the old, fading color in preparation to paint this coming spring. The stone stairs led up to the ancient-looking red door, adorned with a bronze knocker shaped like a majestic reindeer and a pine-branch wreath wrapped in gold and red ribbon. We knocked; a rather plain-looking woman, gray hair in a bun and wearing a black dress and a white apron, answered the door.
“Welcome to Deer’s Manor,” she said. “Let me take your coat and show you into the front room. I’ll bring in the cookies and tea shortly. English Breakfast Tea, unless you prefer otherwise?”
“Oh, perfect,” I said, putting my hand up in the sign of a gentle ‘I’m fine’ gesture to indicate I preferred to keep on my sweater till I warmed up. As she took Ben’s coat, I stood with my mouth watering at the smell of spice, hoping that meant the cookies would be gingerbread.
We walked past the enormous tree in the foyer, decorated all gold stars and snowflakes, with twinkling white lights swirling around the glitter-laden branches. After my eyes took in all the ornaments, they danced around the room—to the fresh cut greens wrapped in lights winding up the grand staircase and emanating their earthy smell, and then, to the wooden reindeer posed under the tree with red bows around their necks.
After entering the room, we sat down on the two-seat antique sofa by the crackling fire, admiring the decorations on the fireplace mantle—statues of old-world Krampus, Kris Kringle, and witches in various costumes and formations, wooden animals of the forest converging around them. Another large tree, bedecked in blue and silver bulbs, stood in the corner illuminating the shadows and a portion of the floor to ceiling bookcases.
As we heard feet shuffle into the room, we turned in unison to greet a woman who appeared to be in her nineties, dressed in a long gown, shiny slippers, and with golden bangle bracelets filling both her arms. We stood and reached toward her with outstretched hands.
“Hello, it’s so nice to meet you,” she said while waving her hand, jewelry jingling, in a dismissive gesture at us to sit. “No need to stand up for me. It takes me a few minutes to get to my seat.” She chuckled, and leaning her cane against the end table, turned around and sank hard into the cushion of an armchair across from us.
“Your decorations are brilliant, Mrs. King,” Ben said, glancing around the room.
She smiled back as the maid brought in a tray with two teacups balancing on saucers and a china teapot with a holly and ivy handle. Cream and sugar service were also available, white and in the shape of deer and goat heads, with little silver spoons on the side for stirring.
“Are you anxious to see all our decorations too?” she said, glancing towards him. “I know men don’t always find the appreciation for beauty in decorating as most women do.”
“Oh, I try to see what I can as if through Leah’s eyes,” Ben said, looking to the side. “She’s best known for her historical and architectural pieces for our magazine History Around the World, but she’s also adored every Christmas season and history meshing with the beauty of tradition.”
His eyes started to water, and the old woman handed him a Kleenex from her box on the end table. “I know it must be hard this time of year especially,” she said. “She was persistent, but I ignored her requests for an article on my ancestral home for so long, because as you see there were things you wouldn’t understand. I finally gave in when it came to the article on my Christmas decorating, but it was too late.”
“I just hope that I can do the article justice in her name, Mrs. King,” he said. “It’s the least I can do for her, even if I don’t know as much about holiday lore and interior decorating as she did. I’m interested though, in what you mentioned about things we wouldn’t understand?”
He smoothed each pant leg down with his hand, a nervous habit he’d had since he was little. Mrs. King tilted her head to the side and stared into the fire.
“Let’s just say that the clichés of spooky, old mansions fronting a large forest filled with the supernatural are sometimes true,” she said finally. “I don’t think her strange death was any coincidence I’m afraid.”
“W-what? What do you mean? I know she shouldn’t have been sneaking around the woods, but she was only looking for a viewpoint to better see more of your home. It was an accident… a frightened deer running from hunters.”
“Yes, those antlers can be quite deadly,” she said, wringing her hands together, diamonds and rubies sparkling in the firelight on her fingers. “But it was no accident and for that I am truly sorry.” The aging lady’s eyes shifted toward the mantle, causing him to gaze toward where she was looking. He saw the wooden sculpture of a male deer, with giant antlers, standing next to an ominous black, goat-like figure dressed in woodsman attire.
His heart fell two beats slower. He gradually turned his head to look the old lady in the eye. “She shouldn’t have been snooping,” she told him, “but I do feel a slight sympathy toward you. It’s why I granted you the interview still. If only she’d have gotten the invitation a few weeks sooner. But even in death it appears she is still as insistent as she was in life.”
“She had great determination, yes, but I don’t know what you’re getting at exactly,” he said, his voice growing louder in anger and pain.
“Leah’s ghost is sitting right beside you,” she said. “Screaming in fact, in horror, realizing she’s dead.”
Fiction © Copyright Erin Sweet Al-Mehairi
Fiction Image courtesy of Pixabay.com
More from Erin Sweet Al-Mehairi:
It’s the one-year anniversary of the publishing of my debut dark poetry and short story collection, Breathe. Breathe. Much of it tells my life’s pains and haunts and fears poured, sometimes savagely, onto the page. However, there is also legend, folklore, and fantasy as well.
Breathe. Breathe. is a collection of dark poetry and short fiction exploring the surreal depths of humanity. It’s a representation of how life breaks us apart and words put us back together. Purged onto the pages, dark emotions flow, urging readers into murky seas and grim forests, to the fine line between breathing and death.In Act One, readers are presented with a serial killer in Victorian London, a lighthouse keeper with an eerie legacy, a murderous spouse that seems to have walked right out of a mystery novel, and a treacherous Japanese lady who wants to stay immortal. The heightened fears in the twilight of your minds will seep into the blackest of your nights, where you have to breathe in rhythm to stay alive.
In Act Two, the poetry turns more internal and pierces through the wall of denial and pain, bringing visceral emotions to the surface unleashing traumas such as domestic abuse, violence, and illness.
In the short stories, you’ll meet residents of Valhalla Lane whose lives are on a violent parallel track to collision, a man who is driven mad by the sound of a woodpecker, a teenage girl who wakes up on the beach and can’t find another soul in sight, a woman caught in a time shift pitting her against the Egyptian goddess Anuket, and a little girl whose whole world changes when her favorite dandelion yellow crayon is discontinued.
Amid these pages the haunting themes of oppression, isolation, revenge, and madness unfold through folklore, nightmares, and often times, raw, impulsive passion crafted to sear from the inside out.
With a touching foreword by the Bram Stoker nominated author Brian Kirk, Breathe. Breathe. will at times unsettle you, and at times embrace you. Erin Sweet Al-Mehairi, a veteran writer and editor of the written word, offers up a mixed set of pieces, identifying her as a strong, new voice in dark fiction that will tear the heart from your chest, all the while reminding you to breathe.