Alice stood on the sidewalk outside her house and watched as they wheeled her mother through the front door, moving cautiously and deliberately as they negotiated the stretcher over the crumbling cement steps.

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Fair warning, this piece is a bit longer than our usual content. Nevertheless, Charlie is a wonderful story that will keep you thinking, and you'll just fall in love with the characters. —G. Michael Rapp, Editor of Palabras

Alice stood on the sidewalk outside her house and watched as they wheeled her mother through the front door, moving cautiously and deliberately as they negotiated the stretcher over the crumbling cement steps.

Her mom had talked about repairing those stairs, or replacing them altogether with wooden ones, but had never gotten around to it. It had been third on her list of projects after cleaning out the garage and then the attic, which she had just started to do before this most recent incident.

The paramedics loaded the gurney into the ambulance, and one of the EMTs walked over to Alice and told her what hospital they were headed to, asking if she wanted to ride along with them.

Alice nodded and let herself be led into the back of the vehicle ,where she sat on a small, molded plastic seat beside her mother, and she held on to her mother’s hand.  A moment later, the roof lights began to flash, and then the siren let off a brief squawk before falling silent.

They sped through several traffic lights on the damp, deserted streets and Alice wondered whether this was simply protocol, or if they were consciously trying to make her feel better and didn’t want to tell her yet that there wasn’t any reason to run the reds.

***

In the hospital lobby, a woman wearing a gray lab coat came to tell her what she already knew.  Her mother had suffered a stroke.  It was her third in five years and after the second, the doctors had agreed that another would likely be fatal, and they had put her on new medication.

The woman in the lab coat told Alice that someone would be out shortly to discuss the details of releasing her mother’s body for funeral arrangements, and then she turned and walked away without saying anything else.

It seemed remarkable to Alice how little the strokes had affected her mother.  They’d slowed her down a bit and changed her memory and personality a little, but for the most part she was the same old mom.  Even the knowledge that another stroke would probably kill her didn’t seem to bother her.  Alice would’ve been petrified by the prospect and spent her days huddled in a corner, but that wasn’t her mother’s style.

Barbara Stinson was born both forthright and fearless, what the men of her generation called “sturdy,” although her mom had always hated that description.  Alice didn’t consider herself sturdy.  As a child Alice had been prone to ear and throat infections, which caused her to miss weeks of school at a time.  Even when she was well, she had always preferred to be by herself rather than in the company of other children. During the summer her mother would sometimes force her from the house, insisting that she go outside and play instead of being shut away in her room all day with her nose in a book.  She tried to abide by her mother’s wishes, and she had attempted mingling with the kids in the park, playing jump rope or hopscotch, but she was never athletic or particularly graceful, so mostly she just stood on the sidelines, watching the other kids or reading under a tree.

She wished she had a book now, sitting there in the reception area waiting for someone to come and tell her about things she didn’t feel ready to deal with.  One of the paramedics had said just before they left that “Everything was going to be all right.”  It was a phrase her mother had often used, and it had always seemed to Alice to be more of a warning than a source of comfort.  Whenever she had to go to the doctor’s office for a shot, or to get blood drawn, during the first day of school after they had moved to a new town, and when Alice’s mother had told her only child that her father wasn’t going to be coming back, she had assured Alice saying, “Everything was going to be all right.”

***

After Alice’s father left, her mother had needed to get a second job to make ends meet, leaving Alice on her own after school until almost ten.  The house made strange noises when she was alone; noises that were different than the usual creaks and groans that happened at their old place.  Alice had asked her mother for a cat on her tenth birthday, claiming a need for nighttime companionship, but what she really wanted was something in the house to help explain away the sounds.  Her mother told her that they couldn’t afford to feed a cat, which was probably true, so Alice simply pretended they had one whenever she heard a mysterious thump at the top of the stairs or the dishes in the kitchen cabinet clattering, as if something big had suddenly come rushing past.

One thing she couldn’t blame on the imaginary cat were the lights.  They had a fixture in the living room with five bulbs arranged in a circle that looked a bit like a glowing halo when it was turned on.  Whenever Alice watched Welcome Back Kotter or Taxi, a light on either side of the circle would go out.  Later on, if she was watching Archie Bunker or Barney Miller or Hill Street Blues, and especially Three’s Company, the bulbs would blink back on.

Her mom dismissed this as faulty wiring or power fluctuations, but Alice took it as a personal critique of her viewing habits, not that it stopped her from watching Kotter or Taxi, but she did make sure to always tune in to Three’s Company even after not really liking the woman they got to replace Chrissy.

Occasionally, the manifestations were more overt, like the time when the trash compactor had started on its own when Alice was upstairs in her bedroom.  There was another time her mother came home, and the garage door was open.  Alice had almost gotten in trouble for that, even though she told her mom she hadn’t been near the garage all day.  Mostly, though, it was little things like the lights or the curtains moving around, even when the windows were closed.  After a while, it felt like the house was her pet, and she stopped pretending that they had a cat, and, instead, gave the house the cat’s name, Charlie.

As she got older, the tricks, as she had come to think of them, began to develop into a set routine.   The light in her bedroom would spontaneously turn on at the same time her alarm clock went off every morning.  During breakfast she would always hear a creak near the bottom of the stairs, as if something were perched there watching her.  When she left for school, right as she was closing the door, she would see the curtains in the living room flutter slightly out of the corner of her eye—almost as if Charlie was waving goodbye to her.

When she arrived home in the afternoon, the lights in the front hall seemed to get brighter and the doorbell would always chime twice after she closed the door.  The first few times this happened she actually checked the peephole to see if someone was there, before finally realizing that the greeting was intended for her.

Though her mother continued to disregard these occurrences, Alice was sure that some part of her believed, at least a little bit.  There was the time her wedding ring, which she had never stopped wearing even after Alice’s dad left, had slipped off her finger and fallen down the drain of the kitchen sink while she was doing the dishes.

When her mom went to reach for it the garbage disposal suddenly whirred to life.

“Stop that!” her mother had yelled, as if admonishing a dog for piddling on the carpet.

The disposal seemed to listen and shut itself off.

Barbara had tentatively lowered her hand into the hole, certain the disposal would turn on again at any second and mangle her fingers.  It didn’t, and she was able to retrieve the ring, but it had been twisted into a shape that made it nearly impossible to identify, much less put back on her finger.  Surprisingly, the diamond had remained seated in its mount, and Barbara sold the tiny stone to a jeweler a week later.  Her mother never discussed the incident with Alice, but she could tell that something in her mom had changed.  Whenever the house did one of its tricks, her mom would get a look on her face that seemed to be a mixture of annoyance and consternation.

Around this time, Alice had begun talking to the house; at first, in her head, and then aloud, especially during those evenings when her mother was away at her second job.  The house didn’t always respond when she spoke to it, but it seemed like she could feel it listening and that was nice.  Charlie was her best friend during those years, and she assumed at the time that it would be forever.

***

During her freshman year of high school, Alice managed to meet a couple of girls who, much to her amazement, liked books as much as she did, and they would spend their lunch period talking about what they had just read or were currently reading.  Diana was quiet, even more so than Alice, and most of the conversation between them was filtered through Maggie, who was boisterous enough to keep the momentum between the three of them up when Diana and Alice would start to drift back into the world inside their heads.

“I honestly don’t get why people made such a big deal about it?  I mean it’s just a bunch of dumb celebrities boinking each other,” Maggie said.

“My mom won’t let me read it,” Diana said.

“You can borrow my copy if you want,” Maggie said.  “But it really isn’t all that good.  Even the sex scenes were pretty dull.”

“It was probably considered racy at the time,” Alice said.

“I guess,” Maggie said.  “Hey, have you guys ever heard of A Woman Under the Influence?”

“What’s that?”  Diana asked.

“A movie by John Casavettes,” Alice answered.

“Yeah,” Maggie said.

“Your mom actually let you see that?”  Alice asked.

“Are you serious?  Not even mymom is that laid back.  Besides, we were like ten when it came out.  I’ve been waiting for some revival theater to screen it.  My cousin is supposed to be getting me a fake ID, so I don’t have to sneak in.”

“Does that mean you’ll be able to buy beer?”  Diana asked.

“Holy shit, I think our little Di here is secretly an alchie,” Maggie said, with a snort of laughter.

“I was just asking,” Diana said sulkily.

“Sorry, sweetie, the ID is only making me eighteen.  I didn’t want to push my luck.”

“If you get it, you could go and see Alien!”   Alice exclaimed.

“You want me to get you one, too?”  Maggie asked.

“They’d never believe it was real.  People already think I’m younger than I actually am.  No way anyone is going to buy me being eighteen,” Alice answered.

“My mom always says, ‘Someday you’ll appreciate it,’anytime someone thinks I’m still in junior high,” Diana said.

“Fat lot of good that does me now trying to see Sigourney Weaver,” Alice said, and the three of them laughed.

Alice had invited Mags and Di over to the house to celebrate her fifteenth birthday.  It was on a Friday, and her mother had to work that night, but she’d gotten off an hour early from her day job and gone to the grocery store to pick up chips, soda, ice cream, and a cake, and she had given Alice some money to order a pizza.

Barbara still felt guilty for not being there.  The last thing she had wanted was to turn her daughter into a latchkey kid, but it was either that or going without a roof over their heads.

Goddamn Don.

He had seemed like such a good man when they first met.  The kind of guy her mother was always encouraging her to date rather than her usual type, who her mother thought were either too wild or too artsy, which was her less than subtle way of implying that they were secretly gay.  Barbara could’ve assured her mother that all the men she dated were at the very least bi-sexual, but that wasn’t the kind of conversation that Judith Doyle engaged in, and she didn’t think that any woman who considered herself a lady should either.

Don Stinson wasn’t wild, artsy, or secretly gay, but he did turn out to be an alcoholic.  Barbara knew that he liked to drink, but while they were dating, he had never gotten out of control or made a scene in public.  They had had a few fights, but nothing she deemed all that out of the ordinary, and he had never gotten physical with her.  After they were married, she began to see the full scope of his addiction, and the arguments got worse.  Then, in the middle of the worst shouting match they’d ever had, Don grabbed a vase off the mantle and cocked his arm back to throw it at her.  Alice had walked into the room just then, and he put the vase back where it was, but Barbara knew it was only a matter of time.

She told Don that either he got help or she was filing for divorce.  Don pleaded with her to reconsider and swore that he’d start attending meetings, but, in the end, he decided on door number three and went out for a gallon of milk one night and never came back.

Barbara thought of contacting someone to track him down for child support, but she opted for having him out of their lives instead.  Technically speaking, she was still married, assuming Don was still alive, which she figured was probably fifty-fifty at best.  She hated missing Alice’s birthday, but she reckoned it was a lot better than leaving her daughter with memories of her mother sporting a black eye and a split lip, or something worse.

***

On the night of the party, Alice took the black and gold crêpe paper streamers her mother had bought and hung them over the doorway, leading from the living room into the kitchen.  She was going for a beaded-curtain effect and thought she had done a pretty good job.  She had an hour or so after school while she waited for Diana and Maggie to go home and grab their pajamas, pillows, and sleeping bags so they could all camp out in front of the TV.

There was a horror movie marathon on that night with some of the old classics, Bela Lugosi playing Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf-Man, and good old Boris playing Frankenstein.  She wasn’t sure what Diana and Maggie would think of them or if they’d seen them before.  It was one of the few things she could remember about her dad, sitting on his lap on Saturday nights and watching the old black and white monster movies together, or some of the old comedy teams like Abbott and Costello or The Three Stooges.

Alice’s mother had argued that Alice was too young to be watching such stuff, to which her father always replied that if she was that young, she wouldn’t remember it anyway, but Alice did.

The house had been fairly quiet on the days leading up to the party.  There had been some of the usual stuff like the lights in the living room and the creaks and thumps on the stairs, but for the most part Charlie had been laying low.

She had mentioned a few things about Charlie to Diana and Maggie, though she never attributed the actions directly to the house.  It had been during a conversation about the strange little experiences that everyone has, like when a streetlamp turns on just as you’re passing under it, or the feeling of being watched when you’re alone in a room.

If Charlie decided to make an appearance tonight, Alice figured she’d be able to explain it away as something like that, and maybe she’d get lucky and things would stay quiet and she wouldn’t have to explain anything at all.

***

They were watching Karloff, this time as the Mummy instead of Frankenstein, when it started.

The ring of lights above them suddenly dimmed, and Alice looked and saw that a bulb on either side of the circle had gone out.

Diana glanced up from the TV screen.  “Our house does that all the time.  My mom says we ought to buy stock in GE for all the light bulbs we go through.”

“They usually come back on after a bit,” Alice said, her voice slightly pinched.

“That sounds like our place,”  Maggie added.  “My dad says the wiring in our house is totally screwy.  If you turn on the radio in the kitchen, the lamp in the hall goes out.”

On the television Karloff was wreaking havoc around Cairo and trying to resurrect his lost princess, while the hapless archeologists struggled to stop him.

The curtains in the living room fluttered, and there was a dull thud somewhere near the top of the stairs, but only Alice seemed to notice.

“I’m going to grab some more pizza.  You guys want any?”  Alice asked.

“I’m good,” Diana replied.

“Hang on a sec,” Maggie said, and she let out a thunderous belch.  “Okay, now I can go for another slice.”

“So ladylike,” Diana commented.

“Bite me,”  Maggie fired back, and they both started laughing.

Alice gave a little chuckle, as she made her way into the kitchen, but the sound died in her throat.  The thought of having to explain Charlie was forming a knot in her stomach.

What if they didn’t believe her and made fun of her?  Or worse, what if they did believe her and thought that she was completely crazy?’

The last thing Alice wanted was to risk scaring off her only two friends in the world.  She needed to stick to the plan and play dumb.  She let out a long, slow sigh, and she placed two slices of pizza onto her plate, before heading back into the living room.

The opening credits for White Zombie had just begun, when they heard the compactor turn on in the kitchen, the motor grumbling loudly as it tried to compress the already crushed garbage into an even denser brick of refuse.

“What’s that noise?” Diana asked.

“It’s the trash masher,” Alice answered.  “Stupid thing has been on the fritz for months. It should shut off in a minute.”

“Our garage door sometimes goes up all on its own, usually in the middle of the night,” Maggie commented.  “My dad can’t figure out what’s wrong with it.”

“Why doesn’t he just pay someone to fix it?”  Diana asked.

“’Cause my dad says he doesn’t pay people for shit he can do himself, which as far as he’s concerned is pretty much everything.”

“My mom doesn’t think it’s worth getting repaired,” Alice commented.  “We’ll probably just get rid of it, or use it as a regular garbage can if it stops working.”

In the living room, Lugosi was folding his hands one over the other, using his hypnotic gaze to ensnare Madge Bellamy.

There was a loud bang from upstairs—one of the doors swung shut.

Diana flinched.

“You got the windows open up there or something?”  Maggie asked.

“I must’ve forgotten to close the one in my bedroom before I left this morning,” Alice said, and she quickly stood up and headed over to the stairs.  When she reached the top of the staircase, she crossed the hallway to her bedroom and shut the door behind her.

“Charlie, you need to knock it off right now!”  Alice half-whispered, half-hissed, into her empty bedroom.  She glanced around, looking for some sign that her admonishment had been acknowledged, but the room remained still.  As she started to leave, she heard a low hum that seemed to emanate from everywhere all at once; she could feel the air reverberating around her like a kind of static charge, as the sound continued to grow in intensity.

Alice heard a succession of loud pops followed by shouting and screaming from Maggie and Diana.  She raced downstairs, grabbing the top of the post at the end of the banister to stop herself from sprawling face first onto the floor.  When she finally regained her balance, she saw what she had feared.

Diana and Maggie were picking fragments of broken glass from their hair and carefully avoiding the pieces scattered about their feet.

“Are you guys okay?”  Alice asked.

“Yeah, I’m all right,” Maggie answered.

“What about you Diana?” Alice asked.

“I—I think so—” Diana responded, but her voice was shaky and even in the dim light Alice could see that her face had gone pale.

They carefully picked up all the pieces of broken glass and placed them in a trash bag.  Four of the five bulbs in the ring had exploded, with the fifth one still pulsing weakly in its socket.

“I’m so sorry,” Alice said, as she tied the handles of the bag into a knot.

“It’s not your fault,” Maggie said.

“I know, I just—wish that it hadn’t happened.”

“Don’t sweat it,” Maggie said.  “Di and me needed a little jolt; we were starting to get drowsy, right, Di?”

“Right,” Diana confirmed, a slight waver still lingering in her voice.

“Um, you guys want cake and ice cream?”  Alice asked.

“Let’s finish watching Bela turn this chick into a zombie first,” Maggie said.

“Sounds good,” Alice said, trying to keep her own voice steady.

***

An elderly man with slicked-back silver hair, wearing a burgundy cardigan and bifocals, was trying to do his best Vincent Price impression, as he gave a synopsis of the next film, which was Price’s 1958 sci-fi-horror flick, The Fly.  Alice didn’t really care for this one all that much.  The story was okay, but she thought the monster was totally cheesy, like the kind of thing you’d make in art class out of papier-mâché.

Alice uncrossed her legs and pushed herself up off the floor.  “So, we’ve got vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry ice cream.  Who wants what?”

“Strawberry please,” Diana responded.

“Is it all together in one tub?”  Maggie asked.

“Yeah, the Neapolitan stuff.”

“Can you do a horizontal scoop for me, so that they all get rolled up together?”

“Aw, man, that’s a really good idea.”

“I have my moments.”

“Do you need any help?”  Diana asked.

“Nah, I got it.  You guys just relax, and tell me when old pipe-cleaner head shows up, so I can laugh at him.”

Alice eyed the trash compactor warily when she entered the kitchen, waiting for it to start up again, but it remained silent.  She grabbed three plates and three bowls down from the cupboard, and she took the ice cream out of the freezer and the cake from the fridge, which had been decorated with the message, “Happy Birthday, Sweetie,” in looping blue icing.  She cut three pieces, making sure to skirt around the “sweetie” as much as possible, grabbed some utensils from the drawer, and brought the cake out to the living room.

“Ice cream on the way,” Alice said, as she handed Maggie and Diana each a piece of cake and put the third plate down on the floor.

“You sure you don’t need a hand?”  Maggie asked.

“I know my reputation as a klutz, but I think I can manage.”

“I’ve always seen you as more of a spaz than a klutz,” Maggie commented.

“That reminds me.  Have you met my friend?  Here, let me introduce you,” Alice said, holding up her middle finger and waggling it at Maggie.

“Hey, that looks just like mine!”  Maggie exclaimed, returning the gesture, and both girls burst out laughing.

“You guys are so weird,” Diana commented.

Alice headed back into the kitchen and grabbed the ice cream scoop out of the drawer. Following Maggie’s suggestion, she rolled the three flavors up together, filling the first two bowls this way, and then scooped out some strawberry for Diana, frowning a bit, as she ruined the perfectly even furrows she’d created.

Alice turned to the sink to rinse off the scoop, but it slipped from her hand and went head first into the drain, the handle sticking out of the hole like a duck’s tail.  She reached for it and the garbage disposal suddenly whirred to life, causing the handle to graze the top of her knuckles.  Alice jumped back and watched as the scoop spun and jerked around in the sink; the sound of metal grinding against metal was deafening, and, for a moment, she was sure that the motor for the disposal was going to explode or burst into flames.

Maggie and Diana came running into the kitchen.

“How do you turn it off?”  Maggie asked, and Alice pointed mutely to a beige switch, just to the left of the sink.

Maggie darted around Alice and went for the switch, only to discover that it was already in the off position.  She flipped it up and back down again, but the disposal kept grinding away.  Diana opened the cabinet underneath the sink, and she and Maggie got on their hands and knees pulling out dish detergent, cleansers, scrub brushes, and scouring pads until Maggie finally located the plug for the disposal and yanked it from the socket.

The motor sputtered for a moment and then stopped.

Alice stared blankly at the scooper in the sink.

“Al?”  Diana said, but Alice didn’t respond.

“Hey, Al, it’s okay now,” Diana said, placing a hand on Alice’s shoulder.  Alice turned and collapsed into her arms weeping.

The three of them sat in a circle on the kitchen floor for a long while, without saying anything.  Eventually, Alice looked up and managed a small smile, and Maggie and Diana each grabbed one of her hands.

Sometime after that she told them about Charlie.

Maggie and Diana didn’t think that she was crazy, and they didn’t stop being her friend.  They went back into the living room, they continued watching the monster movie marathon, and when Alice’s mom came home, they pretended that everything was normal.

After the credits on the final film had faded, the three girls lay together side-by-side in their sleeping bags and talked until the sun came up.  The conversation ranged from books to music to movies to boys and back to books again.

No one said anything about Charlie.

***

Alice sat in the living room, with the television on, not really watching the police procedural playing out in front of her.  The lights in the ringed fixture above her head were all glowing brightly, but that didn’t surprise her; Charlie had always liked cop shows.

She grabbed her phone out of her purse and scrolled through her contacts until she found Maggie’s number.

Maggie had moved to a city a little less than an hour away, and Diana still lived in the neighborhood, though on the other side of town from the house she’d grown up in.  Alice had been the only one to really leave.  She’d felt guilty going off to Massachusetts to attend college and leaving her mother alone.  It wasn’t that she was worried about her, she knew that Charlie would never do anything to harm mom, but it felt like she was abandoning both of them.

When her mother suffered the initial stroke, Alice had moved back home.  It wasn’t a difficult decision.  She had graduated and found work in Boston by then, but she’d never really felt settled there.  The truth was that she hadn’t cared all that much for the job, and the city felt isolating to her, though she supposed any major metropolis would have after growing up in a town that might as well have been Mayberry.  She missed her mom, missed seeing Maggie and Diana, and had even missed Charlie.  She’d gone to dinner with Mags and Di the night she came back and had gotten together with them almost every week since then.  She also saw Diana around town, though most of her time since returning had been occupied keeping an eye on her mom.  In the days following the second stroke, her mother had some difficulty with coordination and Alice had insisted that she use a walker or at least a cane, but her mom flatly refused and after a while Alice had to admit that she really didn’t need it.

The only thing that subsequent stroke really did was alter her attitude, especially when it came to Charlie.

“Damn house ruined my ring!” her mother would exclaim in the middle of a conversation, as if they’d just been discussing it.

Her mom had never talked about the house in that way, had never even liked Alice to mention Charlie to her, and she had often told her to “Stop playing silly games. You’re too old for that.”

After the stroke, whenever Charlie would creak the steps, thump one of the beds upstairs, or make the living room lights go out while Barbara was watching Oprahor The View, she would yell at the stairs or up at the ceiling.  “Quit your complaining, you old cuss!  Nobody around here wants to watch your stupid shows!”

Sometimes the lights in the living room actually came back on after one of these tongue-lashings, but usually they’d stay off until Barbara went to bed, and Alice could appease Charlie with an episode of Law & Order, which always seemed to be playing on one channel or another.

“Hey, Al.”

“Hi, Mags.”

“What’s going on, girl?”

“It’s Mom. She passed last night.”

“Oh, Al—oh, honey, I’m so sorry—”

“Yeah—me too—”

“I just have to take care of a couple quick things out here, and then I’ll head your way.”

“We can meet at the Carriage House when you hit town; I could use a drink.  I’ll call Di.”

“It’s gonna be okay, Al.  Di and I can help out with the services and other arrangements, whatever you need, honey.”

“Thanks, Mags.  You know mom, though; she had everything pretty planned out.  She even set aside the money for it in a special account.  I used to give her a hard time because I thought it was morbid.”

“Your mother always was one to be prepared for a rainy day.”

“That was Barbara Stinson’s life philosophy.  I just wish she could’ve helped me figure out how to deal with the other thing.”

“Have you thought about it?  I mean about how you wanna handle it?”

“Honestly, I have no idea, but we shouldn’t wait too long.  I think Charlie knows.”

***

The Carriage House was one of those places that had been around for as long as anyone could remember; it had changed owners a few times over the years, but the restaurant’s name and edifice had remained the same.  Even the menu had barely been altered since Alice, Maggie, and Diana had first started going there as teens for burgers and pizza.  The three of them had celebrated their twenty-first birthdays there at the small bar in back, with beers and shots of Jameson.

Diana picked up Alice on her way, and, when they got there, Maggie was already waiting at the bar.

“Considering I’ve already been here for ten minutes, I can only assume that Di drove,”  Maggie said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”  Diana asked.

“I love you, Di, but you drive like my grandmother.”

“I do not.”

“Al?”  Maggie said.

Alice put her hand on Diana’s shoulder.  “You do tend to be a bit on the cautious side.”

“It’s called defensive driving,” Diana said.

“It’s a car, Di,” Maggie said.  “Not a Fabergé egg.”

“Well, at least my car doesn’t look like it was used in a demolition derby.  There’s stuff sitting in the junk yard right now with fewer dents and scratches on it than your truck.”

“All right, all right, I give in,” Maggie said, laughing, and she kissed Diana on the cheek.

“I should make you kiss the other one, too,” Diana said, stifling a snort.

“Hey, what am I? Chopped liver over here?”  Alice asked, and Maggie and Diana bear hugged her from either side and each kissing a cheek.

“It’s good to see you girls together,”  said the white-haired woman behind the bar.

“Good to see you, too, Loraine,”  Alice said.

“I heard about your mom.  I’m sorry, honey; Barb was a helluva woman.”

“She really was,”  Alice said with a nod.

“Do you need help with anything, sweetie?  I’m on a first-name basis with most of the businesses in town, so if you want me to make some calls—”

“Oh, thank you, but mom had everything worked out in her will.  The wake is on Thursday at Hillcrest, and the funeral will be over at Meadowbrook the following morning.”

“Well, if you do need something, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

“I won’t,” Alice said, and she gave Loraine’s hand a small squeeze.

“This round is on me,” Loraine said and put three mugs of beer down in front of the girls.

Maggie quickly finished the rest of her Black Russian, and the three of them took their drinks over to a small table in the corner of the room.

“So, now that we’re all here, I think it’s time to address the question that’s on everyone’s mind,” Alice said, and she could see Maggie and Diana both visibly tense.  “What is everyone reading?”

“I just finished The Bone Clocks,” Diana answered, taking a long swallow from her mug.

“Oooh, David Mitchell, nice,” Alice said.

“That’s definitely on my short-list,” Maggie added.

“How about you, Mags?”  Alice asked.

“Just started the newest Helen Marshall collection.”

“I haven’t read her,” Alice said.

“She’s weird, but in a good way.  I really like the way she writes,” Diana said.  “What about you, Al?”

“I’m about halfway through Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, but at night before I go to sleep, I’ve also been rereading this monster-sized edition of Bradbury stories.  The last one I read was ‘The Veldt’.”

“I remember that one,” Maggie said.  “With the two kids that murdered their parents inside that crazy house and—oh, uh—shit, I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Alice said.  “I don’t think Charlie would ever do that, but—well things have been different since I moved back home.  The lights in the living room and kitchen turn off and on all the time now, and there’s this banging from behind the dresser in my room that’s gotten so loud that I’ve been crashing on the sofa for the past few weeks.  It left mom’s room alone for the most part, which was a small blessing, but Charlie’s also learned a few new tricks.”

“I’m almost afraid to ask,” Maggie said.

“I tried to air the place out when I first got back, and Charlie slammed all the windows shut.  Lately it’s been doing the same thing with the front door whenever people come over.  The FedEx guy rang the bell the other day and I happened to be home so I answered it.  Everything was fine at first, but the second I took the box from him, the door flew past me and nearly knocked me over.  I tried to open it again, but I couldn’t.  I yelled to the guy to see if he was okay, but he had already gone.  The door stayed stuck until mom got back from Bingo almost two hours later.”

“Jesus,” Diana said.

“Sounds to me like it’s the other on,” Maggie said, and Alice gave a stifled chuckle.

“Seriously though, have you ever thought about calling a priest, or a rabbi, or some New Age spiritualist, to try and de-Amityville the place?”  Maggie asked.

“This is gonna sound crazy—” Alice said.

“—considering what we’re currently discussing, I don’t think you have much to worry about,” Diana interjected.

“It’s just—I don’t think that Charlie’s actually trying to cause trouble; I think he’s just being protective of me and mom, or I guess just me now,” Alice continued.

“I don’t know about that, Al,” Maggie said.

“What do you mean?” Alice asked.

“Charlie sounds a lot like my mom’s ex-boyfriend, who tried to pick a fight with every guy who even so much as glanced at her and would yell at her if she smiled at a waiter, or he thought she was being too friendly with the concession guy at the movie theater.  That’s not being protective; it’s plain old ugly jealously.  I mean the thing nearly took your hand off when we were kids just because you had us over.”

“I get what you’re saying,” Alice said.  “I still think Charlie is maybe just confused and upset.”

“Even if you’re right, you still can’t stay there locked up like a prisoner,” Maggie said.

“—I know….”  Alice said.

“What about selling the place?”  Diana asked.

“I’d be too afraid of what Charlie might do to the new owners,” Alice replied.

“I assume a do-it-yourself arson job or calling in a slightly disreputable demolition crew is out of the question,” Maggie said.

“What was that telephone number in Ghostbusters again?”  Diana asked.

“You’re both hilarious,” Alice said.

“Well, if you don’t want to call in an exorcist or the Ghostbusters, and fire, demolition, or selling the place are out, then there’s really only one thing left to do,”  Maggie said.

“Which is?”  Alice asked.

“Ladies, I think it’s time for another sleepover,” Maggie said.

***

Their little town had progressed some since they were teens; there were now several restaurants in the downtown area that featured cuisine other than Chinese, Italian, or American, and they had even put in an arthouse movie theater and a café with a small stage that held open-mic music and poetry events on Friday and Saturday nights.  One thing that hadn’t changed in the intervening years was the fact that nearly every place in town turned off the lights and locked their doors by nine or ten o’clock.  It was almost eleven when they left the Carriage House, and the only other place still open was the drug store a few blocks from Alice’s house.

“Well, it’s better than nothing I suppose,” Alice said.  “Let’s see what they’ve got in the way of provisions.”

They roamed the aisles for a few minutes, before finding what they were looking for: shelves loaded with Ruffles, Funyuns, an assortment of flavored tortilla chips, and the perennial group favorite, Cheetos.

“All right, big decision here, guys,” Alice said.  “Crunchy or puffy?”

“You’re gonna say crunchy, and Mags is gonna say puffy, so you might as well get both,” Diana said.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, Di,” Maggie said.

Diana gave an exaggerated curtsey, and they moved on to the soda aisle.

“I assume this needs no deliberation?”  Alice asked.  Maggie and Diana nodded, and Alice grabbed a case of Coke off the shelf.

“I tried switching to diet a few months ago,” Diana said.  “Stuff tasted like artificially-sweetened Drano.”

“Drano probably tastes better,” Maggie said, and the three of them laughed.

Alice’s laugh was genuine, but her stomach was starting to tighten.  Maggie and Diana hadn’t been inside her house in years.  They had barely spent any time there since her fifteenth birthday, and Alice could hardly blame them.

She had tried to tell them, to explain the situation, but she knew that nothing would truly prepare them for how bad it had become.

***

Alice’s mom may have been sturdy and meticulous in her planning, but she was also a bit of a Luddite.  Alice had never been able to convince her to get cable installed in the house or Internet service, which wasn’t something her mother particularly understood much less cared about.  She had at least managed to convince her mom to swap out the old tube television for Alice’s flat screen and Blu-Ray player.  She had a decent little collection of titles when she moved back home, most of the old Universal and Hammer horror classics, as well as some favorites from her own time like Alien and Jaws; she had been adding steadily to them since then to help cope with the loss of Netflix and HBO.

Once they’d put the pop in the fridge and the ice cream in the freezer, Alice showed Maggie and Diana her library, which had grown from a few small stacks piled up in the corner of her bedroom to a massive set of shelves that dominated an entire wall of the living room.

“Holy hell, Al, did you decide to open up a rental shop?”  Maggie said.  “‘Cause that’s not really a growth industry.”

“Okay, I’ll admit I got a little out of control, but I’ve been pretty starved for entertainment around here.  Besides, if you think this is bad, wait till you see my bookshelf.”

“Oh, wow, I didn’t even know they had City of Lost Children on Blu-Ray,” Diana said.

“That just came out,” Alice said.

“All right, ladies. I think we need to come up with a game plan.  What type of vibe are we going for here?”  Maggie asked.

“I think we should start off kinda light and nostalgic, and then maybe move on to something heavier, if the mood strikes us,” Alice answered.

“How about Close Encounters?”  Diana asked, pointing to a plastic case at the end of the third shelf.

“Excellent choice,”  Alice said.  “You guys pop in the disc.  I’m gonna get some bowls and glasses.”

Alice walked to the kitchen and opened up the cabinet above the sink, standing on tiptoes to reach a pair of large plastic bowls.

There was a rumble behind her.  She turned to see what it was, but when she did, the noise had stopped, though she thought it had been coming from the trash compactor.

“These are my friends, Charlie.  Please try to be nice.”

There was no reply from the compactor, no rattle from the disposal, and no flicker of the overhead lights.

Alice waited several moments, but the room remained silent.  She filled the bowls with the two different types of Cheetos and brought them out to the living room.

Maggie looked at the bowls and said, “I’m shocked and a little disappointed you didn’t mix them together just to mess with me.”

“And have those puffy monstrosities consorting with my crunchies?  Not on your life, sister,” Alice said.

“You know deep in your cheese-dust-covered heart that puffies rule!”  Maggie exclaimed.

“Blasphemy!”  Alice boomed in her best southern preacher voice impersonation.

“You both need professional help,”  Diana said.

“What I need is a soda,” Maggie said.

“I’ll go and grab some,” Alice said.

“Need a hand?”  Diana asked.

“Nah, I’m good.”

Alice crossed back into the kitchen and grabbed three glasses.  The rumble came again, and stopped as it had before when she turned her attention towards it, but this time she was positive that it had been the trash compactor.

“Please, Charlie,” Alice said, hating the pleading tone that had crept into her voice.  “Just leave them alone.”

She put ice in each of the glasses and filled them with Coke, trying to ignore the sound that had begun again behind her.

“Everything okay in there?”  Maggie asked.

“It’s fine,” Alice answered, quickly returning to the living room with the glasses.

“Is you-know-who acting up?” Diana asked.

“Just a little,” Alice said.

Diana nodded solemnly.

“Are you going to be all right, Di?”  Alice asked.

“Yeah, I’m good.  Just having some birthday party flashbacks.”

“Forget that noise,” Maggie said.  “Richard Dreyfuss is about to sculpt Devils Tower out of mashed potatoes.”

The three of them watched as the scruffy-haired actor piled scoop after scoop of potatoes onto his plate, and then used the tines of his fork to create a scale model of the monument.  No one noticed as the ring of lights overhead slowly began to flicker, the disruption quickly growing in intensity, so that soon the entire ring was pulsating like a strobe light.

Maggie looked up and scowled.  “Oh, c’mon, how can you possibly not like Close Encounters?”

“Maybe we should just remove the bulbs?” Diana said, reflexively holding her arms up over her head.

“That might not be a bad—”

Alice didn’t get to finish her sentence before one of the bulbs in the ring popped, raining glass down a few inches to the right of Maggie.

Diana let out a frightened yelp, and Maggie stared up at the remaining lights, as if daring them to follow suit.

“What should we do?”  Diana asked nervously.

“Ignore it,” Maggie said.

Diana looked to Alice for confirmation, and Alice nodded.

There was a thunderous crash from upstairs that sounded, as if someone had raised the bedframe above their head and then hurled it against the wall.  The curtains in front of the living room windows began to whip back and forth as if caught in a violent storm.

“Stop it, Charlie! Stop it right now,” Alice said through gritted teeth.

Maggie reached out and grabbed hold of Alice’s hand.

“Who wants ice cream?”  Diana asked.

“Good idea,”  Maggie said.  “I’ll get it.”

A door slammed upstairs.

“Why don’t we all go?”  Alice asked.

The three of them made their way into the kitchen, and Alice started over towards the fridge when the trash compactor and garbage disposal both suddenly roared to life.

“Charlie!”  Alice shouted.

“Forget it, Al.”  Maggie said.  “This poltergeist wannabe motherfucker is all show.”

The microwave door flew open rocking back so hard that the top hinge became dislodged, and it stood there dangling from the lower one like a loose tooth.

“I don’t like this,” Diana said.

“I’m telling you, we just have to ignore it,”  Maggie said.  “If we act afraid, then we’re just giving it what it wants.”

There was another bang from upstairs followed by a series of loud, clattering noises, and Alice was sure that if she went up there she would find the dresser tipped over and the drawers scattered across the room.

Maggie was in the middle of grabbing bowls for the ice cream when the cabinet door suddenly slammed down on her arm.  She stumbled backward, flinging the bowls up over her head as she pinwheeled her arms in the air trying to regain her balance.  She landed hard on her tailbone, a jolt of pain shooting up her spine, and the bowls crashed into the kitchen wall and shattered to bits.

“I’ll get something to clean that up,.”  Diana said.

Maggie looked at the red blotch on her forearm that was already starting to darken into a bruise.

“Don’t bother with the broom, Di,” Alice said.

When Alice spoke, next her voice was loud enough to be heard above the din from the compactor and the disposal.

“You listen to me, Charlie.  Mags and Di are my family, and if you can’t accept them, then you don’t get me either.  I’m not a kid anymore, and I won’t be held hostage like mom was.  Either you learn to live with that, or I’m leaving and I’m never coming back.”

There was a click, and the three of them turned in time to see the deadbolt on the back door sliding into place.  A moment later, they heard another click coming from the front door.

“Good speech, Al,” Maggie said.  “Really channeling Ripley on that one.”

“Thanks,” Alice said.

“So, now that you’ve laid down the law, I think we might want to get out of here.”

“I agree,” Diana said.

“C’mon.” Alice said and motioned for them to follow.

They crossed back through the living room then turned right and proceeded down a short hallway that ended at a door.  Alice opened it and pulled on a string hanging down in front of her, which illuminated the bare light bulb inside the broom closet.  Behind the bulb there was another line hanging down from the ceiling, this one much thicker with a red rubber knob dangling from the end of it.

Alice pulled on the cord, and the ceiling began to tilt downward revealing a narrow wooden ladder that led up into the attic.  She grabbed a flashlight from the shelf.

“Up we go,” Alice said.

The three of them climbed up the ladder into the attic, and Alice closed the hatch behind them and switched on the flashlight.  Inside were boxes of holiday decorations and seasonal clothing items all carefully labeled in Barbara’s neat cursive.  The other boxes held various bric-a-brac, and, in the corner, there were two sewing machines, one of them a bona fide antique.  Next to the machines, there was a large, plastic bin labeled, “Fabric,” and the upper-half of a mannequin perched atop a slender, metal stand.

“What the hell is that thing?” Maggie asked, pointing to the figure.

“It’s a dress form,” Diana answered.

“That stuff is from when my mom worked as a seamstress to bring in extra cash,” Alice said.

“Either that, or your mother was secretly Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs,” Maggie said.

There was a static pop, followed by a sharp, metallic buzzing sound; the newer of the two machines suddenly began thrashing its needle up and down, as if mending some phantom piece of fabric.

“So what’s the plan now, Al?” Maggie asked.

“Yeah, why did we come up here?”  Diana asked.

“With Charlie covering both doors, there’s really only one way out of here.  I just need to find something first,” Alice answered, and she started rummaging through the stacks of boxes.

After a few minutes of searching, she wrestled a long, narrow box loose from one of the piles in the corner.

Diana looked nervously at the faded picture of a ladder sketched on the side of the package.  “You don’t mean we’re going out the window?”

Alice nodded.

“I appreciate you trying to rekindle the tomboy gusto of our youth, but I’m with Di on this one,” Maggie said.  “I mean that thing is probably older than we are.”

“It’s either that, or we wait for Charlie to decide to unlock the doors.”

“The ladder it is,” Maggie said.

“What if Charlie slams the window on one of us when we try to leave?”  Diana asked.

“Hang on,” Alice said and made her way over to the corner of the room, making sure to give the demonic sewing machine a wide berth.  She picked up the dress form by the base and turned it sideways, brandishing it like a lance.

“Just call me Sir Gawain,” Alice said, and she positioned herself in front of the window.  She took three long strides and thrust the head of the form forward, shattering the glass.

Chill autumn wind filled the room, and, for an instant, Alice pictured herself at age eight dressed up in a fairy costume trick-or-treating around the neighborhood with her mother.

She maneuvered the dress form around the edges of the window and used it to knock out the remaining shards of glass left in the frame.

As the three of them approached the open window, the sewing machine began to rev faster and faster, producing a shrill, ear-splitting whine.  The hatch leading to the downstairs suddenly swung open, and they heard a cacophony of noise below them that sounded like a tornado had somehow manifested itself inside the house.

Alice pulled the ladder out of the box and quickly examined it to make sure that it was intact and there were no obvious signs of wear or decay.

“Mags, help me with this thing,”  Alice said.

Maggie and Alice each grabbed an end of the ladder unfolding it to its full length and carefully guided it through the opening.  Maggie and Diana held it steady, while Alice affixed the two metal clamps to the inside wall just below the windowsill.

“So, who’s going to test it?”  Diana asked.

The three of them stared at each other in silence for a long moment.

“Ah fuck it, I’ll go.  My ass is so big I probably won’t even feel it if I fall,” Maggie said, trying to ignore that she was still sore from her tumble in the kitchen.

“Jesus, Mags, that’s not funny,” Diana said.

“It’s a little funny,”  Maggie said and the three of them laughed despite themselves.

Okay, Mags, just go slow,”  Alice said and helped Maggie swing herself out onto the first rung of the ladder.

Alice and Diana each held tight to one of Maggie’s arms, and the three of them held their collective breath until they were sure that the ladder was secure.  Maggie was only two rungs down when a gust of wind buffeted past her; she braced herself and waited for it to subside before continuing her descent.  The house was a little over two stories tall with the attic, but it took her longer than she expected before Maggie finally felt the ground underneath her feet.

“All right, Di, you’re up,” Alice said.

“I—I don’t think I can—”

“It’s gonna be fine.  I’ll hold on to you from this side until you’re on the ladder, and Mags will hold the bottom steady for you until you get down.”

“Okay—”

The wind continued to howl outside, as Diana slowly started to maneuver her leg through the open window.

“Wait,” Alice said.  “You need to ditch the heels.”

“Oh, right,” Diana said, trying to keep her hands from trembling, as she pulled off her shoes.  She put one stockinged foot onto the first rung and turned back to Alice.

Alice put a hand on Diana’s shoulder.  “You can do this, no sweat.”

Diana gave a slight smile and gripped Alice’s right hand in her left.  She swung her other leg onto the ladder and held onto Alice’s hand until she had a firm grip on the top rung.  She had a moment of vertigo about halfway down when she accidentally peered over at the ground, but she was able to steady herself and soon felt Maggie grabbing her under the arms and helping her down to the ground.

“It’s actually kinda nice out,” Diana said.

“Yeah, come on down, Al, the weather’s fine,” Maggie said with a chuckle.

Inside the house, the noise had grown louder, and Alice saw the towering stacks of boxes begin to rock and sway, coming perilously close to toppling over.  She went to the window and started to climb out when she suddenly stopped.

“What are you doing, Al?”  Maggie asked.

“Just give me a sec,” Alice said, and she turned back to face the attic.

“I guess I never really knew what you were or how you came here, Charlie.  Sometimes I think that I conjured you out of thin air, as the wish of a lonely kid who just needed someone to listen.

“I know that you didn’t want things to change, especially after mom got sick, but they did.  Maybe you were just trying to keep our family together any way that you could, but I found a new family.

“I wish you could have understood that.

“—thank you for being there when I needed you.  You’ll always be my favorite pet....”

Alice kissed the side of the windowpane and gave a final glance around the room before stepping out onto the ladder.  There was a loud groan and the entire attic seemed to shift as Alice clung tight to the ladder and slowly made her way down to the ground.

She joined Maggie and Diana out on the sidewalk in front of the house and watched as the siding began to shake loose and shingles drifted down from the roof.

“Looks like you got out just in time,”  Maggie said.  “I think the place is about to come down on us.”

“What were you doing in there?”  Diana asked.

“Saying goodbye, Di,”  Alice said.

“So—what are we going to do now?”  Maggie asked.

“I’m not sure.  Maybe turn the lot into a flower garden, if the city will let me.  I think mom would have liked that.  Know the number of any disreputable landscapers?”

“No, but I’m sure we can find some proper professionals to do the job,” Maggie answered.

“A garden sounds nice,” Diana said.

“It does,” Alice said.

“Not to spoil the moment, but people are probably gonna start showing up soon.  How are we going to explain what happened to the house?” Maggie asked.

“Low-grade, highly-localized earthquake?”  Alice said.

“Maybe we can say it was a really bad case of termites?”  Diana suggested.

“Wait, wait, I got it,” Maggie said.  “We tell them that it’s a performance art piece: a physical manifestation of the housing market crash.”

“Oh god, Mags, that is truly, exquisitely awful,” Alice said.

“Yeah, ’cause convincing people that there’s a fault line running solely under your backyard is way better.”  Maggie said and the three of them burst out laughing.

The house continued to shake and groan as pieces fell from the façade and Alice wondered what would happen and whether she had done the right thing.  It hadn’t occurred to her until that moment that she was now officially homeless.  Charlie had been with her for such a long time and in some ways, it was hard to imagine life outside its walls.

Alice took her two best friends by the hand and gazed out over the neighborhood.  She wasn’t sure what lie ahead of her, but whatever it was she knew that she’d make it through with her family by her side.

Everything was going to be all right.

For the first time in her life, she really believed that.

Peter Emmett Naughton

Published a month ago

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