With the recent events in Connecticut, I took one story out of the mix for my Happy Horrordays postings. I had to think about whether I wanted to post a horror themed story today or write about the events that unfolded yesterday. I chose to go with the story—so many others have written on the tragedy and my commentary wouldn’t be much different than most.
Still, I am a horror writer (by definition, I reckon), and my stories have a decided slant toward the darker things. I hope you enjoy the story, this one written in 2009 and originally published in Estronomicon.
Grandma Haygoode and the Devil In Me
By A.J. Brown
My initial reaction to seeing her dead on the floor was shock, tempered with joy. Grandma Haygoode had always been so loving, doting on Charles and Winnie, showing compassion to dumb George, feeding stray animals and taking in the homeless. Yeah, she was a caring old woman for certain.
Except when it came to me. For some reason or other, Grandma didn’t like me much. She would swat my head if I spoke out of turn; spank my bottom if I came home late from school. I got kicked out the house at fifteen. Dumb George got my room and the vagrant that slept in the empty corner lot near the Holiness Church got George’s basement quarters. It was like we all traded spaces, with me getting the cardboard box. It was filthy and stank of crap and urine and body odor. I don’t even want to know what the stains along the box’s walls were.
Right up until just before I turned eighteen I roamed the streets, begging for food or a bit of spare change. The looks folks gave me—you’d think they would want to help a poor teenager in need, kicked out of the home his parents had owned before their deaths. That wasn’t the case. Many shunned me, others chased me. Preacher Hollings lectured me every few days about doing right by the Creator and begging for forgiveness, not just from a higher being but from Grandma Haygoode as well.
“Reckon a feller like yourself done did something mighty bad to fall out of her good graces,” he would say while wagging a crooked finger at me. “Confess your sins, boy and make things right with her.”
You’d think that Grandma Haygoode was akin to being the Creator that Hollings preached about. When he spoke of her his face would light up, his breath would hitch like he had himself a good orgasm and his bottom lip would glisten with saliva. The first few times I heard him talk of her I thought he would cry, or maybe he had been in my shoes at one time, put out by the Saint of All That is Good in the World. Not the case, though I do think he secretly fantasized about getting between her wrinkled thighs. Just thinking about that makes me shudder and my stomach lurch.
Charles visited me in the back alley one evening, said Grandma Haygoode wanted to see me. Sick with the fever and chills, I shrugged, staggered home for the first time in nearly three years. Being Christmas, I thought maybe she had forgiven me for the nonsense of eating one too many slices of bread at dinnertime. Yeah, that was the sin that got me put out at fifteen. The house was all decorated in bright greens and reds, a tree sat in the corner, dozens of presents under and around it. Stockings—too many of them—hung from hooks along the room and on the mantle piece. She waited in the kitchen, her blue apron on, cinnamon rolls baking in the oven. When she turned to me I had to hold myself still. She had changed.
Her face was lined with deep grooves—not just wrinkles, like they used to be, but valleys that bore right down into her very being. The skin around her eyes and mouth sagged. I thought for a moment that she looked like one of them bulldogs that Old Man Harper has—they are some ferocious animals that would rather rip your leg off than lick your hand if given a chance. She had lost weight—about a person, if you ask me. But what startled me the most was that she smiled when she saw me.
Rarely did she smile at me. Everyone else she loved, smiled at, but for me it was a scowl and a snarl, like I was the devil or something. Maybe she thought I was. Preacher Hollings sure made it a point of telling me how the devil had hold of my soul and that I need to break free from his treacherous grip. Yeah, that’s the words he used: “treacherous grip.”
I‘m getting away from my thoughts here. You see, Grandma Haygoode, well, she went and smiled at me, exposing her yellowed teeth. A few of them were missing that weren’t before, but the one in the front, I’ll never forget that one. It was bright white, not yellow like the rest of them. I wasn’t too certain it was real or fake, like some of them folks who have those dentures the tooth doctors make for them.
Something was wrong though. The tooth, well, it seemed to glitter and all, like it could have been some small light instead of a tooth. I stared at it for a moment, not sure I was awake and standing in the kitchen or still asleep in my cardboard box, the one that used to belong to the bum that sleeps down in the basement now.
The trance was broken when she closed her lips, concealing the tooth from me. I shook my head, trying to force the cobwebs away. Dazed and disoriented, I stumbled back until I bumped the wall. My head pounded, eyes hurt.
“Marty, it’s been a while. You look like the devil done got hold of you.” she said and shuffled toward me. Her voice was like glass breaking against rock. I guessed age had caught up to her. She motioned with one knobby-knuckled hand. “Have a seat. Let’s talk a spell.”
At that, I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there like a knot on the log, dumbfounded, my head humming a tune of pure pain. “I need to go—I ain’t feelin’ all that good.”
She smiled again, showing off that tooth, repeated her request for me to sit. Without thought, my legs moved on their own and I found myself sitting in the chair across from her.
All the energy drained out of my body and I slumped in the chair, vision blurred, sweat spilling down my face. My head swooned.
Never before did I want to run away from my own home, but at that moment, in the kitchen with Grandma Haygoode, my head swirling and the fever biting down hard, I wanted to scream, to run away and never come back. I just didn’t have the strength to push myself out the door and down the steps. Even if I did manage to get out the house I didn’t think I could make it much further than the front walk without collapsing.
Doubt surfaced, like so many times before in my life, but different this time. At that moment I thought I would never be able to leave the kitchen, to free myself of Grandma’s ancient eyes. It’s like she had her claws sunk deep in my skin and she was reeling me in for the kill. And all I wanted to do was escape, go back to the empty lot by the church and hide myself away from the world. If I was lucky, I would die and it would all be over. No more Grandma Haygoode, no more Preacher Hollings, no more worry of the devil getting me.
“How about you tell me what ails you, Marty.”
All I could see were blinding white dots dancing in my vision. Half of her face had been blotted out by these moving white lights, but her tooth remained, sparkling, shining. My thoughts became muddled and the fever overcame me. Nausea swept through my body and I dropped from the chair to my hands and knees. Very little came from my stomach, mostly stomach acid and a few half digested pieces of bread I found in one of the trash cans on the other side of town.
“Poor child,” she said and stood. Her ice-cold hand touched the back of my neck. Shivers trailed up and down my spine. I held onto my fading world, trying not to pass out. I bit down hard on my lip, drawing blood and fresh pain. The world came back, no longer washed away in confusion and lightheadedness.
“Please,” I said, grabbed the edge of the table and pulled myself onto my knees.
“You want me to help you?” she asked, the smile never wavering.
“No,” I said, refusing to look up at her. “Stop smiling.”
“Everyone loves my smile, Marty,” she said in that broken glass voice of hers. Her hand tightened on the back of my neck, nails piercing skin. I felt the warmth of blood trickle from new wounds.
With my strength waning, I swung a fist up, catching the bottom of her chin. Her few teeth clattered and she fell back. Crawling, I tried to get to the door, but it was so far away. Exhausted, I reached it, and then looked back at Grandma. She lay on the floor, her head to one side, blood spilling from her open mouth. The tooth lay beside her, part of her gum still attached to it.
Yellow voids appeared in the corners of my vision, faded to brown, then black. I awoke some time later, head cloudy, neck hurting. Sitting up, the pressure eased on my skull, neck and shoulders. Grandma Haygoode still lay on the floor, her eyes turned to the ceiling, mouth open, tooth by her head. Blood crusted along the side of her face and had soaked her white hair. The smell of burnt cinnamon rolls hung in the air.
Early evening peeked in through the windows and I wondered where everyone was. Then I remembered, Grandma had a standing rule. If you lived with her, you spent the Christmas holidays taking care of the things she couldn’t. I guessed most of them were out doing her bidding. But with the coming of night they would all get home sooner rather than later and what would they do when they found Grandma dead in her kitchen?
As I crawled toward her, I kept an eye on the tooth, but it no longer sparkled. I picked it up. It was just a regular tooth, chipped where her bottom teeth had clipped it when I punched her, a flap of dry gum hanging from it. My fever must have made it appear special, like folks thought Grandma Haygoode was. Was. I nudged her to be certain she was dead.
Running wasn’t gonna do me much good. Once the law found out Grandma was dead and that she had been talking to me when it happened, well, I would get strung up right there in the yard, no trial, just a bunch of pissed off executioners. And, I guess the devil certainly would have had me then, now wouldn’t he.
To tell you the truth, which is I guess what I have been doing all this time, though Grandma’s tooth wasn’t a light stuck down in her gums, it did kind of look like one, but without the bulb. I went into the front room where the logs in the fireplace crackled and all the pretty decorations were hung.
On the tree were lights strung around. Their bright yellows, reds, greens, oranges and blues flicked on and off every few seconds. My heart ached and I longed for Momma and Papa, to be with them in the grave instead of alive and despised by all in our little town just North of Hell.
Anger filled me, and all the years of hate that I had suppressed for Grandma and Charles and Winnie and that old bum who slept in the basement surfaced. And for Dumb George, too, who wasn’t so dumb after all—he just liked to play stupid so folks would feel sorry for him. I rolled that tooth in my palm with my fingers, and I stared at that Christmas tree wishing I had decorated it with my mom and dad. That Devil, well, he did get hold of me then.
Lying about it will do me no good now. There was an axe on the back stoop—sharp enough to cut through firewood, sharper still to cut through flesh. I sat and waited at the front door, listening for the others. One by one they came home, their faces weary from a hard day’s work. Too tired to fight me, they were easy to take. Charles first, the bum next; it was a little harder on my heart taking out Winnie—deep inside she was always a good person, but influenced but Grandma Haygoode, well, I guess even the best folks can think bad about someone when encouraged enough. I took their teeth with a pair of plyers that had been beneath the kitchen sink.
Laying in the dark, hidden by the door, I wait for Dumb George. He should come in soon and when he does, his teeth will join the others along a strand of lights, ornament hooks twisted around them and holding them in place. They look nice around the Christmas tree, all glowing and glittery with the glare of the colored lights shining off of them. Then I’ll call Preacher Hollings, invite him over for a while. And he’ll come. He’ll come because I’m at Grandma Haygoode’s and he’ll want to rejoice with her and me and everyone else because the Devil, he don’t have me in his clutches no more. Like the rest of them, he’ll be wrong…
Until we meet again, my friends… stay safe and love one another.