I've been homeschooled ever since I was little, so it wasn't a surprise when my mom hired a private algebra teacher for my freshman year. We met up a few days before school at her house to get to know each other, and she seemed like a very nice lady. Her name was Sally Neckerson, but she told me everyone called her Aunt Sally because of the mathematical acronym "Please Excuse my Dear Aunt Sally" to remember the order of operations.
"Just a little bit of lame math humor," she said with a laugh as we sat down in her living room. "So, tell me a little bit about yourself!"
It was easy to talk to her, and she was a very good listener. I told her about my time as a homeschooler and the types of education I had gotten over the years, along with some of my favorite personal hobbies. She hung onto every word, complimenting me over and over again on how nice and friendly I was and how excited she was to teach me. To be honest, I was a little excited too, as I had a hard time learning anything and I had a feeling she would make algebra easier to understand.
As my mom and I were standing to leave after several hours of pleasant chatting, I noticed the birdcage on a stand in the other room, with a brightly-colored yellow and green parrot perched inside. As soon as I pointed it out she was excited to show her pet to me, and took him out of his cage for me to hold.
"His name is Echo," she said with a smile. "He's called that because he always repeats the last words he's heard, no matter how long ago they were."
"Long ago they were!" Echo chirped happily, fluttering his feathers in response. "Squawk! Long ago they were!"
I couldn't help but laugh, and was sad to put him back in his cage as we headed for the door again.
From then on, every single time I went over for my lesson, she would take Echo out for me and we'd play with him a little, giving him ridiculous sentences to repeat. It was slightly childish but I had too much fun to care, and was beginning to look forward to going over for my lessons more and more. Plus, my grade in Algebra was a high B, which was the best it had ever been.
Most of the school year passed, and Aunt Sally and I became better and better friends. She always had some kind of treat waiting for our lessons--scones, cookies, trail mix, stuff like that. She also found new ways to help me understand complicated mathematical concepts, often laughing at herself when she used the acronym for that order of operations that inspired her name.
One day, however, I went over and noticed that no treat was waiting on the kitchen table where we usually had our lesson. Confused, I dropped my backpack on the chair and looked around. I couldn't hear Aunt Sally walking around upstairs, and she certainly wasn't in the kitchen or the family room, as I could see both rooms from my vantage point at the table. Shrugging, I went to Echo's cage and began to tickle his feathered chest through the bars.
"Squawk!" Echo responded cheerfully. "Shut up! Squawk! Be quiet! Squawk!"
I was slightly confused at this, but was amused all the same. Maybe Echo had been particularly noisy one day and Aunt Sally had yelled at him. I would have liked to see that; she was such a nice person usually.
Sighing, I glanced at my watch; fifteen minutes after one, when our lesson was supposed to start. I considered calling her on her phone when suddenly she came down the stairs, giving me a pleasant smile. The curls in her brown hair were slightly more tangled than normal, giving her the appearance of just rolling out of bed, but I dismissed it.
"Sorry, dear," she said with a warm smile, "I was in the bathroom. And I'm sorry, I didn't have time to bake anything for you today."
I assured her that it was fine and we began our lesson.
Halfway through the lesson, however, Echo began to make strange whining noises, like high pitched squeals, and was fluttering his wings erratically. They bothered me and made a strange feeling squirm in my gut. Those sounds... reminded me of something.
I was surprised to see how irritated Aunt Sally became after just a few moments of this racket, but she gently told Echo to be quiet and after he repeated the phrase "Please quiet down!" a few times, Echo fell silent. He didn't say anything for the rest of the lesson.
Nothing else strange happened for the next few weeks, until one day we were at the kitchen table, reviewing foiling equations, when suddenly Echo made the loudest screeching noise that I had ever heard. It caused me to slam my palms into my ears; it was worse that Echo was perched right next to my chair in his cage. He didn't stop. He kept squealing and screeching, and I was faintly aware of a few gibberish words mixed into it, but just the sound of it filled me with dread. It was so disturbing to me, and I didn't know why.
I glanced over at Aunt Sally, hoping she would make him quiet down, and to my surprise there was a fierce expression in her eyes as she walked over to Echo's cage, shaking it violently a few times and making the parrot slam against the bars. He squawked in pain, falling to the bottom and scrambling to his feet with a frenzied flapping of wings.
"Stop!" I said without thinking. "I think that's hurting him!"
Aunt Sally's expression became pleasant again as she turned to me. The strange anger had disappeared from her eyes. "He's fine, sweetie," she assured me. "Just needs a little kick once and a while. All birds do."
I was fairly certain that wasn't true, but I didn't say anything.
I tried to finish the lesson but Echo's squawking was stuck in my mind, like a broken record. It kept eating away at me, especially the parts mixed with gibberish words, almost like a parrot version of a cry for help.
Finally I told Aunt Sally that I felt sick and she let me go home early.
The next week... the next week was the strangest.
The days leading up to that Tuesday were fairly normal, except for a few odd noises and phrases from Echo, but when I walked in that afternoon... it was different.
Aunt Sally was nowhere to be seen, so I occupied my time by playing with Echo again. He looked more jittery than normal, flapping his wings randomly and pecking at the bars with nervousness.
"Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally!" he squawked, quieter than normal. "Please excuse! Squawk! Please excuse! Don't kill me! Squawk! Don't kill me!"
I froze, drawing my fingers out of the bars as I heard the words come from Echo's beak. "... What?" I whispered, my own voice sounding faint in my ears. "What did you say?"
"What did you say?!" Squawk!" Echo continued. "Please don't kill me! I want to go home! Squawk!"
I backed away from the cage, fear squirming in my gut. This was creepy. Why was Echo saying all these things?
"Why! Don't kill me! Why! Squawk!" Echo shifted nervously on his perch, tilting his head at me as I continued to back away. "I want to go home! Don't kill me! Somebody help! Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally!"
Then that screech. That terrible screech that burned in my ears.
Why was it so horrifying?
It sounded... it sounded like a cry for help. Like a scream of pain.
I don't quite remember what happened after that, but I remember grabbing my bag and running. Running from Mrs. Neckerson's house. I remember getting home and telling my mom to call the police.
No one was willing to tell me much after that. My mom never let me near Aunt Sally's neighborhood again, and refused to tell me anything else. I heard stuff, though. I heard on the news that the mangled, tortured bodies of three young children had been found at Aunt Sally's address.