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Five long years had passed since I had seen any of my cousins. The last I time I saw them was when I was only eight years old. I had skipped gaily around their little house, singing my favorite songs and playing games with the six year old twins. This playtime, however, was consistently tainted by the gloomy presence of my Aunt Clarissa, who always used to scare me as a child. With her sharp chin and stormy eyes, she seemed the perfect flesh and blood representation of a living witch.
My Aunt Clarissa was always a perfectionist, a taskmaster who held onto the firm belief that everything in her life should be perfect or as close to perfect as humanly possible. She cared so much about faultlessness that you would’ve thought the whole world would be thrown out of orbit if something in her life were to go wrong.
The one thing my aunt cared about the most was her children: the two little angels who kept her heart beating and air pumping in and out of her lungs. As such, she was incredibly protective of them. Whenever I would try to play tag, hide and seek, monkey in the middle, or anything of the sort really, she would be hovering over us, with her dark grey eyes flashing. She would always say, “Now, Jared, don’t you ever play too rough with Simon or Eloise. If anything ever were to happen to them, I’d wear you out.” I always tried to dismiss these threats as being nothing but empty. My own aunt, frightening though she was, wouldn’t dare to put a hand against me when my own mother was also present in the house? Would she? One way or another, I never dared to find out. I always managed to tread lightly when cavorting with my cousins, for fear of what my Aunt Clarissa might do.
I also had an Uncle Wayne, but he was often overwhelmed with his work as a businessman, and it was rare that he would descend from his office to be in our company. He was a shy man who seldom spoke, but had a great bellowing laugh that broke free whenever he found something humorous. There are only wisps of memory that I can recall of him, such as him donning his head when it came time to say a prayer before we ate, or the way he always used to absentmindedly rub his stubble when he was deep in thought.
My family and I used to visit our cousins all the time back at my old house. We lived only thirty minutes apart from each other, and so it was often that we dropped by, if only to say hello and catch up on the goings on in life. Then my dad got a job offer in Virginia, and it was a long time before my family or I set foot in North Carolina, let alone the miniscule town of New London. I do remember feeling happy, at the very least, for my Aunt Clarissa as we left, despite my disliking her. She was about to have another child, and her happiness had reached a peak that I didn’t even know existed. Her eyes weren't as stormy as they usually were the last time we went to visit to say goodbye, and she seemed unusually content. Three was the perfect number. Three perfect children; this was all Aunt Clarissa had ever wanted.
We all moved to Norfolk, and eight months later the big news came. Aunt Clarissa had delivered her baby. She sent us a letter fueled with obvious excitement for her newborn, who she had named Mallory. Now I’m thirteen years old and I still remember thinking of how odd it was that Aunt Clarissa hadn’t sent us a photograph of her infant child.
The years whisked by like sand in wind, and the more time went by, the less contact we had with our cousins, Aunt Clarissa, and my Uncle Wayne. Then, finally, we were invited over to their house for the holidays. My mother, who missed her older sister dreadfully, readily agreed to visit, and my father, seeing how eager my mother was, consented a weekend long stay.
After a daylong car trip, we finally got to the familiar residence of my aunt, uncle, and their three children. We all approached the steps, laughing and talking amongst ourselves before my father reached the door and knocked. There was no immediate response. A full minute later we were still standing there awkwardly, fidgeting and stealing glances at each other. Then, the door abruptly slid open about a foot. The face of an eleven year old boy appeared from the inside of the house, his white blond hair hanging over his baggy green eyes, which flitted around, taking in our every detail. His jaw finally quivered slightly before he said to us, “Come in, please, it’s so nice to see you all.”
After five years, Simon had definitely changed. No longer was he the playful and energetic young boy that I had used to know, he was now more solemn, as if he had been constantly bullied, and expected nothing but contempt from everyone. My mother wasted no time, smiling and gushing, “Why, Simon, come here and give me a hug!” Simon allowed himself to be embraced before leading us all inside, where we were greeted by Aunt Clarissa.
She smiled, saying, “Hello everyone, It’s been far too long!” before spreading her arms and coming forward to give us all hugs. She commented on how much I had grown and asked me if I’d taken care of my parents. I smiled uneasily and replied that I had done the best I could. I looked hard at Aunt Clarissa, taking in how she had changed, or more accurately, the lack of how much she had changed. There were gray streaks in her otherwise blond hair, but that appeared to be the only major difference.
I asked her if we could expect to see Uncle Wayne, and she responded by saying that he had unexpectedly had to leave on an important business trip, and couldn’t be there to see us. This in itself was nothing all too surprising, and I thought nothing of it. She led us into the dining room, where Mallory and Eloise had already sat down. My mother crooned over Mallory and introduced herself while dad commented on how much Eloise had changed. Mallory didn't look at all like the rest of the family. Her hair was a dirty blond and her eyes were not green or gray, but instead a light blue. I didn’t really talk to her, but instead focused on Eloise, who had grown much older and prettier than I had last seen her. She barely remembered me, but I was still able to make small talk with her. I noticed she had grown to be wary and suspicious of others, as if someone might try to slip a knife in her back at any moment. When I asked her if she and Mallory got along, she flinched, as if she had just heard a gunshot from outside.
The only members of the family that seemed somewhat normal were Aunt Clarissa and Mallory. Mallory was happily eating away at steamed carrots and Aunt Clarissa was sat on her chair with a pleased look on her face, as if proud of her perfect children. She looked down at Mallory with such adoration and motherly love, that you could practically sense the strong emotions Aunt Clarissa had for her.
There was definitely tension in the air, as if there had recently been a fight between Aunt Clarissa and her kids. I decided that I would ask Eloise about it after dinner. I met up with her in the living room and sat down. She was engrossed in a teenage magazine I had never even heard of, but looked up sharply as soon as the question was out of my mouth.
“Eloise, is there anything wrong in this house?”
Her sea green eyes darted to two different places somewhere behind me before meeting my own. I made a mental note of this.
“There’s nothing wrong here, why would you say that?” she answered, forcing a smile onto her face.
I shook my head. “Never mind, I thought Simon was acting unusual.” I saw a split second of relief cross her face before she was able to hide it.
“It’s nothing, don’t worry about him, he gets bullied sometimes by older kids.”
I nodded and continued to talk to Eloise, but my mind was elsewhere. I swiftly concluded our conversation and got up, turning around as I did so. I quickly surveyed the living room, looking for the places Eloise had been glancing at.
Those two places were the coat closet and the stairwell.
I knew that something was terribly wrong with that family, inside that house. But it was something that kept eluding me, something amiss that I couldn't quite put my finger on. It was very frustrating. I decided that I would find out that night, after everyone had gone to bed. I was to be sharing a room with Simon, and mother and father would be sleeping in the spare bedroom. I did my best to act normal and socialize with everyone, given the unsettling atmosphere of the house.
My parents did not appear to notice anything. They were completely oblivious to how strange our cousins were acting. I think that my mother was just so happy to see her family members that she didn’t observe their abnormal behavior, and my father had never really gotten to know Simon or Eloise well enough to perceive that their stiff, nervous mannerisms were unusual.
Finally it was time to go to bed, and we all brushed our teeth and changed into pajamas. Simon had allowed me to use his bed, and he opted for the floor, nestling down amidst a compilation of pillows and blankets, with the moonlight streaming in through the window illuminating his face. I relaxed my breathing, pretending to fall asleep, while watching Simon all the time, waiting for him to nod off. But he didn’t. I stared at his motionless body for hours as he lay there on the ground, his eyes never closing. Every muscle in his body was pulled taut, as if he were expecting someone to break into the room and attack him.
At one in the morning his breathing relaxed and he became limp. I slipped out of bed and took a flashlight from Simon’s dresser before creeping downstairs, wincing every time I heard the wooden floorboards creak. I finally made it to the closet and opened the door. Turning on the flashlight, I stepped inside. On the surface, it looked very much ordinary, as if there were nothing even remotely unexpected to be found. I checked in Simon and Eloise’s pockets, but they were empty save for a small Swiss Army Knife belonging to Simon. I began rummaging around, checking in dark corners and in the shoe rack, but didn't find anything of interest. I started looking underneath the baskets in which various gloves and hats were kept on a shelf above the coat rack.
To my surprise, a newspaper article fluttered down to the floor.
I bent over and picked it up. The title of the article read: “Female Infant Stolen from Orphanage.”
My curiosity increased. Why would Aunt Clarissa have something like this in her coat closet? I tucked the article into my back pocket and went onto the second thing I had seen Eloise looking at... the stairs.
Sudden memories came back to me in a flood of nostalgia. When I was little, and had decided to play hide and seek with my cousins, Simon and Eloise had a hiding place that beat me every time. They would simply conceal themselves in the cupboard underneath the stairs. Every time I passed the cupboard I would stop, not wanting to go inside to the darkness of the cupboard where unspeakable monsters surely awaited me. I would search every other nook and cranny of the house, hoping they would be somewhere else before eventually giving up, even though I really knew where my cousins were. Using that method, they had beat me time and time again until I eventually grew tired of hide and seek and proclaimed that we should play tag instead.
The furniture had been rearranged so that the couch now blocked the cupboard under the stairs, but I knew for sure it was still there. I looked down on the ground and noticed something strange. There were scuff marks on the floor, as if the couch had been pulled away from the stairs often. I knew that whatever was under those stairs was the answer to why everyone in the house was so tense, and I was eager to find out the secret.
I pushed the couch away from the staircase and stepped over to the door of the cupboard. To my surprise, the doorknob was secured with a thick padlock. I went back to the coat closet and retrieved Simon’s small knife. I inserted the thin blade into the handle and twisted, bit by bit, until the lock clicked open. My heart began to pound feverishly in my chest as I unhooked the padlock and swung the small door open. The first thing that hit me was the stench. The smell of rot and decay in that little area under the stairs was overpoweringly strong. My nostrils quickly grew thick with the scent of putrid decomposition. Putting a hand over my wrinkled nose, I shone the flashlight in the dark area beneath the stairs. The beam of my light passed over a rusty chain dangling from the low ceiling of the right hand end of the small space provided by the cupboard, and I moved my flashlight down to discover a human hand grasped in the tight hold of a manacle.
A shocked little gasp escaped my throat and my blood ran cold. I reached up and flicked the switch to the small light bulb dangling from the ceiling. Before me, a girl no less than five years old was hanging from the manacles on the ceiling, clad in nothing but a pair of dirty undershorts. Her head lolled to one side, a rag was stuffed in her mouth, and her ankles were tied in thick rope that caused her veins to bulge. Her wrists, as well as skin around her feet were red and sore from being bound. I could tell from the length of her face and her undersized eyes that she suffered from Down Syndrome. Her skin was seemingly pulled over her bones and her ribs stuck out. Most alarming, however, was the gore that stained her mouth and hands.
For a horrible moment I thought that she was dead, but then her head arose from her shoulders and the most pitiful noise emitted from her throat. She was trying, desperately, to moan in her discomfort, but such a thing was impossible with the gag in her mouth. Looking to the other side of the cupboard, revulsion welled in the pit of my stomach.
Sprawled out in the other corner was the half eaten corpse of my uncle. His stomach had been ripped open and his innards were spilled all over the floor. The skin on his face had been peeled away by greedy hands to reveal his white skull.
I looked again upon the child on the other end of the room. I saw, once more, the blood that surrounded her mouth and tarnished her hands… I was sure that if I had looked just a little bit closer, I would’ve seen bits of torn human flesh under her fingernails.
I couldn't take it; I keeled over and vomited heavily before catching my balance on the door frame and trembling. The taste of sick permeated my tongue and polluted each new deep breath that I was taking in. I had to do something immediately. My only choice was to call the police, but the only landline in the house I had seen was upstairs. I ran up the steps, no longer caring how much racket I was creating. Upon reaching the phone, I snatched it up, dialing frantically with trembling fingers. But when I put it up to my ear, the only noise I heard was my own rapid breathing. I tried again; pressing buttons until I realized that it was no use… the phone lines had been cut. Aunt Clarissa kept her family under close tabs. Simon and Eloise’s home was also their prison.
All of a sudden, from downstairs I heard the most terrible sound. It was a loud female shriek that pierced the night and grated on my ears. That’s when I realized I had left the door under the stairs open and the light on. I then heard the quick footfalls of someone running, and the front door being slammed shut. I scrambled to my room and used my cell phone to call the police.
I later found out what happened through Simon and Eloise, who explained their entire ordeal at the local police station. It turned out that Aunt Clarissa, as the perfectionist I had always known her to be, could not possibly allow her child to have Down Syndrome. She had, in short, spiraled into insanity, stealing a new baby from a nearby orphanage. She stole the child that I knew as Mallory. But Aunt Clarissa didn't have the heart to kill her own creation, even if her baby was marred. So she kept her child hidden away under the stairs whilst being with her perfect family. However, my uncle had opposed my Aunt Clarissa. So she had gotten rid of him and used his body to feed her hungry little secret under the stairs.
I will never forget this. Every night when I climb into my bed, for the rest of my life, I will remember the horrible half-moan that that poor girl had choked out. When I close my eyes, I will see the mutilated corpse of my uncle.
Worst of all is not any of this, but instead the simple fact that Aunt Clarissa was never caught by the police.
Even now she is probably on the streets, maybe with a new name or face, searching for another perfect child.
Written by SnakeTongue237