Emily’s grandmother clutched her wrist in a panicked grip. “If you wake up and hear a noise at night, like something creeping into the room, promise me you won’t look.” Her blue eyes were wide and terrified. “Give me your solemn word you won’t open your eyes. Promise me, Em.”
“I promise, Gran.”
Her grandmother released her wrist and closed her eyes, a look of relief washing over her tired face. Emily had gone to her house, concerned when she didn’t answer the phone. She found her lying crumpled at the foot of the cellar stairs. An ambulance brought her to the emergency room, where they strapped up her broken ribs and sprained ankle and gave her a sedative. They were keeping her in the hospital overnight, just to be safe.
Emily tucked the pink cotton blanket around the old lady’s narrow shoulders and smoothed her wispy white hair. “Get some sleep,” she whispered. “I’ll be back tomorrow to take you home.”
After making sure there was water in the plastic pitcher on the table next to the bed, and that the cord with the button to summon a nurse was looped around the bed rail where her grandmother could reach it in case she needed anything, Emily tiptoed out of the room.
Why had Gran said that weird stuff, about how there was something living with her in her house, something that– how did she put it?–something that didn’t belong in this world? Gran lived alone; she didn’t even have any pets.
Emily shook her head as she walked down the busy hospital corridor to the elevator. It had to be the shock from falling downstairs and lying there helpless that made her talk like that. There wasn’t anything scary in Gran’s house. Emily had been there hundreds of times.
But never overnight.
Gran had been funny about letting anyone stay overnight. When Emily was little she used to beg to be allowed to sleep over but Gran had adamantly refused. “We can have a sleepover at your house. It’ll be more fun than staying at my boring old house.”
Gran’s house was certainly old, but it wasn’t boring. There were so many rooms, and such interesting things in the rooms. All kinds of strange old books and collections of rocks and minerals and Indian arrowheads and butterflies and birds’ eggs and fossils and even a real shrunken head, all neatly arranged on wooden shelves behind glass doors and labeled in faded brown Spencerian script by Gran’s grandfather, who had traveled all over the world. It was like a museum, only better, because it belonged to Emily’s grandmother and Emily could handle anything she wanted, as long as she was careful.
But she couldn’t go into the room at the end of the second-floor hallway. The door was locked and no amount of begging or pouting would make Gran give up the key.
Now Emily was finally going to stay overnight at her grandmother’s house. She wouldn’t try to get into the locked room. She had too much respect for other people’s privacy to do that, but she’d be staying overnight, something she’d never been allowed to do in all of her twenty-one years. She felt excited as she walked out of the air-conditioned hospital into the unseasonably warm night air.
A little zombie, accompanied by a small Wonder Woman, both of them carrying plastic pumpkins, crossed her path as she pulled out of the parking lot. Her parents were away on business and her brother Ben would be holding down the fort at home, handing out candy assisted by his nerdy friends Simon and Justin, who looked at Emily longingly, as if she was a sirloin steak and they were starving dogs. Emily would rather not stay there with those two lurking around. She didn’t want to drive back to school, where her dorm would be full of rowdy costume-clad party-goers in the grip of Halloween festivities. It would be better at sleep at Gran’s.
She parked in the driveway, her car’s tires making the familiar crunching sound on the gravel. She unlocked the back door and went inside, into the old-fashioned kitchen.
Switching on lights as she went in, she moved through the downstairs, smelling the familiar scent of furniture polish and lavender potpourri. She checked to see that everything was undisturbed and the windows and doors were locked. This far out in the country there wouldn’t be any trick or treaters. It was quiet. The only sound came from the grandfather clock in the front parlor, its slow tick-tick as familiar to Emily as her own heartbeat.
She switched off the lights and went upstairs, where she undressed and crawled into her grandmother’s bed. She was bone tired. Tomorrow she would change the sheets but for now all she wanted was to drift off to sleep.
Emily drowsily swam back up into consciousness as she heard a noise that sounded like a door opening. Something was moving along the upstairs hallway. She was instantly alert, a primordial sense telling her to freeze. Then a breathy sound–an eager eh-eh-eh as whatever it was approached the open door to the room where she lay in bed, clenching her eyes shut.
It entered the room.
Emily could hear its feet shuffling across the carpet.
Don’t look, she thought. Gran said don’t look. It will be all right if you just don’t look.
She couldn’t help it. She opened her eyes.
It was then she made the final discovery of her short life: people really can die of fright.
Jill Hand is a member of the Horror Writers Association. Her work has appeared in more than thirty publications and in many anthologies, including Beyond the Stars: New Worlds, New Suns, Hellfire Crossroads 6, and Cat’s Breakfast.