Read The Book of Bad Things Online
Authors: Dan Poblocki
, Vic called Rose on her cell phone. She was there in moments. She barely glanced at Cassidy as she ushered Joey out of the boys’ room, apologizing to Vic several times before the three of them made it out the art center door.
“Well, that was disappointing,” she said to Joey. “You maybe want to explain yourself?”
“I just didn’t want to be there anymore.” Joey climbed into the front seat of the hatchback.
“Did you think about what Cassidy wanted?” Rose asked, her voice trembling as she sat behind the wheel. “You know, not everything is about you,
If Cassidy could have folded herself into an envelope, she’d have tucked herself deep inside her backpack. Instead, she slunk down in the seat, trying to make herself invisible. What if Joey revealed that Cassidy had ruined the still life? Or what if he changed his mind and mentioned what she’d said about Lucky, about what she’d seen last night? Rose would be even more furious. This time with her. “I think you owe her an apology.”
“It’s okay, Rose. I don’t mind.”
Joey buckled his safety belt with a fury that could have killed a small animal. “
,” he said loudly as if to no one. To Cassidy’s relief, that was all he said.
Traveling back through the center of Whitechapel, they passed the town hall and the bridges under which the waters merged. Rose pulled into the public parking lot next to the small general store with blue-striped awnings and a sign painted directly onto the window —
. “I’ll pick up some sandwiches for lunch,” said Rose. “I’ve got nothing at home.”
As Cassidy followed Rose and Joey into the store, she was met with a cool blast of salty air — pickle brine and potato salad. She’d always loved coming here, though now, it was fraught with Joey’s anger. The floors were wide planks and the ceiling was elaborate pressed-tin. Several shelves near the front windows were filled with glass jars containing colorful bulk candy: jawbreakers and taffy and Lemonheads and Fireballs. Beside these was a spinning rack filled with old paperback books and a sign perched on top that read
BOOK EXCHANGE: TAKE A COPY, LEAVE A COPY
. She turned the frame, looking for one of Levi Stanton’s old paperbacks, but there were mostly just Mary Higgins Clarks and James Pattersons and Nathaniel Olmsteads.
The place made her think of olden days, of stories she’d read in school by Laura Ingalls Wilder, people living out on the frontier. Joey disappeared into the maze of shelving that was filled with dry goods and other groceries.
Cassidy found Rose in back near the deli counter, by a couple of noisy refrigerators and a generous seating area. Half a dozen people Cassidy recognized from around town — the library, the ice cream parlor, a few other local shops — lounged here on their lunch hours, munching on chips, sipping iced teas and lemonades, chatting quietly to one another. Cassidy thought she recognized a couple who’d been out at Chase Estates yesterday observing the cleanup at the Chambers house.
Behind the counter, an elderly woman was busy wiping down the surfaces of her workstation with a wet cloth. She was plump, dressed in an old-fashioned waitress uniform and hairnet. Her eyebrows appeared to be crooked, and she wore what looked like an excessive amount of blush, a rosy pink. When she saw Rose approach, her face lit up. “Hello, Mrs. Moriarty,” Rose chirped, all of her previous fury whisked behind a mask of neighborliness. “Hot enough out there for ya?”
“But I’m not out there, honey,” said Mrs. Moriarty. “I’m stuck in here. What can I get for you folks today?”
Rose ordered a couple of Italian submarine sandwiches and half a pound of macaroni salad. Mrs. Moriarty pulled ingredients from the cooler and chatted with Rose over her shoulder. “Quite a to-do out by your place this week. Who knew that Chambers woman was such an old drama queen?” Rose laughed, high-pitched and unnatural, nodding as if they were talking about something other than death.
Cassidy thought of last summer, of the face she’d seen at the Chambers house window, of the woman screaming at her to get off the property. “Drama queen” wasn’t the right expression. Yes, Ursula had been cranky — even mean — but she’d obviously been sick. The more Cassidy heard the people of Whitechapel talk about Ursula, the crueler they seemed.
She strolled past every aisle, casually and cautiously looking for Joey. She hadn’t meant to stir things up back at the college. She didn’t know what her next step should be. After everything she’d been through in the past few years, she wasn’t ready to give up on her friendship with him. But had he given up on her? She stepped around the last corner and found him standing several feet away, staring at pet supplies, doggie treats and toys and grooming products. She immediately drew back so he couldn’t see her. Cassidy knew he was hurting. She also knew pain faded if you let it. The problem was that strange things were happening, reminders of the past popping up like ghosts — maybe even literally — and poking sharp fingers into his open wound.
Cassidy considered that if she
seen Lucky’s ghost — an undead, growling version of the once jovial and galumphing mastiff — maybe she and Joey had bigger problems than their disintegrating friendship.
Voices were raised at the deli counter, and Cassidy turned to see what was wrong. A couple customers who’d been eating their lunch were suddenly involved in an excited exchange with Mrs. Moriarty. She heard the name Ursula and understood what it was all about. One of the elderly men spoke up, nodding, “Stories are spreading all over town. My own grandson called this morning. Says the old coot visited him last night.”
Rose stepped away from the counter, her eyes wide. She glanced around, as if looking for Joey, as if she did not want him to hear such things. Cassidy edged up beside her.
“Well I saw her too,” said Mrs. Moriarty. The store went silent, all eyes on the deli counter. She smiled as if on stage. “Clear as day, I saw her. Well … as clear as day in the middle of the night.”
Ursula Chambers,” Cassidy repeated.
Reminders of the past popping up like ghosts.
“In my living room.” Mrs. Moriarty motioned with her index finger across her heart. “Around eight o’clock. Swear on my husband’s grave.”
Cassidy immediately stepped closer, a dull pain jabbing her ribcage. Rose took her hand. “Wow, look at the time,” she said, quietly. “Our sandwiches —”
“Now, I’m not proud to admit this next part.” Mrs. Moriarty put both hands on the counter and leaned forward. “But my son-in-law told me that the mirror was perfectly fine and that if he hadn’t taken it from the pile in front of her house, they would have simply tossed it out with the rest of her garbage.” She shook her head, imagining the atrocity. “It’s a lovely thing, gorgeous actually. Old wood, perfect little roses carved into the corners. Owen said there’d be
in those Dumpsters, and he was right. Yesterday, after he left my house, I placed Ursula’s mirror on top of my bedroom dresser. It matches perfectly.
“Anyway, I’d been watching my game shows and falling asleep in my chair when I heard a noise behind me. I turned and that’s when I saw her. Ursula was standing in my bedroom doorway.”
“You must have been dreaming,” Rose said, clutching her arms across her chest.
“Maybe I was,” said Mrs. Moriarty. “Somehow, I knew why she’d come. Ursula wanted me to bring that mirror back to her house. I think I heard her voice in my head. But she was threatening me. No doubt about it.”
“That is creepy!” said a woman sitting at one of the deli tables. “What are you going to do?”
Mrs. Moriarty returned to the open submarine roll and slathered it with mayonnaise. “I don’t know.” She smiled, as if her story were merely a joke now, an anecdote she’d tell for years. “I guess I’ll see if she comes again tonight. If she really wants her mirror back that badly, she can take it herself. I certainly don’t have the time to go traipsing through a garbage heap to appease some dead nut job.”
Cassidy flinched at the word. Then goose bumps poked up along the back of her neck. She felt a presence and turned to see Joey standing only a few feet away.
When Rose caught Joey’s eye, her expression went limp.
He pressed his lips together. Cassidy read his thoughts:
It’s okay for you to talk about ghosts, but when I do it …
His mother stepped toward him, reaching for his hand, but Joey had already backed into one of the aisles, making his way to the exit.
In the car, on the way home, Rose turned up the radio and bounced in her seat, as if on the verge of forcing rainbows to stream from her ears. Cassidy knew what she was doing: trying to make them forget everything they’d just heard. Turning into their neighborhood, she shouted over the thrumming beat of an obnoxious pop song, “What say you we close the windows, turn up the AC, and watch some videos this afternoon? Sound like fun?”
To Cassidy’s surprise, Joey nodded yes.
HE MAN DOES NOT AGE
,” Millie said to herself, sitting in the cushy blue reclining chair in the corner of her living room. The man she spoke of was the host of a game show, the one with the wheel that glimmered and spun on her television screen. “If only I were so lucky!” She chuckled, then glanced at the purple rocker on the other side of the room where, once, her husband and the love of her life would have heard her declaration and nodded in agreement.
Too true, Millie
, Georgie Moriarty would have responded. Of course, he’d have also told her that she was beautiful just as she was.
For decades, Mildred Moriarty had been known to her customers as Mrs. Moriarty, but to lovely old Georgie, she’d always been Millie. If she closed her eyes and concentrated, she’d hear his voice calling her:
Silly Millie with the snapdragon smile
She sighed as the game show cut to a commercial and plucked the remote from the cushion next to her bottom. She hit the mute button. In the sudden silence, the confusion of the previous night came flooding back to her, when the voice of Ursula the Hermit had whooshed from the darkness behind her.
Bring back my mirror!
Millie had heard Ursula say, possibly only in her head, like words from the final confrontation with a fairy-tale witch.
Millie had leapt from her chair, backing away from the apparition as it faded into the shadows of her bedroom doorway. Later, after brushing her teeth, she’d managed to convince herself that she’d dreamed the vision, that she felt guilty about accepting the odd gift from Owen Chase, her daughter’s rich husband. And that was the only way she managed to find sleep that night.
Now, staring at her late husband’s rocker, she wished that she
being haunted, only not by a loony who’d lived up in the hills, but by the man who’d promised on her wedding day to love, honor, and cherish her until death did they part.
I made a mistake with that one, the segment about parting at death.
Georgie wouldn’t have been a scary ghost. He’d be friendly. Like a good memory. She missed him so much. Every day.
Kitty and Owen helped out at the store as much as they could manage, but they had jobs of their own. Kitty had suggested several times recently that Millie should sell the store to Owen, that he’d find some new lucrative use for the space, but Millie could not bear to part with the business she’d created with Georgie almost forty years ago. “Besides,” she had explained to Kitty and Owen’s dismay, “what would I do with myself all day long? Stare at the wall?”
The show returned with a flurry of flashing lights, and Millie pressed the mute button once more. The theme music filled the room. For years, she’d been playing along with the contestants. She was good at it too, occasionally winning that impossible final round. Once, George had suggested she try out for the show, but she knew she’d never hold up under the pressure. It was all luck, in the end. Pure luck. You could spin the wheel once and lose everything. No. She’d never survive something like that. Better to sit here and play on her own.
Something clattered to the floor, somewhere behind her. It sounded as though it had come from the bedroom. Millie muted the television once again. Trembling, she spun the recliner to face the opposite direction. Her bedroom door stood open, the darkness inside gazing back.
“Who’s there?” she called out, forcing anger into her voice, though what she felt, not even very deep down, was fear. Was this really happening again?
In the darkness of her bedroom, something shifted. Moved. It sounded like fabric against fabric. Skin against skin.
Millie choked down the bile that had come up in the back of her throat. She pressed her legs down until the chair’s footrest was nestled underneath the cushion, then she stood. “Owen? Is that you? Kitty?”
She knew it was not.
The previous evening, she’d been dozing off. But not now. And after hearing the stories from some of the customers during today’s lunch rush, she’d begun to doubt that what she’d seen had been pure imagination. Other folks had seen Ursula as well. And in every instance, they claimed she’d been upset that someone had stolen her belongings. This had to be more than a coincidence.
Unless they’d all had the same dream…. Hadn’t there been an episode of some old television show in which that had happened —
or something — based on some sort of psychological phenomenon?
A humming began. A low voice, not quite singing, echoed out from the bedroom. Millie nearly fell backward into the recliner.
“That’s enough,” she said, steadying herself. She stomped loudly across the hardwood floor, to show whoever or whatever was hiding in the darkness that she could be a formidable presence herself. She reached around the edge of the doorway, half expecting a cold finger to brush against her own, then flipped on the overhead light.
Millie braced herself for whatever might be standing there. She gasped when she found the room completely empty. Her floral comforter lay perfectly across the mattress, her pillows still puffy, fluffed by her own hand that very morning.
“Hello?” Millie said, this time unable to control the flutter in her throat. “Ursula?” she whispered, feeling foolish for even considering the possibility. “Is that you?” But there was no answer. The humming had stopped too. Millie clutched at the fabric of her nightgown near her chest and stepped farther into the room.
The mirror sat on her bureau, facing the bed. Since its surface was perpendicular to her view, Millie could see only a slight reflection of the wood-paneled wall beside it.
, thought Millie, wondering suddenly how she could have allowed such a thing into her home. Who knew what kind of filth it had laid in all those years? Who knew what horrors it had witnessed in that disgusting farmhouse? Repulsed, Millie inched closer. Yes, its details were masterfully crafted. But its history … its owner.
“You want it?” Millie called out as if Ursula were hiding in the closet, listening to her move across the creaky flooring. “Take it! I didn’t ask for it anyhow.”
She came around the front of her bureau in full view of the mirror. Its frame was a dark wood, walnut maybe, a couple feet wide by three feet high. She’d propped it against the wall, and now stood staring at herself. Her face was backlit by the overhead light. She rarely flipped that switch. The glare was so harsh, it made her look ancient — had done so even before Millie had thought of herself that way. She turned around to flick on the bedside lamp, when the above light flickered and dimmed.
The floor shuddered slightly and the sound from the television came back on, as if someone had hit the mute button again. A car dealership proclaimed news for
the SALE of the YEAR
! Millie yelped. The room tilted and she reached out for the lip of the bureau to steady herself. The mirror shifted, and the bottom began to slide forward.
Mindlessly, Millie reached out to try to save it, but when she grabbed it, a sharp pain ran across her thumb. She gasped, releasing her grip. The frame bumped against the bureau, jolting her senses. Millie glanced at her thumb. A fresh red line bisected the tip of it. A cut … A bite. “Darn it all,” she whispered, sticking her thumb in her mouth. A coppery taste rushed over her tongue. She’d need a Band-Aid, if not a stitch or two.
The humming returned. Faintly. Or was it only in her head? The light dimmed further. Millie froze, staring at the mirror. A thin crack had formed at its side. Had it been there before? Was that what she’d cut herself on? It had happened so quickly, Millie wasn’t sure.
When Owen and Kitty came over in the morning, she’d tell them to take this thing out of here. Ghosts or not, looking into the mirror chilled her. She pulled her thumb out of her mouth and stepped back, ready to go off in search of that bandage, when she noticed something in the glass behind her. A smudge of darkness. It looked momentarily like a face.
Millie fell forward into the dresser, then turned, expecting to find Ursula there, hands raised to take back what had belonged to her. But there was nothing there. Only the bed, the lamp, the table by the opposite window. The dim light fixture in the ceiling above. Millie shook her head. Someone had been there. Standing behind her. Humming.
Slowly, she glanced back at the mirror. In the glass, the darkness remained, a spherical shape hovering several feet over her mattress. She peered from mirror to bed several times, but the shadowy form only appeared in the reflective glass. For a moment, Millie wondered if she’d dirtied it somehow when she’d sliced her finger.
Leaning forward, she examined the glass. The darkness was no smudge. It was moving, shifting, as if made up of many smaller parts, threads, lacing and intertwining upon itself. She clutched the edge of the bureau, struggling to breathe. A tremor shook the house again, the light of the bedroom dimming even more. She could barely see her own face in the mirror now. The darkness seemed to expand, tendrils of shadow reaching toward her, as if through the surface of the mirror itself. She felt ice on the thin skin of her neck, a slender black chain snaking around her throat like a noose.
From the other room, the game show host was making pronouncements about the final round, but Millie couldn’t make out what he said. She didn’t care. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t breathe. Tears spilled from her burning eyes. She tried to call out to her husband — GEORGE! — but nothing escaped the tightness in her throat. All she could see now was darkness. All she could feel was cold. A tingling in her fingertips. A sense of weightlessness, as if she were falling in slow motion.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the host’s voice blared moments later from the television, sounding purposely crestfallen. “Let’s see what you could have won.” The audience gasped in disappointment.