Greg Przywara
When the Carters move into a well-kept bungalow on the East Side of Madison, they soon discover they ... Show More
Cross-Genre, Fantasy, Horror, Paranormal
Madison, Wisconsin, African-American, black, haunted house

Chapter 1

            It was the worst traffic jam in the history of Starkweather Street and the Carters’ navy blue Prius was trapped right in the middle of it, sandwiched between the moving van, which was packed to the rafters with fifteen years of marriage mummified in cardboard and bubble wrap, and a pine green Ford pickup with a large Packers flag attached to the roof. As Darryl gulped down the last of the lukewarm cappuccino he’d purchased from the Starbucks next to the realtor’s, he couldn’t decide what irritated him more: Mark and Wayne, the indolent, overpaid movers who had spent the bulk of the past three hours complaining about the “excessive” weight of the boxes, or the five-thirty freight inching along at half a snail‘s pace across the tracks four cars ahead. He envied the psuedosaintly patience of his wife Denise, who was seated next to him, engrossed in an Aretha Franklin CD, her placid mahogany eyes oblivious to the muffled obscenities seeping from their thirteen-year-old daughter Kelly’s Ipod. He stifled an impulse to read her the proverbial riot act over her hair, which was loosely bound up in a frayed pink do rag and looked like it hadn’t seen a brush in two days or her faded belly shirt commemorating the last Chicago concert by Darryl’s late brother Demetrius AKA Uncle Playa. In an aquarium stashed behind the backseat, Kelly’s guinea pig Tupac sucked on his water bottle with hearty galunk-galunk’s as he tried to render the family into Swiss cheese with his penetrating coal-black eyes.

            As the caboose sluggishly emerged from behind the thick shrubbery next to the apartment house adjoining the tracks, Darryl was suddenly seized with muted gratitude for his daughter’s obsession with her deceased uncle’s vulgar muse. The left side of the car was covered with a menacingly garish style of graffiti that could only have originated from the twisted, cocaine-fueled imaginations of the amoral degenerates responsible for his brother’s death in a drive-by on his house six months ago, the Mambas. The only thing that prevented him from bolting out of the vehicle and threatening the conductor with the prospect of a foot lodged up his ass for this insensitive display of inefficiency was his loyalty to his surviving brother Malcolm, who was vying to become Madison’s first African-American mayor. It was Malcolm’s boundless generosity and regard for Darryl’s writing skills that had made it possible for them to leave the gang-infested purgatory of their South Side Chicago neighborhood and move to a renovated bungalow on the east side of Madison where Darryl could concentrate on his new forty-five thousand dollar a year job as Malcolm’s speechwriter without his train of thought being interrupted by gunfire every ten minutes. Malcolm had also done him the courtesy of contacting the local police who had assured him that there hadn’t been any Mamba activity in Madison in twenty-five years, but still, this was not the type of welcome banner he wanted his family to be greeted with their first day in their new surroundings.

            He was about to ask Denise if she wouldn’t mind walking out there and tactfully reminding the conductor that the movers charged a hundred bucks an hour even while stalled in traffic, when a heavyset woman with stringy, shoulder-length red hair got out of the maroon Honda Civic directly in front of the tracks. With an elephantine bellow that could be heard a block away, she warned the conductor that if her son caught pneumonia waiting on the front porch for her, her husband would sue the hell out of the railroad. Her spouse must have been an alderman or some other person of influence in the area because less than two minutes after she climbed back into her car, the train was already down by the lumberyard a block to their right.

            “It’s about a damn time,” sighed Darryl as the cars in front of them proceeded to make up for lost time with marginal regard for the speed limit. As he pulled into the driveway of 2953 Starkweather and glanced up at his family’s new home, he wondered for what seemed like the gazillionth time how on earth they’d gotten such a good deal on the place. The exterior sported brand-new white aluminum siding that was only slightly grimy in spots from the construction of a  bridge a block up the street last summer. The chimney had recently been tucked and a new roof with solar panels had been installed the previous fall. The kitchen was outfitted with state-of-the-art appliances, including a fridge that Denise was convinced had been used on the set of her favorite sitcom and the basement laundry room boasted a high-efficiency washer and dryer.

            The house had been originally assessed at one twenty-eight K, which would have been a little too much out of their price range, even with Malcolm helping them with the down payment. Then a week before closing, they received a mysterious call from the realtor informing them that the sellers had knocked off fifty grand for no apparent reason. Denise attributed this new development to God’s providence, while Darryl was more inclined to believe that less divine forces were responsible for their seemingly good fortune. However, two hours with a home inspector and five hundred bucks later, he decided that the only valid explanation for the sudden price plunge besides his wife’s was a sluggish housing market.

            The sellers, Russell and Jean Nelson, who ran a small custodial business, were by no means well-to-do, so when they caught wind of this dramatic decrease in the value of their property, the Carters half-expected them to reject their offer or at the very least take all those fancy appliances with them. Instead, they took the news with the indifference of Badger football fans during a consolation bowl game and astounded Darryl and his family even more by leaving behind a riding lawn mower, two air conditioners, three snow shovels, and enough plywood propped up against the basement walls for three bookcases. If the economy wasn’t in the toilet and if they weren’t so desperate to get out of Chicago, the Carters might have been a tad more skeptical about this unusual display of generosity. For now, they were content to savor the extra helping of good fortune God had set before them, though at the moment, it might have been a little more palatable for Darryl if the Nelsons had applied a little WD-40 to the locks before moving.

            It took him almost five minutes to get the front door open. By then the chattering of the movers’ teeth from the subzero late January cold was becoming increasingly punctuated by robust ka-chings, so as soon as he flipped on the living room lights, he dashed out to the moving van and returned a minute later struggling under the weight of the box containing their TV. He probably would have had three-fourths of their belongings inside the house in thirty minutes if his wife hadn’t calmly ordered him to set down the TV box, order a pizza, and let the movers do their job. He was standing in the bedroom rattling off directions to the delivery guy with his cell phone propped against his ear when Mark tapped him on the shoulder and gruffly asked him what he was supposed to do with the large keyboard tucked under his arm. Darryl hung up and led him to a wide ladder leaning up against the wall facing the bed and into the finished attic where his daughter would sleep.

            When the Carters had first poked their heads into this space, they had concluded that the Nelsons must have used it for some type of meditation. The walls and ceiling had been painted to resemble a placid summer sky with an intricate cloud design complete with shafts of heavenly light extending from each wispy mass of tranquility. It was practically a sin that Kelly would probably insist on obliterating this sublime illusion with countless posters of her late uncle. Darryl led Mark to a door at the back of the room which led to an alcove that would serve as his daughter’s music room.

            She had shown such promise before her uncle’s death and had even come close to mastering a few of Joplin’s rags. It was her parents’ fervent desire that in a safer, more wholesome environment, her talent would be rekindled and might even conquer her unhealthy obsession with the rancid rhymes that Demetrius had passed off as his “ghetto muse”. Mark leaned the keyboard up against the wall, grabbed the knob, and instantly pulled his hand back with an agonized obscenity.

            “What the hell do you got on the other side of this door? A blowtorch?” Darryl tested the knob with his right forefinger. It was warm, but certainly not enough to cause injury. “Quit stalling and get that keyboard in there!” he barked, his patience thinning with every minute of overtime this incompetent fool was chalking up.

            “Does this look like screwing around, asshole?” snapped Mark, as he held up his right palm, which was as scorched as if it had been resting on a gas burner for five minutes. What was even more disturbing was that the burn mark bore little resemblance to the outline of the knob and looked more like the blurred shadow of something from the intestines of hell. Darryl fought to convince himself that the unnatural shape of the burn was merely the product of an imagination deluded by the legal ramifications of such an injury as he quickly hustled Mark downstairs and into the bathroom. Thankfully, Wayne was in the basement, engaged in an intense discussion with Denise over where to put her grandmother’s sewing machine while Kelly bemoaned her allegedly emaciated condition, even though she’d consumed two king-sized bags of Skittles and a package of Zingers since lunch.

            As Darryl pulled out a tube of ointment and a bandage from the box next to the sink, he heard Mark exclaim, “You gotta be kidding me! How the hell could it disappear just like that?” He eyed the mover’s palm, which a few seconds ago appeared to be tattooed for life with the fiery impression of some unholy being and was startled to discover that it was in no more need of medical care than President Obama was in need of a new VP. Was there something in the air in Kelly’s room that had caused them to fall victim to a mutual conscious nightmare that had ended, a little too conveniently, moments after they were back downstairs? He was about to return to the attic and try to determine whether or not his daughter could be victimized by a similar delusion when Kelly and Denise emerged from the basement, followed by Wayne, who to Darryl’s relief, was clutching a clipboard containing an invoice in his right hand.

            “God, this house is weird,” observed Mark as he continued to stare at his hand, still not quite ready to believe that such a ghastly burn could have vanished so quickly.

            “What do you mean?” asked his partner. Before Mark could respond, Darryl hastily jotted down an extra hundred bucks on the tip line. He knew such an extravagant gratuity wasn’t customary outside of Chicagoland, so it didn’t surprise him in the least when Wayne and Mark reacted as if they had just won front-row passes to a Bear-Packer game.

            “What the hell’s the matter with you?” scolded Denise as soon as the movers had left and they were sitting around the table over the neighborhood pizza joint’s six-dollar special, which consisted of a paper thin crust pie with a texture not unlike the boxes they were sitting on topped with cheese that tasted like it had been stored in a pile of dirty sweat socks and sausage so greasy, it could have been put to better use as a lubricant for the locks on the front door and a two-liter bottle of generic cola. “Neither one of those fools deserved a tip like that and even if they did, we couldn’t afford it with the mortgage on this place.”

            “My brother will take care of it,” replied Darryl as he tried to wash out the stale taste of cardboard pie with instant heartburn, hoping that not all Madison pizza was like this crap, made digestible only by one of Denise’s fantastic fruit salads which she had managed to whip up at the last minute.

            “You’re sure about that?” asked Denise skeptically as she gave Kelly the evil eye for slipping an apple slice into Tupac‘s cage. “He’s been so good to us already, helping us get into this nice house, that I really don’t want to push our luck.”

            “Don’t worry, hon,” reassured Darryl. “If I thought he wouldn’t understand why I tipped that guy, I wouldn’t have done it.”

            “Why did you do it?” pressed Denise, “It’s not like you to throw money around like that, especially after the half-ass job they did.”

            “Tell us or I’ll feed the rest of my salad to Tupac,” added Kelly with a devious smirk that indicated she was fully prepared to back up such a threat.

            “You do and he can have your Ipod, too.” Kelly rolled her eyes, a gesture that Darryl considered almost as disrespectful as the finger, but at least it was accompanied by another mouthful of salad. However, Denise wasn’t so easily silenced.

            “Come clean, Darryl. We’re family. No secrets here.” Darryl racked his brain for a plausible alibi, wishing Malcolm was coming over with the notes to tomorrow’s speech at the Rotary Club within the next minute, instead of a half-hour from now.

            “I did it because even though they weren’t the most professional movers we’ve ever had, at least they didn’t leave anything behind like the time we moved from your parents’ house to our first apartment and those idiots left that huge box of pots and pans sitting in front of the dryer and wouldn‘t come back for it unless we paid them an extra fifty bucks. Your mom wasn’t able to do laundry until I could convince your dad with his bad back to help me haul that sucker upstairs and into the back of his car. Imagine what we would’ve had to go through if the guys we hired for this move had screwed up like that.”

            “I guess I can see where you’re coming from now,” said Denise with a sigh as she started clearing the table, “but only because I’m too tired to argue with you.” An hour from now, she’d be zonked out on the couch. By morning, she’d have forgotten all about this extravagant, but necessary act of indiscretion. You would’ve made a hell of a mob attorney, thought Darryl to himself as he scooped up the empty pizza box.

            After supper, Kelly went up to the attic with Tupac swaddled in an old hand towel, followed by Darryl toting the aquarium and praying he wouldn’t drop the guinea pig’s cumbersome abode as he slowly mounted the steep ladder. As soon as he set down the aquarium on the floor of Kelly’s bedroom, Tupac let out an ear-piercing squeal, leaped from the blanket, and dove under the bed. For the next ten minutes, Kelly tried to bribe the guinea pig out of his hiding place using everything from a paper towel tube to a sandwich bag of carrot tops with no success. Darryl, who was anxious to get started on that speech, went to the ladder and called down to Denise to come up and give him a hand in extricating the inexplicably stubborn rodent from the underside of his daughter’s bed. Denise replied, her tone slightly tainted with sarcasm, that she’d be more than glad to help if she wasn’t busy scrubbing out the dishwasher that the previous owners had thoughtlessly left with dried-on food smeared all over the interior.

            “Come on, little buddy, you can’t stay under there all night,” coaxed Darryl as he reached under the bed with the paper towel tube. A few seconds later, he felt a pair of tiny fangs clamp down with unusual force on the back of his right hand. He drew his hand back and discovered blood trickling from a pair of pint-sized teethmarks just below his ring finger.

            “What the hell?” he gasped. Tupac had only bitten him once before. It had happened shortly after he’d bought him when the rodent had escaped from his ball while Kelly was cleaning the aquarium and had peed on the kitchen floor right after Denise had mopped it. Even then, he’d only nipped him hard enough to demonstrate his aversion to being addressed in anything but tones saturated in infantile saccharine and he’d never come close to breaking the skin.

            After bandaging his wound, he helped Kelly move the bed out from the wall and threw himself against the dresser to keep Tupac from scurrying under it while Kelly scooped him up with the towel and deposited him in the aquarium. The animal was still extremely agitated and kept running around the cage in circles until he banged his head against the spout of his water bottle just hard enough to elicit a shrill “Oh my God!” from Kelly. She picked him up and even though there were no discernible cuts on his furry brow, she announced to her father, “I don’t think he likes it up here” before wrapping the towel around her pet and heading for the ladder. Darryl, who hadn’t exactly been looking forward to hauling the cabinet containing Tupac’s supplies up to the attic, was quick to agree. As soon as Kelly carefully placed the aquarium on a cabinet in the dining room, Denise looked up from the dishwasher and disapprovingly inquired, “What’s he doing down here?” After Kelly and Darryl explained to her about Tupac’s bizarre panic attack, she consented to allowing the animal remain where he was as long as Kelly promised to clean and deodorize his quarters twice a week.

            At the moving company’s headquarters, Mark had just finished breaking down the last of the wardrobe boxes from the Carter job when he noticed his manager was standing next to him, glaring at him through downcast bifocals. At first, he thought he was going to be reprimanded for not taking care of the boxes in the truck until he saw that his superior’s condemnatory gaze was centered on the palm of his right hand. His eyes  swelled to zombie-like proportions as he noticed that heinous burn mark had returned.

            It was the face of a rat, the voracious, untamable subterranean variety, with the mouth of a black widow and the ears of a vampire bat. This ungodly mutation was crowned by a pair of twisted antennae folded over in such a way that it resembled an inverted crucifix.

            “Whatever the hell that’s supposed to be, you need to get rid of it as soon as you clock out or don’t bother coming in tomorrow,” warned Mark’s manager.

            “Sorry, sir, I have no idea how that got there.” If Mark hadn’t valued his job so much, he would also have added that he hoped the Carters stayed in that madhouse until he retired because no power in heaven or hell could compel him to enter 2953 Starkweather Street again. 
Log in to add a comment or review for this chapter Chapter updated on: 9/19/2012 5:36:38 PM
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    4/3/2016 10:09:10 PM
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