Art doesn’t so much mimic reality as morph, stretch, and bewitch it. The so-called rabbit holes, the night thoughts, the stray bits we dismiss, the teeming multiplicity of various “realities” – in the coming months, the Action Books Strange Fiction Series will showcase texts that delve into such zones. The world is always waiting to be more haunted.
Some secrets are better left buried.
My home life, for as long as I could remember, was troubled. My mother, who wasn’t the type to go to the doctor or let people know her ‘business’ careened between manic episodes of midnight dance parties, ice cream breakfasts and surprise shopping sprees to days upon days of laying in her bed, in a filthy house, with empty cupboards and utility shut-offs. On occasion, she managed part-time gigs at the A&W, local diners, or the Zayres in the next town over. But they never lasted. She’d been fired so many times. I often wondered if things would have been different, if my father had been alive. But he was a forbidden topic in the house, always had been.
Even very young I knew there was something ‘wrong’ with her and that she wasn’t like other mothers. My father had died before I was born, and my mother was estranged from her family, so there was no one to help. So, school was a refuge for me, where the lights were always on, lunch was served promptly, and the teachers smiled and greeted me pretty much the same way every day. I never knew how much I craved normalcy and consistency, but there it was. My mother tried, but ordinary life, ordinary day to day could so easily overwhelm her. I worked hard to look clean and cared for, to do my work on time, to be present and participate. To be normal. To pass. I walked the halls and smiled, feeling like an imposter in their midst.
My brother Tim was five years older. We’d never been super close growing up, him being just old enough to find a little sister dragging on his coattails annoying. But he always looked out for me, just the same, sent money home, bought me gifts for my birthday and Christmas. He told me once when he was visiting for the holidays, which he did pretty consistently since he moved out of state, that mom hadn’t always been so crazy, that once, she’d been a good and normal mom, a proper mom, that wore clean clothes and had a job. She’d been happy. But then our dad died and she’d changed. She’d found something out about him, before he died. Something that may have driven her crazy.
It sounded all very Victorian and dramatic to me, frankly, the women in those stories were always driven mad by something or another. There was always a wife locked up in an attic, screaming their heads off, wearing dirty old wedding dresses, and tearing down the wallpaper. I wondered if everyone had a line, something that would tip us over the edge into madness. I think the stress of being a single mother, with two kids and no family, woke something broken and awful in my mother. No doubt it was something lurking inside, peering out through her eyes, just waiting for its moment to bloom.
But foster care would be worse. I stayed and counted the days until I could graduate high school and get the hell out. Tim and I often sat on our old screen porch on Easter, or Thanksgiving, or Christmas, him with a beer, me usually with a tea or something as I didn’t like the taste of alcohol. He would smoke, ashing into his empty beer can, and we would talk about sanity and society. Both of us worried that we could be like her one day. We wondered what my father had done. Both of us wondered when she would be bad enough to send away. She’d burned through any family or friends years ago so it would be our problem alone. We tried to be kind, but it was hard when you were the ones who went dirty and hungry.
“I could come live with you, finish school in New York?” I’d said once and he flinched.
“No, my place is small and I have a roommate. I live in a bad neighborhood and work all the time. It wouldn’t be right, you sleeping on my old couch, living with a bunch of guys in their twenties? I wouldn’t want that for you. Don’t think it would be better, probably worse.” So that was that. All the while our mother got stranger and stranger, she wandered the house all night, bumping into things, moving furniture, repainting at random. She slept all day or watched old movies. We were poor. We continued on.
Then one Halloween night junior year, I was sitting at home, hiding from the trick or treaters. I could hear the children outside running around the neighborhood. I’d had to keep the porchlights off, as I didn’t have money to buy candy. It was cold and gray, and I was under a lot of blankets. The heat was on, but set to 50, and I was grateful that they couldn’t legally turn off the heat or electricity. It wasn’t freezing, but cold enough that my standards for television program were whatever was on and didn’t involve me crossing the room to turn the dial on the big wooden tv set. Our crummy antennae had a ball of tin foil to help with reception, but we still only got a few decent channels on a clear night. It was on a public access station, I’d been watching an old 50’s killer bug movie with a monster movie host.
The movie ended and the next program started immediately with no music or title card. The low-rent set consisted of a few black sheets pinned up and occasionally rippling. A woman sat at a table with a black tablecloth. On the table a big crystal ball, some bowls of smoking herbs and incense. She had an assortment of crystals and a hand mirror. She wore a velvet turban and a colorful blouse. She looked more like a cancer patient than a fortune teller, with her sallow complexion and the way the turban covered up all her hair and ears. She was probably mid-fifties and wore heavy eye makeup.
“Sometimes I wonder why I even do this.” The woman said with a subtle, hard to trace accent to someone beyond the camera. “Does anyone even watch me? Does anyone even care anymore?” It seemed she was unaware the camera was rolling. She shuffled some cards between her ringed hands. “It may not look it, from watching this, but I have real power. I can see behind the veil. I can find lost things, I can commune with the dead, I know all their secrets.” She wasn’t looking up, instead, she stared down at her hands. It muffled her voice.
She forced on a tight smile, “Happy Halloween and Welcome to Madame Cassandra’s Mystery Hour. The phones are open, not like anyone cares.” Her misery transfixed me. No one was forced onto a public access channel. I wondered if it was some sort of Andy Kaufman thing, like experimental performance art. Madame Cassandra raised her head and stared hard into the camera, “I have a question for all: why doesn’t anyone believe in anything anymore? Why do you all treat me like a joke?” I understood she wasn’t looking right at me, but it was hard to fight the sensation that she wasn’t. My skin was suddenly coated in goosebumps. “Test me. Call the number on the bottom of the screen. See if I’m the real thing. I dare you.” A number in yellow popped up on the screen and before I really committed I was already pulling the old rotary phone to me on its ten-foot cord and dialing it in.
In real-time, Madame Cassandra looked up at the camera and smiled. “Well, I guess I’m not as alone in the universe as I thought! We have a call coming in. Hello, you’ve reached Madame Cassandra, how can I help you?” I watched her mouth and heard her voice at the same time and something about it, about communicating with someone on television, felt uncanny.
“Hi. My name is Lee.” I’d planned to use a fake name, but hadn’t had one ready. So, I gave her my real name, or my real nickname as my name was Leona.
“Lee.” She said and smiled wide, her eyes on the camera feeling like they could see me right through the TV. “So nice to hear your voice, it’s lonely here.”
“Yeah, here too.” I grimaced. Again, I spoke honestly without planning to.
“Well, perhaps we can be less lonely together, hmm? We can walk along the path together for a while. What can I help you with tonight?”
“You said you knew the dead’s secrets?”
Madame Casandra nodded and frowned, “I did say that, didn’t I? Well yes, the dead do like to tell me their secrets. Who and what are you looking for my dear?”
“I don’t have any money. I should tell you that. I don’t even know why I called.”
The woman on the television smiled kindly. “I never asked for any, dear. I called out to the universe and you responded. That is all the payment I needed. I wanted, I was given. You wanted and now, hopefully, I can give you what you seek.”
“My dad, he died when my mom was pregnant with me.”
“Ah, and you hope that you can help her? Or understand him?”
“Yeah, I guess. I just want her to be better. I want my… my life, to be better.”
“You think learning about him will help with that?” She had her head cocked and an eyebrow up, it was how I imagined a therapist would ask the question. I’d never been to a therapist but I had watched a lot of TV in my life. I didn’t know what would help. Honestly, I doubted anything could. My mom was crazy. I wasn’t a naive person and had lived a hard life. My mother was mentally ill and undiagnosed, unmedicated and alone. The only reason my brother and I had done okay was that we had each other. I kept everyone at arm’s length. Was I even deserving of love? Of the truth? I didn’t say any of that, the anxiety writhing around in me like a snake in a sack.
“What was your father’s name?”
Madame Cassandra closed her eyes and breathed loudly in through her nose and out through her mouth, over and over. I watched, enraptured but also with each breath starting to feel more foolish. I wasn’t sure if I wanted this all to be a weird joke or if I wanted it to be real.
“Do you know how he died, Lee?” She finally said, voice low, heavily made-up eyes still closed tight. I nodded then realized she couldn’t see me and said yes.
“Accident. A home accident.”
“It wasn’t a home accident. It was murder. Well, maybe mercy killing would be a better name for it. By your mother.”
“Did he tell you that?” I said in a rush, my vision spotty. The black sheets behind Madame Cassandra were darker now, blacker, as if they weren’t fabric at all. A great yawning blackness. The quality of the program seemed better as well, clearer. I blinked and rubbed at my eyes. “His ghost told you he was murdered?”
The psychic shrugged, “In a way, it’s more complicated than a spirit standing next to me answering questions, that is where the charlatans have it all wrong. It is easier for us to imagine that is how you commune with the dead, but it is sadly wrong. It’s more like turning the dial on a radio and trying for the best reception. The signal is sometimes sound, sometimes pictures, sometimes emotions. It takes an artist to string it together into something that makes sense. What I know: he was sick, he caught something, a bug. Now your mother is sick.”
“I don’t understand.” Had I mentioned my mother? I did, didn’t I? Had I said she was sick? Was she closer, had the camera zoomed in when I wasn’t paying attention. Her eyes were on me, staring right into me.
“No and yes. I’m sorry to be so vague my dear but there are things that are hard to talk about in polite company.” She looked left to right as if they were being eavesdropped on. “Your father, a little before you were conceived, looks to have been infected by a bug of the unnatural spiritual variety. An infection of the soul and mind, a corruption, by a parasite.”
“These parasites are always looking for ways into our world. They attach, they infect, and they corrupt. They’ve had many names over the years: demons, possessions, evil spirits, madness, wendigo, on and on. They want into our world, they prey on the weak minded, and they use their bodies to bring foulness and chaos to the world. He killed when I say he, I should say it killed using his hands. This was a nasty bug and your father, or the thing in your father, killed many people.”
“That’s ridiculous, it’s awfully messed up, telling someone that about their dead dad.” I said, my heart pounding fast. I felt dizzy and nauseous yet could not pull my eyes from her face or hang off the phone. “He fell down the stairs, it was late and he lost his footing. My mom was nine months pregnant with me. It was a freak accident. They say…” But she continued talking as if she’d never heard me.
“Your mother knew. She knew something was wrong with him, that this wasn’t the man she had fallen in love with. He was different now, crueler and stranger. He stared at the sun, ignoring flies landing on him. Never blinked. He went for late-night drives, he would come back stinking of liquor, or sex, or burn his clothes. He would dig in the backyard and come in the house muddy with blisters on his hands. He hunted and killed. She knew he was wrong inside. She had a baby in her belly and she knew she had to protect it. She knew she would have to stop him.”
“No, no. This is all wrong, he fell down the stairs! He fell down the stairs because he was drunk. I think that’s the secret, the real secret, that he was still drinking. You are sick.”
Madame Cassandra’s face froze, smoothed out like a mask. She was so still I wondered if the feed froze. But after what was probably a half minute of total stillness and silence, she blinked. “You called me, girl. You’re the one sitting home, alone and sad on Halloween. A poor little creature trapped with her tragic mother. I’m trying to tell you that she tried to be a hero. She killed the man she loved to free him, to free you all, from his corruption. He was a killer, an eater of human flesh. A monster. I bet you a million dollars the gnawed bones of his dead are buried in your backyard right now!”
“I’m sorry, I don’t believe any of this. I can’t. I have to go.”
“Wait! Wait you must understand, creatures like this are opportunists. Looking for chinks in the armor. Where do you think that spirit went when your father’s body was no longer a good host?”
I wanted to hang up, to be done, outside a child shrieked in glee and I nearly jumped out of my seat. “You think my mother is possessed.”
Madame Cassandra smiled, “You tell me. You live with her.”
“She’s just unstable.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps your father died by accident and your mother is mentally ill. More probable. But be warned, spirits like these, they settle in, they hide like toads in mud. They don’t want us to believe.”
“Let’s say you are right, how would I… get it out?”
Madame Cassandra leaned forward, “You could try to exorcise it, yourself, but the chances are good it would just jump into you. Younger, stronger, more mobile. And broken. You may find it better to leave it put.”
“Then what’s the point of all this? I asked how to make my life better!”
“With knowledge my girl. Your father was a killer, your mother is a killer. If you want a better life, then you better be ready to run, because that thing is coming for you next.”
“You’re fucking nuts.”
She sighed, “Be well, Leona. And good luck.” I hung up the phone in disgust. The TV was still on though, and Madame Cassandra was still staring right at me, only now her face looked almost smug. “Some people,” She said, her voice much further away coming only from the television, “Are ungrateful. They’d rather suffer in darkness than wade into the light. A final warning to my friend Lee, you can’t live with that much evil and not carry a taint. You’ve been marked girl, and if it isn’t this spirit it will probably be another trying to crawl inside you.” I scrambled out of the blankets crossed the room and turned off the television, hands sweaty. TV psychics were hustlers and conmen. She was a freak who was messing with me and I gave her just enough information to run with.
I didn’t even believe in any of her TV psychic silliness. And yet. I replayed our conversation and information I’d given and what she’d said back. She did seem to know more about me, but people in her profession were also master manipulators who made lots of guesses. I got myself a glass of water and couldn’t help but stare into the backyard out the window over the sink. It was neglected sure, unraked leaves left to rot, a rusty swing set with a broken swing. But was my father burying bodies that he had killed and partially devoured? Did I really believe my mother killed my father because he was a possessed killer and it jumped into her?
My mother was in her room, reading a romance novel, the room was its typical hoarder mess and half her bed was littered with books, spilled ashtrays and plates of half-eaten food.
“Mom?” I said, knocking on the doorframe before stepping in. She looked up, squinted a minute as if to remember me, before smiling and waving me in.
“I have a weird question to ask you, it may upset you even. Is that okay?” She nodded and waved me on.
“How did dad die again?”
“He fell down the stairs, banged his head, his brain swelled up and,” she waved her hand in a circular way.
“Was he drunk or something? It seems really weird that a fall down our stairs could kill someone, right?”
She sighed and pushed back her wild mane of graying hair, “Lee, he was a complicated man. I loved him, but it wasn’t perfect. No one here is perfect, right?” She held my eyes with hers. “He wasn’t supposed to be drinking anymore, but he was and he fell down the stairs one night, drunk. They did an autopsy and said his blood alcohol level was very high.”
“Had he been acting strangely before that? Erratic? Like a different person?”
She thought for a moment before her face crinkled in, “I don’t know, probably, he was secretly drinking, who knows what else he was doing in secret. Sneaking around. Lying. Leaving me to take care of you kids, alone. Selfish.”
“Did you see him fall?”
“What the fuck is this, Lee? You a cop now? You think I killed your father? Jesus. I was putting your brother to bed, I heard a crash and found him at the bottom of the stairs, unconscious. Ambulance, swollen brain, brain damage, death. The end. Are you happy?”
“Tim thinks he had a secret.”
“Tim doesn’t know anything, he was a sleeping child. A child who thought his dad was the best thing in the world and his mom was a piece of dog shit.”
I could see her agitation in the way she was fidgeting with the paperback in her hand, her fingertips were all bloody hangnails. She blinked rapidly, “He wasn’t the man I married. That’s the secret: he was a drunk fool and you got stuck with me. Now go on and leave me alone, I don’t want to walk down memory lane anymore. Close the door behind you.”
I did as she said and got ready for bed. Brushing my teeth my eyes drifted again and again to the small backyard plot. My overactive imagination conjuring up my father, a man only seen in pictures, digging holes wearing a bloody, muddy T-shirt. My mother, frightened for her children, pushing him down the stairs and bludgeoning him at the bottom with the old iron doorstop, just to make sure. The demon inside of him all the while raging. I looked at my reflection in the mirror, we had the same hazel eyes. My father and I. What else had he left me? A sad thing happened to our family. My mother was fragile to begin with and being forced to bury her husband and then birth a baby a month after was too much for her sanity. She raised her kids, as best she could, which sadly wasn’t very well. But that’s the story, not everyone gets a great life.
That was ten years ago. I’m grown now and scraping together a halfway decent adult life. Over-educated, underpaid, in a small apartment in a big city. I can almost pass for a normal person, but every once in a while, I think about Madame Cassandra. I could never find her show on public access again. When I called the station a week after it happened, they told me they had no record of that show ever existing. Like it was all a classic ghost story, me picking up a hitchhiker who then vanishes from the car. I tried to convince myself it had been a vivid dream. But I know it wasn’t, it was real and it happened.
My mother ended up being committed to a hospital later that same year. I ended up finishing high school from my brother’s tiny apartment in New York City. The old family house was razed and a condo was built in its place. I watched the news for the discovery of human remains when construction started, but if they found any, no one told. During college, I’d gone to library and scrolled through the microfiche. There had been a wave of missing persons cases in our area the two years before my birth.
My brother Tim did his best to get me to adulthood. Then he got married, had some kids, and tried to be normal. I never told him. I never told anyone. There’s nothing to tell. I know it shouldn’t bother me all these years later, but it does. The year my mother died I spent a lot of time looking over my shoulder, jumping at the tiniest of noises, just waiting for something bad. Madame Cassandra got into my head and set up shop, and even now, I still catch myself looking into my reflection’s hazel eyes, waiting for something evil to look back.
Victoria Dalpe is a Providence, RI-based horror writer and painter. Her short fiction has appeared in over 35 anthologies and her first novel Parasite Life will be rereleased in the fall of 2023 with Nightscape Press. Her debut short story horror collection, Les Femmes Grotesques, was released by CLASH Books in the fall of 2022. “Dalpe’s horror stories are equal parts intriguing, compelling, and appropriately macabre. Les Femmes Grotesques tidily secures Dalpe her position as an author to watch.”—Monica S. Kuebler, Rue Morgue. Follow her on insta: victorialdalpe