Fifty years ago, Great-uncle Stanton was a successful author of supernatural horror. His heroes were always brash and unafraid when the reader would have been cowering, while the man behind the typewriter was painfully private, writing under an opaque alias to hide from fans expecting panache incarnate.
As he approached traditional retirement age, Stanton lost a bitter, mundane battle to rheumatoid arthritis: the brutish disease ruining his hands and even his spine. It wracked his soul.
He retreated from society completely, bought an isolated house in the country and withdrew to the second story. He replaced the phone with an intercom, had the stairs boarded up and added an electric dumbwaiter for the delivery of goods and sundries. He was resigned to a long, hidden life of misery.
A cousin of mine and his wife, Ceph and Sadie Stillwater, moved into the first floor, ironically, to keep Stanton company, though they never socialized in person. Ceph and Sadie supplied his groceries, alcohol and medicines. Nothing more.
The other relatives, jealous of those with money and opportunity, suspected Ceph was biding his time until the old writer finally “returned to the inkwell” and he inherited the house. Then Ceph, per the family rumor mill, would sell the place, use the money to buy a luxury RV and leave forever. Ceph must have nursed a profound case of bruising disappointment when Uncle Stanton lived to just shy of 100.
Recently, the Stillwaters took an unannounced vacation on a cruise ship. They returned to find Uncle Stanton dead, due in part to necrotizing fasciitis brought on by untreated bedsores. They’d made arrangements with exactly nobody to check in on him. Did they consider he might need help? Did they secretly hope he might expire, resulting in a change of fortunes? They didn’t think.
About this time, I received a certified letter from Uncle Stanton’s estate, with a key. He’d known I dabbled as a writer of speculative fiction. Maybe that made us kindred spirits. As it turned out, I inherited a small, private family cemetery, a half-acre of condensed history on the outskirts of Belfast, Maine. I became the de facto caretaker for two dozen graves of distant relatives, with first names like Silence and Clovis, plus recently departed Uncle Stanton, and an underground crypt for groundskeeping tools.
Destiny was a 2-hour drive away. I was told the “workshed” had a pair of metal doors with a thick chain wrapped around the handles. Maybe, I fantasized, there was an unfinished novel hidden away, waiting to be discovered. That’s why he chose me.
I brought my best friend, nerdy Gavin, and WD40 in case the lock needed help. While the lock opened easily enough, thick rusty chains were woven through the handles. When we finally unthreaded the mess, we looked like a couple of preschoolers obsessed with russet-colored finger paint. With a generous dab of hand cleaner and vigorous de-gooping on moss and grass, we entered the writer’s lair.
Using the flashlight settings from our cell phones, we could see the room wasn’t much to brag about: a push mower, a gas mower, grass clippers, a can of gasoline, a workbench, and a mildewed journal from twenty years before.
Gavin, saddled with asthma, started coughing immediately. “This place is gross,” he said. “Dracula’s probably sleeping in some corner with a clothespin on his nose. It’s all yours, dude. I can’t breathe. Leave the book, it probably smells, and let’s drink a cold brew or two in the car before we head back.”
“What if it’s not a diary?” I asked. “What if it’s an early story waiting to be published, to bring back his lost fame?”
“Then it probably wasn’t very good, or he wouldn’t have abandoned it here. Meet you topside.” Gavin stepped out, then called down: “I’ll probably start without you.”
The light on my phone flicked off-and-on erratically. A cobweb-covered screwdriver rolled along the workbench toward me. “Not funny, Gavin.” But I was alone.
I opened the fragile book with both hands, like it was an antique hymnal. A couple of pages stuck together for unspecified reasons. I pulled them apart, tearing them a little. The first image I came upon was a crude drawing of Uncle Stanton’s face: the bushy brows, the eccentric Salvador Dali moustache, the Van Dyke beard hiding his birthmark.
I flipped a few pages ahead. Each held a primitive face. One looked like a traditional witch in a pointy hat, one a rough draft for a jack-o’-lantern, one Medusa with snakes for hair. I impatiently flipped to the last page. Small text in faint pencil!
“Please know I’m deeply sorry. The drawings were from my early irreverence for what you’re holding. Many years ago, a gore groupie thought it would be cool to send me a genuinely cursed book. Everyone who holds it, I was told, has their worst fears realized. Mine was a withering disease.
“There’s no release, even in death, until you’ve passed the curse along. For many years, I refused to play. I hid the book here to keep it from falling into innocent hands. I managed my pain as long as I could but, if you’re reading this, I’m afraid I lost the fight.
“I’m told my soul will never transition, so I’m forced to finally choose someone I hope can handle the consequences. Think carefully. What is your biggest fear? A haunted house, an unstoppable bear? It’s coming for you, whatever it is.”
“A horde of ravenous undead,” I mumbled. “But they’re not real, so I think we’ll be okay, Uncle Stanton.”
Just then, the car honked outside. I could hear the chains jangling and the doors shut.
“Gavin, what the hell?”
Gavin ran down the stairs. “I locked us in. I had to.”
“Zombies everywhere. Smelly, hungry stumblers. I don’t think the doors will hold. We’re goners.”
I thought quickly. “Gavin, what’s your greatest fear?”
“Honestly? Living with Mom the rest of my life. Why?”
“Take the book.”
Charles C Cole lives with his family in Maine on land passed down by his great-great grandfather. He has been previously published in alongstoryshort, BewilderingStories, The Blue Crow, The Sandy River Review, The Café Review, Black Petals.
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