It arrived a few minutes ago. Like a distant relative not seen in years. My father hoisted it out of the back of his pickup truck and set it on the front porch among the jack-o-lanterns and corn stalks. It quivered for a moment then stilled, as though it grew roots through the wood plank floor. It looks the same as I remember, even though I was only eight years old the last time I saw it. Mom calls it a cherished heirloom. Valuable and special, crafted on Halloween Eve by “kinfolk” generations ago. Sounds like somebody just made that up to scare people. If you ask me, there’s nothing to cherish about this hunk of junk. It’s just a shabby wooden rocking chair, more suitable for a scarecrow than a human. The dark, stained wood of its arms are worn to a speckled mustard color. The crisscrossed cane seat sags from a century of heavy rear ends straining the fibers. I’ve seen better ones thrown out with the trash on the side of the road. Mom lunges out the screen door. “Ooo...it’s here. Grandma’s rocker. Just in time for the trick-or-treaters tonight,” she calls into the October air. “Come sit with me Rosie. It’s big enough for both of us.” She lowers herself into the chair’s wide space slowly—as though there’s a right way and a wrong way to sit in the dumb thing—and runs her hands along its arms. Her eyes close. Her face lifts to the sky. Then it starts. The rocking. A creaky, rhythmic lurching noise. Nothing like normal furniture language. I swear this chair screeches like a dying bat. The sound of it used to worm its way into my dreams, turning a dope fantasy into a nightmare from which I woke up sweating. You’d think somebody would have found a way to grease its mortise and tenon joints like when Dad dabs linseed oil on the squeaky hinges of my bedroom door. But Grandma never let anyone touch it. Dad tried once until Grandma’s scowl told him exactly what he could do with his “damn grease.” “C’mon, Rosie,” Mom calls. “We’ll fit right in with the Halloween decorations.” I shake my head. “No thanks, Mom.” I try to keep my lips from twisting but they do anyway. “What’s wrong? You’re missing all the fun.” “Nothing. I’m fine,” I say. “I’m going to the lake.” Mom throws her arms up. “Grandma would want you to enjoy it.” No, Mom. Grandma used to put gravel in the seat so nobody else would sit in it. The pebbles didn’t bother her rear end though, it being the size of Alaska. Maybe that’s why my mom’s so excited. She finally gets to sit her own cheeks into the cherished heirloom. Lord knows she’s had to wait for years. When Grandma died five years ago, the chair went to her sister, Great Aunt Agatha. Then when she kicked the bucket six weeks ago, the old piece of rubble got handed down again, this time to Mom. Lucky us. “Maybe later,” I call over my shoulder as I clutch The Graveyard Book to my chest and head for the path. I feel bad telling Mom a lie but there is no way I will sit in that worthless wooden mess. Not later...not tomorrow...not next week...not ever. I made the mistake of climbing into it once when I was a little kid and I can still hear Grandma’s stinging words. “Rosie, you little brat. You’ve been sitting in a sandbox all morning. Get your stinking butt out of my chair.” And I can still feel the small bump on my arm, under the skin, where she pinched me so hard I hid in the tool shed, crying till supper time. “Oh, c’mon, Rosie.” Mom’s voice singsongs with the rhythmic rocking of the chair. “Let her be, Ellen,” Dad says. “Why would she want to sit in it after the way your mother treated her?” “What do you mean?” I hear Mom ask. All I hear my father say is, “your mother wasn’t a nice per—,” because I’m too far down the path and his words get swept away by the wind. But I don’t need to hear anymore. I know exactly what he means. Grandma was awful. A dragon lady. A witch. A deep down evil witch. From her wiry hair that looked like gray veins against her scalp to her twisted black toenails. She snarled, growled, and groaned. She even had whiskers on her chin. At times—when I was young enough to still believe in fairy tale monsters—I thought she was half ogre. All she was missing was the hump on her back. She would clutch at me with her knotty knuckled hands, then laugh as I ran away screaming and crying. And her voice wasn’t a voice at all. More of an eerie crackling sound. The sound a cockroach makes when you step on it. And I’m not the only one who considered her evil. The stares from townspeople when she walked by? Some of them would run to their shop doors and turn the Open sign to Closed. Because she didn’t just yell at people who crossed her path. She glared at them with cursing eyes. Wet and squinty. They could give you a heart attack in the time it took to look away. I always imagined Grandma’s heart to be black and full of spiders. It’s no wonder my grandfather killed himself when he was only thirty-two. Mom told me he shot himself by accident on a hunting trip. But I’ve read the old newspaper articles in the library. How do you shoot yourself in the mouth by accident? Grandma, on the other hand, lived to be eighty-six. How is that fair? Dad once told me that when Grandma was younger, she was the talk of the town. Young women sought her friendship. Young men, her adoration. She was popular. A part of the community. "What happened to her?” I remember asking. Dad had shrugged. “Soon after Grandma married your grandfather,” he explained, “her mother—your great-grandmother—passed. Some people say that’s when she changed. Grumpy at first. Then downright mean.” “But why?” “Not sure. But she got worse and worse. Even on the day she died, she spit on every doctor or nurse that came near her bed.” Now I’m not a church person, but I took Grandma’s death to be a blessing. Someone or something out there decided this world had had enough of her wickedness. The whole town of Bittern—the people, the animals, even the leaves on the trees—heaved a sigh of relief that day. I didn’t go to her funeral. Pretended I was sick. And because it was only a mile down the road and I was almost nine, my parents let me stay home by myself. Instead of mourning—and let’s face it, my mom was the only one with a handkerchief—I had a celebration. Ice cream. Mallomars. Because I was glad they put her six feet under the ground. It’s exactly where she belongs. And now Great Aunt Agatha’s lying beside her. I didn’t know her well, but I’ve overheard people in town say she was as mean as a rattlesnake, too. Their graves are right next to my great-grandmother Prudence. She died before I was born but mean rumors swirl around her name, too. As though meanness gets passed from one person to the next. Like hand-me-down clothes. “Mom,” I asked a couple of weeks ago, “why do I keep hearing how mean Aunt Agatha was?” Mom gazed at the treetops. “Well, she could be a little cranky at times but I wouldn’t say she was mean.” “I hear it about Great Grandma Prudence, too.” (I didn’t mention what people say about Grandma. Mom’s blind to her evilness. Always has been.) “What?” Mom looked insulted. “Who said that?” “I don’t know. Just people.” “People are telling you this?” Mom frowned at me. “No,” I said. “Sometimes I...I overhear things.” “Well, stop listening to other people’s conversations. None of it’s true.” But I know Dad disagrees. I even heard him tell Mom once that the women in her family were all a bunch of naggy hags. She didn’t talk to him for a week after that. I’m just glad my mom was spared the mean gene. I’d have run away a long time ago if she was a rattlesnake. My steps lighten at the sound of lapping water. The late spring rains raised the lake’s water level and I’m surrounded by the smell of moss. I kick off my sandals and paddle my feet in the cool water. Rustling. Chirping. Splashing. Croaking. Nature noises always ease my mind, erasing the memory of Grandma. But that damn chair’s gone and brought it all back with its creaking and moaning. I wish I could uninvite it right off our porch and send it to the dump with all the other useless stuff. I open my book, hoping Gaiman’s spooky story will distract me. Sixty-two pages later, Dad’s voice echoes down the path. “Rosie! Lunch time!” My stomach growling, I race up the path and walk around to the front yard. Mom’s still on the rocking chair, her eyes barely open. I watch her swaying gently and quietly for a second until my eyes shift to the porch where broken pumpkin pieces lay scattered. A spattering of gooey seeds cover the steps and the front walkway just below them. All the jack-o-lanterns we carved yesterday. All ruined. “Mom, what happened?” I ask, not able to hide the shock in my voice. “Never you mind what happened,” she snaps back at me, her eyes narrowing. “I’m enjoying this rocking chair...my rocking chair. Unlike an ungrateful child I know. Go help your father in the kitchen.” I’m so surprised at the grump in her voice, I say, “What?” without thinking. “Don’t sass me, Rosie. Do as you’re told.” She turns away from me and peers down the driveway, leaning forward like she’s waiting for someone important to arrive. In the kitchen, Dad’s slathering egg salad on whole wheat bread. “Did you see what happened to the pumpkins?” I ask, grabbing three plates from the cupboard. “No. What?” Dad asks. “They’re smashed. All of ‘em.” “You’re kidding.” Dad stops his sandwich making and looks at me. “How’d that happen?” “I don’t know, but Mom’s acting weird.” “What do you mean weird?” “All salty like. I think she’s the one who smashed the pumpkins.” Dad returns to a sandwich and slices it in half. “Why would she do that?” “Like I said...she’s acting weird.” “Maybe the rocker’s brought up sad feelings. You know, about losing Grandma and Agatha.” “She’s not sad, she’s nasty. It’s like she’s cursed or something.” Dad transfers the sandwiches from the cutting board to the plates, centering each one perfectly. He adds a dill pickle on one side of the bread and three carrot sticks on the other. “Here,” he says, handing me a plate, “take this to her. Maybe it’ll lift her mood.” Definitely. Egg salad’s her favorite. But as soon as I open the porch door, my hopes go as sour as the shiny pickle glistening on the plate. Mom jumps off the rocker—sending it flailing—and rushes down the front steps, kicking chunks of pumpkin as she goes. She picks up a handful of white garden rocks and throws one, a pretty big one, up at the branches of the large maple tree in our front yard. “Get off there,” she shouts, hurling more rocks. “Mom, what’s wrong?” I call, but she ignores me. “Get out of my tree.” I look to where she’s aiming. Our neighbor’s black cat, Ringo, clings to a branch midway up the tree. With each stone Mom throws, the cat climbs higher. “Mom, what are you doing? You’ll hurt him.” But she keeps throwing rock after rock. They look like giant snowflakes falling down and littering the ground beneath the tree. When her hands go empty, she picks up another fistful and sends them flying. Lucky for the cat, she has a terrible aim. Dad’s footsteps come up behind me. “Ellen, stop it,” he shouts. “Stop it now.” Mom turns to us, her lips pressed tightly together. She flings the rocks in her hands to the ground, stomps up the steps, and sits back in the rocker. “No matter,” she says, gripping the rocker’s arms so tightly her knuckles are white. “I can watch that vermin all day. When he tries to climb down, I’ll clonk him. Right between the eyes. That’ll teach him not to climb my tree.” “Ellen, leave the cat alone.” Dad stands with his hands on his hips, scowling...and a memory from long ago bobs up like an apple in water. Dad standing the same way. Holding my hand. The hand attached to the arm where a welt the size of a pitcher’s mound throbbed with pain. And him talking—yelling almost—at Grandma. Telling her to leave me alone. That if she ever touched me again, she would never be allowed back to our home. “And what happened to the jack-o-lanterns we spent all day carving yesterday?” Dad asks. “I smashed them.” Mom’s voice comes out as a snarl. “They smelled like rotten fruit. I don’t want them on my porch.” “That’s how they always smell, Mom,” I say. “Humph,” is all she says in return. Dad turns to me with a sad and confused look. I shake my head and whisper, “I told you...it’s like she’s cursed.” “I can hear you, you weasel.” Mom’s head snaps in my direction. “You’ll never sit in this chair. You don’t deserve to sit in this chair. My mama was right about you. You’re nothing but a stinking brat.” “Ellen. That’s enough,” Dad shouts. “Mom,” I sputter, tears brimming, “Don’t say that.” “Oh...to hell with both of you.” Mom doesn’t look at me, just grits her teeth and stares up into the tree. Dad and I exchange a look, and the fear in his eyes mirrors my own dread. Then we hear it. The merciless yet spirited creaking of the rocking chair, as Mom sways back and forth, back and forth like a child in its mother’s arms.
About the Author Louise Prescott is a former school librarian currently writing chapter books, middle-grade novels, and short stories. She has been published on the Nerdy Book Club and Safe and Sound Schools blogs. Louise is also a contributing writer on From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors Blog and an active member of SCBWI. Her short story “The Fowl Snatcher” won second place in Shtorytime.com’s 2020 holiday contest. To learn more about Louise, check out her website www.weezieprescott.com or instagram @weezieprescott. About the Artist Viggo Krejberg is a 21 Year Old Chicago based Artist and Animator. He attributes his work to being heavily inspired by artists such as Junji Ito, Bryan Lee O'Malley, and Ian Worthington. Updates on his art & current projects can be found on his Twitter @VKrejberg.
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