“Honey, please. Judy. Please. Let me out,” Grandma begged, her voice muffled by the heavy, yellow door between us. The door, faded and scratched, was locked tight. It had been since Dad left.
I knelt on the floor, holding her lunch, a slightly flattened sandwich sitting on a slim tray that would fit under the gap at the bottom of the door. The afternoon sun flooded the hallway, dust motes dancing in front of my eyes and the photos of happier times that hung on the walls.
“I promise, Judy. You won’t get into any trouble. Or your Dad. I won’t go to the police. I won’t. I’ll just go. I won’t tell anyone what you and your father have done, please,” Grandma said, sobbing softly now.
I swallowed. She sounded so despondent. So genuine. But I forced back the pity and remembered what Dad had said. She’d killed my mother and my aunt.
I took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of Grandma’s room — mothballs and potpourri. Why did I do this to myself? Why did I listen? It just made things harder. I reminded myself that her words were just that. And all she was doing was playacting to elicit my sympathy.
I could still hear her crying softly, but it wouldn’t work on me. This was my duty. My test. If I let her out, she’d just pick up where she left off and end my family’s existence.
I slid the sandwich under the door, the tray disappearing with a screech. Then I pushed myself to my feet, and made my way back downstairs.
When I was twelve, Dad took John and me to the show. We were waiting in line for the Ferris wheel when two huge men, wearing bikie colours, pushed in front of us. Dad didn’t hesitate. He cut them down with a fearsome stare and words. I don’t remember what he said, but it had the desired effect. They apologised sheepishly before walking humbly to the end of the line.
Looking back on that moment, I’ve often wondered whether Dad knew the cost that he could have incurred had they been drunk, or high, or just angry enough to take it further and make an example of him in front of his family? I think the answer was yes. He knew. But he put stock in honour, and standing up for those he loved against those who would slight them.
“John,” I said eagerly, pressing the phone to my ear. “Where are you?” The line was crackly and filled with the roar of John’s truck.
“Sturt highway. On the run to Adelaide. It’s good to hear your voice.”
“You heard from Dad recently?”
“He sent a letter last week, and money.”
“Good. And Grandma? Can I talk to her?”
I hesitated, thinking back to Dad’s instructions. John wouldn’t understand, he’d said. He’d left before Mum died. Before Grandma had revealed herself as the creature she was. And yet, I felt guilty withholding information from him. Or was the guilt a result of my knowing how John would react if he found out what I was doing to her?
“She’s … she’s been ill. She’s in her bedroom.”
“Oh,” I could hear the concern in his voice. “Nothing serious, I hope?”
“No, nothing serious. She just needs rest.”
“Ok, well pass on my well wishes. Look, I think I’m about to head into a black spot, so the phone might drop out.”
“John, do you think Dad’s okay?”
For a while, I thought he’d gone. All I could hear was the drone of his rig pounding along the road.
“Dad hasn’t been okay for a long time,” he said, finally. “But it’s not your fault. He’s better off away from you and Grandma for the moment. He’ll clear his head, work things out.”
“Oh,” I said. “John … Dad told me some things before he left. About Mum and Grandma and Aunt Robin.”
“Oh yeah. What about them?”
I cleared my throat. Was I really going to defy Dad? I shouldn’t, I knew. But he’d left me with no one to talk to other than Grandma and John. One wasn’t to be trusted, one wouldn’t understand, he’d said. I sighed. Dad wasn’t here anymore. I had to work things out for myself. And, after all, wasn’t John as much at risk as Dad or me?
“John, Dad said they weren’t who they seemed. They were from … somewhere else. Another world, or realm, he’d called it. He said that Mum and Aunt Robin had escaped a long time ago to live here with us. And Grandma, well, she became jealous. So she found a way to follow them, to find them, and then to bring them back.”
I waited for the shock, for the accusations, for the reassurance. But it didn’t come. Nothing did.
I realised then that I could no longer hear the roar of John’s truck. The line was silent. He’d dropped out.
I sat at the kitchen bench listening to Grandma shuffle back and forth in the room above me. I took a sip of my tea, inhaling its warmth and the scent of lemon.
The kitchen was old. Wooden cupboards and yellow laminate benchtops that were worn almost white near the sink. In the far corner was a cream stove that exuded the scent of cooked fish. And next to it was our fridge, which had long disappeared behind a plethora of postcards affixed with souvenir magnets.
The topmost postcard was my favourite. A picture of Uluru. We’d been there when I was twelve. John was sixteen, and Mum and Dad had seemed so young, so in love, so happy. I’d never even met Grandma then. She’d arrived later.
The postcard next to Uluru was more recent. It had a cartoon on it of a surf lifesaver looking out over Bondi beach. On the back was a message in Dad’s scrawling hand.
Don’t trust her. She’s a fatal disease and she means to infect us all. Do your duty, and I’ll be back soon with a cure.
“Judy, are you there?” Grandma said from just behind the yellow door. I shuffled closer, listening. On the dark hardwood floor was one of the trays I’d sent under the door earlier, returned, the sandwich untouched.
“Judy, please. Talk to me. Why won’t you talk to me? What do you think I’m going to do? Please.”
I cleared my throat. Dad told me not to talk to her, but he wasn’t here now. He hadn’t been here for over a month.
“I’m here, Grandma,” I whispered.
“Oh, Judy. Oh, thank God. Okay … okay,” she said, like she didn’t know exactly what she wanted to say. And yet she spoke quickly, like she was afraid that she wouldn’t have enough time to get all the words out. The hallway was becoming duller as the sun set outside, like a vacuum was sucking all brightness from the house.
“Judy, it’s … it’s so hot up here. I’m afraid up here, by myself. Judy, please can you let me out? Just for a little while?”
“I’m sorry, Grandma. I can’t.”
I heard a sharp intake of breath. I imagined Grandma standing behind the door, hand over her mouth, fighting back tears. I blinked hard to fight back mine, annoyed at myself.
“Why?” Grandma asked.
Because you’re a murderer. Because Dad said you’ll destroy our world if we give you the chance.
“Because I made a promise, Grandma. Dad made me swear on my mother.”
I heard the curse, the mumbling. And then words erupted from her like she couldn’t hold them back anymore.
“Your Dad’s a psychopath, Judy. And he’s brainwashed you. Your mother died of cancer. I had nothing to do with it.” Her voice was rising, her speech becoming faster. “He abducted me, do you understand that? He snapped, and he accused me of some sort of voodoo or magic or some crazy thing, all because he couldn’t take it when your mum died. We all had to cope with that. We all had to deal with it. It was only him that thought the solution was kidnapping an old lady. Judy, please, you must see this. Let me go. Save me. Save yourself. He’s mad and he’s implicating you in his crimes.”
She was breathing heavily, like she’d run a race.
“Perhaps,” I began cautiously, “I would have believed that once too. Except Dad showed me something.”
“What?” Grandma sighed. She sounded exhausted.
“The globe Aunt Robin took from you. The one with the mountain. The one she left for us, when she died.”
I waited for Grandma to respond. But for a long time she didn’t. Finally, she spoke.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve never owned a globe with a mountain in it. I don’t recall Robin having one either.”
I furrowed my brow, confused, but didn’t question her any further. Nothing she said would be truthful, I reminded myself. I bent over and picked up the lunch tray.
“You need to eat,” I said. “I’ll bring you another sandwich.”
“Aunt Robin left us this when she died,” Dad said as he pulled the snow globe from the sideboard in his study and held it out to me like a precious offering. Reflected in its glass was my Dad’s haggard face, the untrimmed beard, greying, bags under his eyes. When had he gotten so old?
“Come closer, Judy.”
I did as instructed and approached his oak desk. It was scratched, worn, like the rest of the house. The room smelt of sandalwood and old paper. Dad was wearing a battered dressing gown. This was his sanctuary. He didn’t invite me in here often so, when he did, it always felt foreign, forbidden, and I never knew how to carry myself.
“Can you see what’s inside?” he asked. My focus had been on the reflection, but now I looked past it into the flurry of white papery fragments spinning within the glass sphere.
“I can’t really see anything.” I said.
I sighed and took another step towards the desk.
“Here,” Dad said, handing me the globe. I took it in both hands, surprised to find it warm, and raised it to my face, staring into the white maelstrom. White flurries, spinning snow, a vortex of activity devoid of colour. But there was nothing, apparently, hidden by the white. Nothing decorative in the middle, like a plastic Eiffel Tower.
I was about to give up when I began to understand. I have no other way to describe it then to simply say that the white vortex, itself, was a mountain. But no mountain I had ever seen before. It was a shifting force that was both solid and ethereal. It was a constantly changing, moving, mountain. A peak would emerge, become a crevice, a ridge and then nothing but white flurries.
Captivated, I drew the globe closer until the moving mountain of snow and air filled my vision, until I felt myself being drawn into that strange world until, with a dizzy rush, I was there, standing on its morphing peaks.
My feet sank in damp snow for a moment, then I was falling, gale force winds laughing as I flailed. I found myself sprawled across black, volcanic glass, hot to the touch, then thrust upwards in a violent updraft. And as the mountain shifted around me, the wind assaulted me with ice, snow and something that could only be ash judging from its acrid, smoky scent. It filled my eyes and ears and mouth, the ash staining my body grey, the ice and snow stabbing at my face, arms and chest.
I wasn’t alone in that amorphous place. It was filled with presences, some like me, most not. I’d catch glimpses of these things, far away. Some I felt rather than saw. Whether any belonged to the mountain, I couldn’t be certain. Part of me suspected nothing stayed here for long, at least without going mad.
And then my father was shaking my shoulder, firmly, and I was standing back in his study, my hands shaking, and if he hadn’t taken Aunt Robin’s globe from me then I expect it would have slipped from my frozen fingers to explode upon the floor. I wouldn’t have been sorry if it had.
“You’ve seen your grandmother’s realm,” he said, as he returned the globe to the sideboard. “Your mother and your aunt escaped that place and your grandmother many years ago. Everything there belongs to your grandmother, you see. And she doesn’t like losing her things, so she followed.” He said this as if it explained everything.
“Here,” he said, holding out a piece of paper. “This letter from your aunt came with the globe.”
I took it from him with a shaking hand and peered down at the brief note, scrawled in a hurried pen.
Cal, it began. I remember everything. She haunts my dreams each night, and my waking hours are spent dwelling on the past horrors that, somehow, Annie managed to forget, or at least push down so far that the memories were dulled, or perhaps altered in her mind. What else could explain Annie’s mistaken trust in Mum?
When Annie and I first escaped, I was convinced it would be for good. But she found a way to follow us. And it’s not out of love, or some misguided notion of making amends. She’s here to take us back. But that’s not all. I understand now. She won’t be satisfied with just Annie and me, not anymore. She wants all traces of our time on Earth gone, which means John and Judy too. You need to protect them.
I stole this from her when I saw her last. It’s the gateway. I think I’ve found a way you can use it against her. To trap her. I’m making sure it gets to you when I’m gone, and I will be gone soon. There’s nothing I can do to fight her off. But I comfort myself with the knowledge that I’ll be back with Annie soon, and that you’ll be prepared.
If you’re reading this, be rest assured that Mum killed me like she killed Annie, and that she has consumed our essences and returned them to that prison. Get her before she gets the kids. I’m so sorry I couldn’t be of more help.
My head was spinning, I felt nauseous, dizzy. I was suddenly hot, my stomach roiling. I clenched my fists, and swallowed, not sure if I wanted to break something, or break down in tears.
“You need my help, don’t you?” I whispered through clenched teeth.
I wanted to ask more. I wanted to know how long he had known, whether he had tried to stop Grandma from taking Mum, if he knew when she would strike after us. But I didn’t. I could see he was weary. And so, when he waved me away, I obeyed, and left him to be consumed by his thoughts, as mine had begun to consume me.
“Have you talked to Dad recently?” John asked, the drone of the road competing with his voice.
“No, he’s not answering his phone. You?”
“No. Shit, hang on.” Suddenly the phone was moaning loudly as John’s air brakes kicked in. I could hear the squeal of the truck as it protested. And then there were two loud blasts of the horn, like a bear roaring at the world, and then the engine was increasing in pitch again as he accelerated.
“Bloody emus, they run right out in front of you here. Is he still writing, sending you money at least?”
I cleared my throat, hesitating.
“He hasn’t sent me anything in over a month now.”
“I’ve got some leave owing to me. After I drop this load off, I’m going to take it. Go look for him. Where was he last?” he asked.
I felt relief wash over me as John shouldered my stress.
“The last I heard from him was a postcard from Bondi, Sydney.”
“Ok,” he said. “I can start there.”
“John,” I said, licking my lips, nervous. “I’m nearly out of money. I —”
“I’ll send you some cash at the next post office I find, ok? Enough to cover you for a month or so.”
I closed my eyes, fighting back tears. I hated being this desperate, having to beg.
“Thank you,” I whispered. “Thank you so much. For looking after me, and Dad.”
“And Grandma,” he said.
“Of course,” I responded, feeling guilty.
Grandma came to live with us soon after Mum received her cancer diagnosis. I’d only met her for the first time a couple of years beforehand so, initially, it was odd having her in our home. After a while though, I came to appreciate her being there, particularly as John was on the road a lot by then. I was old enough to look after myself, but I enjoyed her mothering and fussing. And it gave Dad time to spend with Mum. To take her to her treatments and appointments.
Things between Dad and Grandma had seemed ok at first. They weren’t close, but they were civil. It was only after Mum went into hospital, towards the end, that the arguments between them began. They’d wait till I’d gone to bed, or till they thought I was out, but I heard them often enough. I expect John noticed too on the occasions he was home. Mostly, they’d argue about what was best for Mum. But not always. Sometimes, it got more personal.
Dad told me later they were arguing about her life. He for it, Grandma against.
It was Grandma that convinced Mum to come home and to cease further treatment. Grandma called it dying with dignity in familiar surroundings. Dad had argued, and pleaded, and cried, and begged, but Grandma won out.
When Mum died, it was in her own bed in Grandma’s arms. By that stage, Dad was spending most nights in his study, some deep in his books, others deep in a bottle.
The morning after she passed, I went into her room to see her body while we waited for an ambulance to arrive and take her away. She lay on the bed, eyes closed, as if she could wake at any moment, smile and say good morning. She looked peaceful. Serene.
It didn’t seem right. I’d prepared myself for her death, in hospital, surrounded by doctors and nurses, a cannula in her wrist, intubated, someone still trying to coax her back to life. Was I selfish? Or had I begun to sense that something had gone wrong and that Grandma was behind it?
I woke in the middle of the night and could hear Dad moving downstairs, trying to be quiet, failing.
After he’d shown me the globe and Aunt Robin’s letter, after asking for my help, he’d spent the next month avoiding me. He’d wake early each morning, leaving before I woke. And he took to returning well after I went to bed. I was sick of being alone, of trying to deal with all of this myself, the grief, the confusion, the fear of my own grandmother that he’d gifted me. Maybe, I thought, the crisp night air and the clarity one gets after midnight might invigorate some of his old fatherhood instincts.
I shimmied out of bed and shuffled downstairs.
I found him sitting at the kitchen bench, covered in dirt, a half empty beer on the yellow laminate. He turned slowly, looking me up and down like he was weighing my worth. I suddenly felt self-conscious in my nightie. I remember thinking the linoleum floor was gritty beneath my bare feet.
Finally, as if coming to a sudden decision, he nodded at me.
“Grab a beer if you want. Join me,” he said.
I swallowed, then walked to the fridge, following his instructions. I was twenty by then, but I never drank in front of Dad. Not usually, anyway. I twisted the lid and placed it on the bench, and then pulled a stool out next to him. He stared ahead, at his drink, at the horrific yellow benchtop.
“I dug up Aunt Robin tonight,” he stated. The hand holding my beer froze halfway to my lips. I didn’t hear him right, I thought. My arm began to shake, a gentle quaver. Quickly, I lifted the beer the rest of the way and took a large mouthful, nearly choking as I forced it down my throat.
“I loved your aunt. Your mother and her were so alike, except Aunt Robin never trusted your grandmother. Your mother, well, she was more forgiving. See, for your mother, the memories of why they had originally fled your grandma had faded over time. And as they did, she began to question whether your grandma was as bad as Aunt Robin said she was.
“So, when your grandma found them, your Mum was willing to give her another chance. It’s why none of us could run. Your mother wouldn’t have come. She thought that Earth would change her, soften her, that she’d become someone else — a mother, a grandmother, human. Aunt Robin though, she knew better. She held onto the past horrors. She understood your grandma couldn’t change. So she began working on a plan to nullify her.”
I took another draw on my beer, licking my lips after. I wasn’t sure if it really mattered that I was there, listening. It seemed more important that he just say these things out loud.
“After your mother was taken, your aunt knew she was next. But she stayed for us. For me, and John, and you. She and I worked hard, trying to find a way to stop your grandma, to contain her. My shame is we didn’t finish our work in time to save your aunt too. But your aunt, the good person that she was, she made sure that when she was gone, I’d get everything I needed to finish the job.”
“The globe?” I whispered. He turned his head sharply towards me, as if startled to find me there. He looked at me for a while, then nodded.
“The globe, plus a few other things. Information, really. I’m nearly ready.”
He was silent then. The only noise was from the cicadas outside the house, the gentle pulse of their singing filling the air.
“What did you find? Tonight, I mean?” I asked.
He didn’t say anything for a time. He just stared at his beer bottle, twisting it to and fro on the bench. Finally he sighed, and turned to me. I couldn’t look at him straight. Part of me thought he was mad, part of me was embarrassed by the tears in his eyes.
“Your aunt was a shell,” he whispered. “All of the worldly good of her sucked out. Nothing was left but a jacket of inflated skin, smiling up at me. And I don’t know what the hell your grandma did with her. And whether it was before or after she was buried. But I know it was her. She took her essence, as she took your mother’s. But now, now we take hers.”
I looked at the plate, the baked beans spreading across it like coagulating blood. I leaned over and thrust it under the door, picking up the tray I’d left previously — virtually untouched as normal. I shook my head. Was she starving herself to make a point? To make me feel guilty?
As I rose again, she spoke.
“Canned food. We’re running low, aren’t we?” she said from close to the door.
I cleared my throat.
“It’s temporary,” I said. “We’ll get more fresh food shortly.”
I heard a guffaw.
“He’s forgotten us, hasn’t he?”
I nearly said ‘who’, but I knew who she meant. I’d thought the same thing. Where was he?
“You know,” Grandma continued, “your father has a history of mental illness.”
Her words felt like a bomb exploding upon my brow. My face grew hot, tight, and my heart accelerated.
“No, he hasn’t,” I replied, uncertain.
“He has,” Grandma said softly. “Just after you were born he spent time in an institution. I bet he never told you that I was there then, did he?”
No, I wanted to scream. No.
“I helped your Mum. I looked after you while she looked after your Dad. You know, I was there when you took your first steps.” I could hear the smile in her voice. “It was you, me and John. Your mother was at the hospital with your Dad. You’d been pulling yourself up on the coffee table for a week. And then, all of a sudden, you smiled at me and then turned and just let go, taking three tentative steps before collapsing onto your bottom, giggling. And your brother, oh God, John was so excited.
“Your father got better eventually. And when he returned he soon made clear that I wasn’t needed anymore.”
“But … but,” I stammered. “Why didn’t you come back? Why did you stay away? Didn’t you love us?”
“Oh, honey. I loved you and John and your Mum dearly. I tried to come back so many times. But your Dad, he wouldn’t allow it. Not until a few years back. Your Mum finally convinced him that it would be good for you to have a grandmother in your life.”
My head was swimming. I knew Mum had convinced Dad to let Grandma back, but because she was forgiving, because she’d been tricked, her trusting nature preyed upon. Not this. This had to be more lies, didn’t it? Lies, lies and lies. And yet, Grandma sounded so earnest. So sad, so broken.
“Do you hate him?” I asked.
There was a long pause.
“No,” she finally said. “No, I don’t. Your father is a misguided man. But for the right reasons. He worries about you, about John. He’s wrong to worry, of course. But part of me understands. As a parent.”
I cleared my throat again. I waited for her to ask me to release her. But she never did. I shuffled away from the yellow door, confused and conflicted.
“I found the youth hostel where Dad was staying in Sydney,” John said. I gripped the phone tighter, my hands beginning to sweat. “The owners said he’d been getting ready for some sort of camping expedition or trip to the Blue Mountains.”
“Why would he do that?” I asked.
“How are you going to find him if he’s gone bush?”
“Well, that’s the thing. The owner of the hostel reckons he never did. His gear was still in his room when I got here. A couple of weeks ago, Dad went out and never returned. I’ve spoken to the cops and put in a missing person’s report. They’re starting to look into it and I’m hoping —”
Then the phone went dead.
“John,” I said, knowing doing so was useless. I hung up and tried again, but there was no dial tone. I sighed. I guess the phone company had finally had enough of my ignoring their bills. I put the phone back in the cradle and returned to the kitchen to prepare Grandma’s lunch.
“But how do you know that the note he showed you was written by your aunt?” Grandma said calmly. She’d been pressing me as to why I was so certain she deserved to be locked up. So I’d finally relented and told her about what I’d seen in the globe and what I’d read in Aunt Robin’s letter.
“Who else would have written it?”
Grandma paused. I waited, eyes on the yellow door in front of me.
“How familiar were you with your aunt’s handwriting?”
I hesitated, turning my mind back.
“I’ve seen it on birthday cards, that sort of thing,” I said eventually.
“And you’re certain the note was in her hand? Maybe your Dad wrote that letter, say with his left hand?”
I sat there dumbfounded. The idea had never even occurred to me. But why? Why would he? I shook my head. Grandma continued.
“Well, what about the globe?” I whispered.
There was silence for a while.
“I … I can’t explain what you saw, honey. But …”
“Well, perhaps you were … imagining things, seeing more than was there.”
“You mean hallucinating.”
Grandma cleared her throat.
“Your father has a history of mental illness. I’m not saying he’s passed it on …”
My mouth suddenly felt dry. I swallowed.
“I wasn’t seeing things.”
“I didn’t want to tell you this, but I feel like you need to know if you are ever going to believe me.”
But then she was quiet.
“What?” I demanded. She sighed.
“Your aunt and Dad were lovers.”
I felt my mouth opening and closing like a fish gasping for air. I was gasping for air.
“You’re lying,” I hissed.
“I wish I was,” Grandma continued, carefully, steadily. “That was why your father and I were fighting. Your mother never knew, but I found out. I wanted him to stop, but he wouldn’t. So I confronted Robin. She was so embarrassed and ashamed. She agreed it couldn’t go on. So she ended it, just before your mother died. But then a few months after that she was dead. The police said it was suicide.”
This was all wrong. It was all backwards. My legs wobbled and I stumbled into the wall and then slumped to the floor where I remained, sitting in an untidy heap.
“What are you saying?” I said, finally.
“I’m saying, I’m glad your Dad has gone for the moment. I’m afraid of him. I’m afraid for you. I’m afraid for John. I don’t want any of us to be here when he comes back. Please, Judy. Let me out. And then we can both leave. Somewhere where he won’t find us.”
I buried my throbbing head in my hands, struggling to process what Grandma had said, when a shrill ringing erupted throughout the house. I looked up with a start. Jesus, what was that?
It came again and I squealed involuntarily.
“The doorbell,” Grandma said. “It’s the doorbell, honey.”
I lurched to my feet and raced downstairs, but when I opened the door there was no one there. Instead, wedged in the screen door was a red and white note from Australia Post.
Sorry we missed you, it read. Your parcel will be available for pickup at the central post office. Hours from 8am to 5pm weekdays, 9am to 12pm Saturdays.
Damn it. I’d missed John’s package.
I walked slowly, leisurely, enjoying the day despite the heat. After all of my time cooped up in that house, I’d forgotten how bright the world could be.
The air smelt clean, fresh. Cut grass and lavender, just masking the scent of hot tar as the sun scorched the nearby road. Birds sang, lilting notes that rose and fell. From the other side of the street a group of children chattered as they walked to school. If I could’ve wiped Grandma’s words from my mind, I might’ve even felt happy out there.
When I got to the post office, I showed my licence, signed a form, and then received my package. And then I sought out a nearby park and found an empty bench on which to open it.
Inside was money. So much money. More than I’d expected. I felt my smile stretching tight across my cheeks. Oh my God. Thank you, John, I thought. And beneath the money, he’d left me a mobile phone.
I powered it up. Inside, there was only one contact — John. I rang him straight away.
“Judy, thank Christ. How are you?”
“Fine,” I said, breathlessly. God, it was good to hear his voice.
“I found out what happened to Dad,” he said.
My stomach swung up into my throat like it was trying to escape. I swallowed.
“How is he? Where is he?”
“He had some kind of a breakdown and was admitted to hospital.”
My thoughts raced back to what Grandma had told me.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“He was drinking at a pub here in Bondi about a week back, when he got into an argument with one of the regulars. When he was asked to tone it down, he just snapped. He started throwing glasses, knocking over chairs, he even hit someone. And the whole time he was ranting and raving about the world ending.”
“Jesus,” I whispered. “What did they do?”
“They called the cops. When they arrived, they took him back to the station and put him in the drunk tank for the night. But even after he sobered up, he didn’t calm down. He kept blabbering about the end of everything. So, eventually, they called in the shrink, and then admitted him to hospital.”
What did this mean? Had Grandma been right all along? Had I been helping Dad feed delusions?
“Is he ok?” I asked.
“That’s the thing. When I turned up he was gone. He escaped, Judy. He’s not there with you, is he?”
I shook my head.
“Judy, there’s something else. He left a notebook with his things at the hostel. I’ve been reading it.”
“Ok,” I whispered.
“It has a lot of strange things in it. Website addresses that I’ve checked out, and they’re all crazy — full of conspiracy theories. There’s stuff in it about incantations and spells. And then other things. Worse things. Disturbing … thoughts, I guess. I hope.”
“Like what?” I asked, dread gnawing at me.
“Grandma. There is a lot of crazy shit about Grandma. About her being … not human. About her being evil. About her …”
I swallowed, waiting.
“He didn’t do anything to her, did he?” John asked.
I swallowed again.
“No,” I lied.
“You haven’t done anything, right?”
“She’s fine,” I shot back, a little too fast.
“That’s not what I asked, Judy.”
“I’ve got to go,” I whispered.
“Judy, what have you done? Where is she?”
“I’ve got to go, John, okay? But I’ll call you soon.”
“God dammit. I’m coming home. I’ll —”
I hung up. My heart was racing.
The phone rang again, startling me. I saw it was John and ended the call, and then I switched the phone off. Shit, shit, shit. What had I done? What was I doing? Was I that gullible? Or worse, had I believed Dad because he’d passed his illness to me?
Suddenly, I was moving. I bundled the money and phone back into the box, tucked them under my arm and ran. I ran until my chest hurt, until my breathing grew haggard, until my heart was thumping, my body burning, my legs aching.
I unlocked the front door and raced upstairs, lactic acid burning through my body. When I got to the top I stopped at the yellow door and gulped in air.
“Ok, Grandma,” I huffed. “I’m going to let you out.”
From the other side there was a very soft sound, like someone licking their lips in anticipation.
“Thank you, dear,” she said so quietly I could barely hear her over my own ragged breathing. At the back of my mind was the voice of my father. Don’t trust her. She’s intent on ending all of us. If she leaves that room, Armageddon begins. And yet, how could I trust him? How could I trust anyone but myself?
I took the key from my pocket and placed it in the lock. I took a deep breath, and then turned the key and knob in one motion, gently pushing the door inward with a squeak.
The room was empty.
I didn’t understand. It was empty. It even smelt stale, like it hadn’t been lived in for months. How could that be?
“Grandma?” I said, scanning the room. On the right was a neatly made bed with a sunflower pattered doona. On my left, barred windows looking out over our muddy lawn and the large maple. The en-suite door at the back of the room was ajar, but there were no sounds from there suggesting life.
In the middle of the room was something familiar. Aunt Robin’s globe was sitting on a small, round table. Even from the doorway, I could see its white contents swirling, vibrating, dancing, calling to me.
But nothing. Silence. I stepped hesitantly into the room, turning to peer cautiously behind the door, but there was no one there. My pulse was quickening as my feet began to carry me, like I was floating, towards the globe. I drew closer and closer, watching the swirling malevolence within seduce me, until I was reaching for it, with furrowed brow, then hesitating, my hand an inch shy of its surface, beads of sweat on my brow, the nape of my neck tingling. Dad’s voice in the back of my mind was begging me to leave, but something else, not a voice, but a call, was begging me to stay. I couldn’t ignore it. Not if I’d wanted to. I thrust my hand toward the globe, embracing its warm surface.
I was standing on a sheer rock precipice, ash and ice swirling in flurries, pushed on by ever changing winds. The world was roaring in my ears, the air thin. I hugged myself against the cold.
The mountain shifted. I was falling, the air whistling around me, screaming, laughing. And then I was cushioned by snow, wet cold eating into my thin clothes and stabbing at my skin.
All around me were presences. Ghostly forms surrounding me and closing in. I was suddenly propelled into the air by a blast of snow and ice. Then, I was on solid ground again, on a rocky ledge close to the peak of the mountain where something was waiting for me. Something terrible and awe‑inspiring. A golden ink blot of light, pulsing like a steady heartbeat. Bright tendrils arced away from the main body, melting snowflakes that fell too close. Thin, red lines snaked out from the centre of gold, staining the light. The red veins widened as it turned its glow upon me. I’ve never wanted the darkness more, to shut off that glare exposing my soul. It saw my shortcomings, my failures, my weaknesses, self-pity, the myriad of tiny things that made me ashamed of my existence. And yet I couldn’t look away. It was her, I knew.
“Grandma,” I stammered, tears stinging my eyes, the dead taste of ash in my mouth. I wanted to run, to fling myself from the moving mountain, but my feet were walking towards her and I couldn’t stop them. “Please,” I whispered.
The red lines widened, staining the golden light like blood washing back into a syringe as it pierced the vein. I felt her shrieking in my head. I held my shaking hands over my ears and tried to block her presence out, but I couldn’t. It was inside of me and expanding. My skull felt like it would fracture and explode at any moment. I fell to my knees, scraping them raw against the rough stone, but I couldn’t stop shuffling towards her.
“Please,” I begged. “Please.” But words didn’t mean anything here. This was its world. And I was part of it. My blood had come from her. She was intent on taking me back. She’d shared enough.
I was close now. My eyes bulged, my head throbbed, my ears buzzed with the roar of the wind and the pressure from within. The gold-red light dipped towards me, clearing a path through the ash and snow, ready to envelop me. Every nerve in my body was jangling as it approached, searing like each was a raw tooth in which a dentist’s drill was probing. I almost longed for her embrace, as long as it ended the sensory pain.
Suddenly, there was a wave of coolness between me and her. Then another. And the pressure in my head eased. And with the reprieve, in my mind, I heard a voice, singing softly.
“Angels watching ever round thee,
All through the night …”
“Mum,” I whispered, tears burning my eyes. But then there was a push within my head again, and the glow was back, stabbing at me with electric heat. But the coolness quickly intervened again.
“Go,” my mother hissed. “Go back to your father, help him. Protect yourself and John. Find a way to break the link. She’s in the blood, but not in you, do you understand? Go. Your aunt and I have her for the moment.”
“What about you?” I screamed, wrenching back from Grandma’s magnetic pull.
I felt her smile, or the sense of a smile.
“It’s too late, honey. I was foolish. I thought Earth would change her, and I fell back into her embrace. She tricked me like she tricked you. But Aunt Robin did well. She gave your Dad a way to protect you and John. Go.”
I wanted to argue. I wanted to convince her to come with me. Both of them. But suddenly, the cool forces of my mother and aunt slammed into me and I found myself falling, flailing, ash and snow in my mouth as I watched the glowing echo of Grandma roaring at the night, red bruising the gold until there was nothing left but crimson, blood. But her hold was diminishing, the pressure reducing, and then I was back in her bedroom, shaking, collapsing into strong arms that turned me, and embraced me, and pulled me from the room before slamming the yellow door closed. And then Dad was cradling me like an infant in his lap as I sobbed against his broad chest.
“Why didn’t you just tell me she’d left?” John said, staring at his cup of tea on the kitchen bench, untouched, growing cold. Dad sat across from him, while I stood in the corner of the kitchen, nursing a coffee, trying to control the tremor that still affected my hands.
“I … ah …”
“She didn’t want you to worry,” Dad interjected. John’s head rose slowly to look at Dad. He shook his head, almost imperceptibly, then turned away to scowl at the fridge.
“She still should have said something,” he said to no one in particular.
When John had arrived home and found Dad in the house, he’d let loose with a torrent of accusations and demanded to see Grandma. We’d had to show him Grandma’s room to calm him.
Even though Dad had covered and hidden the globe, I was nervous opening that door again. And I noticed that Dad remained by John’s side the whole time, a hand on his shoulder. As John surveyed the empty room, I watched the anger in his face dissipate, replaced with confusion and a deflation that I didn’t like. I didn’t like seeing him hurt. I didn’t like feeling like I’d hurt him.
“Where do you think she’s gone?” John asked me. I shook my head.
“I’m not really sure. But I wish I knew. She didn’t leave a note. I just woke up one morning and she was gone,” I lied, surprised at how easily it came.
“We all handle grief in different ways, son. This might just be Grandma’s way.”
I raised my coffee to my lips and sipped. It was bitter, but it warmed me.
“Grandma’s a grown woman. If she wants to go away and clear her head, she can. And you know she’s independent and can look after herself. I’m sure she’ll call us when she’s good and ready.”
“And what about you?” he asked Dad. “They told me you’d just up and left the hospital. And your notebook. The things you wrote. I mean …”
Dad smiled sadly.
“John, I was very sick. And I barely remember what I wrote down or did over the last few months, but that wasn’t me, ok? I got the help I needed in hospital. And they put me in touch with a very good doctor. I’m going to be ok, now.”
John looked from Dad, to me, to Dad again.
“Ok,” he said, sighing. And then he was standing, pushing his stool back across the floor with a screech.
“I need to get going. I’ve spent long enough away from work as it is. But you’ll tell me if you hear from her, right?”
“Of course,” I replied. He looked at me for a long time as if he wanted to believe me, but I could tell he wasn’t quite sure if he could. Nevertheless, he nodded eventually, then shook Dad’s hand before walking from the kitchen. I heard the screen door whine as it opened, followed by a bang as John left the house.
“I guess you’ll have to go soon as well,” I said to Dad as John’s truck roared to life outside.
“I wish I didn’t. I really do. But the quicker we sever the link, the quicker we can return to our lives.”
“I know,” I said quietly. The sound of John’s truck was already fading as he drove away.
“I’m close, I know it. It won’t be forever. But in the meantime —”
“I’ll mind Grandma. I won’t trust her. I’ll do my duty.”
“Good girl,” he said. He played with his hands for a time before looking across at me.
“You know before, upstairs …”
I swallowed. I’d disobeyed him and put all of us at risk, so I’d been expecting a reproach. I suddenly felt six again, standing in his study waiting to be chastised.
He cleared his throat.
“I’m sorry I left you for so long with her. I’m sorry …” He sniffed loudly. And then before I knew what he was doing he was on his feet and he’d closed the distance between us and wrapped me in his arms. I tensed at first, just for a moment, before my whole body relaxed into him and I lay my head against his chest.
“I’m just so thankful you were returned to me safely,” he said softly, his chin resting on my head. I felt tears burning at the back of my eyes, so I blinked hard, forcing them back.
Finally, he pulled away and held me at arm’s length, his eyes trailing across my face as if he’d just noticed it for the first time.
“I’ll stay tonight. But I’ll have to get going first thing.”
“Ok,” I said, happy to have Dad back in the house, even if it was only for one night.
It was a few days after Dad left before Grandma began talking again. When she did, it wasn’t to beg. Instead, she began talking about deals. She offered me power, riches, anything I might desire — all I had to do was let her go.
But her words don’t affect me anymore. I no longer see her as a fragile, old lady. In my mind, I see the golden light, stained crimson with anger as she watches me falling, falling, away from her clutches.
My task is simple. I’ll keep that thing locked upstairs. And when she speaks, I’ll ignore her, because she lies and her only goal is to end my family’s existence. She tricked me once, but never again. This time I’ll execute my obligations dispassionately, faultlessly, until Dad returns and exorcises her from our lives for good.