Learn from Penny and make sure you have all your facts straight before making idle accusations; it could be a life saver.
© 2011 Jesse Daggett
The Christmas season brought a gay spirit to Penny. The snow, lights and sounds of the holidays transported Penny into a magical place that seemed to end too soon. Try to enjoy it while you can, she thought as her husband, Herb, drove them to a dinner hosted by his boss.
He pulled the car into the Alexander’s driveway, which had been cleared of the snow.
“Look at Santa and his reindeer on the roof,” Penny said. The decoration, cut out of wood and bordered with lights, was propped up next to the fireplace.
“Yeah, it’s nice,” he muttered.
“And the lights. I wish ours were the multicolored ones. It looks like tiny pieces of candy hanging from the roof.”
“It’s so beautiful,” she exclaimed. “Why can’t ours look like that?” Their home only had a single strand of white lights around the roofline.
“We could if we didn’t have that kid six years ago, Penny.”
Herb was right. Sometimes having a child was a blessing, but it did hinder them from enjoying many things in life that others without children were able to afford. With one less mouth to feed, they could do more.
She grabbed a bottle of wine from the back seat. As they walked up the shoveled path to the front door, Herb said, “Remember this is an important night for me. I worked extra hard for that wine, but it might have been worth it. I think I’m getting promoted to manager of the warehouse.”
“Oh, Herb, I certainly hope so.”
“Just don’t forget to be nice, even if you don’t like them. Put on a fake smile if you have to. And don’t bring up Bobby. It’s boring and embarrassing sometimes when you talk about that kid. Especially when others don’t have kids, they can’t relate.”
“What do you think I should do?”
He rang the doorbell. “Ask them questions. Always compliment them on their house and things they have, even if you hate them. Try to play it cool and learn to kiss their ass.”
A young woman in a flower print dress answered the door and introduced herself as Nancy Alexander. The diamonds in her choker necklace shimmered in the light and her dress was cut to accentuate her neckline and part of the shoulders matched with a flared skirt that stopped just above her mid-calf. Even if Penny could afford to dress this nice, she couldn’t bring herself to wear something so revealing, but the sultry yet classy attire was appropriate for the hostess.
Nancy took their coats and hung them in a closet next to the staircase. On the right was the living room, where a large Christmas tree stood next to the window, and Penny could smell the pine fragrance wafting from it. Nancy led them down a short hall to the TV room on the left and the kitchen was on the right. Back here, the pine faded to an aroma of a roasting turkey and a baking apple pie.
In the den, next to the white brick fireplace, sat Nancy’s husband in a chair with his feet propped on an ottoman while watching TV. He put down his tumbler of amber liquid, stood up and shook Herb’s hand.
Herb introduced James, Herb’s boss, to Penny. She gasped, a little too loud.
“Something wrong?” James asked.
She blushed. “No, it’s just...you look-”
“Like James Dean, I know. And I have the same first name, but I assure you, he is still dead.” He chuckled.
Herb cleared his throat and glanced at Penny, a serious look on his face.
“Of course. Well, your home just looks beautiful.” Her voice sounded shaky.
He smiled warmly. “Why, thank you. Nancy has done a great job of decorating it in elegance without feeling uncomfortable.” He sat back down. “Nancy, bring Herb a scotch on the rocks, three deep.”
James offered Herb a cigar and soon they struck up a conversation about Eisenhower. Politics bored Penny and all she cared about was that she and her husband were alive and living decently. Not rich but at least they weren’t starving.
When Nancy returned, Herb thanked her for the drink and glanced down the front of her dress as she bent over. His eyes sparkled and lingered on her plunging neckline for a moment. Nancy and James seemed not to notice, but Penny did. She knew what he was thinking. How lucky James was to marry Nancy, such a fine woman, so full of vibrance and sophistication.
Penny could be a better woman, but still wouldn’t live up to Herb’s expectations. Since her pregnancy and giving birth, he looked at her differently. His actions showed more than his words, and many times his face displayed disgust. She knew it was the weight she gained and the way her breasts began to sag. She didn’t feel sexy anymore. But Nancy, oh yeah, she still had it. Nancy had hair professionally dyed blond and swept back in a New Wave. New. Everything about Nancy and her husband was new, modern, and fun.
“Are you okay?” Nancy asked.
Penny blinked and nodded. “Yes, sorry. I zoned out, didn’t I?”
Nancy smiled, a perfect set of dimples appeared on her face. “Try this. It’ll make you feel better.”
She pushed a glass of wine into Penny’s hand. The blush-colored wine was sweet to her palate and went down smooth and warm, unlike the bitter words and cold kisses from her husband.
“Come see what James gave me for Christmas.”
Penny followed her into the living room, which had a formal flair. They sat on a kidney-shaped cream plush couch across from two chairs of the same style. The walls were covered in a turquoise striped wallpaper and pink drapery drawn open on either side of the Christmas tree. On the wooden coffee table sat a small, blue-green phonograph, cut smooth and sleek with Zenith embossed in gold on the sides.
“Oh my, that is small. Mine is inside a gigantic wooden cabinet,” Penny said.
“We have one like that in the den, but I wanted a portable one for this room. It’s the new Phantom. Isn’t it beautiful?”
“Yes, it is.”
“And it came with this. Sinatra’s new LP,” Nancy said with excitement.
Frank’s face was on the cover of “A Jolly Christmas.” Nancy loaded the vinyl on the turntable and turned it on. Sleigh bells rang softly in the background then was joined by male and female voices that sang,
“I love those J-I-N-G-L-E Bells, oh,
Those holiday J-I-N-G-L-E Bells, oh,
Those happy J-I-N-G-L-E B-E-double L-S,
I love those J-I-N-G-L-E Bells.”
Then Frank chimed in with the first verse.
Penny let the song lift her soul and her eyes drifted to the Christmas tree. Colorful baubles and tiny silver bells hung from the branches that were wrapped in strips of tinsel and strands of multi-colored lights. The red satin skirt had miniature green Christmas trees stitched around it with tiny silver bells bottoming the hem. She smiled.
Nancy said, “I know Christmas is over, but I’m still in the spirit until the New Year. That’s when the tree and lights come down.”
Penny wished her tree looked that nice. Hers was just decorated with stringed popcorn and lights and hand-me-down ornaments from Herb’s older brother. If they didn’t have Bobby, she could have a tree this nice. She could have this beautiful home, a new phonograph with Frank Sinatra singing to her. If only. She cursed herself. What was she thinking? Though Bobby entered their lives by accident, she couldn’t blame him for the lack of things she and Herb would enjoy. It wasn’t the boy’s fault. Somehow being in this house made her realize everything she was missing in life. Suddenly, she thought of the little three-year old girl that was kidnapped from her parent’s back yard. It happened almost two weeks ago.
Penny felt Nancy’s hand on hers.
Penny shook the thought of the missing girl out of her head. “Yeah, sorry. I love how you decorated the tree.”
“Thanks, but I saw that look on your face. For a moment you didn’t look happy. Everything okay?”
“Of course.” Penny let out a nervous chuckle and looked down at her half-empty glass of wine. “I was just thinking about the missing girl, that’s all.”
“Yes, it is sad.”
“I can’t help thinking about how upset the parents must be, spending the holidays without her. That must be so awful. The poor girl, too. So alone and sad. I couldn’t imagine losing Bobby. That would just kill me.” Then she clamped her mouth shut when she saw the sad look on Nancy’s face. “Oh, Nancy, I’m so sorry for bringing down the mood.”
“No, it’s okay.” A tear rolled down her face. “We’re okay. We could always adopt, you know?”
“Yes.” She grabbed a tissue from a box on the coffee table and wiped her face. She sighed. “We have tried several times to conceive, but there is something wrong with my womb. I can’t produce eggs,” she whispered, as if speaking it louder would summon demons to appear and burn her at the stake.
Everyone carried their own sorrow and misfortune. Penny chose her frugal lifestyle over infertility.
On the table sat a gold cigarette case. Nancy withdrew a smoke and offered one to Penny, but Penny declined. Penny cursed silently at her stupidity and awkwardness. She remembered Herb’s warning. Try to play it cool. She picked up the vinyl LP cover. “Sometimes I wish Herb was like him. So cute and dreamy.”
Nancy took the cover from Penny, held it over her face and said, “I wish I could tie this to James’ face while we’re making love.”
“Oh, Nancy, you’re so naughty.” She giggled.
“I know. But it’s true, you know. Sometimes I see a monster in him.”
Penny nodded, but didn’t understand her. Her face was blank.
“Now it’s my turn to apologize,” Nancy said. “I shouldn’t be telling you my problems. Come on, let’s get out of this mood and take this energy to the kitchen.”
She grabbed the phonograph and as they passed the den, Penny overheard the men discussing the dog that went into space on the Sputnik II. Penny hated hearing about the death of the dog and thought the mission was a stupid one. She loved animals as much as her own son, and she would have a dog if she wasn’t married to Herb. If she had a dog, she would name it, Laika, after the dog in the spacecraft.
In the kitchen, Nancy set the phonograph on the kitchen counter and resumed the next song. She refilled their glasses before pulling the turkey from the oven. Penny felt awkward and asked to help, but Nancy declined. No guest of Nancy’s was going to work in her house. With her second glass of wine almost gone, Penny asked to use the restroom.
“Sure, honey. You have to use the one upstairs. The toilet down here is broken.”
Penny headed to the stairs.
“Second door on the left,” Nancy called out. “The only open door in the hallway.”
The hallway was so quiet it somehow muted the noise downstairs. The atmosphere up here changed, as if she was in another dimension. A dim light was strong enough to light her path to the bathroom, but beyond that, complete darkness. The air forced goosebumps to grow on her skin and she rubbed her arms with her hands to warm them.
There were four doors in the hall, three on the left and one at the end. Why did they need so many bedrooms when there was no one else living there? Penny and Herb’s house only had two bedrooms.
In the restroom, she stared at the floor, the affects of the alcohol creating a buzzing in her head. A scratching above snapped her out of her reverie and she jumped. She laughed in spite of herself, being freaked out by a couple of rats upstairs.
Back in the kitchen she mentioned the rats to Nancy, who claimed James would set up traps in the morning. At Penny’s insistence, Nancy allowed her to at least help set up the dining table. Penny’s mouth watered as she carried out the turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and green beans, while Nancy placed the silverware.
Before they sat down, Penny excused herself to the restroom again. This time she heard a moaning in the same area upstairs. This seemed odd to her. From what she could remember, rats didn’t moan. They squeaked.
“James, I think you need to use a bigger trap in the attic,” said Penny when she returned to the table and explained what she heard.
“Nonsense! It must be the wind through the trees.” He glanced at Nancy and cleared his throat. She sipped her wine.
“But I only heard it in one part of the house. And why can’t I hear it down here?” Penny asked.
Herb gave her a look that said, What are you doing? “Why can’t you just leave well enough alone, Penny? Clearly, James will take care of it.”
“It’s okay, Herb,” James said. “Penny could be right. It’s probably a raccoon keeping her family warm. I’ll let them enjoy the night and will check on it tomorrow morning. But right now I’m going to enjoy my dinner with my new friends.” He raised his glass of water. “To new friends, health and wishes for the coming year.”
During the rest of dinner, Penny could barely carry on a conversation with the hosts. Her mind kept wandering to the missing girl. What was her name? Mary? What if she was being held captive in this very house? Thoughts of the missing girl possibly being held captive upstairs chewed on the back of Penny’s mind relentlessly, and at one point she almost exploded in frustration. She ignored the questioning looks from Herb and soft kicks under the table to keep her focused. But she took a deep breath and excused herself one last time. She blamed the frequent visits to the restroom on the wine.
Penny had to keep herself from running up the stairs and breaking through the bedroom doors. Nancy being unable to conceive could explain why the Alexander’s might have kidnapped the girl, but it didn’t make the situation morally correct, especially for her parents. Her mind ran with many questions. How would James and Nancy react to Penny’s daring move? If she had to, could she pull off rescuing the girl without being caught by the Alexander’s? If she was caught, what would she do? How could she call the police? Would Herb help her? Yes, he would. For Bobby, he would. Would she and Herb be the Alexander’s next victims?
If it was possible, the air seemed to have lowered even more than her last visit and her breath plumed out of her mouth. Penny knew that little missing girl was either in one of the rooms or the attic. She opened the first door, which struck her as peculiar. The room was completely empty. There wasn’t even paint on the walls.
The next door she tried was locked. She pressed her ear to the door. Silence echoed back to her. She laid on the floor to peer under the door, but it was too dark to see anything. She almost kicked the door in.
Past the restroom and at the end of the hall was the master bedroom, which she crept quietly but quickly through it. Neither monsters crawled from under the bed nor did she find the missing girl.
Back in the hallway she stopped under an attic door above her. A string with a crystal ball hung from it that allowed easy access without the need of a ladder. Her heart sped up. Gone were her worries of being caught. She had to save the girl’s life. Her spine tingled.
Just last month police discovered human body parts in the home of Edward Gein, who lived in Plainsfield, just under two hours away. Gein confessed to killing two women, but most of the body parts were from corpses he had exhumed to use as trophies and keepsakes. Were the Alexander’s just as crazy, only slowly letting this girl die in their attic?
Without further delay, Penny pulled down the door and unfolded the attached ladder. How will you feel, Nancy, when I discover your dirty little secret and expose it to the world? Will you be able to prance around in your beautiful dress and expensive jewelry, your dyed blond hair, with your carefree demeanor? Will your home, your husband, and your color TV, matter anymore? What will you have to say, Nancy Alexander?
In the attic, she pulled a chain that popped on a light bulb. It swung back and forth, casting dancing shadows. Plywood nailed to the rafters kept her from falling through the attic floor. She carefully started to walk around a maze of boxes.
“Your dinner’s getting cold, and everyone else is ready for dessert now.” Nancy said behind her.
“Where is she?” Penny didn’t turn around.
“She, who? Oh, you mean the missing girl. She’s not here.”
“I know she’s up here.”
Nancy sighed. “You’re wasting your time.”
“Am I? Then who...or what is making that noise?” From the shadows came a moan and fingernails scratching on wood.
“We told you. Rats or raccoons, maybe both, who knows.”
“You can’t fool me. The sounds aren’t from mice or rats.”
“Why do you have to be a Nosy Posey Miss Busy Body? Why can’t you be normal like your husband?” Nancy demanded.
The insults didn’t bother Penny, and she turned around. “I’m not leaving until I know what is in here. What secrets are you keeping?”
Nancy sighed. “You’re right. Something else is up here, but I will warn you, it is in your best interest to come down and finish your dinner. Why can’t you just appreciate the time I spent all day slaving over it?”
“No. I already told you once.”
“You’re not serious,” Nancy shot back snidely.
“I don’t think you want to know because if you do, you will die. I’m not joking.”
“I’ll take my chances,” Penny persevered.
“Fine.” Then she called out, “Muéstrele, Monstruo!”
Penny turned back just in time. A beast jumped from the shadows and stopped in front of her. His hot breath reeked of an open restaurant dumpster roasting in the July heat through his fish-shaped mouth that wouldn’t stay closed. Three-inch long sharp teeth with drool running down three-inch long sharp teeth, which dripped off its chin. Blood pulsed in the bulging veins of its high forehead. The monster’s silver dollar sized eyes were a soulless, deep black. From its fingertips protruded foot-long nails. Other than that, its body was clothed and seemed normal, if that was possible, like any other human.
“Oh, God, what is that thing?”
“This...thing is my son,” Nancy answered, ashamed.
Penny backed up against Nancy. She couldn’t tear her gaze away from the monster. It moaned, a deep sadness, and Penny almost felt sorry for it.
“Nine years ago God cursed my womb and gave me this...beautiful creature. We couldn’t bring ourselves to abort him nor can we kill him now. He is loved and taken care of despite his looks and demeanor. We just have to keep him locked up in here when we have company, which isn’t much, I’m sure you understand. He doesn’t eat normal food, no, only...certain meats. Uncooked meats.”
That explained the stench from his mouth. Nancy moved in closer to Penny and whispered in Penny’s ear. “The little girl was here. But only for a short time. My little Johnny was hungry.”
Penny shook her head fiercely. “No, no, this isn’t real. I am in a dream, a nightmare, right? Wake me up, Nancy. Wake me up, Herb. Please. Don’t do this to me.”
“This is just as real as the pain of giving birth. You made a big mistake. Herb was right. You can’t just leave well enough alone, can you?” Nancy exclaimed.
Penny felt a pressure on her wrists and looked down at them. Nancy had her hands wrapped around them. “Let me go, Nancy. I want to go home.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that. You’ve seen too much. You will definitely tell someone else and word would get around. I can’t risk being jailed or put in a looney bin. I don’t want us or Johnny to be looked at like a freak show.” It was too late for that.
Where was Herb? They were in here long enough to raise suspicion. She was sure James kept Herb occupied with more mixed drinks and talks of sports and politics. Men. Pretty much useless.
Penny tried to break free and escape.
Now Penny understood the value of learning a second language. Little Johnny pounced and tackled her. His large feet and talons held her down, but she fought him anyway. He opened his filthy mouth, let out a roar and tore his teeth through her stomach. A sharp, burning agony flooded her midsection. She screamed. He ripped her throat, silencing her forever.
The notion of her life flashing before her eyes didn’t happen. Instead, her vision faded, she turned cold, and she became deaf. Though her pain diminished, she still felt the pressure of his teeth chomping at her intestines. Through the disgusting and humiliating way he made her body, she felt peaceful. Little Bobby would be fine. Herb would survive without her. She smiled. Everything was going to be okay.