It was a wonder the neighbors didn't complain. And I know it's irrational, maybe even paranoid, but I imagined the old guy upstairs must have heard me crying lately and was mocking my... [+]
Grandfather Jessup clasped my biceps in his feeble grip and searched my face, worry akin to fear darkening his eyes. I patted his liver-stained hand and directed him back towards his recliner with gentle force.
"Is the door firmly shut?" he asked. "Did you lock it?"
"They were Jehovah's Witnesses, Gramps. Those, I never invite in." Turning back to the hallway before he had a chance to respond, I shook the doorknob so he could hear the lock rattle.
"Firmly shut!" I called, raising my voice, but not enough.
Releasing a sigh I knew he wouldn't hear, I walked back into the sitting room, and sat across from him on the sofa.
"Didn't like their looks, I did. Those black clothes, those pale faces..." He munched his lips. "Vampires, if I know anything about it."
I gestured at his wall of vintage horror Blu-rays. "That's your old movies talking. There's no such thing as vampires."
I poured him another cup of tea.
"Shows what you know. You sure you're a granddaughter of mine?"
I poured for myself and stirred milk into his.
For a second, he gave me such a blank stare that I feared another of his spells. But then he nodded vigorously.
I sighed inwardly with relief, and got up to get the game from the sideboard. I was only gone a minute, but when I came back, he asked, "You didn't invite them in, did you, Sheila?"
***Terrified screaming ripped me from sleep. Wrestling the fog from my brain, I whipped my bathrobe around me as I crossed the landing to Grandfather's bedroom. He was sitting straight up in bed, forehead shiny in the light from the landing, fingers clawing the bedlinen pooled around his waist, his eyes fixed on a point behind me. I sat on the edge of his bed and took his hands.
"I'm here, Gramps. You've had a nightmare."
The terror distorting the lines on his face momentarily made way for annoyance, but he didn't move his gaze, and he didn't seem to be blinking at all.
"What nightmare? Julia, there are people in the stairwell."
It seemed like the longer she was dead, the more he called me by my mother's name.
"Dead people. They have no eyes, only endless black tunnels. And every time I look away, they're closer."
Oh jeez. I'd even seen this one. The opening scene to Echo, a haunted-mountain flick I'd watched with him a decade ago.
Gramps was getting worse. Vintage Dracula movies in the afternoon, contemporary European horror at night. What next?
"There's no one in the stairwell, Gramps. Just the two of us in the house, like always. Let me show you."
As I got up, his trembling hand shot out and grabbed my wrist with surprising force. "Don't!"
As kindly as I could, I peeled his fingers off my arm. Three steps brought me to the landing, two more to the top of the stairs. I looked down into the darkness as my hand found the light switch.
Half a second later, the empty hallway was bathed in yellow light.
"No one here, Gramps," I called out.
And there wasn't. There really wasn't. There hadn't been any pitch-black silhouettes just before I flicked the switch. Just shadows. Just shadows.
***We used to joke about it at family dinners.
"Grandfather Jessup," we'd say. "Are you sure you want to watch all those horror movies? Those scares are fun now, but what if your brain goes soft?"
He'd laugh his broad, rolling laugh.
"Looking forward to it," he'd say. "If those scares are fun now, just wait until I believe they're real!"
Drum roll. Laughter. It was funny when we all knew Alzheimer's didn't run in the family. When every Jessup for generations had kept their sharp minds until the end. I'd moved in to take care of him just because his physical strength was failing.
But then he'd started calling me Julia. Repeating himself. Forgetting stuff.
I knew I was in for a difficult time, even before he came out of the bathroom with a white face and shaking hands, babbling about a voice from the drain telling him they all floated down there. Even before he clamped my face between his hands one evening and hissed, "Did you check the basement?"
I didn't recognize every reference, but I'd watched enough of the movies with Gramps as a kid to know he was reliving the jolts from his favorite horror flicks.
How long before he'd rip out the plumbing to get rid of the voices? How long before he'd take a stake and mallet to strangers at the door?
How long before I couldn't care for him any longer?
***Again, my restless dreams were pierced by his horrified screams. I didn't even bother with my robe this time. I found Grandfather Jessup wrapped in his blanket up to his chin, wide eyes fixated on his wardrobe, a feeble arm sticking out, finger pointing.
I shouldn't have snapped, but this was my fourth broken night. I couldn't do this much longer.
His voice was a shaking whisper.
"There's a monster in my closet."
I froze, every muscle in my back tightening. I shivered in my nightgown. I remembered that one.
Not a movie, but a cartoon. A horror cartoon. Little girl screaming in her bed. Daddy comes. "There's a monster in my closet," she says. He opens the closet. The girl is sitting in the closet. Says, "There's a monster in my bed." The girl in the bed. The girl in the closet. Between them, the dad. Frozen in terror.
What would have happened if I'd invited those Jehovah's Witnesses in?
The obvious thing was to pull open his wardrobe. Show him there was nothing in there but old suits and cardigans. No monster. And certainly no Grandfather Jessup, pointing at the bed in mortal fear.
But had I really seen nothing in the stairwell?
Turning away from the closet was the hardest thing I'd ever done. Taking the single stride that separated me from Grandfather Jessup. Sitting down. Part of me felt rheumy eyes bore into my back from between the slats in the closet doors.
There were only shadows in the stairwell. Only Jehovah's Witnesses at the door. No voices in the drain. No haunted mountains.
"And no monster in the closet, Gramps," I whispered as I pulled him close, not sure which one of us I was trying to convince. "And no monster in this bed."