Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
A BITTER COLD blasted its way through the Northeast United States.
The snow, already two inches thick became iced over and glazed to a slick, reflective surface. A small town that typically conveyed a sense of light-heartedness and joy was frozen in a moment of hollow desperation. Its citizens ran inside their glowing warm homes, trying in vain to shelter themselves from the storm. Shop-keepers closed up early, a mom-and-pop grocery store was dark, and the streets were empty as dusk settled in.
This was the exact moment that Leonard Phipps entered Mason, New Hampshire, driving his white Chrysler Lebaron on his way to Boston. He had watched people scramble from their businesses to their cars with wool scarves wrapped tightly around their necks as he passed through the center of town. His flight was leaving in a few hours and he was making good time for most of the drive.
The GPS attached to his dashboard was guiding him south on Old County Road, a vacant back-stretch one-lane street that went on for miles. As he drove past an abandoned car encased in a snowbank, his thoughts drifted to the check-in process at Logan Airport. Packed in a line, rushing to take off his belt and emptying his pockets, he would place his belongings into separate plastic bins in order to pass through security. There was a comfortable amount of time to get settled in at his gate, but the idea of being corralled like cattle was something he would never get used to. One shoe bomber was all it took to force every passenger to take off their own for digital inspection. Two sweaty, damp lines of well-trotted carpet lay between him and the X-ray machine. He cringed at the thought of shuffling along the same path but he was looking forward to his well-earned vacation in the tropics.
It was mere moments to collision when Leonard snapped out of his daydream.
He was forced to slam on the brakes as the Lebaron’s headlights shone brightly on the tree lying across the road, blocking his progress. The car skidded to a halt and a moment passed as he slowly exhaled and loosened his grip on the steering wheel. His heart raced and he took a few deep breaths as he reminded himself that he was alright.
“You’re fine… You’re alive…” Leonard repeated to himself a few times as a mantra.
He couldn’t believe the wind-chill had dropped to negative twenty degrees since noon. He figured the tree had been there for quite some time since it was covered in ice.
Leonard braced himself for the cold as he left the engine running and exited the car.
The road was deserted aside from a tall black house on top of a hill to his right. His car now stopped directly in front of a long driveway curling itself between rows of hedges covered with snow. A cemetery sat silently at the bottom of the hill. Odd, he thought, since there wasn’t a church in sight. He could make out two lights that shone warmly from the house, one on the second floor and one on the front porch. It looked somewhat inviting despite its characteristically Victorian appearance with its harsh roof angles and widows watch towering into the clouds.
As he was staring at the house, he noticed his car’s headlights flicker on and off from the corner of his eye. He turned his attention toward the Lebaron only to hear the engine sputter and wheeze, slowly dying in the cold of the night.
No! Not now! Not in this place!
He rushed toward the car and desperately grabbed for the handle, but it had frozen tight. Helplessly he looked around for another car, another person, anyone to assist in his time of need. A frosted blast of chilled air shattered his body and seemed to penetrate his navy blue wool coat, forcing him to stand still. The pain contorted his face into a grimace.
The engine gave its last breath as the headlights began to dim and finally turn black.
Leonard stood in the dark for a moment, pondering his options.
He reached for his cell phone in the front pocket of his coat but his hand met an empty sack.
“Fuuuuuck,” he cried while wisps of steam vaporized into the night air. Just then he realized he had left it inside the car on the dashboard while using it for GPS. A glowing rectangular screen taunted him from frosted windows. Hands tensed into clenched fists as his lips pursed together to form a frown. Leonard glanced angrily at the tree blocking his path. He looked back to the car that had recently disappointed him and up at the winding driveway toward the tall black house at the top of a hill.
LEONARD WAS NEVER the life of the party. In fact, he was just lucky enough to be invited to one. He really wasn’t a miserable person to be around; he was just – an odd duck, as he was so often labeled. More comfortable with machines than man, he was hired by a friend’s father to fix broken screens and locked cell phones at a mall kiosk. Leonard was 47 years old.
It was a party that Leonard was driving from which placed him in Mason, New Hampshire that night. He was a wallflower, content to sip on the same cup of punch for the entirety of his visit as he awkwardly sat in an armchair off the living room. If people wanted to talk to him, they certainly could. They knew who he was. It was his brother’s party. A devilishly handsome younger brother named Reed, who threw it for himself, just because.
The house was filled with people from all types of backgrounds and ages. Reed was that social butterfly who attracted crowds easily through his gift of storytelling. Most stories involved him getting drunk in a foreign land and waking up with a beautiful woman wrapped around him. Reed was telling his audience in the next room of his trip to Paris last fall.
“Shallow as a birdbath,” Leonard mumbled while chuckling to himself.
“Need me to refill that drink?” a woman asked politely. Leonard’s eyes rose up to meet hers, who towered over his head. Her fiery red hair, obviously dyed, parted asymmetrically in a curly fashion past her shoulders. His cup was half full, and that’s how he saw it. If it was half empty he would have responded yes. “Your brother asked me to come over and check on you,” she said bluntly. She could see that this didn’t sit well with Leonard as he shifted his body nervously and looked away. She responded quickly with an “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-”
“It’s fine,” he replied. “I’m sure he’s just looking out for me – like he always does.”
“Why don’t I come back in a little while, okay?” she said and touched his forearm.
“Ok,” Leonard responded as he forced a smile. He didn’t mind, she had kind eyes.
Not one for conversation, Leonard turned his thoughts to his drive to Boston and the clusterfuck of security he would soon be forced to deal with. Somewhat surprisingly, he was comfortable swearing in his mind, though he would rarely do so verbally. He came up with all sorts of swears that he would be too embarrassed to use in real life, but he loved to just think them. Reed, on the other hand, littered his stories with expletives and Leonard began to wonder what his brother took away from his experiences. Did he learn about the cultures and its people or was he out to conquest and extract everything he could?
“The American way,” Leonard blurted out and shook his head.
Reed’s spacious condo was typical of the kind you would find in Laconia, New Hampshire. Waves of people had walked past Leonard during the time he’d been sitting in the chair, sipping on his punch, not quite sure of its contents. He was told it was some strange mix of rum, vodka, orange juice and coconut milk that Reed claimed to have learned to make while visiting Ecuador.
He wondered how much of his brother’s life was complete and utter bullshit.
Leonard used the liquid as a timer. He liked to take small sips to feel out an environment and casually observe the events unfolding around him. If he was too uncomfortable, he would gulp it down and tell the host he had to leave on a work emergency. Other times, he would enjoy people watching from a safe distance and take his time. At this point, he had heard enough and knew he wouldn’t be enjoying himself for much longer so he took the last few sips of his cocktail and stood up, slowly making his way to the kitchen to bid Reed a good night.
Walking outside for the first time in two hours made him realize just how frigid the night had become.
LEONARD STOOD at the driveway entrance. Above his head spanned the word BLACKWELL in wrought iron. A small sign attached to one of the gates read Room For Rent in a handwritten script on a piece of scrap wood. It clinked against the frozen metal as the wind blew it around haphazardly. It wasn’t the invitation he was looking for but it would have to do.
My only option, thought Leonard, as he stared up the path before him.
The climb to the top was treacherous in the cold and ice and he slipped more than once. Snow-topped hedges broke his slide to the bottom as he reached out for a grip. Despite the cold, beads of sweat dotted his forehead and he was glad that he forgot his knit hat at Reed’s house.
The front of the house was in sight and Leonard realized it wasn’t painted black as it appeared from the road, but a cool dark gray instead. A singular yellow lightbulb illuminated the small porch, highlighting broken siding and cracked windows. A fancy rocking chair with a high back swayed ever so slightly in the wind as if some mysterious ghost was watching and welcoming him to the front door.
Leonard took hold of the wooden railing leading up to the porch and he paused to catch his breath. A smell of burning wood met his nostrils. No doubt a fireplace was lit inside and it made him feel warm for the first time.
He knocked on the door and waited.
Two skinny windows flanked the old, metal door. He peered inside but couldn’t make out any detail of walls or furniture. A sound of footsteps on the second floor confirmed someone was home.
He knocked again, more hurriedly this time. His bare hands were aching as he tried to shield them from cold blasts of wind, shoulders arched up to his ears. A light clicked on from inside the house and finally, the front door creaked open.
A short man with a long nose and round glasses poked his face out of the spacing, leaving no room but a head-width to be seen. Leonard felt uneasy asking the question but mustered up the words, “I see you have a room for rent, is that available tonight? My car stalled at the bottom of the hill and I have no other option.”
The man looked at Leonard from head to toe before responding.
“Yes, it is available… just give me a moment to clean it up,” he said.
He invited Leonard inside the house and instructed him to wait in the foyer while he went upstairs. It was the first moment Leonard was safe from the storm, and he felt relieved, if only slightly. He rubbed his arms across his chest and glanced around his newfound space. The house was dark, lit only with a single lamp or candle in every room.
Indeed, there was a fireplace ablaze in the living room to his left; he could make out full bookshelves and knick-knacks on tables. Glowing black eyes seemed to be peering out from the darkness as Leonard squinted to make out their form. Taxidermy! He absolutely hated taxidermy. Soul-less animals modeled in unnatural positions, interacting with each other while mounted on wood, unable to move.
In front of him, the stairs advanced straight up to darkened space. His eyes were adjusting and he could hear faint sounds of shuffling coming from the second floor. More taxidermy greeted him in the form of deer heads mounted in a row leading in the hallway towards what appeared to be a kitchen. A wafting scent of burnt meat and scorched metal floated in the air. Perhaps a cast iron skillet that grew too hot.
Two large kitchen knives were stabbed in an X formation on the butcher block table next to an indecipherable mound of what he assumed was food. A few scattered bottles and cans were on the counter beyond it. What had he gotten himself into, he thought. Already an awkward man, he couldn’t shake a sense of dread that assaulted his five senses the moment he set foot inside the house.
Perhaps he was overreacting.
Perhaps the man is an industrious citizen, well known to the community of Mason.
Perhaps he will escort Leonard to bed after a light meal and conversation and they will part ways in the morning.
“Ah, hello my friend,” the man squealed with a higher than normal pitch as he slowly descended the staircase. “Your room is all prepared for your stay tonight; I hope you find it to your liking. I wasn’t expecting company so I hope I haven’t kept you waiting too long, I do apologize.”
Leonard cracked a smile, “No need to apologize, thank you very much.”
He eyed the strange man inquisitively as he reached the bottom of the stairs. He was short, but not due to a lack of height. A large hump on the back of his neck pushed his head downward. The man was forced to look up at Leonard with only his eyes. His unruly eyebrows arched into strange configurations. It appeared that he can’t turn his head, Leonard thought to himself. He must have been staring too long because the man suddenly said: “It doesn’t hurt.”
“Let me introduce myself first. My name is Elias.” He thrust out his hand for Leonard to shake. Leonard immediately grabbed the man’s hand and shook it nervously, forcing another smile on his face. “Thank you, thank you so much for opening your door; it was very kind of you to offer it to a stranger. My name is Leonard. Leonard Phipps.”
“Leonard Phippssss,” Elias parroted as he held out the last letter of his name. He put his left hand on his hip and a grin washed over him, revealing a large set of square teeth. Elias looked somewhat like a lollipop, with a large upper torso concealed by a black velvet blazer and black pants covering thin, bony legs. Leonard wasn’t sure how those legs could support the top half of his body. Wisps of long black hair fell from the sides of his head past his ears, his bright bald head shining in the candlelight.
“Oh God, I’m still shaking your hand!” Leonard broke the silence and let go.
“You’re cold,” Elias stated. “Come with me into the parlor and I’ll sit you in front of the fireplace.” He guided Leonard into the room where the black eyes had greeted him earlier. As he sat down on a couch, Elias declared that he would put on a pot of tea and exited the room.
Once again Leonard was alone with his thoughts.
A clank of metal. The rush of water. A pop-pop-pop of a gas burner coming to life.
Leonard looked up and gazed at the tall ceiling which supported a chandelier made out of antlers. Small white Christmas lights were haphazardly wrapped around them, a cord reached across the ceiling and down one wall to an outlet. An unusual choice of lighting, he thought.
The room’s wide green-striped wallpaper surrounded him in verticals, giving him a sense of vertigo if he looked too long. Various plants of all shapes and sizes were potted around the room, a vast amount appeared to be Venus fly traps, with their wiry teeth exposing a deep red throat. He watched a fly buzzing around the room, bounce into a shuttered window and land on the plant’s mouth. Leonard swallowed hard as he observed the plant close on its prey. Tight in its grasp, the buzzing sound slowed until he could no longer hear it. Taxidermy on the walls opposite his couch were of animals he had not yet known. “What strange and beguiling forms,” he said with a whisper.
“Just a moment longer!” Elias shouted from the other room in his high-pitched cackle. Leonard’s eyes transfixed on the glow of the fireplace and he finally let himself relax. A warmth washed over his body. He felt his shoulders lower and hands unclench.
Everything was good for one brief second until Leonard shot up with a jump as something brushed against his leg. He looked down to see the largest tabby cat he had ever seen performing figure eights in and around his legs. He hated cats. He thought they were evil incarnate, the devil himself transformed in fleshy form.
“I see you’ve met Persimmon,” Elias said as he entered the room carrying a pewter tray of teacups and a sugar bowl.
Leonard turned toward the doorway to greet his host. “Yes – He seems to be taking a liking to me.”
“That’s a good sign,” Elias stated. “He doesn’t do that to all of my guests.”
Leonard took a teacup, sat back on the couch and sighed heavily.
“I can’t believe I’m going to miss my flight.” He said. “I was on my way to the airport, first vacation in years. Just hoping I can get out of this place.” He looked up at Elias. “Not that I’m trying to leave, really. It’s quite a nice looking town. I’ll have to come back sometime when the weather is nicer. Such a charming main street from what I could tell.”
“We would love to have you stay for a longer visit,” Elias responded.
Elias sat in an armchair in the corner of the room and began to sip his tea. The cat followed and looked up at his master, waiting for an invitation to sit on his lap.
Leonard couldn’t help but think of how odd it is to own a living animal while having so many stuffed ones. His eyes glanced around the room.
“They keep me company,” Elias said. “As I’ve gotten older, these pets seem to be the only friends I can keep.” He took another swig of tea. “Don’t worry. The guest room has none. You should sleep well in there. I like to keep them in social places, so we can all interact together.”
Leonard glanced at the clock on the mantle and noticed it was past 11 PM. His thoughts raced to his iced-over car at the bottom of the hill and wondered how he would get out of this town.
“Could I use your phone?” he asked.
“Don’t have one,” Elias said, “Never have.”
Leonard slumped on the couch and drank the remainder of his tea quickly, feeling somewhat defeated. There was no timing this particular drink. He would need to set out early in the morning to find help to get his car started.
“I’d like to go to bed,” he asked, “If that’s all right?”
“Absolutely,” Elias said and stood up, dropping Persimmon on the floor at his feet. He placed his teacup on a bookshelf and motioned with his slender hands toward the staircase in the foyer. “Follow me, Leonard.”
Leonard couldn’t help but notice how steep each step was as he struggled to lift his feet. He doubted they were up to any current building codes. His legs were still exhausted from the climb up the driveway. As they ascended, Leonard noticed black and white photographs of people hung on the wall, blank expressions on their faces. The stairs creaked with every footstep. Elias was waiting outside of a door as Leonard reached the top. It was much colder on the second floor, almost as if there was a window open. An icy breath of air met his face.
“This is your room,” Elias stated as he unlocked it with an old skeleton key. “The bathroom is down the hall. I don’t sleep on this floor so you will have access to it whenever you need during the night.” He disappeared inside the room.
Leonard stood in the hallway and noticed how stark the walls were compared to the first floor. There were no decorations, no photos and thankfully no taxidermy. “Please come in,” Elias said from the guest room.
Leonard walked a few steps to the doorway and peered inside.
Elias was standing in the middle of the room on a well-worn circular rug. “I know it’s not much, but I hope you’ll be able to fall asleep easily and have a restful night.” A single bed draped with a white comforter rested on an old iron frame. A bible laid on the table next to a lamp near the bed. As Leonard glanced to the objects around the room he could see that Elias was smiling at him. He tried not to look. A rocking chair was in the back corner of the room near a window with drawn curtains that faced the street. The weak light of the lamp made it difficult to see everything in the room but he did notice a rope suspended over the headboard of the bed coming from a hole in the ceiling.
“What’s this?” Leonard asked reluctantly.
Elias was still smiling queerly and made his way closer to Leonard.
“If you have any trouble during the night, just give a tug on this rope.”
He demonstrated by pulling and when he did, a faint sound of a bell rang downstairs.
“My bedroom,” he said, “I’ll come as quickly as I can.”
He was standing uncomfortably close to Leonard and he could smell his foul breath while the little man craned his eyes upward over his small round glasses. His forehead made a hundred creases and Leonard imagined this squat man looking up to everyone he spoke to.
From the corner of Leonard’s eye, he saw the curtains move and another draft of air brushed his face. Persimmon silently jumped onto the bed just long enough for Elias to scratch him under his chin.
“Goodnight Leonard,” the short man said as he ambled out of the room. He could hear the creaking of the stairs and let out a sigh. Leonard shooed the cat out and quickly closed the door.
Hot and clammy, Leonard gasped for air. He felt as though his lungs had collapsed and his heart pounded in his ears. His eyes, wide as dinner plates, desperately scanned the darkened room.
A sound of a bell rang from downstairs. Leonard furiously tried to free his arms from beneath the comforter but they were completely lifeless. The bell continued to ring. His joints were as frozen as the winter landscape outside. He wheezed for air through clenched teeth, barely able to breathe. His blood ran cold as the bell echoed throughout the house.
“Hello… Leonard.” A voice spoke in the darkness.
The lamp switched on next to the bed, revealing Elias squatting on his chest peering down at him in the dimly lit room. His arm outstretched above the bed, tugging on the rope. Round spectacles reflected the glare so that Leonard couldn’t see his eyes. Pointed black leather shoes dug into Leonard’s ribs as a devilish smile washed over Elias’ face. “It’s your turn. You’ll be a perfect addition,” he cackled gleefully.
Leonard tried once again to move his body with every ounce of his being.
“Oh, no, no Leonard, it’s no use,” Elias squealed. “Atropa Belladonna. The berries from this nightshade cause muscular paralysis,” he leaned in close to Leonard, “including speech.”
The tea! Leonard remembered. The two men were nose to nose when Elias retrieved a blood-stained knife from his blazer. Helpless, Leonard felt the sharp blade against his throat. They stared at each other in silence for a few moments.
Suddenly there was a loud knock at the front door. Startled, Elias’ hand jerked, cutting Leonard’s chin with a quick upward swipe. A ribbon of blood spat against the wall and stained the bedding. Elias slinked down off of Leonard’s chest and dashed to the window. Leonard winced as he tried to take a deep breath. A full moon silhouetted his captor in the frame of the window. A light snow blew in the breeze.
There was another knock at the door.
Elias scurried to the bed and grinned at Leonard with a longing gaze. “You… will have to wait,” he said with a scowl. Leonard’s body lay motionless as Elias pushed the bed against the wall on worn out metal wheels. To Leonard’s surprise, the wall split in two as it created two doors opening into a large room. His eyes shifted quickly to survey his new surroundings as a flash of lightning lit up the space for mere seconds. It was too fast for his brain to register.
Elias looked frustrated as he struggled to pull the bed into the middle of the room.
Three more knocks on the door in quick succession could be heard from downstairs.
A scent of metal and chemicals wafted in the stale air. A yellow fluorescent light blinked on above Leonard’s head which illuminated the room. Tools hung haphazardly on bloodied pegboard. Rusty trays sat atop desks with drawers half open. Glass bottles with multi-colored liquid rested on shelves and Leonard suddenly realized he was in the middle of a madman’s workshop. Elias rushed by Leonard’s head and walked to a corner of the room where a long table was set. He watched Elias place his knife next to a woman seated at the end of the table. She sat motionless as Leonard peered at her ghastly white face. She was dead. A man was positioned on the other end of the table. Two corpses faced each other in perpetual gaze, bony fingers holding wine goblets on a dusty tablecloth.
Leonard felt the presence of something else in the room. His eyes strained to see the form in a darkened corner. It was a man strapped to an upright stretcher with tubes running out of his arms, pumping fluid from whirring machines.
Leonard’s blood ran cold as he imagined his own fate would be equally sinister.
As Elias passed between them, the man on the stretcher glanced quickly toward the guest room and back at Leonard twice. He was alive! This human taxidermy was still alive and breathing and was desperately trying to communicate with Leonard using only his eyes. They stared helplessly at each other as Elias walked into the guest room and the sounds of creaking steps filled the hallway.
Leonard surveyed the room as best he could from his horizontal position on the bed. The man was breathing heavily through his nose. Leonard looked toward the bedroom as they both heard the locks and latches of the front door release, clanking throughout the house. A woman’s voice could be heard from the first floor.
“I’m so sorry to bother you this late. There is a tree across the road and no one else is around. Do you have a room available for the night?” she asked.
“Yes,” Elias said with a smile. “Just give me a moment to clean it up…”