Like the Prose: Challenge #26 – Find a picture and use it to inspire your story. (My image is from the Flash-Prompt Facebook group.)
They’d looked at ten other houses, but finally settled on that one. It had everything they needed: three bedrooms, so each of the kids could have their own, two full bathrooms, plus a half-bath downstairs, pool in the fenced-in back yard, even a proper front porch where they could sit and sip morning coffee or evening wine and watch the neighborhood go by.
The mural at the top of the attic stairs didn’t thrill them, but they could always paint over it.
Besides, the price was unbelievable.
“I have to ask,” Karen said, almost afraid of what the realtor would say. “Why is this place so affordable?”
“You do know you’re required to disclose any deaths on the premises,” her husband Chad put in.
The realtor seemed slightly flustered. “There haven’t been any deaths. No injuries either, I promise. But there have been… reports.”
“Reports? Of what?” Karen wanted to know.
“Well, really more like rumors,” the older woman amended.
“I think you’d better explain,” Chad said.
“Previous residents mentioned hearing odd noises in the attic. Some said that their pets were always on alert. No one ever found anything, though. I guess, you might say the house is haunted.”
“As I said, it’s just a rumor.”
Karen and Chad consulted for a while, privately. “It’s too good a deal to pass up,” they said. “We’ll take it.”
* * *
“Mommy, why are there eyes at the top of the stairs?” Karen rolled over to find her pajama-clad daughter staring at her with frightened features.
“It’s probably just a reflection. The eyes of the cat in the painting glow in the moonlight. Go back to sleep, sweetie.”
“I can’t go back to my room alone.”
“You want me to walk you back?”
“Why were you up?”
“I heard purring… and then I had to pee.”
“You didn’t bring home another kitten, did you?” The little girl was prone to finding stray animals.
The child shook her head no. “Uh-uh.”
Karen rolled out of bed. “Alright. Let’s get you back to bed.”
Mother and daughter walked hand-in-hand down the dim hallway. The nightlight in the bathroom cast weird shadows that almost seemed to move, but Karen shrugged it off. It was just her daughter’s overactive imagination affecting her perceptions, she was sure.
Still, after she’d tucked her little girl back into bed, Karen paused at the bottom of the attic stairs and peered up into the darkness. She was about to head back to bed when she caught the gleam of something that did, in fact, look like two eyes staring back at her.
Startled, she took a step backwards, her hand colliding with the wall, but that reminded her of the switch that was right there. She flipped it on.
The painting on the wall at the top of the stairs was the image of a cougar in tall grass, it’s green eyes eerily realistic in the light of the single bulb.
Damn, that thing is realistic, she thought.
Shaking her head at her own skittishness, she turned out the light and went back to bed.
* * *
“Did the cougar sneak into your room last night, Scarlet?” Karen’s son teased her daughter at breakfast several days later.
“Marky! That’s not funny!” the little girl protested.
“Mark, I’ve told you not to tease her. You know it’s just a painting.”
“Yeah, but it’s a painting that moves or haven’t you noticed that it’s never in quite the same position, or that the grass keeps extending down the stairs?”
“Mark, that’s enough.” Karen uttered the words in the patented warning tone all mothers have. But secretly, she knew her son was right. There was a patch of jungle at the top of the attic stairs and it was growing closer to the upstairs hallway every day. It was subtle, but it was true.
“What are you sorry for?” Karen asked. She and Chad had read in a parenting book years before that generic apologies were meaningless. They had to be specific.
“I’m sorry for scaring you, Scarlet,” Mark said, sounding almost sincere. “And I’m sorry for not listening to you, Mom.”
“Thank you, sweetie. How will you change your behavior?”
“I’ll try not to tease Scarlet and be better about being more responsive.”
“It’s almost time for the bus,” the boy pointed out.
“Alright then. Your lunches are on the counter. Watch out for your sister.”
Both kids ran from the room.
* * *
Life went on. The grass on the wall crept steadily downward. The cougar sometimes appeared below the top step, as if they’d caught it while on patrol. Scarlet suggested that they make friends with it, and so one night, when Chad was on a business trip, they left a saucer each of milk and leftover hamburger (cooked) on the landing. Just to see what happened.
Both saucers were empty in the morning, and both children swore they hadn’t touched them.
Karen repeated the process every few days… she didn’t want to make offerings every day, she said, because she’d read in a book that wild animals shouldn’t get used to being fed by humans. They had to know how to hunt.
It was about three weeks later that Karen and Chad woke up to find an offering of a dead rat outside their bedroom door.
Chad had never owned pets, but Karen had grown up with cats. She understood. The cougar at the top of the stairs had accepted their offer. They were friends.
* * *
A stormy night. Another business trip for Chad. Like the horror stories Karen and her friends had told at slumber parties when she was a girl, there was an escaped serial killer in their neighborhood. She and the children were a bit spooked, but they’d checked the locks and set the alarm, and her cell phone was charged.
She wasn’t surprised when Scarlet had crept into her bed during the height of the storm. Lightning and thunder were still scary to the little girl.
She was slightly surprised when Mark joined them a bit later, but by then the power had gone out, and even though he was ten, he was, after all, still a little boy. And Mom meant safety. Always.
They heard the rattling at the door at the same time.
Karen reached for her cell, but there was no signal. Stupid storm. She tried to remain calm for the children.
The yowling and screeching came at the same time that the door burst open.
“Jesus, fuck, what kinda creature is that!” they heard a male voice say.
And then there was more yowling. And more screeching, both feline and human.
And then there was silence.
“Stay here,” Karen told her kids. She tip-toed to the bedroom door and cracked it open. The cougar was sitting on a prone human form, licking its chops. It turned its head toward Karen as if to tell her it would keep her safe. Her and her family.
“Good kitty,” she told the creature. “Good kitty.”
The power came back. The police were called. The lock on the door was fixed.
“Good thing you have such a mean cat,” the officers said.
“Yes,” Karen said. “Yes, it is.” She couldn’t wait to tell Chad all about it when he got home.