(What on Earth are horror stories doing on this blog? I explain here.)
The woman at the door smiled. Larry knew she wasn’t selling anything. She was too well-dressed for that. A professional, undoubtedly. But not here on professional business, as her smile was bashful.
“Hi”, she said. She looked past his shoulder for a moment, then met his eyes again. “My name is Debbie Sugden. I have an unusual request…”
“Come back to look at the old place?”, asked Larry, pulling back the chain and opening the door wider.
He laughed at the surprise on the woman’s face. “Got a whole heap of letters for your folks here. Most of them official. But some of them look personal. Didn’t know where to send them on.”
“They’re both passed away, in any case”, said Debbie. “I can’t believe you’re still bothered with our mail after eighteen years.”
Larry shrugged. “Come on in”, he said. “Tea or coffee?”
Debbie stepped into the hallway, her eyes darting from spot to spot. “What? Oh...tea, please. No sugar.”
“Good, I don’t have any”, said Larry. “Look around while I make your tea, Debbie. There’s nothing to steal, anyway. My name is Larry.”
He half-expected the woman to follow him into the kitchen, but she moved straight to the living room door. Larry cursed under his breath as he went about making her tea, then realised he was cursing ritualistically. In truth, he was pleased to have company. Sure, he had friends, and he seldom spent two days together at home. But the days had stretched since his retirement.
“You’ve hardly changed it at all!”, said Debbie, when Larry called her into the kitchen. “It’s the same old house I grew up in!”
“I’m not much of a handyman”, said Larry, handing her a mug of tea. “Hope that’s not too milky.”
“It’s fine”, said Debbie, before taking a sip.
“I think I might still have a lot of your stuff here, actually”, said Larry. “I know there’s heaps of things in the attic.”
Debbie’s smile froze, and her eyes darkened. “The attic?”, she asked, in a tone that tried to be light. “Have you...have you looked through any of that stuff, by any chance?”
“No”, said Larry, watching her closely. “I only looked in once, matter of fact. Why, what’s up there?”
“Nothing”, said Debbie, promptly, with a bright smile. “Only rubbish, and...well, toys and stuff.” She shook her head, and gave an embarrassed laugh. “It’s just...there’s a jack-in-the-box there. It was mine. It’s still mine, I suppose.”
“Creepy things, jack-in-the-boxes”, said Larry, impassively.
“Aren’t they?”, asked Debbie, with sudden eagerness. “I hated that thing. I got him when I was six or seven, and I screamed whenever he shot up out of his box.” She paused, and a look of distaste passed across her face. “I wouldn’t touch him unless my parents were in the room. In the end, I brought him up to the attic. I never even went up there again.”
There was a long silence. Larry, seeing that Debbie’s face had grown whiter, said: “You don’t have to go up there if you don’t want to.”
Debbie sighed, and her head bowed a little. “Don’t I?”, she asked. She smiled, a little bitterly. “You know, this week I was made a senior lecturer in Middle English. I’ve done a parachute jump. I’ve read a paper to a conference hall full of academics. I puked that morning with nerves, but I still did it.”
She blinked with surprise at her own sudden candour, but seeing Larry’s steady expression, went on. “But what really frightens me is up there. I’ve had nightmares about it. I think I do have to look.”
“That’s what you came for, isn’t it?”, asked Larry.
Debbie nodded slowly, put her tea on the table, and turned around. She stood on the spot for a moment, and then she stepped quickly towards the kitchen door. A few moments later, he heard her step on the creaking stairs, as slow and reluctant as a little girl going up to bed on a summer’s evening.
He finished his tea. It was fifteen minutes before he heard her steps again. This time they were quicker, and somehow seemed lighter.
She was grinning when she came back into the kitchen. It was almost a wild grin.
“Everything OK?”, asked Larry, with a smile.
“Marvellous!”, laughed Debbie. Larry could almost feel the waves of relief flowing from her. Her eyes shone. She seemed like a different person.
They finished their tea, Debbie chattering gaily all the way through. She made Larry laugh with her jokes, which were surprisingly risqué.
Upstairs, in the attic, there was a soft but frantic thumping sound. It came from an old, motley-coloured wooden box on top of a suitcase with a broken lock.
But Larry didn’t hear it.
He never would hear it.