JAMES sent a quick text off after he’d knocked on the door, telling his mother he’d arrived so she’d quit nagging him. His Grandma Winn’s cottage was only accessible off a dirt road in the depths of the countryside, which was another way to say it was a pain in the arse to get to. The drive up the pothole riddled driveway hadn’t improved his mood at all. This was his first day off from his engineering job in two weeks and he’d been planning on spending it in front of the TV with a few beers and a pizza, not visiting his grandmother because Mum was freaking out.
“It could be dementia. She was acting so oddly, like she barely knew who I was,” she’d fretted, “I’ll have to schedule something with the doctor, but can you at least visit her this week, just so I know she hasn’t done anything daft like left the bath running, or something? I’ll get your sister to check in on her too.”
When Grandma opened the door, James realised that maybe Mum had been right to worry. He’d never seen his grandmother without perfectly coifed grey curls, delicately applied make-up, and iron-pressed clothing, so for a moment he almost didn’t recognise the bedraggled woman standing before him.
She wore a stained, butter-yellow cotton blouse that was done up with most buttons in the wrong holes. A rip on the right shoulder seam gaped open. A pair of grey jogging bottoms he never would have guessed in a million years she owned sagged oddly around her waist, and he noticed she was barefoot too, her toes tinged blue with the cold.
Most jarringly, bright coral lipstick smeared across her face in a wonky smile, not bothering to stay within the confines of her lips, and eyeshadow smudged the hollows of her eye sockets. Mascara had been applied sloppily to one eye, but she’d apparently given up before doing the other one. James couldn’t contain his startled laughter at her appearance.
“Wow, what happened? D’you break the mirror?” he tried to joke, but when her face remained set in a blank expression, his laughter trailed off nervously. “Grandma?”
Her mouth split open then, every one of her yellowed teeth bared in a large smile. Lipstick stains marred the top row. “My grandson Jamesss!” she slurred out slowly. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“Uh, sure,” he said, pocketing his phone but making a mental note to text Mum as soon as possible that everything was obviously not well here. Grandma beckoned him in, shuffling back into the dimness of the hall to lead him to the living room. Her happy grin never faltered, but something about it made James’ shoulders tense.
While his grandmother was normally tidy in appearance, she tended to let her house go to clutter, often cheerily saying that ‘there’s a place for everything and everything’s in its place’. But while James was used to tripping over baskets of wool, piles of magazines and empty cardboard boxes that she’d set out for the cats to play in, this was new.
“Jesus …” he muttered under his breath. It looked like she hadn’t cleaned up after herself for a good while. Half-eaten plates of food were stacked everywhere; shoved under the sofa, balanced on the shelves, discarded carelessly on the windowsill. Some of the waste had been trodden into the carpet. The whole room reeked of rot and mould.
“Let me get you a cup of tea, Jamesss. And biscuits! Yes, visitors get biscuitsss with their tea,” she murmured, then let out a short, loud bark of laughter that was so unlike her usual warm chuckle that it sent an involuntary shiver down James’ spine. When she disappeared into the kitchen, he immediately whipped his phone back out to send a text to his mother. He didn’t think the doctor should wait until next week.
She came back only a minute later, which was odd as James hadn’t heard the whistle of her old-fashioned stove kettle. Perhaps she’d only just boiled some water before he knocked on the door. He quickly slipped his phone back in his pocket before he could send off the message. Grandma had a thing about using phones when in company, and he didn’t want to set her off.
“Did you say there were biscuits?” James asked hopefully, realising he was starving. She paused, looking at him as though he’d said something bizarre.
“No, no,” she finally said, setting his teacup down on the side table next to him and then perching primly on the edge of her embroidered armchair. It was worn smooth in patches where she’d sat night after night in front of the fireplace. James’ own chair, its twin, was almost pristine in comparison.
He decided to swiftly move on, reaching out to pick up his tea, but he found the delicate china was stone cold. Peering over the lip, he realised that his ‘tea’ was nothing more than a single teabag, still in its paper wrapper, floating sadly in a couple of inches of water. He cleared his throat awkwardly and left it where it was. Grandma was staring at him over the rim of her own teacup.
“Do you, ah, maybe want a hand cleaning this up?” he asked tentatively, making an all-encompassing gesture across the room with his arm.
Instead of replying, Grandma slurped slowly at whatever was in her own cup, causing James to wince. She’d often smacked the back of his own hand enough times for atrocious table manners.
Nothing. He switched tack.
“So, Mum’s been worried about you. She says she’s been calling every day since she saw you last week, but you haven’t been answering the phone?”
“Isss that why you’re here?” she said softly. She jerked suddenly, her mouth opening and closing with a sharp click, and her eyes darted rapidly between him and the fireplace. James made to reach for her, concerned it was some sort of fit, but she stopped just as suddenly. She raised the cup again and tipped it, but her hand started trembling so hard that the liquid just trickled down her blouse.
James stifled a groan. He didn’t think he could go on pretending that everything was alright; he was way out of his depth here. He was beginning to suspect that she’d suffered a stroke. Her speech was odd, and her face didn’t look right, which he half-remembered were signs. “Grandma, maybe we should call-”
“Well then you shouldn’t have come! You shouldn’t have come at all!” she suddenly snarled, throwing her teacup at him with astonishing strength. It smashed against his right cheek, shattering into shards that opened a gash from his temple to his cheekbone. He gaped at her; it took him a few precious seconds to even realise what had happened.
“Oh Jamesss, you’ve always been ssso clumsy. Let me go fetch you a wet cloth.” she chuckled at him, rising in one swift motion, and bustling back out to the kitchen.
“What the hell,” the shock began to wear off as he felt the first trickles of hot blood run down his neck, “what the hell, Grandma!” He touched shaking fingers to his face and winced as pain suddenly erupted from where he probed. “Oh, my God.”
Not waiting for her to return, he lurched out into the hallway to the bottom of the stairs, intending to go up to the bathroom and grab a wet towel to clean up. He caught sight of his grandmother standing at the kitchen sink through the adjacent doorway. Steam rose in the air, indicating she’d turned on the hot tap, but she appeared to feel nothing as she slowly twirled one hand under the running water, inspecting it under her baleful stare. She started to turn her head, but he fled before he could meet her gaze.
As he jogged up the stairs, he noticed the smell of rot get stronger. He assumed the mess his Grandma had made hadn’t just been confined to the living room.
Something at the back of his head had been chanting it’s not right, something’s off here, go back to the car James for a while now, but he ignored it for the pain in his cheek. Gripping the bathroom handle, he pushed it down and in before he realised what his gut instincts had been trying to scream at him.
The squish to the carpet should have warned him. The stench in the air was so thick, he didn’t know how he’d ignored it until he opened the door.
He expected it to creak, like in an old horror movie, but the hinges must have been oiled recently. Instead, the scene inside the bathroom greeted him in heavy silence.
Piles of mice and rats were shuffled up at one end of the shell pink tub, scattered mainly in pieces, but a few still whole and lying stiffly in the final poses from their death throes. Sparrows, robins, crows, finches, all jumbled together in a riot of plucked feathers and broken necks at the other.
Various other bits of wildlife, toads and voles and stoats and who knew what else were strewn everywhere, abandoned like playthings across the smeared, tiled floor. Something large was stuffed in the space between the sink and the toilet, torn apart so violently that he could only guess that it used to be a fox from its stained rust red fur.
The worst were the two elderly tabby cats laid almost lovingly side by side on the grungy bathmat, untouched apart from the fact that they were obviously dead.
But not Thomas, he thought numbly, on the edges of his shock, that tomcat was far too wily to have been caught. Poor Susie and Luce.
Something moved on the edges of his vision, and he managed to tear his eyes off the gruesome display to look back down the hallway.
“Jamessss…” it crooned. It was standing at the top of the stairs. He hadn’t heard it come up. Whatever was wearing his grandmother peaked out from behind her eyes, not bothering to hide anymore. It wore that same distorted grin as before, obviously enjoying the game it was playing with him. “My dear Jamessss…”
As he stared, yellow teeth lengthened and sharpened as the bones of its face seemed to lose all structure; sickly yellow swirled up behind slitted black pupils, until there was no ape of humanity left in its eyes. Just hunger.
It didn’t appear to grow, but all the same appeared much larger than it’d been when it was Grandma Winn. The shadows in the corner of the landing darkened, wisps uncurling as they stretched along the faded wallpaper. The edges of the creature blurred, as though it was becoming part of the shadows itself, but he caught glances of pointed ears, dark fur. Two of the tendrils arched playfully in the air, and he realised that they were tails, thick, striped tails, like those of a cat. The creature made a satisfied hissing noise as its clawed hands shredded the last of the abused clothing from its new form, and the last thought James had was an absent, why, it really does look a lot like Thomas. That wily old cat.
“Like I said, Mum, I can’t stay long! Sarah’s in the car and I’ve got to pick Tony up from football. I’ll just check everything’s alright and then Amy’s promised to sit with her the whole day tomorrow. Yes. Yes, I know. Ok. Ok! I’ll call you later. Yeh, bye.” Meredith huffed as she snapped her phone shut. She could vaguely hear Sarah wailing in the car, but she ignored the tantrum as she knocked on the door again.
10 minutes, she thought to herself, she’ll be alright for 10 minutes. Just enough time to check Grandma’s not had a fall or something, then I can be on my way. The door opened suddenly, jolting her out of her harried thoughts.
“James? What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at work?” she paused, a frown deepening her features, “Christ, what the hell is that smell?”
James just stared at her for a moment, standing in the doorway, head cocked slightly as he considered something.
“My sissster Merry!” he purred, a wide grin spreading across his face, ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’