Short Story – Promises
I’m still working on horror stories for Halloween. One thing about horror for me is even when I’m working with supernatural horror, I think people are far scarier than monsters. Monsters are, for me, what we create. They are the darkness within ourselves.
This story is on the long side and is another one I think could be turned into a play. So now I need to think about how I can turn it into a longer narrative.
As always, please read, share, comment, or move on to other more important things in your life. Thanks for your time!
The floorboards in the basement needed to be replaced. They were rotting through and Jennifer didn’t even want to go downstairs to do the laundry. The kids couldn’t be trusted to stay away because what child didn’t find something appealing about crawling around under the basement floor?
One day when her dad was visiting, she asked him how long it had been since that floor was replaced.
“About twenty five years,” he told her, “I did it right after your mother died.”
“Doesn’t wood usually last longer than that?”
He just shrugged.
“Jenny, why don’t you just sell this place and move? With Grant gone, it’s too big for the three of you.”
She didn’t need to be reminded that Grant was gone. It hadn’t even been six months since she’d watched two men in uniform walking up to her front door, knowing exactly what their arrival must mean. His body had been so completely destroyed by the IED, she couldn’t even open the casket to look at him one last time.
“No, Dad. I like it here. The kids like it here. I just need to get a few repairs done, that’s all.”
He shrugged again and pulled out a cigarette.
“On the porch, dad.”
“Oh yeah,” he chuckled, “right. I keep forgetting this isn’t my place any more.”
No, but it still smelled like it. He’d moved out over five years ago but the stale smell of smoke still lingered in the carpets and the drapes.
The screen door clattered shut but he left the front door open and the breeze blew the smoke back inside. At least the kids were playing in the yard. She got started making dinner and for another four months, she didn’t do anything about the rotten wood in the basement.
It was the week one of Grant’s buddies was coming over for a visit. He’d just returned from duty and he wanted to meet her and the kids. He wanted to tell them some stories about Grant’s last few months. She wasn’t sure if he was doing it more for his own sake or for hers.
Paul was quiet and polite. It felt wrong but she was drawn to him almost immediately. He spoke with a Georgia drawl and had an easy charm and a disarming smile. He told stories about Grant and his unit that were funny and sweet and sad. He had Jennifer and the kids laughing and crying in turns.
She asked him to stay for dinner. He offered to help clean up and help put the kids to bed.
Then she asked him to stay the night.
It was too soon. She knew it was too soon. But Grant was gone and even before he died, he hadn’t been home much. She told herself she just needed some companionship and that made what they were doing OK.
Besides, the kids liked him.
She asked him to stay the next night as well. And the next.
After the kids had gone off to school and they had made love in the living room, she sighed that she needed to get the laundry down to the laundromat.
“Don’t you have a washer and dryer?” he asked her, running his fingers gently over her back.
“I do, but the basement floor is rotted out. I don’t like to go down there.”
“Let me fix it for you.”
“No, thanks, Paul. I can do it myself.”
“Jenny, I like you.”
“I like you too.”
“I know neither of us planned this and I don’t know how long it’ll last but if I’m going to be staying here for a little while, I want to feel useful.”
“I don’t know how long you should stay here, Paul. What will the kids think?”
“Do you really think they don’t know?”
“Oh God. But their father…”
“Grant is dead. I wish to God he wasn’t, Jenny. But, if he was alive, I wouldn’t have whatever this is. I can’t deny I feel a little guilty about that so I understand how much worse it must be for you. Do you want me to go?”
“All right then, it’s settled! I’m going to fix that basement floor!”
He closed her mouth with a kiss and then he spent almost an hour helping her forget about the laundry.
Two days later, he was tearing up the floor boards. The kids would help him when they got home from school. He’d send them outside with scraps and a saw so they could use the wood for kindling in the winter. After a week, he’d completely finished the floor in the laundry room.
Her father came over the next day to survey the finished work.
“Looks good,” he said, “you could get a good price if you put this place up for sale.”
“Leave it, Dad. I’m not selling the house.”
“So that Paul fella did the work?”
“What’s his story?”
“Well you’re sleeping with him, ain’t you?”
“That is none of your business, Dad!”
“Maybe not but everyone in town knows it anyway. The two of you don’t work to keep it too much of a secret.”
“It’s still private.”
“Ain’t much that’s private here.”
“Doesn’t make it your business.”
“So I suppose he’s gonna start on the furnace room next?”
“No. The utility room. He needs a place to put his tools.”
He nodded and pulled out a cigarette.
“On the porch, Dad!”
“Oh,” he chuckled, “right. Sorry.”
That evening, after the kids were in bed, Jenny and Paul were making love on the floor of the new laundry room. She wanted to give him a very special thank you.
As they lay on a blanket enjoying the feeling of their naked bodies pressed against each other, Jenny’s head jerked up.
“Do you smell that?” she asked him.
“Smoke. I smell smoke.”
“Like a fire?”
“No, like a cigarette.”
“I don’t smoke.”
She wrapped herself in a blanket and stood up.
“Dad? You here?”
“I think I can smell it,” Paul said, “I think it’s coming from the utility room.”
Jenny thought so too. She opened the door, flipped the lights on and looked at the floor. Paul had already ripped up the boards and exposed the framing and dirt underneath. In the middle of the floor was a smoldering cigarette.
She started stepping onto the floor to reach it but Paul grabbed her shoulder.
“Rusty nails all over the place,” he warned her, “I’m gong to put some shoes on.”
She’s always thought of herself as an independent woman, but having someone care for her felt nice. Grant had been caring, but this was different. Paul was good at noticing things. Noticing what she wanted or what she needed and then he would just get them done. It wasn’t that she liked Paul more than Grant. But he was here. And he was kind.
He came back and carefully walked to the middle of the room. He picked up the cigarette and brought it back.
“Why would your dad be smoking in the middle of this room?”
“How can you be sure?”
“This isn’t his brand.”
“Must have been dropped by whoever installed the old floor, maybe?”
“Then why would it still be warm?”
He shook his head. “Got me.”
“It’s weird to be in this room, you know?”
“Dad never let me into this room. After he moved out, I just kind of left the door shut. I think it was habit.”
She felt very cold all of a sudden. The dirt on the floor began to turn itself over.
“Did you see that?”
“The floor moved!”
“Must have been a mouse or something.”
“I don’t think it was, Paul. Something is very wrong.”
He nodded. “You’re right.”
She looked at him “you believe me?”
“Jenny, I probably shouldn’t be saying this right now, but I love you. No doubt in my mind about it. I don’t know if you love me back and I’d like to pretend I don’t care but the truth is I do. I can live without you loving me though, as long as you know that I’ll always believe you. If you say the floor moved, the floor moved. And that’s not right. So let’s figure out what’s going on.”
She turned and looked at him, standing there naked except for his work boots. He was so tall. It hadn’t occurred to her how much taller than her he was. She hadn’t noticed how strong he was either. She’d never payed attention to his body. He was such a big man but right now he looked as vulnerable as a child.
She pulled him down into a kiss and let the blanket fall.
The next morning, her father came over again. Paul fixed breakfast for everyone and after the kids left for school, she showed him the cigarette.
“I don’t remember you ever smoking a different brand, dad.”
“Never did,” he admitted, “that looks like the brand your mother smoked. Where’d you find it?”
“On the floor in the utility room.”
“Can you show me where?”
She took him downstairs to the utility room. Paul said he’d join them as soon as he was finished with the dishes.
He looked at the spot where they found the cigarette and pulled out one of his own.
“On the porch, Dad!”
He ignored her and lit it anyway, blowing smoke into the room.
“Did the floor move?”
“Yeah, Dad, how did you…?”
“Moved for me too. Always assumed I was going crazy. Now that I know you saw it too, I guess I wasn’t.”
“But Dad, what…”
She stopped talking when he pointed the gun at her.
“I’m sorry, Jenny. I didn’t want you to find out. I tried to tell you to sell the place.”
“Put that away, Dad! I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You will, Jenny, you will. She’s under that floor, you know. Your mother.”
“No she isn’t. I’ve visited her grave.”
“Ain’t her. The body in the car was burned beyond recognition.”
“Who was in the car?”
“I don’t know her name. Some hitchhiker. I picked her up and then crashed the car. Told the police it was your mother but I’d killed her that morning. Buried her right there. Where you found the cigarette.”
“This is crazy, dad!”
“Any crazier than a floor that moves? Any crazier than finding her cigarettes down here all the time? She’s there, Jenny. And she wants you to find her. I can’t let that happen.”
“Why would you kill her?”
“I don’t know. I think I just wanted to know if I could. She’s the only one I buried in the basement, though.”
“There are more?”
“Dozens. I got something of a taste for it.”
“Jenny? The dishes are d…”
Paul walked into the room and stopped speaking as her father turned on him with the gun and pulled the trigger twice. A bullet hit him in the shoulder and another in the abdomen. He collapsed to the ground, his blood staining the dirt.
“You son of a bitch,” she screamed, “I loved him!”
She lunged at him and he swung the gun at her head, cutting her forehead. She fell to her hands and knees and blood began trickling down her face and into her eye.
She cried quietly and tears mingled with the blood, making streaks of red down her cheeks. “I loved him.”
He pointed the gun back at her “well you’ll be with him again soon enough, if you believe in that sort of thing. I’m sorry, Jenny, I really am. I never wanted to kill you. Or Paul. He seemed like a good kid.”
She felt the muzzle of the gun press against the back of her head. She closed her eyes and fought the urge to scream. She wasn’t going to let him believe she was afraid.
She waited for the shot for what felt like hours but was probably only seconds. It never came. Instead, the gun fell to the ground by her hands and she heard her father murmur “can’t be…”
“We had a deal, George” said a voice in front of her. It was thin and raspy, as if the speaker didn’t have any vocal chords. She recognized that voice just the same.
Jenny looked up to see a skeletal body rising from the dirt. Most of her skin was gone and what remained was blackened and dried on to the bone. A few wisps of blonde hair still hung from her scalp on one side. The other had been shattered by something. The tattered remains of a morning dress were draped over her shoulders and she held an empty, broken cup of coffee. From her mouth hung a lit cigarette.
“Hello, baby girl.”
“We didn’t have no deal, Martha,” her father said, trying to sound brave.
“Oh we did you sorry son of a bitch. Right before you took that hammer and bashed my skull, you promised me you’d never hurt our little girl.”
“I was just trying to keep you calm.”
“You don’t make promises you aren’t going to keep, George. You knew I was watching you. You could feel it, couldn’t you? All those girls, George. You promised you wouldn’t hurt them if they just did what you told them do. But you hurt them anyway. Oh lord did you hurt them. They’ve been down in the dirt with me all this time. But you kept your promise to me and that meant I couldn’t do anything but wait. Until now.”
Jenny took the gun from the floor and turned to face her father. He was transfixed by the gaze of his dead wife.
“Don’t shoot him, baby. He’s the worst kind of man but you don’t want that on your conscience.”
Her voice trembled with anger and sorrow, “H-h-he k-k-k-illed Paul.”
“No he didn’t. He’s hurt pretty bad but it looks like he’ll make it. You go upstairs and call an ambulance.”
“What are you going to do?”
“You don’t want me to tell you that, baby. There’s a whole lot of girls in the dirt with me and he broke promises to every one. He’s going to pay a heavy price for that.”
“I missed you.”
“I missed you too. Now go get some help for that man of yours. And let the kids play in the basement, all right? I like having them around.”
Jenny stood up and walked past her father. He didn’t look at her but continued to stare at the vengeful ghost in front of him.
“You can’t leave me,” he mumbled as she walked past.
“Go to hell.”
As she ran up the stairs to the phone, she heard him scream in unspeakable pain. It sounded like all of his limbs had been torn from his body but she secretly hoped that whatever was happening was much, much worse.
Two days later, Paul finally woke up. She was sitting by his bed when his eyes opened. He smiled weakly and she took his hand.
“You look terrible.”
He laughed quietly.
“It isn’t so bad. I’ve been shot before. What happened?”
“I don’t think you’ll believe me.”
“I promise you that I will.”
“Better be sure. Bad things can happen when you break a promise.”