I stood outside the store gazing up at the green sign: Gregory's. The sign was a little weather worn and was in desperate need of fresh paint.
Standing outside the store brought back memories of my childhood. I had lived in Milburn to the age of ten, before my family had moved to London because of Dad's change in career. But now, twelve years later, I, Abby Grainger, was back due to a twist of fate, having been offered a job by a teacher that had taught me at the primary school I had attended. The job offer had come out of the blue, but was too good an offer to turn down. The salary a dramatic increase on the measly sum I had been receiving in my previous teaching post.
As a car passed on this overcast day, a gush of cold air swept passed and chilled me. I rubbed my hands together and looked again to the store's sign.
I had moved into my new flat earlier in the day. It hadn't occurred to me this would be the only store I would be able to buy food from. The nearest supermarket was outside the village and I hadn't a car. I had to enter.
As I put my hand on the door's handle, I shivered. I was feeling the same butterflies in my stomach as I had all those years ago, each and every time I had entered this shop. The cause of these nerves being the presence of the owner, Gregory Masters. With his wrinkled skin, piercing eyes, twisted smile and limp, he had struck fear into all the children in the village, whilst I had been growing up. Of course that was twelve years ago and he must have been in his sixties back then. He would probably be dead by now. The store retaining its name for the sake of tradition.
I pushed open the door and the bell rang. The store was silent. Nobody to be seen. The till and counter deserted. I gently shut the door hoping not to alert anyone to my presence - though of course I would need to see someone to pay for the bits and pieces I needed. Goosebumps spread over my flesh. I swallowed the lump in my throat. I hadn't always paid for what I had taken from this particular shop. As a child I was a little rebellious at times, especially when egged on by my friends. Amanda had been my best friend back then; we would often come into the store, and whilst one of us would distract Gregory, the other would be slipping sweets and chocolate biscuits into our pockets.
The guilt now flooded through my veins. Maybe I shouldn't have returned to Gregory's. Too many bad omens.
Then I heard the shuffling of feet and what sounded like the tapping of a cane. I took a deep breath and prepared myself.
Gregory Masters limped through the hanging beads. He still had those evil eyes and grin. His hair had further receded and he looked even gaunter, but it was him all right.
He cleared his throat with a grunt. 'Can I help you, miss?' he asked, his yellow teeth parting his lips.
I froze. Shocked that he was still here, dreading the possibility he might recognize me. I had dyed my hair blonde; I now wore contact lenses not the thick black-rimmed glasses of twelve years previous and I had lost my retainer and grown breasts, but still there was that nagging doubt. What if?
'Erm . no, just looking, thank you,' I said, releasing a breath of nervous air and smiling.
I turned away and closed my eyes; I felt tightness through my neck but didn't dare roll my head to release the tension. The last thing I wanted him to realize was how scared I still was of him. Maybe that would trigger his memory.
It wasn't just the possibility he might recognize me, one of the girls that had stolen chocolate bars from his store. In fact, it wasn't really that at all.
Every town or village has rumours of ghosts or of evil. Usually a haunted house or spooky forest. Gregory's store was that scary place in Milburn. The heart of all the kids' fear. And with good reason too. At least in a child's mind.
One day at school, a day I remember so vividly, Tommy Collins had come into school as white as dandruff. We all gathered around him as he began to speak of what he had witnessed at Gregory's the previous night. Apparently he and his brother had sneaked around back, they were going to try and scare Gregory in his sleep. Throw 'bangers' at his windows. They are just little balls of paper with the stuff that goes bang. Just kids stuff. But that night they witnessed more than they had bargained for.
They watched in through one of the windows as Gregory knelt down in front of some kind of alter. They said a statue about a foot in height stood upon it. They said it was of some horned beast. The devil or some demon Tommy thought. There were black candles lit and Gregory was chanting some incomprehensible words in some strange language. Tommy and his brother watched as Gregory poured red liquid, which they thought must have been blood, over the horned beast. They were terrified by the sight, and they turned to run, but Tommy's brother got his foot caught and fell; in landing on a concrete slab he broke his finger and wailed in pain.
In looking up they saw Gregory standing in the window gazing at them, a twisted smile upon his face. Tommy thinks that he might have had blood around his lips but it was difficult to tell in the darkness.
As they ran in terror, Gregory limped out to confront them. The boys claimed he screamed: 'Saturn will punish you intruders! You who steal from me! You will be punished!'
Whether the boys had exaggerated Gregory's words or the night's events had never been proved either way. It seemed more likely he would have said. 'Clear off you kids!' as I myself had heard him shout several times. Probably fed up of kids stealing from his store and sneaking into his garden at night to throw stuff at his windows. But, the doubts in my mind remained. They hadn't been helped none either by Tommy's disappearance a few years back. He had been working in Milburn as a gardener. One evening he just didn't return for his supper his mom had told the police. From reading the reports about his disappearance, it seemed everyone just expected him to turn up at some point. He never did. Not in Millburn anyway.
'Are you okay, miss?'
'Huh? Yes, thanks,' I said as Gregory's words burst my daydream bubble. I picked up a basket and wandered around the store, trying to forget his presence and concentrate on getting what I needed and then leaving as quickly as possible. Even now, as a grown woman, he frightened me.
I picked up some fresh crusty bread, tinned soup, chocolate biscuits. I paused. I shouldn't be taking any more of those even if on this occasion I did intend to pay. I could feel his eyes upon me. Watching my every move - if I put the biscuits back now it might look suspicious. I left them in my basket, and then smiled at him.
I looked around for toiletries.
'Are you looking for anything in particular?' came the whisper right by my ear. I couldn't help but jump near clean out of my shoes. I turned to him, trying to re-catch my breath, hand held to heart.
'Oh, I'm sorry, miss - didn't mean to startle you,' he said.
'No, that's okay,' I said. I was surprised he had managed to creep up on me so silently, especially with that cane of his.
'Have you any shower gel?' I asked, trying to act like a normal shopper.
He smiled, and then scratched at his wrinkled chin. His fingers disturbed the facial caverns. The tips lost in the deep groves. This close to him I could smell his foul breath and see stubble trying to grow within the dark trenches on his chin.
'I'll go and look out back,' he said, turning on his heels, then ambling away with the aid of his cane.
'Oh don't worry,' I called half-heartedly.
'No trouble, no trouble,' he rasped, and then grunted as he cleared his throat. 'Won't be a minute.'
I waited, listening to the silence of the store, interrupted occasionally by the sounds of Gregory's search out back. I glanced around the murky store, looking to the weak bulb above. Dust patches swarmed around it. Outside I could see it had begun to snow, the flakes floating down and settling on the road. I hoped he wouldn't take much longer; I wanted to get back to my new flat and sit in front of the electric fire and read a good book. I had the weekend to unpack, make myself at home, before starting at the school on Monday morning.
'Will this do you?' Gregory asked, as once again he seemed to magically float close enough to startle me.
'Yes, fine,' I said, without even looking at the gel bottle. As I handed over the money, I squinted to try and read the brand.
'There's your change,' he said, dropping the coins in my hand. I stood with the open palm of money for as second too long, as I gazed at his hairy palms. I hoped he hadn't noticed my shudder as I retracted my hand and put the change in my purse.
As I was leaving the store, he called out to me.
'Good luck with the new job.'
I turned in surprise.
'Goodbye,' he said.
Back at home, I heated the soup and ate it with some crusty bread. I considered starting to unpack that evening but couldn't find the motivation, so decided to have a glass of wine and a shower instead.
I pushed the shower button and put my hand under the tumbling water, waiting for it to heat. I adjusted the temperature then stripped down. Climbing under the shower, feeling the warm beads of water splashing and soothing my tired limbs. It had been a long day and I looked forward to a good night's sleep.
I took the shower gel in my hand and had a look at the name. Ubergel. I had never heard of the make. I flicked the lid up and smelt it. It smelt surprisingly nice, I kind of fruity smell. I squeezed some into my hand then lathered it into my body.
The summer fruits entered my nostrils.
Then my body began to tingle. At first the feeling was strange but pleasant. It was soothing, almost exciting. Combined with the fruity smell the whole experience was refreshing. Maybe the best shower I had ever had.
After washing my hair and rinsing away the soap, I dried off with a radiated towel. Straight into my pyjamas, which were baggy and completely unsexy but as I would be sleeping alone, I didn't think it really mattered.
I climbed into bed, rubbing my feet together under the covers to try and generate some heat. It sure was getting cold. I pulled the curtain back and looked out to the falling snow. There was a thin layer of white over the sidewalk and the grass verges by the road. If the snow continued it would be deep by morning. I sunk down lower into the bed and closed my eyes.
In the morning I awoke feeling groggy. My mouth tasted dry and like glue. I felt stiff and wanted just to role over and go back to bed. But there was unpacking to do and I needed a drink to get rid of the taste. I walked stiffly into the kitchen and took a bottle of milk from the fridge. Pouring a glass then drinking. The taste remained and made the milk taste sour.
I took two aspirin for the headache that had come on, and then went into the bathroom to wash my face. The sight that greeted me wasn't nice. I looked pale and ill. My eyes puffy, my lips dry and cracked. As I grimaced at the reflection a pain like a pinprick hit my lip, and then I noticed the thin line of blood where my lip had split.
I didn't really feel up to unpacking that Saturday, so I just sat on the sofa wrapped in a cover and watched television. Occasionally getting up to go to the toilet and have a look at myself. I wasn't looking any better as the day passed and I worried I might be coming down with the flu or something. Not great when you're about to start a new job. That evening as I was getting into bed, I noticed the smell for the first time. A strange odour that I couldn't place. Musty and old. I thought it was coming from the bed, or the half eaten sandwich I had left on the side. It wasn't. I smelt my skin and realized that was the source of the smell.
I had a shower, hoping the fruity smell of the shower gel would cleanse the damp old smell. It seemed to work and I drifted off to sleep thinking how nice that shower gel smelt. But by morning the other mouldy smell had returned and was stronger than before.
I unpacked that Sunday and prepared myself for school the following day. I still felt ill. If anything a little worse than the day previous and I was still horribly pale. It didn't appear to be a twenty-four hour bug like I had hoped.
With the aid of lots of make-up, I was able to make myself look presentable for my first day at the school. I was teaching seven and eight year olds. Despite not feeling a hundred percent, I really enjoyed the day and went home looking forward to the next. I just hoped the virus would clear up soon.
As I tried to sleep the musty smell returned and I had to open the window, leaving it open for the night as the odour was making me feel queasy. My mind drifted to Gregory Masters. I could see his grinning wrinkled face. My brain told me he had indeed recognized me and had put some curse on the shower gel so that it made me sick. It was a ridiculous suggestion, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get rid of the thought.
I decided not to use the shower gel again. It might smell and feel fabulous whilst using it, but it seemed that I might be having some kind of allergic reaction. Maybe that would explain the pale skin, cracked lips, puffy eyes and that horrible smell. That was the logical explanation.
On the Wednesday evening after work, I started preparing dinner for a friend I had worked with at my previous school. I had invited Liz to come and see my new flat. I think she accepted half hoping she might find a job at the school at which I was now working. I think she was a little disgruntled by pay where she worked like I had been.
I set the table then checked the chicken. It was just about ready and Liz still hadn't arrived. She said she would come after work and hoped to arrive by six, but it was now half past. I picked up the phone and dialled her number. The phone rang and rang but there was no answer. Then the oven buzzer began bleeping at me. I switched it off and turned the heat down. I tried her mobile phone but was greeted by her answer phone.
'Hi Liz, it's Abby - just checking to see if you had remembered we were supposed to be having dinner tonight. Give me a call as soon as you get this message. Bye.'
I turned the oven off and gazed out to the snow covered lawn. I thought she had probably met a guy and forgotten all about our dinner date. She was the type. Very attractive. New boyfriend every week.
I waited another hour, trying both her home phone and mobile several times without success. I poured myself a glass of wine and ate the slightly dried up chicken.
That night the rotten smell of my skin was worse than ever. I dreamt of Gregory Masters. He was in his basement chanting, holding black candles aloft, blood dripped from his mouth. Then he turned to me, the candle's light glowing through his thinning white hair and illuminating his pink mottled scalp. As he spoke he spat blood. 'I know it was you Abby! . I know you stole from me and now a curse is upon you!' he rasped spraying more blood. 'You will burn in the fire's of Hell!' He began to laugh, wicked echo laughs that shook the foundations of his home. Then I awoke. I steadied my breathing, closed my eyes and thanked God it was just a dream. I struggled to get back to sleep. My mind wouldn't switch off. I kept on wondering if Gregory had been responsible for Tommy's disappearance. Maybe he had beaten Tommy to death with his cane then buried him where nobody would ever find his corpse.
As the final bell rang on Friday afternoon, I was relieved to finish for the week. I had enjoyed it but felt exhausted. I had got through the week with the virus and despite the general feeling of weakness and tiredness, I had just about coped. My make-up had hidden my illness effectively enough. Though at Friday lunchtime the headmaster did comment on the amount of make-up that was appropriate at school. He seemed to understand when I explained, and he was quite sympathetic, suggesting I should see a doctor rather than struggle on unnecessarily. He was probably right. If I didn't look any better by the end of the weekend, I thought, I would book an appointment.
Saturday was my father's birthday, so I travelled to London for lunch at my parents' house. Again, I had used too much make-up, but I thought I would prefer my mom complaining about how I hadn't the need for so much face paint as I was a beautiful young lady, than the concern about my health and her worry that I'd been mixing with the wrong crowd and started abusing my body with drugs.
I walked from the train station through the snow-covered streets to my parents' home and knocked on the door.
There was a silence, and then I could hear my mom telling Dad to answer the door. The bolt was unlocked then the door opened. My dad had a paper crown on his head and wore a badge saying: 'Birthday Boy'.
'Happy birthday,' I said, leaning forward and kissing him on the cheek and then handing him his present. He took the present, frowned then looked up to me, puzzled.
'Thank you,' he said. We stood facing each other for a few seconds.
'Well, can I come in?' I said smiling, already unbuttoning my coat.
'Who are you?' he asked.
I laughed. 'What are you talking about, Dad? You're only fifty-two - I don't think you got amnesia quite yet,' I joked. He didn't laugh, if anything the frown lines on his forehead deepened.
My mom came to the door smiling. She looked out to me.
'Mom, tell him to stop acting stupid.'
She didn't say anything; she was now mimicking my dad's confusion.
'Do we know you?' my dad asked.
Now I was puzzled. 'Know me. It's me, your only daughter, the one you named Abigail. Remember?' I said annoyed with myself for falling for this silly joke. They were obviously just playing a game.
'We have no daughter,' my mom said. 'Come on Frank the house is getting cold.'
The door began to shut so I shoved my arm out to stop it. 'What's going on?' I asked, pleaded. Now I was scared.
'Listen, young lady - If you don't let go of the door we will be forced to phone the police,' my mom said.
'Thanks for the present,' my dad said then the door shut. I could hear my mom telling my dad off for accepting gifts from strangers. 'It might be a bomb.'
I rang several more times but they didn't answer. I heard my mom's threats of phoning the police through the door.
I tried to get my brain around what was happening. Either I was dreaming, or I had gone mad . or they had . or it was some kind of joke. I tried phoning Liz from a pay phone.
'Hi Liz, it's me. You don't know about some joke my parents are playing do you? Pretending not to know me?'
'Sorry, who is this?'
I sighed. This was plain annoying. 'Not you too?'
The phone went dead. I tried phoning her back but the phone had been switched off.
I returned home convinced I was dreaming. I just had to see it out and then when I awoke in the morning, I could laugh about how real it all seemed. Back in my flat I drank some wine. Then some more and some more. More than anything it was making me feel better. My brain was scrambled with the insanity of the day. The alcohol helped me forget how horribly pale I had become that day.
As I was ready to get into bed that night, I gazed at myself in the mirror, stumbling forwards, vision blurring, giggling. I looked at my bed in the reflection. Then I realized something odd. The bed was directly behind me. I was able to see my bed through my own reflection. As I slumped drunkenly into bed I tried to figure out how this was possible. I didn't come up with the answer before I fell asleep.
In the morning I had a stinking headache. I climbed gingerly out of bed, remembering the previous day. I wondered if it had in fact all been a dream. My head hurt too much to think about it for too long. Then I saw my reflection in the mirror. I was barely visibly, just a ghost, almost totally transparent. I raised my hand in front of my face and gazed straight through it into the mirror.
By lunchtime I was totally invisible. I could smell the mould in the air. The scent the shower gel had given my skin. I thought of Gregory and his devil worship. I thought of the chocolate bars I had stolen as a kid. The chocolate I had made disappear. And then I thought of my classmate Tommy that had vanished off the face of the earth.
I could still touch things but it was difficult to work out where my hands were. I opened my bedside draw and took out my birth certificate. It was blank. Ink free.
Over the days my ability to touch has faded. I can no longer feel. I'm just a floating thing, drifting from room to room with nothing but sight and vague memories. I have to regularly repeat my name and anything else I can remember about myself so not to forget, but I'm struggling to remember much now.
As I hear a knock on the door, I glance outside. I see Gregory standing by the door. He looks up to where I watch and smiles, then he waves. I hear the last word he had said to me at the store. 'Goodbye.'
He turns and limps away, leaving footprints and the markings of his cane in the snow.
Copyright © 2003 by Steve Goldsmith