Matthew grunted as he stepped from the shop front, carrying a large slab of frozen meat, the carcass jutting over his shoulder. The dirty Ford Escort van by the kerb stood with the doors open and he heaved the wrapped meat into the back of it with a thud. The tired springs sighed with a wheeze.
“Oi!” a voice called from the shop. “Matthew! Are you still out there?”
The tall, grey-faced man turned back. He grunted again, loudly, in an unintelligible reply. “Huh?”
Mr. Woodley, the proprietor of the eponymous shop that Matthew had emerged from pushed aside the metal chain curtain that shielded the doorway and took one step onto the ledge under the porch. In his hands was a small polystyrene box, the lid slightly ajar.
“Can’t do deliveries very well if you don’t take the stock, can you, muppet!”
Matthew turned. He recognised the package and looked quizzically at it. “Is that for-”
“- your mum’s hotel? Yes, I found the steaks she’d ordered.” The butcher picked one up and studied it lazily. “Why she wants deep-frozen steaks is beyond me.”
Matthew quickly took the box and affixed the lid, re-attaching the yellow sticky tape that held it closed. He held the box to his chest. “She likes them the way I do them, you’ve trained me well.”
“Get out and get that stuff delivered. Plenty to do around here. Now, look at the time, the rush’ll be on!”
Matthew turned as the butcher went back inside. He quickly opened the passenger side door of the van and placed the box of steaks carefully on, making sure to strap it in with the seatbelt. He glanced around the interior of the van quickly, past the old copies of The Sun in the door pockets and a litany of litter in the footwell. Had Woodley noticed anything else in the deep freeze? No, Matthew thought. He’d have said something. Or he’d be missing a finger. Or worse, the grubby man thought as he rounded the front of the van and settled into the seat. Putting a key in the ignition, the engine vibrated with a turn and Matthew drove down Medford High Street toward Holman Street and the Hall.
The journey only took a few minutes. Matthew parked toward the rear of the house. Getting out, he fetched the box of steaks from the seat. The rear gate opened with a squeal. The garden was overgrown and neglected, weeds everywhere, poking through badly-installed crazy paving. A throwback to the Eighties. Matthew remembered tripping up on the jagged fragments as a kid. His mouth fell agape for a pregnant moment. He stopped and scowled, first at the wall and then toward the house.
Matthew looked up from his absent-minded remembrance and saw two… people at the breakfast table. He gripped the box of steaks again and took a deep breath, and turned his head, but too late to ignore the fleeting glance of one of the people. A woman.
Matthew smiled crookedly. She looks tasty, he thought, and her face twisted back. Without thinking he licked his lips.
“Who’s that?” Connie mouthed. She eyed the man outside suspiciously. “Look!”
“Huh?” Jimmy replied, putting down his buttery knife. He saw the man outside in the yard lick his lips theatrically, drooling slightly before moving quickly onward. The door to the kitchen to outside rattled through the wall. “What a pervert.”
“He’s coming in,” Connie breathed, abandoning her cold breakfast. “What does he-”
Jimmy laughed quietly. “Listen. He’s in the kitchen talking to the landlady.” Gesturing, he signalled for Connie to come to the wall by the door, where muffled conversations were happening next door.
Her face fell, and her shoulders relaxed. She nabbed a piece of toast. She waved it playfully. Jimmy turned and looked at it, smiling.
“I prefer a good crumpet,” he hummed slyly.
Her eyebrows raised. “Not crispy enough.” She took a playful bite, chewing theatrically. Then she swallowed hard.
Toward the back wall was a sideboard festooned with dusty leaflets and pamphlets arranged in a semi-circle against a cobwebbed doily. Above it, a pockmarked, and bare, corkboard. Jimmy wandered toward it, eyeing the faded prints against the dark wood and off-cream fabric.
“Anything good? I don’t want to hang around here too much…”
Jimmy shrugged. The adverts were indeed dated – bird sanctuaries no doubt stuffed by now, a museum of infinite boredom, probably closed weekends, and a theme park whose rides must’ve been rusted solid an eternity ago. He laughed shortly. “How about this?”
“What?” Connie asked, coming over and taking the leaflet he’d plucked from the noticeboard. Her face quickly fell. “Oh very funny. Medford in Bloom Guide, she read, “from February. 1990.”
By itself, the door creaked open.
“Loves, I see you’ve found some of the old brochures. Sorry I don’t have anything more recent but,” Mrs. Chaldean began, gesturing in an off-putting, sprightly way, “Medford really hasn’t changed in years. And that’s how I like it.”
Behind her came movement. The man from the yard clomped loudly through the kitchen door and into the hallway, giving a suspicious glare into the dining room, a look which pierced through Connie’s very soul, or so it felt. The young girl shivered.
“Guests,” the man grunted. Connie felt her skin crawl at the sight of the dirty face, the hunched shoulders, the clenched fists that pulsated with steady blood flow. He looked a picture of an ogre dressed as what a human might be. Filth.
“My son, Matthew, dears,” the old lady said. “He’s here to help out. He’s a good son.”
“Right,” Connie began curtly. She avoided his glassy gaze. He slurped noisily, his tongue lapping saliva from his chin.
Mrs. Chaldean looked toward Matthew. He smiled at her. “No trouble, this one, never gives me any grief about girls, drinks or anything like that. He just helps me out,” she sighed, almost contentedly. Her face rounded to Jimmy and the warmth drained from her bony features. “Some could take a lesson from him.”
Jimmy fidgeted awkwardly.
Through into the kitchen, the rustle of a black plastic rubbish bag pierced the air. Jimmy’s face froze.
Mrs. Chaldean’s rosy complexion returned when she looked back toward her son. He towered over her, looming almost. She handed him the sack and another object, which glinted. “Here’s the key. You know what to do,” she said in a low whisper. She looked back, remembering the dining room was occupied. “Sorry, dears, do you want to wait here? Just going to sort out your room and get your things, I’m sure you want to be on your way.”
“Want us to settle the bill now?” Jimmy asked, puffing his chest out a little as if he were peeking over a fence.
Janice Chaldean’s dark look came over him again. “In time, love. In a short time, yes.”
“Maybe we could go through to the front room,” the young man said, boldly. He went to continue but was cut off by a finger in the air in front of him. Mrs. Chaldean took a sudden lurch forward.
“You’ll stay right in this room!”
And at that, the door breezed closed with a rattle, though neither Jimmy nor Connie remembered seeing the old woman, or her son, reach for the handle. Through the wall they heard the grunting of effort, the tinkle of a little key on a chain and the rattle as it entered the lock.
Connie gulped. She felt a strange tinkle and she jumped, spooked. “Jimmy?!”
“Yeah?!” he called. He felt the breeze too. “Where’s that…” he trailed off. Connie turned to him and her face was as white as a sheet. “Connie?!”
There was a groan from above. Footsteps on the stairs, a door opening. A call. A scream from the old lady, one so guttural and demonic almost that it could’ve disintegrated the ceiling above. “We have to go. We have to go right now, you hear me?!” she said frantically, panicking, flapping her arms.
She ran, grabbing the handle. It moved but the door wouldn’t. Terrified, the young woman screamed, turning on her feet. “We can’t get out!”
The guttural groan was getting very close now, descending the staircase. The locked door began to shake, resonating eerily in its frame. Jimmy turned on his heels. The entire house was shaking; the ground and every fitting in the room resonated.
“What the hell is going on?!”
The door then flung open, and the illuminated hallway outside was now a maelstrom of flashing, strobing lights accompanied by deafening cracks of thunder. Outside the dining room, the corridor was suddenly a cacophony of bright, otherworldly lights flashing around the shadows of the landlady. The uneasy wind from the previous day flung the wooden door against the wall, breaking it on the sideboard into splinters that flew in the vortex.
“You disgusting little harlot!” a screeching voice called. Connie looked, confused. It was Mrs. Chaldean, the face of the kindly old lady now melted and distorted into a pallid grey monster, nose twisted and mouth like the crack on a cliff. “You’ve defiled my property once too often!” She held up three twisted fingers. “Now you’ll pay, you filthy little slut!” She advanced in, and the glint of the metal of the axe in her hand was caught in a flash of the lightning.
“What, what do you-”
“You too, you little bastard. You let your filthy seed get all over her. You feel proud of yourself?” the old hag turned to Jimmy. He looked adamant at her.
“We didn’t even, no, I don’t know what you’re…”
“It’s too late now,” Mrs. Chaldean cackled. “You’re going to pay the price!” She advanced forward, not even moving her feet, and in a moment she swung the axe. “You said you wanted to settle the bill!” Connie quickly ducked, despite the mayhem.
The axe thudded into the wooden floor with a soft crunch, the tired carpet and floorboards yielding to the blade. Connie ran back to Jimmy, instinctively toward the far corner of the room.
“Open the door!” she yelled, pushing her boyfriend toward the French doors. The handle rattled but resisted, providing no route for escape.
Then there was that scraping sound that had seemed so close the night before. Turning away, they saw the axe withdraw from the dark gash left in the floor and slide across the floor, ripping threads of carpet in its wake. Behind it stood Mrs. Chaldean, her hands held above her head, fingers extended like willow-tree branches, but the nails like fangs that cast shadows on the ruined wall.
“You come here, to my house, and you spread your sins as wide as you spread your legs!” the witch cackled again. Her eyes glistened a aquamarine in the flashes of intense light and dark. She took a singular, thudding step. It boomed across and the axe flew, tearing the gash in the floor right to the wall. The witch twisted her arms and the axe flew upwards like a roller-coaster, and dove right toward Connie’s hips, like a speeding bullet whistling through the air until, before she could even take a breath-
A moment of silence befell. Apart from the wind. That continued.
Connie opened her eyes, expecting to see the axe buried in her midriff, her clothing turning red with every heartbeat, her life-force draining toward whatever was under the floorboards, coalescing in the dirt and earth below.