Tales of Terror

 Threshold
by Moira Dawson

            No one had entered the old Hobbston place for 20 long years.  It stood black and decaying in the midst of a midnight-blue sky.  The house seemed like a black hole, sucking everything into it.  Not even light could touch this place; it had been swallowed up long ago.

 A single drop of blood trickled down the front wall of the mansion.  A wolf cried out.

              The little kids who lived in Moulton had a song about the Hobbston place.   It still gave them the chills when they sang it during their jump-roping games.  It went something like this:

              “Hobbston place?  Just pass on by.

            Cross that threshold, then you die.

            Ikka-bakka, akka bakka, soda cracka’, why?

            Your last chance just happened to fly!”

              That song could be heard on the wind on this Halloween night.  No one could really understand what the words meant, especially the “ikka-bakka, akka bakka, soda cracka’“ part. 

              One small kid, the littlest jump-roper in Moulton, stood there before the house and said, “I’m going inside.”  He spat on the ground and said, “I’m crossing that threshold.  Look out.”

              The kid, whose name was Peter, wistfully looked at the stars and then headed inside.  Mildew stank up the front hall, and Peter held his nose.  Looking around, the kid noticed there wasn’t much light.  In a flash, he produced his dad’s Bic and found an old, rusty lantern to light. 

              Suddenly, he heard a voice.  It was aged, sounding like an old woman.  “Pen-ul-ti-ma.

Pen-uul-ti-ma!”   It was old and raspy, and it gave Peter the creeps.  It was coming from upstairs.

              The lantern light flickered.  Peter wondered if he should go back outside and run away.

              Something held him back, though.  It was more than the desire to go see what the noise was—it was the pride of being the first human brave enough to explore the old Hobbston place in 20 years.  Peter swung the bright lantern around to find the stairway.   It was gray, crumbling and musty, smelling more like a damp cellar than something leading upstairs.

              Peter started to climb, but when he was halfway up the old stairs, his lantern went out.  Some unseen force had gone wwht and blown out the flame that brought light to the place.  As a tendril of smoke curled up from the lantern, Peter whispered,  “Somebody help me.”  His voice was wet with fear.

              He continued to climb.

              At the top of the stairs, he pushed open a splintery wooden door with an old copper keyhole.  Inside the dark room behind it sat an old woman in a rocking chair, illuminated by the moonlight that spilled in through the window.  No other furniture was in the room save the floor.

              “You’re not Pen-ul-ti-ma,” said the woman in a tone of indignant surprise.

              Peter did not know what to say.  When the cobwebs finally cleared out of his throat, he managed to say, “My name’s Peter.  I should be getting out of here.”  He turned for the door.

              “Staa-a-ay!” sang the woman in a sinister voice.  Each syllable hissed like a rattlesnake.  “Sit on the floor,” said the woman, “just as my young servant girl, Penultima Chance, used to do.”

              Peter sat on the brown wooden floor, but as soon as he did, the old gray-haired hag vanished like a ghost passes into thin air.  Nothing was left of her save the old wooden rocker.

              “HELP ME!” screamed Peter, and as soon as he did, the old woman returned.  In her hand, she held a lighted lantern.  Peter noticed that his own, on the floor, was as dark as before.

              “Sit on my lap,” said the woman.  “I have a shawl here, and the lantern will keep you bright and warm.”  She smiled.  “These old bones need a creaking; this cold’s kept them stiff for the past hundred years.”  Peter hesitated.   “Sit on my lap.”  Not quite believing this, he obeyed.

              “My servant girl, Penultima Chance,” the old woman began wistfully.  “Just like she used to do.  When she was seven, her mother gave her to me because she was my drunken neighbor.

‘Take the poor lashie,” she garbled, “and give her a home.   To me, she’s just one mouth to feed.”

              Peter, who was quickly beginning to like the soft, warm old woman, said, “Why did you treat her as a servant girl?  Why not a granddaughter?”  He paused.  “You have grandkids, right?”

              The old woman’s face hardened.  “Penultima was an arrogant girl when she first came to me.  Her hair was all shiny, and her face was as lovely as a doll’s.  I thought she’d disdain me when she first saw my face, and she did.  She thought she was better than me; I had to teach her otherwise.”  The woman folded her hands.  “Call me Atropos.  I had to take Penultima’s pride down, or she’d never be good to me.”  Atropos sighed lovingly.  “I loved her so much.”

            Under Peter’s legs, the woman’s lap shawl felt rough, but still pleasing.  Judging from its quality, Peter judged that the old hag was bad at crochet.

 “Penultima served me humbly, as a light-duty scullery maid, and then that was just fine,” continued Atropos.  “On Halloween night, we would make our own peanut-butter taffy and give it out to the kids.”  She smiled.   “I loved her so much.  ‘Trick-or-treat.’  We’d light jack-o’-lanterns, too, and put them in the windows.  Penultima’s favorite thing, though, was when she’d tell scary stories until midnight struck.  No one but the older kids could hear those tales.  I stood on the stairway landing and watched, watched her with my own eyes.” 

              Peter was wondering what this story had to do with this house—and with him.

              “Someone murdered Pen-ul-ti-ma in 1906,” Atropos said.  “Someone dismembered her body and buried it in my own house.”   Chills ran down Peter’s spine.  “Someone just took her and killed her, and I put her under my threshold where she now lies, fit to sleep.”

              A thunderbolt cracked outside.  Peter’s chills increased hundredfold.  He began sweating.

              “Who killed Ultie?” he asked mewingly.  “Please tell me.  Please tell me right now.”

              “It was a season of evil indeed,” Atropos said.  “I don’t know.”  She paused for a second, and the length of time felt like cotton enveloping Peter.  “One thing that I do know is if I ever found out who did it, I’ll take his own life.”  Atropos hugged Peter to her, and he shivered there in her arms.  Though he felt warm on the outside, something cold, like icy worms, wriggled within him.

              “You called her Ultie,” mentioned Atropos sternly.  “Her name was Pen-ul-ti-ma.” 

              Outside, the wind shrieked, and cold rain spattered the unwashed old windows.  Tree branches smacked the weak glass, and they cast shadows in the square of light on the floor.  Peter was scared.  He was beginning to wonder if he’d ever get out of this creepy place.

 After a while, Atropos creaked, “We shall have to find out who murdered my girl.”

              “Do you think we can do it tonight?” asked Peter brightly, glad to be on a quest.  “I have to get home, and my mother’s probably starting to get worried about me.”

              “Stand back,” said the gray-headed hag.  “We’re about to enter the parlor.  Stand back.”

              A girl’s ghost came running out, and that of a preacher-man in a black suit and white collar followed her.  The girl’s footsteps sounded muffled compared to the ruffling of her pink dress as she ran.  It sounded like a pheasant puffing up his soft feathers.  The preacher continued the chase, and then both ghosts disappeared.

              “That’s Jesus,” Atropos then explained.  “Jesus Necroll was our parson in 1906.”

              “What was Jesus doing here,” asked Peter, “in this house, in your parlor, on Halloween night?”

              “An exorcism.  He thought Penultima was possessed by a demon.  It turned out that she was merely frightened of something she’d heard during one of his sermons.  She had the worst nightmare about it, and she woke up screaming and crying, fit to wake the dead.  The nightmare was about lukewarm things—lukewarm water, lukewarm toast, lukewarm Christians.  Penultima said that in the nightmare, she was made of water.  God took one sip of her—and spit her out.”

              “Ouch,” said Peter.  “I’d scream too if I were her.”

              “You see,” Atropos said.  “I called on Parson Necroll in a hurry.  No one could deal with Satan’s nightmares better than he could.  He examined my servant, and he said that she was possessed.”  The old woman sat down on the floor.  “Before we go into the parlor, I want you to know something.  If we find out who murdered my girl, then I won’t let you leave.”

              “Why not?” said Peter.  Oddly, this concept did not scare him anymore—around Atropos.

              “Because, Peter Caulsen,” she said, and Peter’s eyes and mouth opened wide, “this dear house needs protection.  Something’s still out there, and it’s coming to get us until the threshold is eaten away.  Mildew and rust and decay—something’s going to get my Penultima’s body if no one keeps the place up.”  She took Peter’s little-boned, soft hands in hers, gnarled and old.  “I try my best, but these old fingers ain’t what they used to be.   Someone’s gotta keep trying.”

              “But why?” asked Peter.  “Why can’t Penultima’s body decay?”

              “Oh, it’s decayed,” said the woman.  “It’s decayed long ago, and the only thing under the threshold is her skeleton.  The thing is—I fear if the body’s uncovered, then her soul will go away. You think that she’ll go to heaven, but I need her here.”

              Peter understood.  He needed his old Aunt Olivia more than anything, but she was dead.

              “Let’s go into the parlor,” Atropos rasped, sitting down.   “One thing—the soda crackers were poisoned.  That’s how Penultima died.”  A lightning bolt flashed, and thunder cracked.   

              In the parlor, there were red velvet curtains, and a silver tray of soda crackers lay on a polished oak table.  “Eat a cracker,” said Atropos.  “They won’t kill you.  The poison’s worn off.  After all,” Atropos said with a laugh, “they are 26!”  After she finished cackling, she nibbled a wafer and said, “Mmmm.  You have to eat the crackers, boy.  That’s how the clues unravel.”

              Hesitantly, Peter picked up a soda cracker and ate it.  Suddenly, he heard a voice.

              “Mmm, good cracker.”  The voice was Penultima Chance’s, light, sensuous, and clear as a bell.  “You ought to get more of these, Atropos.  They’re really good!”

              Atropos turned to Peter and explained, “This happened on Halloween, the night after the nightmare.  Penultima ate some crackers before she went to bed.  They were poisoned, but she didn’t know it at the time.”  Atropos sighed.  “Right after the exorcism, she ate them—after old Jesus Necroll had gone.”  Her gray eyes turned cold.  “He had declared her possessed.”

              “So,” said Peter, figuring out the events of the story so far in his mind, “on the night before Halloween, Penultima had a nightmare and woke up screaming.  You called Jesus Necroll, and he performed an exorcism that lasted one day, all through Halloween.   He declared her possessed after this, and then he just left.  Then Penultima ate the poisoned crackers and died.”

              Atropos nodded.  “Yes.”    Her voice was inflexibly hard.  She was realizing this slowly.

              Peter said, “Then Jesus Necroll, the old preacher!  He poisoned the crackers.  He decided Penultima was Satanic, so then he put some kind of poison on your cracker tray for her to eat.”  He sighed sadly.   “Too bad Penultima had to eat the crackers before she went to bed.”

              “Quiet,” snapped Atropos.  “Eat a cracker, dear boy.”

              When Peter ate his second cracker, the ghostly figure of Jesus Necroll appeared on the carpet.  He was kneeling and begging forgiveness.  Penultima’s ghost appeared on the couch.

              “Forgive me, dear Father,” the ghost of Jesus Necroll wept copiously.  “Forgive me for killing this child.  O, you have seen my poor deed, and you know my transgression.  Forgive me, dear Father, forgive me!  I have seen the Lord!”  Jesus raised his hands, and then he vanished.

              “Boy?” asked Atropos, noting his pasty countenance and clammy skin.  “Peter, what’s wrong?”  Suddenly, the ghostly vision of Jesus Necroll chasing Penultima out of the parlor flashed through her mind.  “He chased Penultima during the exorcism.  Old Necroll chased her down.

              “She tried to escape?” asked Peter. 

              “Well, of course, dear.  Who wouldn’t?”  Atropos laid her soft, bony hand upon Peter’s shoulder.  “During those days, exorcisms were torture, and sometimes the cure could be worse than the disease.  When I saw her running in the vision, she had burn marks on her forearms.”  She gulped, guiltily remembering the past that she could not turn back.   “Back in 1906, I left old Jesus alone.”  They both returned to the parlor and nibbled a piece of the soda cracker.  

              Peter saw a sudden vision of Necroll branding Penultima with a red-hot fireplace poker.

              “The Devil’s inside you!” screamed the old preacher’s ghost as that of the young girl shrieked in pain.  “The Devil’s inside you, sweet girl, and I will not rest until he gets out!

              Penultima’s ghost ran out of the room, and Preacher Necroll dropped the fireplace poker to run after her.  Both Atropos and Peter recoiled in horror.  This was what happened in the parlor on that fateful Halloween night.  Preacher Necroll, after hearing Penultima’s nightmare and violent seizures, had poisoned the crackers, tried to burn Satan out of her, and then she had run for--!

              “The threshold!” Peter cried.  “First he poisoned the crackers, then he burned your little girl because she didn’t eat them, and then she ran for the threshold to get out and escape!”  Together, Atropos and Peter ran for the door, where the final key to this mystery would soon unravel.   First a poisoned plate of crackers, then a fireplace poker, and then what had he done?

            The threshold of the old Hobbston place was deathly silent.  Nothing was there except a shovel leaning against the doorframe.   “Dig!”  Peter screamed.  “Dig into the threshold!  Dig, dig, dig!  It’s our last chance!”  Peter remembered the song and hoped it wouldn’t happen to fly.

              With violent thrusts, Atropos jabbed the shovel into the threshold’s rotting wood.  Maggots and grubs wriggled out of it, and grass seeds long deposited by birds past were scattered all over old Mrs. Hobson’s ancient kitchen floor.  Peter screamed on and on, encouraging Atropos.  When they reached Penultima’s dismembered bones, they both sighed with relief.  All of them were there, scattered in the dirt of Atropos Hobbston’s ruined threshold.

              “Jesus Necroll killed you, my Penultima.  He poisoned the crackers, you see?  He thought you were evil!”  Her weeping could not be soothed.  “Then I dismembered your body.  I wanted to tell you, my dear.  I just wanted to tell you, but I never knew who did this awful crime!”

              Suddenly, Atropos disappeared.  Peter, alone with Penultima’s bones, no longer felt scared.  “We ought to give you a decent burial,” he said there in the dark, since we let your soul fly away.”  He now understood the full meaning of the Hobbston place song. 

           The house itself was dangerous on Halloween night, since the spirits of Jesus Necroll and the haunted Penultima still hovered about, so just ‘pass on by’, trick or treaters, it warned. 

 ‘Cross that threshold, then you die.’  Peter still couldn’t figure that part out. 

 ‘Ikka-bakka, akka-bakka, soda cracka’ was a description of Penultima’s death, how she ended up eating the icky poisoned soda crackers, hacking, and ending up back in the grave. 

 ‘Why’ was a question none of the other jump-ropers would ever figure out.  Why?  A preacher thought a little girl was evil simply because her lukewarmness in Christ enraged him.

 ‘Your last chance just happened to fly!’  The ‘last chance’ was crossing the threshold of the Hobbston place.  Once you crossed it to get in, then you’d never get out.  Your last chance flew away, just like Penultima’s soul.

 Peter had one more question for Atropos, though she was gone.   “Who dismembered the body?” he asked.  “Preacher Necroll poisoned her, but then who chopped her up?” he asked.

              Atropos reappeared and said, “Penultima wasn’t chopped.   She was cut.  I severed her body so no one would find all the pieces.  I didn’t want anyone to take my dear servant away.  I was afraid Necroll would return to this place to remove the evidence of his foul deed, but fortunately I found the body before he returned to finish Penultima off.   I cut her into pieces and buried her here at my threshold.  She crossed the ultimate one—death—and her presence here comforts me.  I am an old woman, and knowing that she’s gone before gives me great peace.”

              Peter hugged her.  “Thank you, Atropos,” he said softly.  “Thank you for letting me help.”

              “You still must do one more thing,” the old gray woman said.   “Keep this place up.  Necroll might return if no one is here to protect it.  I am fixing to die.”  A tear fell from her eye.

She began to disappear slowly, and the last thing Peter saw of her was her soft, white hands. 

              “Please cross the threshold,” she whispered.  “Step over the bones and lie down.” 

              Peter obeyed, and a calm warmness spread over him. 

              Atropos said, “You’ve made a promise to come back here when you grow up.  Please keep it, my friend.”  And Peter Caulsen did, knowing that his threshold of fear had been crossed.       

2000 Moira Dawson      

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