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.
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:
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, Im
going inside. He spat on the ground and
said, Im crossing that threshold. Look
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 wasnt much light. In a flash, he
produced his dads Bic and found an old, rusty lantern to light.
heard a voice. It was aged, sounding like an
old woman. Pen-ul-ti-ma.
It was old and raspy, and it gave Peter the creeps. It was coming from upstairs.
light flickered. Peter wondered if he should
go back outside and run away.
him back, though. It was more than the desire
to go see what the noise wasit 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
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.
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 names Peter. I should be getting out of here. He turned for the door.
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.
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 colds kept them stiff for the past hundred
years. Peter hesitated. Sit on my lap. Not quite believing this, he obeyed.
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.
poor lashie, she garbled, and give her a home.
To me, shes 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?
womans 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 dolls. I thought shed 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 Penultimas pride
down, or shed never be good to me. Atropos
sighed lovingly. I loved her so
Under Peters legs, the
womans lap shawl felt rough, but still pleasing.
Judging from its quality, Peter judged that the old hag was bad at crochet.
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. Wed light jack-o-lanterns, too, and
put them in the windows. Penultimas
favorite thing, though, was when shed 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.
wondering what this story had to do with this houseand with him.
murdered Pen-ul-ti-ma in 1906, Atropos said. Someone
dismembered her body and buried it in my own house.
Chills ran down Peters spine. Someone
just took her and killed her, and I put her under my
threshold where she now lies, fit to sleep.
cracked outside. Peters chills
increased hundredfold. He began sweating.
Ultie? he asked mewingly. Please
tell me. Please tell me right now.
It was a
season of evil indeed, Atropos said. I
dont 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,
Ill 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
her Ultie, mentioned Atropos sternly. Her
name was Pen-ul-ti-ma.
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
hed ever get out of this creepy place.
while, Atropos creaked, We shall have to find out who murdered my girl.
think we can do it tonight? asked Peter brightly, glad to be on a quest. I have to get home, and my mothers
probably starting to get worried about me.
back, said the gray-headed hag. Were
about to enter the parlor. Stand back.
ghost came running out, and that of a preacher-man in a black suit and white collar
followed her. The girls 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.
Jesus, Atropos then explained. Jesus
Necroll was our parson in 1906.
Jesus doing here, asked Peter, in this house, in your parlor, on Halloween
exorcism. He thought Penultima was possessed
by a demon. It turned out that she was merely
frightened of something shed 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 thingslukewarm water, lukewarm toast, lukewarm
Christians. Penultima said that in the
nightmare, she was made of water. God took
one sip of herand spit her out.
said Peter. Id scream too if I
see, Atropos said. I called on
Parson Necroll in a hurry. No one could deal
with Satans 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 wont let you leave.
not? said Peter. Oddly, this concept
did not scare him anymorearound Atropos.
Peter Caulsen, she said, and Peters eyes and mouth opened wide, this
dear house needs protection. Somethings
still out there, and its coming to get us until the threshold is eaten away. Mildew and rust and decaysomethings
going to get my Penultimas body if no one keeps the place up. She took Peters little-boned, soft hands in
hers, gnarled and old. I try my best,
but these old fingers aint what they used to be.
Someones gotta keep trying.
why? asked Peter. Why cant
Penultimas body decay?
its decayed, said the woman. Its
decayed long ago, and the only thing under the threshold is her skeleton. The thing isI fear if the bodys
uncovered, then her soul will go away. You think that shell go to heaven, but I need her here.
understood. He needed his old Aunt Olivia
more than anything, but she was dead.
go into the parlor, Atropos rasped, sitting down.
One thingthe soda crackers were poisoned. Thats 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 wont kill you. The poisons 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. Thats
how the clues unravel.
Peter picked up a soda cracker and ate it. Suddenly,
he heard a voice.
cracker. The voice was Penultima
Chances, light, sensuous, and clear as a bell.
You ought to get more of these, Atropos.
Theyre really good!
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 didnt
know it at the time. Atropos sighed. Right after the exorcism, she ate
themafter old Jesus Necroll had gone. Her
gray eyes turned cold. He had declared
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
Atropos nodded. Yes.
Her voice was inflexibly hard. She
was realizing this slowly.
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
snapped Atropos. Eat a cracker, dear
When Peter ate
his second cracker, the ghostly figure of Jesus Necroll appeared on the carpet. He was kneeling and begging forgiveness. Penultimas ghost appeared on the couch.
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.
asked Atropos, noting his pasty countenance and clammy skin. Peter, whats 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.
to escape? asked Peter.
course, dear. Who wouldnt? Atropos laid her soft, bony hand upon
Peters 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.
Devils inside you! screamed the old preachers ghost as that of the young
girl shrieked in pain. The Devils
inside you, sweet girl, and I will not rest until he gets out!
ghost ran out of the room, and Preacher Necroll dropped the fireplace poker to run after
her. Both Atropos and Peter recoiled in
was what happened in the parlor on that fateful Halloween night. Preacher Necroll, after hearing Penultimas
nightmare and violent seizures, had poisoned the crackers, tried to burn Satan out of her,
and then she had run for--!
threshold! Peter cried. First he
poisoned the crackers, then he burned your little girl because she didnt 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?
of the old Hobbston place was deathly silent. Nothing
was there except a shovel leaning against the doorframe.
screamed. Dig into the threshold! Dig, dig, dig! Its our last chance! Peter remembered the song and hoped it
wouldnt happen to fly.
thrusts, Atropos jabbed the shovel into the thresholds rotting wood. Maggots and grubs wriggled out of it, and grass
seeds long deposited by birds past were scattered all over old Mrs. Hobsons ancient
kitchen floor. Peter screamed on and on,
encouraging Atropos. When they reached
Penultimas dismembered bones, they both sighed with relief. All of them were there, scattered in the dirt of
Atropos Hobbstons ruined threshold.
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!
Atropos disappeared. Peter, alone with
Penultimas 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.
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,
that threshold, then you die. Peter
still couldnt figure that part out.
akka-bakka, soda cracka was a description of Penultimas death, how she ended
up eating the icky poisoned soda crackers, hacking, and ending up back in the grave.
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
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 youd
never get out. Your last chance flew away,
just like Penultimas soul.
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.
reappeared and said, Penultima wasnt chopped.
She was cut. I severed her body so no one would find all
the pieces. I didnt 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 onedeathand
her presence here comforts me. I am an old
woman, and knowing that shes gone before gives me great peace.
her. Thank you, Atropos, he said
softly. Thank you for letting me
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
She began to
disappear slowly, and the last thing Peter saw of her was her soft, white hands.
cross the threshold, she whispered. Step
over the bones and lie down.
and a calm warmness spread over him.
Youve 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