The raspy screams of her dying grandmother reverberated in her head mercilessly. Celeste sat numb at the table, trapped in her own trance. A passing train howled into the night and merged with the cries of her cherished Gram. Focus was consumed by the horror in that hospital tonight. The oppression of this late-July humidity trapped everything. It crushed the sweltering heat back inside the old house. It relinquished no space for sweat to escape her suffocating body. It held these tortured thoughts inside her skull as an amniotic caul traps a newborn face without breath.
Doorbell! Startled from her stupor, Celeste jumped up. Ding-dong! Like the Avon commercial. But it was almost midnight. No Avon Lady stood out there. Why did Kurtis leave her alone tonight? Doorbell! For a second Celeste grasped hopefully at relief. Kurt must be home! She hurried to the enclosed back porch expecting to see her husband. Angry or not, she needed it to be him. Silence waited outside the screen door.
A chill slithered over her body. The train called its farewell from further down the track. Doorbell! But now it was the front door. Again she grasped at the straw of relief. “He must’ve thought I wasn’t coming to the back and ran around front.” Celeste raced to open the door, praying to see Kurtis. Nothing. She stared into the night. Oh God, was the heat making her hallucinate? She felt lightheaded and wanted to call her mother. Or anyone. But there was no phone. The doorbell was ringing again. In back. She bounded breathless to the back door.
“KURTIS!” she called hard. Anger and desperation gave her voice an edge she usually wouldn’t show him. No one answered. No one appeared. Very softly, almost a prayer, she whispered into the night, “Kurtis?” Her lone unanswered voice brought a shiver. Her heart was a mad drummer in a padded cell. She noted that the little latch was hooked. Celeste stepped from the back porch into the kitchen again, dabbing at sweat with her skirt. Her eyes locked on the black wall phone, willing it to work. Celeste lifted the heavy receiver and dialed 0 for operator. If anyone answered, she’d ask for the police. But all she held to her ear was deadness. Ding dong! Front doorbell again. Celeste stood her ground this time.
“Damn it, damn it! God forgive me for swearing.” Thoughts crowded her brain, fighting for dominance. She couldn’t clear a path, find a way out. “Why did Kurtis have to lose another job? Now our phone’s cut off.” Celeste remembered their excitement, knowing he’d be home from Vietnam for the new baby, active duty complete. He’d been home three months and lost two jobs already. Kurtis had always been moody, but there was something else now. Something he never spoke of. Something that gave him nightmares and made him glare at her from dark recesses in his mind. They had two baby boys and Celeste wasn’t yet twenty-one. She gripped her spinning head to hold her sanity in, but all she got was her grandmother’s screams mixed with the insistent screaming doorbell.
Celeste heard her mother’s desperate pleas to the nurse, obliged to withhold Gram’s pain shot for another hour, “God Almighty! My mother’s eighty-one, and her leg’s been amputated. She’s dying, she’s in agony, and you’re worried she’ll become a drug addict?!” Celeste heard those weird awful crackling noises in Grammy’s chest, like a radio slightly off-station, turned real low. Aunt Bev called it the death rattle. Death Rattle! Celeste thought, “Like some primitive medicine man in there with his painted face and animal skins, shaking a gourd full of snake rattlers. The Death Rattle. But it won’t scare Death away. It calls it in. This can’t be happening!”
Ding dong! Ding dong! “Hail Mary, full of grace, help me, help me!”
Celeste thought of neighbors. But in this huge Victorian, her family had the ground floor. To reach upstairs apartments, she’d have to go outside. Couldn’t risk it. Couldn’t leave her babies. She slipped into the boys’ room and touched both sleeping sons, damp with sweat, sucking their tiny thumbs. Their worthless fan resigned to blowing hot air around.
Kurtis acted mad having to stay with Nate and Sammy while Celeste went to the hospital tonight. When she returned like a zombie, he bolted for a drink. Why tonight?! Oh God, please stop ringing that doorbell!!”
Back door now. Celeste gathered her feeble courage and faced the screen door. She peered deep into the dark behind her house, barely squeaking out, “Who’s there?” She was shaking as she reached for the handle. As if hypnotized, Celeste touched the little latch. She had to see what lurked outside. She had to know. But a sense of movement to her left intervened. Celeste leaned into the screen enough to catch a glimpse of white pressing against the house, like the shoulder of a t-shirt. Like Kurtis was wearing. Was that his breathing inches away? Celeste was desperate to see who was tormenting her, but the realization that Death might stand so close she could hear his breath, so close he could grab her wrist the instant she lifted the latch… OH GOD! Her hand recoiled with serpentine reflex. Was that a white-shirted figure moving through shadows, turning his head toward her? Celeste shrank back.
Doorbell! Celeste was frantic. The thought that this might be Kurtis gripped her. She knew he was troubled since Vietnam. More brooding and secretive, but he claimed family was his life. Even in his darkest moods Celeste couldn’t believe Kurt would be this malevolent while her precious Gram lay dying. In this moment of dread, with the doorbell ringing, ringing, one thought paralyzed her: There was a maniac outside her door. Or her own husband, trying to make her think there was.
Doorbell! But this time, when she looked out, the tall slender man on the front porch was Kurtis. Celeste broke. Screaming through tears,” Why did you do that?!” Accusations flew. Defensive denials reared. Kurtis showed more annoyance than concern, but she wanted to believe him. She needed to believe the man who slept beside her each night was not capable of torturing her like this. Especially tonight.
Night crawled through sweat and snippets of hell. Illusive figures breathing in darkness. Grammy alone in the woods, unable to find water. Celeste clawing at webs.
Morning brought the news. Grammy had passed peacefully around 1 AM. It was over. At least this part. The rest of her life, missing her beloved grandmother, her link with history, had just begun.
But the unresolved lay roiling beneath the surface. Seeds of doubt and fear had been planted. No matter how much denial she poured on the growing stench, there was no way to stop the decomposition or unring this doorbell. Was the young man who shared her bed and her life going through post-war turmoil that time might heal? Or had some monster been created, capable of unspeakable torment, growing in strength each night, feeding on her fears? She didn’t dare look too deep, except in her unraveling dreams.
Labels: A Scary Story: The Ringer