The rain came down hard that evening. Annika watched the power lines break in two as if they were silly string. It looked like a failed trapeze act. Within a few minutes, the house went dark. The last room to lose power was the dining room where her mother was hosting a dinner party. Her mother had just finished giving a toast when the hanging chandelier started to flicker. She slurped her glass of champagne to cover up the sounds of the light bulbs burning out one by one. She grabbed one of the candlesticks from the center of the table, and assured everyone the power would be back soon. Her guests shivered in anticipation.
Annika heard the wall length radiator in the hall simmer to a silence. The radiator orchestrates so much noise. It’s the home’s heartbeat how often it pounds against the wall anytime it’s on. Annika classifies the radiator as a sign the house is alive. When it trickled out its last bit of heat, sounding like a handful of pennies dropping down a well, she knew they were in for quite a night.
The rain started to come harder. There was a loud thump on the roof and a whistling roar coming from behind the front door. Annika wondered what lurked outside. Each time she peeked out the window, the darkness filled the streets like a fog. She couldn’t remember the last time a car drove by. There was another loud thump coming from above. Annika looked up at the coffered ceiling. There was a scratching sound coming from the sunken panel to the far left. The scratching continued but this time it was happening right above her. Annika imagined a couple mice burrowing through the molding. The scratching turned aggressive – the kind of scratch that makes skin run red or eyeballs split open like hard boiled eggs. The scratching spread across the ceiling and filled each panel.
The floor shook beneath Annika’s feet. Artwork on the walls swung side to side until the nails wiggled loose. Annika stood in the center of the room to avoid the furniture skidding past her. The coffee table slid by turning counter clockwise before banging into the wall. The couch toppled to the ground and continued to somersault forward, as if someone was pushing it, and stopped inches away from the fireplace. Annika fixated on the crucifix atop the fireplace mantle. She bent her knees to help keep balance as the scratching moved from the ceiling to the walls. The crucifix stayed put.
The scratching stopped upon her mother’s entry. She was still holding the candlestick and was struggling with a flashlight in her other hand. Her eyes grew in anger when her light casted the scuffed up walls and floors. She gasped at the sight of the chipped chestnut wood on her coffee table. She said something about it being in the family for centuries, it’s one of a kind. She poked Annika with the flashlight demanding an explanation.
The crucifix began to rattle. Annika watched it sway side to side like a metronome needle as her mother recalled the price on every damaged picture frame. The crucifix swayed forward, away from the mantle, until it was parallel to the floor. The scratching started again in the panel above them. Her mother continued to sift through the damage and paid no mind to the fallen crucifix or sounds coming from above. “Don’t you hear that, mom?”
“What I’m not hearing is an explanation for this!” she said shining her flashlight on the cracked side of the piano box. “Not that we play the thing Anni but, it’s a wonderful piece.” She placed the candlestick on the mantle and almost knocked down the crucifix in passing. She made her way to the picture frames and knick knacks sprawled on the floor, reciting a story behind each one, pausing for a moment, anticipating an apology from Annika, before moving onto the next amethyst gemstone or unopened deck of playing cards. Annika didn’t have time to apologize when it felt like the scratching had moved to the inside of her skull – it was a migraine like no other.
Whispers overlayed the scratching in her head. She turned to find only the dark. The whispering continued. There was a conversation, many conversations, but no one had stepped foot into the living room since her mother arrived. Annika wondered if it was the voice of someone who never left. The consonant sounds snaked through her brain. She could feel someone’s breath on her neck and someone else’s spit on her cheek. There was a conversation, many conversations, happening around her and she was the telephone line.
The crucifix inched away from the mantle and tipped towards the floor. It hung upside down and moved towards Annika. She was inches away from tasting the Antichrist. Annika could hear the radiator click on and the dinner party guests exclaim with joy. The living room lights flickered on. Her mother mumbled something to the effect of, ‘Thank God.’ Annika knew God was long gone when the face of Jesus pushed against her tongue.
There was a snicker coming from beside her. It felt as if a pair of lips were pressed into her ear. Annika could hear the whistling and feel the warmth of someone’s breath on her helix. The snicker repeated, this time it was loud and hard, snuck into her ear like an infection.
“Duck,” whispered the voice.
Annika flinched and the face of Jesus knocked into her front teeth. She glanced to the side and no one was there. Her mother kept her back to Annika. She continued to stack the damaged picture frames.
The mouth against her ear wet its lips. The tongue felt raw and pruned when it made its rounds. “Duck,” the voice said.
The face of Jesus tapped against Annika’s teeth. The pain skyrocketed into her gums and shook her sinuses. “Duck,” the voice repeated.
Annika went to grab for the Antichrist and felt a tight grasp around both her wrists. She felt fingers stretch and lace up her forearm like shoe strings, getting tighter and tighter the closer they reached her elbow.
There was one final snicker before the voice whispered, “Noose.”
A gut-wrenching scream came from the hall.
Annika’s mother jumped back knocking down her stack of picture frames. The Antichrist dropped to the floor.
Another scream howled down the hall. Annika turned to look but her hands had been pinned back. The grasp felt cold and tight like handcuffs.
Her mother needed both of her hands to keep the flashlight steady. She casted the light into Annika’s eyes. “Are you deaf?” The glare awakened a migraine like no other. Her mother scurried down the hall assuring her guests she was on her way.
A pair of lips pressed on the back of Annika’s neck. They felt chapped yet, cold. “Relax,” the voice cooed, drawing out the ‘a’ sound until the wrist restraints were released.
Annika refused to look back when the voice followed her out into the hall. The pair of lips on her neck were gone but, she felt a slight tug on her arm. She glanced down to find the Antichrist in her hand. The crossbar laid across her calloused palm; the stipes dangled between her middle and ring finger.
“What are you doing with that, Anni?”
Annika glanced up to find a man in the hallway. He was leaning up against the radiator and didn’t seem to mind the burn. His tailored coat and dress pants were inflammable. He wore a black derby hat; the brim casted a small shadow to the tip of his nose. From where Annika was standing, she could see only his lips.
“Did you hear the scream, Anni?” He walked down the hall and no other sound resonated. His steps were the loudest thing in the house. Before he reached the dining room, he peeked over his shoulder. “Come here.” The shadow continued to stain his face.
They stood together in the dining room archway. Annika’s mother was reiterating her champagne toast. She sighed at the sight of Annika. “What now, Anni?” she asked. “Don’t tell me that is also broken.” She gestured to the crucifix with the hand holding her champagne.
Annika shook her head and directed her attention to the man next to her who now had a toothpick in his mouth. Her mother’s eyes shifted towards him and then rolled in disgust. She returned her attention to her guests who were stuffing their faces with the cheese and meat spread. Her mother shouted random anecdotes depending on which cheeses were tasted.
“Why can’t they see you?” Annika whispered.
The man inhaled his toothpick. Annika could see it slide down his throat. It plunged like a sinking ship. “Don’t you wonder why you can see me?”
The radiator simmered to a silence. The living room was the first to lose power. As the darkness inched closer to Annika, the man began to laugh and lift the brim of his hat. Before the last light burned out in the hall, Annika watched the toothpick move back up his throat and poke out between his lips. It was blood red.
The chandelier above the table began to flicker. Annika’s mother rolled her eyes and excused herself to the kitchen. The guests continued to pick at the cheddar crumblings and sip their champagne.
“Duck,” he whispered.
Two of the chandelier lights fizzled out.
“Duck,” he lifted the brim of his hat to the top of his forehead and turned towards Annika. He had the Antichrist carved into his face – starting at the bridge of his nose; the crossbar was where eyebrows should be. His eyes had triangular blue irises that somersaulted involuntarily like an eight ball. “Noose.”
A guests’ chair fell back, a noose dropped from the ceiling and raised them off the floor. The other guests continued with their conversation as one of their associates swung side to side. The room went dark and all Annika could hear was a small chime each time the woman’s foot tapped the champagne bottle.
Annika ran through the dining room screaming for her mother. Everything felt foreign to her in the dark; bulging doorways felt like the shoulders of strangers and doorknobs felt like pistols pressing hard into her stomach.
The only beacon of light she could see was her mother’s flashlight laying on the kitchen table. She ran to the kitchen keeping her eyes fixated on the light only to come face to face with a pair of eight ball eyes.
The man grabbed ahold of Annika’s arms. His hands stretched up to her shoulders and his fingers snaked around her neck. He pushed her back down the hall. They fumbled in the dark together, banging hard into doorways and tripping over wrinkled antique rugs. Annika wanted to scream for her mom but her throat felt like a crushed soda can beneath his braid work.
“It’s just you and me now, Anni.” His fingertips had reached her bottom lip. His eyes blended in together until they became one blue orb. He thrust his fingers into her mouth and scratched the back of her throat. “Oh Anni,” he cooed as his fingers pressed on her tongue. He adjusted his eye’s attention to her mouth. He forced Annika down onto the floor and mounted her. His fingers continued to inch towards the back of her throat. He pressed on her tongue harder until her jaw dropped. The warmth radiating from his eye felt like someone shoved a flashlight down her throat. “Oh-”
Annika sat up at the sound of her mother’s voice. She knocked her front two teeth hard against the flashlight in her mother’s hand. Annika struggled to catch her breath. There was a tickle in the back of her throat as if someone tied a string around her tonsils.
Her mother joined Annika on the floor. They both exhaled in unison. All the lights were burning bright in the hall and kitchen. The only bit of darkness Annika could find was tucked behind the closed doors surrounding them. At the end of the hall, the closet was open a crack. It had always been a finicky door that never clicked closed no matter how hard someone pushed.
“When was the last time you practiced your breathing exercises? The one’s Dr J -”
“There’s someone here, mom.”
The linen closet creaked open. The darkness spilled onto the floor like a shadow. Her mother looked back and kept the flashlight close to her chest. “That damn thing,” she said under her breath. “There’s a lot of people here, Anni,” she stood up, making her way to the kitchen, “now is not the time to have one of your episodes.” The closet door slammed shut. Her mother shrieked and jumped back. The flashlight fell. Its seal broke the moment it hit the floor.
“Is everything okay?” her guests shouted from the dining room.
“Yes, yes!” her mother assured them as she picked up the broken flashlight and its batteries. “What the fuck was that?” she whispered to Annika.
“Want me to ask Dr. J?”
Her mother returned the batteries and sealed the flashlight shut. The glare casted into Annika’s eyes. She noticed a blue tint surrounding the ray of light. Her mother rolled her eyes in disgust. They were dark dilated eight balls. “Don’t embarrass yourself, my child.” Annika noticed the Antichrist marked against her laugh lines. “What does Dr. J think of how you speak to your mother?” She blinked and her hazel eyes returned. The blue tint was gone.
“Are you okay, mom?”
“Why would you ask that, Anni?” she stood up and walked to the kitchen. “It’s clear you’re not doing those exercises anymore.” She stood in the archway with the meatloaf. “Are you even seeing him anymore?”
Annika saw the familiar pair of blue triangle eyes atop her mother’s shoulder. “Yes. Right now.”
“This Monday you mean?” Her mother walked down the hall to the dining room. The eyes did not follow her, neither did the man. He stood in the kitchen picking at his smile with another toothpick. Annika’s mother peeked back at the kitchen out of curiosity and sighed. “This Monday, Anni?” She glared at Annika, who kept her attention on the man adjusting his black derby hat. He removed the toothpick and gestured it towards Annika as if he was offering it. “Yes or no? My guests have waited long enough, Annika.”
“Then go! I’ll figure it out.”
Annika’s mother bent down, balancing the meatloaf in one hand and swiping the Antichrist with the other. “Before you break anything else tonight.” She tucked the crucifix into her apron’s front pocket and hurried back to the dining room.
Annika turned her attention back to the man who swallowed his second toothpick of the evening. He kept his black derby hat on which casted a shadow down to his upper lip. He retrieved a new toothpick and approached Annika, offering a helping hand to raise her off the floor. Annika jumped back up before he made it past the linen closet. His hands were unproportional to the rest of his body; they hung low and swollen past his hips. When closed his fists were that of King Kong but his fingers were as petite as sewing needles. “Shouldn’t we make our way to the party, Anni?”
Annika let him walk past her and she followed him down the hall. He pocketed his swollen fists yet, they did not bulge the fabric. He peeked over his shoulder to smile back at her. When he adjusted his hat, the scarring on his face was gone and his once triangular eyes were oval. “I can’t remember the last time I had your mother’s meatloaf, Anni. You must’ve been this tall!” He placed his hand on the dining room’s door frame where there were height measurements written in faded permanent marker. He wore a pinky ring with a diamond that always reminded Annika of a crystal ball.
Annika stopped in place. “Uncle Mike?”
“I knew you’d recognize me!” He removed the black derby hat. “Lost most of it over the years,” he said rubbing his bald head, “but the hat works wonders.” He laughed at his own joke. His laugh was loud, loud enough to compete with the crack of thunder yet, the lights continued to burn bright and the radiator hammered.
“It really is you!” Annika hugged Uncle Mike. He smelled of cigarettes and garlic – just how she remembered. “I felt like I was going crazy like, I didn’t know anyone here.”
“I’m always at the bottom of the guest list, you know that Anni.” He rubbed her back and laughed loud over her shoulder. “Next time you two come to the city, you need to come to my newest restaurant.” He stepped back and put his hand to his chest when explaining the food. “We got a lasagna you could die for. Some guests eat it so fast, they almost choke.” He cupped his hands around his neck and made a cartoonish death face: stuck out tongue, crossed eyes, the whole works.
“Your plate is getting cold, Mike!” Annika’s mother yelled from the dining room.
Uncle Mike retrieved a dark blue handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his sweaty brow. “She’s making me scared to go in there!” He whispered and playfully elbowed Annika’s side. He pocketed his handkerchief and smiled back at Annika without showing teeth. His pupils dilated til his eyes were like black marbles. Uncle Mike ducked down when stepping into the dining room. He removed his hat and looked back at Annika. “Watch your head,” he said before returning to his seat.
Annika stood in the doorway for a moment. Her mother had her back to her as she served the meatloaf. From where Annika was standing, she noticed some empty seats. Each absent guest had left a full champagne flute and buttered biscuit at their setting. This gave Annika hope that they had plans to return.
Uncle Mike sat at the far end of the table. He hung his hat off his left knee and complimented the meat loaf’s juiciness when cutting into his slice. “Watch your head, Anni,” he mumbled mid-bite and continued his commentary about the meal. “Don’t forget to watch your head,” he said again when Annika stepped over the threshold. Annika’s mother didn’t seem to hear Uncle Mike’s mumblings of advice. She continued to serve her guests. “Watch your head!” He yelled it so much it slurred off his tongue. He paid no attention to the cluster of green beans, falling off his fork like bridge jumpers. He hushed when Annika took another step forward. The room went silent.
Annika felt something graze the top of her head. She noticed small shadows staining the absent guests’ plates. The shadows were inconsistent like sunshine from behind trees. She gazed up to find two guests’ hanging from the chandelier. The chains had been lodged into their mouths. They hung like a scarecrow with their wrists limp against the chandelier arms. One of the guests look to have choked on one of the artificial candlesticks.
“Hungry, Annika?” Her mother plopped a dish heavy with mashed potatoes and meat in front of the empty seat beside her. She followed Annika’s gaze up to the chandelier and was perplexed. “I know, I know, one of the lights is out.”
Annika gasped when she looked back at the door she came through. There a guest hung from the ceiling – her neck cradled in a noose. The soles of her feet swayed an inch above the door frame.
“Are you going to eat or what?!” Her mother slammed her fists on the table. The room went silent. All Annika could hear was the champagne bubbles in her glass and the noose tightening each time the guest swayed. “How many times are you going to make this night about you, Anni?” She grabbed the crucifix from her apron and sat down. When saying grace, she brought the face of Jesus up to her lips and then placed the crucifix in the center of the table. Annika didn’t touch her food and instead watched the crucifix move counter clockwise until it was the Antichrist. Uncle Mike noticed the crucifix turn slow and sat back in his chair. He was wearing his hat again. The brim shadowed his face to the top of his lip. From where Annika was sitting, she could see only his lips. He was bragging about his lasagna again. “Maybe next time I’ll have you cook!” Annika’s mother said pointing her fork at Annika’s untouched plate. “Eat my child, I’m not going to poison you!”
Her mother and Uncle Mike burst into laughter. His black derby hat shook slightly with each chuckle but the shadow never left his face. Annika picked at her food beginning with the mashed potatoes. A small potato skin shaving lodged in her throat; not even the glass of champagne could wash it down. It felt like it had tied around her windpipe. The more she attempted to cough it up the sharper it felt. Uncle Mike and her mother continued with their conversation. Once the skin reached the back of her tongue, Annika could taste blood. She stood up; her chair fell back. She hunched over her plate setting and inhaled deep before regurgitating the skin. She looked down to find two bloody toothpicks resembling a cross. When it shot out of her mouth, it landed in her hand as the Antichrist.
“That’s a new party trick, huh?”
The room went dark. No other sound resonated. The room was so dark she couldn’t even see the outline of her champagne glass. The room was so quiet she could no longer hear the nooses tightening. Annika squeezed her fist tight to calm her nerves. She squeezed until she felt the bloody Antichrist pinch her palm.
The scratching returned in the ceiling. It was aggressive and got louder as it spread to the walls and beneath the floors. Annika could feel the sensation beneath the soles of her feet. She didn’t budge and kept her attention on the makeshift cross in her hand. She was squeezing it so hard, she felt it poke a small hole in the base of her thumb. The room felt like a magic eight ball as the shaking intensified.
“Watch your head!” A voice shouted next to Annika. It was so loud it was as if the person used a megaphone inches from her ear.
The lights came back on. Annika appeared to be the final seated guest. The Antichrist remained in the center of the table. Her bloody Antichrist were now two plain toothpicks. Two fingers as petite as sewing needles pinched one of the tooth picks out of her hand. Annika looked over to find the man sitting at the head of the table. He had her mother’s apron over his tailored coat and his pinky was decorated with a miniature crystal ball. “Thank you for holding these for me, Anni,” he said plopping it into his mouth.
“Did everyone else leave?”
He laughed and dipped his toothpick into the dish of mashed potatoes like he was putting out a cigarette. “We’ve been waiting for you, Anni.”
“Waiting for me?”
“The party is over. Don’t you think it’s time we’d hang around?”
There was a sudden creaking noise as if someone was walking in the attic. Annika glanced up to find every party guest and her mother hanged from the ceiling around the chandelier. It was a twisted broken merry-go-round. Uncle Mike’s black derby hat fluttered down to the table and landed between Annika and the man. “Finders keepers!” he said pulling it away before Annika could.
Annika headed to the exit. The man’s arm extended across the table, his hand wrapped around her waist like a claw and pulled her back. She slid down the table, crashing into china sets, butter knives and champagne glasses on the way. Annika attempted to grasp at the table cloth but his strength was that of a machine. She laid flat onto the table, her nose pressed hard onto the Antichrist. “Duck,” he said keeping his grasp around her tight. “Duck,” he repeated. Annika peered up and found a noose dangling in front of her. The noose moved towards her and attempted to get snug around her head. Annika tried to fight back and screamed but the restraint wiggled down to her neck and began to tighten. He loosened his grasp. The noose tugged Annika back; now she was sitting upright. “Don’t forget what Dr. J told you, Anni. Just breathe.”
The noose tugged her upward. Annika pulled the rope down. She landed hard onto the table on her knees. She grabbed the Antichrist on the table and turned towards him. She shoved the stipes down his throat. His eyes filled with tears and began to roll back. His head laid limp off the back of the chair.
No sounds resonated.
Annika looked over to find her mother’s guests staring back at her. Their eyes filled with disgust. One of them had taken a pocket knife out of her purse and was pointing it towards Annika. Uncle Mike walked back into the dining room, dialing a number on his phone. He removed his hat and gasped at the sight of Annika sitting on the table.
“You get away from me!” Annika screamed at him. “Look at what you did to me! To all of us!” She brought her hands up to her neck but there was no noose. She gazed up at the ceiling and all that hung was the chandelier. She looked back at the head of the table where she found her mother with the crucifix hanging out of her mouth. “No, no, no!” She crawled across the table back to her mother but Uncle Mike stood in her way. She tried to push him back but he took ahold of her wrists.
“It’s time to go, Annika. Dr. J is here.”
“I don’t need to see Dr. J!”
Uncle Mike yanked Annika off of the table. Multiple glasses fell and silverware settings chimed as the table cloth bunched up beneath her. As he escorted her out to the living room, Annika watched all of the guests grab for a napkin to wipe the blood and spit that had caked around her mother’s mouth.
“You told me to watch my head, Uncle Mike. Don’t you remember?”
“Watch your head?”
“People were hanging from the ceiling. You and mom were hanging from the ceiling and I was next.”
Dr. J was in the living room, acknowledging the knick knacks on the fireplace mantle. He had his back to them. Annika noticed the crucifix in the center of the mantle. Uncle Mike kneeled down keeping his hands on Annika’s. “I don’t see you enough to know what’s been going on with you Anni but, I’d like to think your heart is in the right place.” He choked up holding back his tears.
“If you saw what I saw, I know you’d understand. I thought you saw it too. I know you saw it.”
“I don’t know what I saw tonight I just know, I wish I never did.”
Dr. J stepped away from the fireplace mantle and waited for Annika at the door. His reading glasses were speckled with rain and his button-down shirt was left untucked. He beckoned over Annika with a smile. Uncle Mike let Annika go and buried his face into his hands. The sounds of him gasping for air against his sweaty palm was the loudest thing in the house.
Annika followed Dr. J to the taxi idling outside her home. The storm had passed but it had left a sprinkling. Police and ambulance sirens filled the streets.
“We should go.” Dr. J opened the car door for her. They both rode in the backseat. In the rearview mirror the emergency vehicles shrunk in size as they drove off. The blue and red colors looked like bruises of the sky.
“I was doing the exercises Dr. J, I promise you. My own mother doesn’t,” she stopped herself.
Dr. J kept his attention on the driver and provided further instruction when they approached the intersection.
“She didn’t think I was. But every night I did them. Every night-”
“We will have more than enough time to talk about it, Annika. Let’s not get worked up, okay?” He pulled out a prescription and poured out a handful of blue pills. “I just need you to relax, yes?” He picked up two pills and put them in her palm. “It was my mistake taking you off of these. Here. Have those.”
“I won’t.” She dropped them back in the pile. “I’d rather see the things I’m seeing than ever feel that way again.”
“Okay.” He returned the pills into the bottle. “If it’s going to be like that, we can start slow.”
He rummaged through his pockets until he felt for what he wanted. His eyes lightened up when he did.
He smirked at Annika. “Toothpick?”