It had been a while since I had visited my cousins. Believe it or not, it had been five years since I saw any of their faces.
The last I time I saw them I was eight years old and had not yet learned that the world had no consequences. I skipped gaily around their two story ramshackle house joyously, singing my favorite songs and playing with the six year old twins. This playtime, however was constantly tainted by my Aunt Clarissa.
My Aunt Clarissa was always that one person with which everything had to be just right, perfect, or as close to perfect as possible.
Whenever I would try to play tag, hide and seek, or anything of the sort really, she would be hovering over us, her dark grey eyes flashing. She would always say, “Now Jared, don’t you ever play too rough with Simon or Eloise. If anything ever were to happen to them, I’d wear you out.”
Aunt Clarissa always used to scare me as a child, with her sharp chin and stormy eyes, she reminded me of a witch. I did not dare do anything she wouldn’t approve of with Simon and Eloise, even when she wasn’t around; because I knew that she would stay true to her word and beat me black and blue if I ever harmed either one of them.
Her precious little twins had to be perfect and untouched.
We used to visit her all the time back at my old house. We only lived about thirty minutes away from each other. Then my dad got a job offer up in Michigan, and it was a long time before I ever stepped foot in Illinois.
I do remember feeling happy, at the very least, for my Aunt Clarissa as we left, despite my disliking her. She was about to have another child, and she was joyful as could be. Her eyes weren’t as stormy as they usually were the last time we went to visit to say goodbye, and she seemed as content and relaxed as ever with the growing bulge in her stomach. Three was the perfect number, three perfect children in a wonderful family; this was all Aunt Clarissa had ever wanted.
We all moved to Detroit and eight months later, the big news came. Aunt Clarissa had had her baby. She sent us a letter with several exclamation points telling us how happy she was for her newborn child, who she had named Mallory. Even now, when I’m seventeen years old, I still remember thinking that it was odd she had not sent a photograph of her infant child.
The years whisked by like sand in wind, and the more time went by, the less contact we had with our cousins, Aunt Clarissa, and my Uncle Wayne. Then, finally, we were invited over to her house for the holidays.
My mother, who missed her older sister dreadfully, readily agreed to visit, and my father, seeing how eager my mother was, complied with her wishes.
After a two day car trip, we finally got to the familiar old residence of my aunt, uncle, and their three children.
We all approached the steps, laughing and talking to each other before reaching the door and knocking. A full minute later we were still standing there, fidgeting and stealing glances at each other. The door suddenly opened about a foot. The face of an eleven year old boy appeared at the door, his white blond hair hung down over his baggy green eyes, which flitted around at us, taking in our every detail. His jaw finally quivered slightly before he said to us, “Come in, please, it’s so nice to see you all.”
After five years Simon had definitely changed. He was more solemn, as if he had been consistently bullied, and expected contempt from everyone.
My mother wasted no time, smiling and gushing, “Why Simon, come here and give me a hug!” Simon allowed himself to be hugged before taking us all inside, where we were greeted by Aunt Clarissa.
She smiled, saying, “It’s so nice to see you all again!” before spreading her arms and coming in to give us all hugs. She commented on how much I had grown up and asked me if I’d taken care of my parents. I smiled uneasily and replied that I had done the best I could, I looked hard at Aunt Clarissa, taking in how she had changed.
She really had not changed very much. There were gray streaks in her otherwise blond hair, but that appeared to be it.
I asked where her Uncle Wayne was, and she responded that he was on a business trip and wouldn’t be back in some time. She led us into the dining room, where Mallory and Eloise had already sat down. My mother crooned over Mallory and introduced herself while dad commented on how much Eloise had changed. Mallory didn’t look at all like the rest of the family. Her hair was a dirty blond and her eyes were not green or gray, but instead a light blue.
I did not really talk to her, but instead focused on Eloise, who had grown much older and prettier than I had last seen her. She barely remembered me, but I was able to make small talk with her. I noticed she had grown to be wary and suspicious of others, as if someone might try to stab her in the back.
The only members of the family that seemed normal were Aunt Clarissa and Mallory. Mallory was happily eating away at steamed carrots and Aunt Clarissa was sat on her chair with a pleased look on her face, as if proud of her perfect children.
There was definitely tension in the air, as if there had recently been a fight between Aunt Clarissa and her kids. I decided that I would ask Eloise about it after dinner.
I met up with her in the living room and sat down. She was engrossed in a teenage magazine I had never even heard of, but looked up sharply as soon as the question was out of my mouth.
“Eloise, is there anything wrong in this house?”
Her sea green eyes flitted to two different places somewhere behind me before meeting my own. I made a mental note of this.
“There’s nothing wrong here, why would you say that?” she answered, forcing a smile onto her face.
I shook my head. “Never mind, I thought Simon was acting unusual.” I saw a split second of relief cross her face before she managed to hide it.
“It’s nothing, don’t worry about him, he gets bullied sometimes by older kids.”
I nodded and continued to talk to Eloise, but my mind was elsewhere. I swiftly concluded our conversation and got up, turning around as I did so. I quickly surveyed the living room, looking for the places Eloise had been glancing at.
Those two places were the coat closet and the stairwell.
I knew that something was wrong with this family, inside this house. It was something that kept eluding me that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It was definitely frustrating.
I decided that I would find out tonight, after everyone had gone to bed. I was to be sharing a room with Simon, and mom and dad would be taking the spare room upstairs. I did my best to act normal and socialize with everyone, given the unsettling atmosphere of the house.
My parents did not appear to notice anything; they were oblivious to how strange our cousins were acting. I think my mom was just glad to finally be talking to her sister for after five years of not seeing each other, and my dad just seemed to be happy for my mother.
Finally it was time to go to bed, and we all brushed our teeth and changed into pajamas. Simon had allowed me to use his bed, and he plopped down on the floor. The moonlight streaming in through the window illuminated his face.
I relaxed my breathing, pretending to fall asleep, while watching Simon, waiting for him to nod off. But he did not. I stared at him for hours as he lay there on the ground, his eyes never closing. Every muscle in his body was pulled taut, as if he were expecting someone to break into the room and attack him.
At one in the morning his breathing relaxed and he became limp. I crept out of the room and headed for the coat closet, a small flashlight in hand that I had stolen from Simon’s drawer.
I tiptoed silently over the hardwood floor, wincing every time it creaked. I finally made it to the coat closet and opened the door. Turning on the flashlight, I stepped inside. It looked like a regular coat closet, nothing special or extraordinary about it. I began rummaging around, checking in coat pockets and even Aunt Clarissa’s purse, but all I came across was a Swiss army knife in Simon’s pocket and some scented Germ-X in Eloise’s jeans jacket, but nothing more.
I began to search in the more unusual places, checking in dark corners and even in the shoe rack, but didn’t find anything of interest. I started looking underneath the baskets in which various gloves and hats were kept on a shelf above the coat rack.
To my surprise, a newspaper article fluttered down to the floor.
I bent over and picked it up. The article read: “Female Infant Stolen From Orphanage.”
My curiosity increased. Why would Aunt Clarissa have something like this in her coat closet? I tucked the article into my back pocket and went onto the second thing I had seen Eloise looking at… the stairs.
I remembered when I was little, Simon and Eloise had a hide and seek place that beat me every time. They would simply hide in the cupboard underneath the stairs. Every time I passed the cupboard I would stop, not wanting to go inside to the darkness of the cupboard where unspeakable monsters surely awaited me. I would search every other nook and cranny of the house, hoping they would be somewhere else before eventually giving up, even though I really knew where my cousins were.
Using that method they had beat me time and time again until I eventually tired of hide and seek and proclaimed that we should play tag instead.
They had rearranged the furniture so the couch now blocked the cupboard under the stairs, but I knew for sure it was still there. I looked down on the ground and noticed something strange. There were scuff marks on the ground, as if the couch had been pulled away from the stairs often.
I knew that whatever was under those stairs was the answer to why everyone in the house was so tense, and I was eager to find out the secret.
I pushed the couch away from the staircase and stepped over to the cupboard beneath the stairs. To my surprise, the cupboard was secured with a thick padlock. I went back to the coat closet and retrieved Simon’s small knife. I inserted the thin blade into the handle and jiggled it around until the lock clicked open.
My heart began to pound feverishly in my chest as I unhooked the padlock and swung the small door open. I shone the flashlight in the dark area beneath the stairs. My flashlight passed over a chain dangling from the low ceiling of the right hand end of the small space provided by the cupboard, and I moved my flashlight down to discover a human hand in a manacle.
A shocked little gasp escaped my throat and my blood ran cold. I reached up and flicked the switch to the small light bulb dangling from the ceiling.
Before me, a girl no less than nine years old was hanging from the manacles on the ceiling, clad in nothing but a pair of dirty undershorts.
Her head lolled to one side, A rag was stuffed in her mouth and her ankles were tied in thick rope. Her wrists and skin around her feet were red and sore from being bound, and I could tell from the length of her face and how small her eyes were that she suffered from Down syndrome. Her skin was seemingly pulled over her bones and her ribs stuck out.
For a horrible moment I thought that she was dead, but then her head raised and a horrible moaning escaped her throat through the rag in her mouth.
Looking to the other side of the cupboard, revulsion welled in the pit of my stomach.
Sprawled out in the other corner was the half eaten corpse of my uncle. His stomach had been ripped open and his innards were spilled all over the floor. The skin on his face had been peeled away by greedy hands to reveal his white skull.
I looked back at the girl and noticed for the first time that her hands and face were stained with gore.
I couldn’t take it; I keeled over and threw up before catching my balance on the door frame and trembling.
I realized what had happened in this house.
Aunt Clarissa, the perfectionist she was, would never have allowed her child to have Down syndrome. So she stole a new baby from a nearby orphanage. She stole the child I knew to be Mallory. But Aunt Clarissa didn’t have the heart to kill her own child, even if the baby was marred. So she kept the child hidden away under the stairs whilst being with her perfect family. However, my uncle had opposed my Aunt Clarissa. So she had gotten rid of him out and used him to feed her hungry little secret under the stairs.
I had to do something. I knew that I should immediately call the police; I ran upstairs and grabbed the handset that was sitting on a nearby table. I quickly punched in the numbers 9-1-1, only to look down and discover the phone lines had been cut.
Aunt Clarissa kept her family under close tabs. Simon and Eloise’s home was also their prison.
All of a sudden I heard a shriek from downstairs.
That’s when I realized I had left the door under the stairs open and the light on. I then heard someone running, and the front door being slammed shut. I scrambled to my room and used my cell phone to call the police.
I later found out that Aunt Clarissa had fled the house when she discovered her secret was out. Thankfully, the girl under the stairs turned out to be okay, but the police never found Aunt Clarissa.
Even now she is probably on the streets, maybe with a new name or face, searching for another perfect child.