Ms. Vickershelley

Ms. Vickershelley
by Leon Saul

Whirling out of a gauze-gray sky, snow sank into Ronny’s tousled hair. He ran ahead of his older brother John, leaping over a banked, glinting mound on the side of the road. He clutched a dense snowball and launched it at his brother. The frosty fist punched John in the left eye, dusting his eyelashes.

Laughing, Ronny bent over to pick up another snowball, which glanced off John’s right arm, exploding in a shower of white. John muttered a curse, brushed the snow away, and sighed. He watched his brother run farther up the street and followed at his own casual pace, hands stuffed dejectedly into the pockets of his fleece jacket.

Four more days, he thought. Great.

He knew it had been dumb to assume Phil and Marshall would be around during winter break. He could have called from Arizona before flying out to Illinois, or emailed, or hell, checked Facebook, but he’d naively assumed they’d be there and that for one week, they could hang out together again like old times.

But Phil was in France, and Marshall, according to his neighbor Mrs. Piffkin, was in Chicago for his uncle’s funeral. Which left John back in Urbana alone, for five whole days of winter vacation, with no one but his annoying-ass brother Ronny to keep him company.

“Why don’t you two run down to the store and pick up a two-liter?” his dad had suggested just 15 minutes before, acting as if the idea belonged to him and not Denise, who was standing behind him at the kitchen sink, peeking over his shoulder.

His father had always been vague about how and where he’d met Denise. All John knew was that she was young—way too young for Dad, in his opinion. She was reasonably attractive, John had to admit: short and athletic-looking, with dull brown hair and lucid green eyes. Like a kid, she always padded around the house barefoot—probably to show off her cutesy toenails, the colors of which seemed to change just about every six or seven hours. Shamefully, John had beaten off to the image of those toenails on more than one occasion, invariably hating himself afterwards. He had done so in, fact, that very morning.

With nothing better to do, and feeling a sudden craving for MSG and soda, John had accepted his father’s proposal.

And now here they were—trudging through the snowy streets to the convenient store, which was exiled like a junk-food island in a sea of heaving, buckled concrete, cowering in the shadow of a derelict supermarket awaiting demolition.

The lot was empty save for a tricked-out low-rider and a rusting brown SUV idling in the handicapped spot in front of the store’s entrance. Ronny, apparently spent from all the running and hollering, was doubled over near the entrance, panting. He looked up at the sky, which had the sickly hue of ice, and tilted his head back extending his tongue, letting the cold flakes dissolve on its tip. He still had enough time to gather another snowball and hide it behind his back. He pelted John once his brother was within hitting range.

“Will you stop?” John shouted, brushing the smear of white powder from the front of his coat.

“What?” he brother said, feigning innocence.

When they entered the store, Ronny bolted for the aisles, but John noticed two figures standing at the front register: an ancient, crippled woman and a gangly middle-aged man. The woman leaned, stooped and frail beside the man, who was thin and sinewy and wore a long wool coat. He was accepting change from the teenaged cashier while cocking his arm for the old lady to clutch on to.

Passing by, John couldn’t help but stare at the woman’s profile. Hideously hunched, with thin bluish hair lying twisted on either side of her haggard face, she looked oddly familiar, like a ghoul out of some childhood dream or a person he’d once known who had died and was now resurrected before him in a pitiful, withered shell of a body.

The woman must have sensed his staring, because she jerked her head as he walked behind her. Their eyes met. As soon as she looked at John, her eyes widened. Goggled, even. (John thought of two ocean-colored marbles sunk deep in moist dough.) Her mouth fell open, slack. Dry, faded gums. No teeth.

Then John placed her: Ms. Vickershelley, his old elementary school librarian.

She’d always been old, even back when John was little. But the intervening years had not been kind. Her body looked deformed, twisted, and her mental capacity didn’t seem to be in the best of shape, either.

Must have had a stroke, John thought piteously as he smiled to her and raised his hand to wave.

“Hey, Ms. Vickershelley …”

The man to whom Ms. Vickershelley was clinging turned around and squinted at John. John noticed Ms. Vickershelley’s trembling grip on the man’s arm. She looked at him mutely with those goggling blue eyes, then back at John.

“Well hello there, young man,” the man said with a smile, pocketing his wallet. “An alumnus of Yankee Ridge Elementary, I presume?”

Ms. Vickershelley’s chin quaked in what seemed to be a nod. John nodded as well, not really knowing what to say.

“Yeah. Ms. Vickershelley. She was my librarian.”

The middle-aged man extended his hand. “I’m Ms. Vickershelley’s nephew, Robert,” he said. “Pleased to make your acquaintance!”

John accepted the man’s gloved hand.

“Now you must be what, in high school?” Robert asked.

“I’m a freshman,” John confirmed. “I don’t live here anymore, though. Me and my brother are just visiting our dad for Christmas.” He wasn’t sure why he’d volunteered this last bit of information; shrugging, he looked behind him to see his brother rooting through the aisles.

“Well, what a fine bit of serendipity this is!” Robert beamed. He still had his left arm bent at the elbow for Ms. Vickershelley to hold on to, the other arm precariously supporting a paper bag filled with what appeared to be junk food. It looked like an awkward stance. The conversation seemed to be in the process of freezing over like the pale, scalloped hoarfrost on the front window of the shop.

John, standing there like an idiot, felt compelled to say, haltingly, “Uh … you need some help, sir? With your bag?”

Robert looked at his aunt, whose dewy eyes were on John. “A perfect gentlemen, isn’t he?” he exclaimed. “The world isn’t lost just yet!”

Taking the heavy bag from Robert, John noticed his brother approaching with a quizzical look on his face.

“Hi?” Ronny said to the group. In his snow-crusted mittens were two large bags of chips and a candy bar, with a glowing two-liter of green soda cradled in the crook of his arm.

Ms. Vickershelley looked at him carefully, her toothless lips pursed. The crow’s feet embedded around her eyes etched deeper into the flaccid skin as she smiled a mute welcome. “Haiighhh,” came out of her flabby mouth, like a wounded animal dragging itself out of a cave. “Haiighhh.

“My brother Ronny,” John said, taking the items from his brother and placing them on the counter for the sales clerk to ring up.

After paying, the four of them found themselves out in the barren parking lot. There was a moment of awkward silence after John placed the bag in the trunk of Robert’s dung-brown SUV. It had stopped snowing, just a few feathery crystals lingering in the gray air, blown around by a rinsing wind.

“Say, I know this might sound a bit … strange,” Robert said, snapping the trunk shut. “But ever since Ms. V’s … accident, ever since she moved in with me and my wife Norma on the farm, she’s been awfully lonely. My wife Norma, God bless her heart, she tries to entertain Ms. V as best she can. But she’s got her own responsibilities and all …

“Just seeing how happy you made Ms. V with this chance encounter here, you and your adorable little brother,” he indicated Ronny, who was kicking at dirty slush on the ground, “I guess I have a proposition to make.” The perpetual smile on his face never faltered. “I know Ms. V would just love it if you and your brother could spare an hour or so by coming over to the house and having a cup of hot chocolate with us! Maybe some marshmallows, too.”

John glanced at his brother. Although he felt a vague disquiet when he looked at Ms. Vickershelley (something about her eyes, so bright and keen when she stared at him full on—as if compensating for the rest of her wasted body), he had to admit that Robert was quite the charmer. And he really had nothing better to do.

“What do you think, Ronny?” he asked.

John could see from his brother’s reaction that Ronny had absolutely no interest in the idea—most likely wanting nothing more than to just go back to their dad’s house and pig out on junk food. Guiltily, John kind of did, too, but standing there, with his poor enervated librarian looking at him so pleadingly, he found himself saying, almost to his surprise, “Why don’t you go and take this stuff back home, Ronny. I’ll be back around …” He looked at Robert.

“No later than five on the dot,” Robert said, consulting his watch.

Ronny shrugged. “’kay. No problem.”

With that, his younger brother was off, blithe as ever. John watched him go, saw him quickly transform back into his usual ridiculous self, making blubbery airplane noises with his lips, swinging the plastic bag back and forth at his side …

John stepped into the backseat.

“Buckle up back there, partner,” Robert said as they backed out of the lot.

Soon they were out in a cornfield, with rows of the snow-chalked stalks slipping by the grungy windows. After a while, John lost track of where they were. It was quiet in the car, the only noise a faint humming sound coming from Ms. Vickershelley in the front seat. Robert drove purposefully, his back ramrod straight, two leather-gloved hands gripping the wheel. John noticed a vein twitching spastically in the side of his neck.

After another 15 minutes—Geez, they really live out there, John thought—they were pulling up to a small, secluded farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.

It was a green, two-story country home with a dilapidated, paint-starved barn off to the side. A couple of fettered German Shepherds, aroused from their slumber, began barking as the truck pulled up the snowy drive.

Stepping out, John offered to take the bag from the trunk while Robert attended to Ms. Vickershelley, who had to be careful not to fall down on the icy ground.

“I appreciate it, partner,” Robert said. He led the way up the porch with Ms. Vickershelley holding on to his arm, looking back once to make sure John was all right.

Inside, the house was fragrant and dark. Candles glowed on a lacquered oak credenza in the dim entrance hall. The flames were still, melting wax down the candle’s sides in translucent white veins.

John followed Robert and Ms. Vickershelley into the kitchen.

A middle-aged woman stood at the sink. She was short and squat; her thick brown hair was tied in a loose ponytail. She looked up, and her eyes seemed to flare briefly when she saw John.

“Norma, meet John,” Robert said. “A fine young gentlemen we happened to run into at the store. John here is one of Ms. V’s old students.”

John stepped forward to shake the woman’s hand. The woman accepted it and said hello in a soft, tenuous voice. Then, almost distractedly, she added, “What would you boys like to drink?”

“How does hot chocolate sound to you, bud?” Robert suggested.

“Yeah, sounds great,” John said.

“Norma, sweet darling, would you mind?”

Taking Ms. Vickershelley’s feeble arm, his other hand supporting the small of her back, Robert steered her into a musty, cavernous sitting room adjacent to the kitchen. After helping the old woman settle into a thickly padded wooden rocking chair, he motioned for John to sit on the couch across from an old antique television, the kind with rabbit-ear antennas and a square wooden case. Robert knelt at the fireplace and threw some logs in from a stack in an iron crate. Soon, a yellow fire was burnishing the outlines of his angular body. The logs popped, the flames spat and cackled in the steel grate.

John noticed some framed photographs on the mantelpiece of a tall, gaunt man he assumed was a young Robert, a grave, willowy woman he assumed was his wife, and a grinning, shy-looking little girl wearing a yellow sundress. Robert’s daughter? He’d noticed no signs of a child in the house—no toys or drawings lying about, no monster trucks or picture books or building blocks. Perhaps it was an old picture and she was all grown up now.

Norma arrived bearing a tray full of steaming porcelain mugs and gave one to John. She sat on the loveseat beside her husband, and for a moment they all just blew quietly on their drinks. Ms. Vickershelley was the only one without a mug; she sat propped straight in her chair, her long, gnarled fingers curled over her bony kneecaps, staring intently at John as he sipped at the burning hot chocolate.

Catching her eyes, glossed from the glow of the fire, John looked away, down into the dollop of whipped cream floating in the center of the mug like a snowy sliding island. Feeling awkward, he forced himself to say, “So, um. This is your house, sir?”

Robert chuckled, his upper lip foamed with cream. “Sir! Please, John, Robert is fine. Yes, this is our house. Actually, it belonged to Norma’s father, but when he passed away eight years ago, it was bequeathed to us.”

Appearing distracted, Norma nodded slowly to herself, staring obliquely into the dark dust-bunnied floorboards at her feet.

“And when did Ms. Vickershelley move in?” John asked.

“Well, she had her accident about five years ago. And she has never been married, you know. It was a difficult time, really. My wife and I both agreed that it would be far more beneficial for her to be here, with family, than in some godforsaken nursing home.”

Ms. Vickershelley nodded and a sound seemed to be gurgling in the back of her throat.


“Ah! I almost forgot!” Robert jumped up from the loveseat and disappeared into a side room. He returned a moment later with a large leather-bound book in his hands. He sat back down and rested the tome on his lap.

“As I’m sure you can imagine, John,” Robert said, “after Ms. Vickershelley’s stroke, one of the worst consequences was her inability to read.” He traced his fingers along the bas-relief of the large book’s cover. “It’s been devastating for her, quite frankly. A former librarian, a lifelong book lover, no longer allowed to enjoy books! Norma and I, we both make a point to read to her whenever we can. But it seems like it’s never enough. The woman is just insatiable!”

Ms. Vickershelly, eyes glistening in the firelight, seemed to rock back and forth in her chair, nodding her head.

“This is a book published by her great grandfather, Charles Vickershelley III, back in England—the only known copy still in existence.” He hefted the book up for John to see. Its cover was tooled burgundy leather, the spine ribbed and wrinkled like the hide of some ancient pachyderm.

“Mr. Vickershelley the third was a storyteller. This book here, a compendium of his most significant works, is the only thing he left behind. It’s Ms. Vickershelley’s most prized possession.”

Ms. Vickershelley stared at her nephew as he spoke. Her mouth hung open in a slot, her red tongue obscenely visible on her cracked lower lip.

“I have no doubt that it would just thrill Ms. Vickershelley if you would read to her a little bit from it. It would be the most wonderful Christmas present she could ever ask for.”

John glanced over at Ms. Vickershelley.

“Oh, um … sure,” he said, looking at the feeble woman. “I don’t see why not.”

He got up from the couch and accepted the book from Robert. It was even heavier than it looked. Sitting back down, he rested the weighty tome on his lap and considered the odd design on the book’s cover. It was a bizarre, circular pattern of wobbly, violet-red concentric lines that seemed to shift before his eyes, giving him a slight case of vertigo.

Inside the book, underneath the title, Incantare—inked in arterial red—the frontispiece depicted a tall, winged creature with a chin curving upward like a gnarly horn, scaled, reddish skin and, like a snowman’s, a jagged red nose resembling a rotted carrot. The image seemed hand-drawn and was a bit disorienting.

John quickly turned the page. The text was dense and pale, and some of the words were smudged. It gave him a minor headache just looking at them. He glanced upward at Ms. Vickershelley and saw her leaning almost forward in her chair, rapt.

He began to read:

“On the first day, before the advent of those heinous beasts of the Lower, we teemed in glorious multitude across the Land …”

The headache, like a ghostly finger tapping in his skull, increased incrementally.

“… while we slept after our ravenous Great Repast, for decades beneath, while the Others slept their quiescent sleeps …”

The headache seemed to nudge a little closer to his eyes, to nestle then expand, a keen, white flare of pain. His vision started to blur. He kept on reading, imagining the headache was just a fleeting feeling that would go away soon enough.

“The children … we collected … our necessary Chanters, they who spoke the words …”

The words he was reading now seemed to writhe and wiggle, to detach from the page; they floated up toward his face and spun in the air beneath his eyes; he couldn’t focus on them, they flitted and swerved like tiny birds…

“… Rh’zin Kghrechma Czed Gw’fol Sedt Skendre Jhim-mwaleh …” The book was slipping from his hands. He managed to catch it just in time and snapped his head up.

Ms. Vickershelley was rocking violently back and forth in her chair. Her knobbed, ashy hands gripped the carved arms of the rocker in a white-knuckled death grip; her eyes rolled back in her head, nothing but bloodshot sclera showing, her mouth drooling mucilage.

John’s gaze swung drunkenly around the room. He thought he saw Robert standing, dim and vague before him, uttering something unintelligible. His head drifted down. He felt compelled to keep reading, but the words were now ill-tasting mush in his mouth. He was simply blurting alien noises.

The presence opposite him, beside the fire, seemed to thrash more forcibly in her chair.

John was sweating profusely from every pore.

He tried to catch his breath, to blink the sweat out of his eyes and regain focus on the room. But then the room snapped and folded, and he was falling, spinning and plummeting fast into a deep dark crevasse yawning lazily open, swallowing him whole …

He awoke sometime later in a dark room. He was tucked in a lumpy, narrow bed under stiff covers. A silhouette knelt before him. Norma. She seemed to be shivering. Her dark hair trembled in a corona of fuzzy light from a lamp on the floor. She glanced over her shoulder at the open door and handed him a glass of tepid sinkwater.

“Drink,” she said. He took the glass and sipped.

“What’s going on?” John asked. His heartbeat was oddly slow, as if he’d been drugged. He still felt woozy. The words seemed to drag, sluggish and dull, out of his aching mouth.

“You should never have come here,” Norma hissed through gritted teeth.

“Why? What is this place? What happened to Ms. Vickershelley? What was that book I was reading?”

“That woman … Ms. Vickershelley …” Norma’s face swung lower into the zone of lamplight. John saw a grimace of fear and disgust cross her lips. “She’s not who you think she is.”

John’s heart began beating faster, then slowed again, an erratic drag in his chest. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Quiet!” Norma admonished. Looking over her shoulder, she moved closer to John, crouching lower so that their heads were level.

“She’s something else. Not like us. She uses that body as a shell, a costume. There are others like her, I’ve been told.” She closed her eyes. “They use children …”

John felt his heart sink like an anchor. “Children? What do you mean ‘use them’? For what?”

“That book she had you read. It’s a book of incantations. Spells. They keep her essence secure within her shell. Allow her to take off the costume, you could say—like taking off your clothes after a day of work. Otherwise she’s trapped in that body, which she considers her prison. Only children, or adolescents, can read the incantations for them to have effect.”

Tears glimmered in Norma’s brown eyes.

“They collect children and use them as slaves,” she said. “Robert and I, we’re her slaves too. My Celia …” At this, she broke into a muffled sob, clapping her hand over her mouth as tears eked out of her eyes.

“Our Celia… For years Ms. Vickershelley kept her locked away in the barn and forced her to read the spells every night—until she was all used up …”

“Used up?” He remembered the picture of the smiling, shy girl on the mantelpiece. He shivered, gooseflesh rising along his forearms.

“We have to get you out of here,” Norma said.

“Is Robert your husband?”

Wiping away the tears from her face and sniffling, something hardened in her features at the question, a rigid, ungiving solidity—as though her skull bones had turned to stone.

“He was. He’s nothing to me now, just a pawn. A hateful, pathetic, loathsome coward who sacrificed our only child. And now he’s willing to sacrifice others. For her. For it.”

The creaking of footsteps sounded on the hardwood floor outside. Darkness filled the gap in the door. The door swung open, revealing the darkness to be Robert.

“Is our little friend awake yet?” he asked. He stepped into the room and smiled benevolently. He knelt on his haunches beside his wife, cocked his head at the boy. John blenched when he reached out a hand to touch his shoulder. “Hi, John. You had quite the fall there earlier. Had us worried.”

He looked at his wife. “How does he seem to you, darling?”

“He’s frightened and confused,” she replied, her weary gaze still on the boy.

“That’s understandable. Very understandable. It’s been a strange experience. John … do you think you’re able to get up?”

John tried sitting up a little in the bed. His headache had abated temporarily. The dizziness, aside from a minor fuzziness between his eyes, was almost gone. Distantly, he found himself nodding.

“Because you know, we never did finish that story you started. Ms. V was just starting to get really excited when all of a sudden you had your little accident there. How ’bout we try it again, huh, partner? I’ll bet Norma might even be willing to make you a fresh cup of hot chocolate.” He winked at his wife. “What do you say, bud?”

With effort, John threw off the sheet and slowly brought his legs over the side of the bed. Shifting spots dappled his veering vision, but he managed to stand up straight. Robert stood aside and ushered him down the dim, wavering hall toward the sitting room. Moving queasily forward, as if on the deck of a yawing ship, John glanced back to see if Norma was coming. She followed behind her husband at a sedate pace.

At the entrance to the sitting room, he stopped. A knobby, hunched figure had its back to him, squatting toadlike before the fire. The whipping yellow flames outlined its narrow back, its patchy, bedraggled hair. Sensing his presence, the form jerked its chin to one side and sniffed. Curving upward, the chin revealed a vestigial horn, covered with spongy gray flesh.

Ms. Vickershelley was halfway transformed. Changing, in fact, before John’s very eyes. He stood back, too horrified to scream.

The creature he had once thought of as Ms. Vickershelley—who used to recite stories to John and his classmates, who encouraged everybody to read—pointed a cadaverous, greenish finger to the couch, indicating for him to sit. Slowly John approached, sat down.

Now he was the one who would read. To complete the transformation, so that she could shuck off this tattered shell and reveal her true self.

As though under a spell, John moved to the couch and sat down. Robert appeared at his side with the book. He handed it over with a solemnity nearing reverence. Immediately, John felt the heady presence of the book again: his head spun, the headache digging a rut between his eyes. Opening to the page where he’d left off, John saw the swimming text, the mobile, floating words.

Gh’zin Krietzh Wol’gun Vin Jhim-mwaleh,” he spoke quietly, looking up to see the creature’s reaction to the words. Doubled over, it seemed to be in wracking pain—as if it had received a knife wound to the gut—its sunken abdomen wrenching, legs twisting beneath it. Then the head snapped up and the malevolent darkened eyes pierced through the gloom of the room to John’s, as if to say, “DON’T STOP NOW.”

Xert Czed Gw’fol Su’foeg Hannel Drahn Kin-nwelto,” he continued, trying to keep his gaze on the book, focusing on the words and not on the frenetic mutation happening in front of him.

At that moment, he thought of his little brother, Ronny, and tears sprang to his eyes. The thought of him at home, now, safe from this madness. Ronny. Ronny was okay …

At some point, Norma had entered the room, bearing a tray with a steaming red mug depicting prancing reindeer on it. She set the mug on the table in front of John, nudging it forward.

When John saw the piping hot chocolate in the mug—no cream on top this time—and looked up fleetingly to make contact with Norma’s straining eyes, he knew immediately what he must do.

At the same instant Norma slammed the tray into the back of her husband’s head, John leapt for the mug and flung the hot contents into the creature’s face. The steaming liquid spattered Ms. Vickershelley’s withered visage. The heavy mug followed, making contact with a thud and cracking it between the eyes.

It shrieked in pain.

An instant later, Norma dove into the creature and shoved it into the fireplace.

“RUN!” she screamed as the half-creature howled in pain. The thing, halfway in the grate, clawed at Norma, attempting to drag her into the fire with it.

“DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU!” Norma screamed. “Just run as fast you can!”

John was already sprinting out of the sitting room—past the kitchen, down the musty hall, out the front door. He had no idea if Robert was still conscious, if he would be following him. He simply ran.

When he made it outside, the sky was starless and dark. He reached the foot of the drive, nearly slipping on black ice, and had to choose a direction. He chose left. He ran faster than he’d ever run in his life—thinking in fragments of his mother back in Arizona, of his brother and his father, even of Denise—praying he would make it out of there alive, be able to see them again. Imagining how he would tell them all about this awful, nightmarish experience, even if no one would ever believe him …

Sometime later—it could have been minutes or it could have been hours—when the twin orbs of headlights appeared in the deserted country road, he almost cried with joy. Staggering into the middle of the road, he flagged the car down, praying it would stop. Honking angrily, the vehicle swerved to the side, then ground to a halt in the snowy lane.

John was so exhausted, so physically and emotionally drained, he didn’t have time to notice the sweating and anxious driver in the front seat, nor the hideous, burnt half-human figure crouched in the rear foot well, either smiling or grimacing at him with fleshless, open arms.

Copyright © 2015 Leon Saul