The Marsons returned from their weekend trip in better moods than they had been in weeks. Even Tom, who was optimistic to the point of absurdity, remarked that the break was just what he needed.
The family parked their Suburban next to the house and piled onto the driveway. The stones crunched underfoot as they made their way to the porch. When Tom managed to push the door open with a shove, he laughed — but not before cursing first. “Prob’ly should’ve had that repaired first. Damn door.”
“This house is a laundry list of repairs, Dad,” Cora said, shaking her head.
Marcy entered first and frowned. “I thought that shifty Mr. Rue was supposed to have removed all the vermin from this place.”
Tom and Cora were right behind her.
“I don’t smell anything,” Cora said, sniffing. “Maybe it’s just in your head, Mom.”
“Well, it’s possible a stray rodent might’ve gotten caught in one of the traps,” Tom remarked. “I’ll call him and have him come back tomorrow.”
“Ugh,” Marcy said. “I knew my good mood wouldn’t last. I hope he finds whatever’s making that smell and gets rid of it once and for all. I don’t–”
“There’s no smell, Mom!” Cora snapped and stomped up the stairs before Marcy could protest.
x x x
Mr. Rue was only too happy to return on Monday morning.
“I can make an exception for a beautiful lady like you,” he told Marcy over the phone.
Marcy refrained from saying something snide. “Just come out to the house and get the job done, Mr. Rue. My husband would’ve called you himself if he didn’t have to leave so early.” She ended the call and glared at the gutted kitchen. “Tom, you’re in hot water for this. This house was your idea. Your project. Now it’s become my problem, and that problem has a name — Walter Rue.”
Ten minutes later, Mr. Rue arrived at the front door. Marcy hoped the workers would arrive shortly. Being in a large house with a slithery man and a teenage daughter who tuned out the world with her music twisted Marcy’s insides into a knot.
“I think it’s coming from the basement,” Marcy said, letting him in.
Mr. Rue gazed around the house. He stopped all pretense and frowned. “You said there was a putrid odor, Mrs. Marson. I have to be honest, I don’t smell a thing.”
“I’m telling you. There’s a smell, and it’s all throughout the house.”
“Then why do you say it’s coming from the basement? It could just as easily be the attic, in the walls–”
“Then check the attic!” Marcy shouted. “What do I care? Do something! That’s what you’re paid for, isn’t it?”
Mr. Rue held up his big hands. “All right, Mrs. Marson. Whatever you like. No need to yell.”
“I’m sorry, but you try living in this dump for three weeks with that stench and see how you feel.” Marcy deflated and turned away with a throbbing headache.
Mr. Rue nodded and backed away toward the stairs. He reached the top and shrugged. Funny thing about the attic was that it had been locked. No one had a key, and to cut corners, he hadn’t gone up there — despite his claim otherwise.
He frowned at the door at the end of the hall, his every nerve on fire. When Mr. Rue was Wally and about two hundred and fifty pounds lighter, he wet the bed every night. He told Mama it was the “boy wit’ the funny lip” who scared him. Little Wally knew a thing or two about old houses and how some of their inhabitants never really left. He’d wake at 2:00 AM to find “Funny Lip” floating nose-to-nose with him, that broken grin on his lopsided face. He’d piss himself yet again, knowing he was in for another lashing with Pop’s belt come morning. A blink and “Funny Lip” would be gone.
Years later, Mr. Rue knew “Funny Lip” had a cleft lip, which explained his strange smile, but that didn’t explain why “Funny Lip” visited him every night until he moved out the day he turned eighteen.
Something about the Marsons’ attic reminded Mr. Rue of “Funny Lip.” That same tingle on the skin, like something was there but not. But then deeper, a snake constricting his vital organs to the point of asphyxiation.
He now stood in front of the door. His hand trembled as he gripped the knob with his sweaty palm. He could just stop and leave. They weren’t paying him enough for this.
The handle turned. The door opened inward, a long creeeaaaak, as if just waking after a sound slumber. The narrow staircase disappeared into darkness. He tried the switch to no avail and took the first step.