by Allen Kopp
I was in trouble. Some people were after me. I had no other place to go, so I went home after more than twenty years. My mother was all that was left of family. I was shocked at how old she looked.
“You’re keeping well,” I lied when she let me into the house.
“I hardly know you,” she said. “If it’s money you need, you won’t get any from me.”
“Want nothing,” I said. “Only to see you.”
“Don’t know yet. I might stay the night and I might not. It depends.”
“There’s food in the kitchen, but you’ll have to fix it yourself. I cook for no one. You can sleep wherever you want, or you can go to the devil.”
“Thank you for your hospitality, mama,” I said, but the irony was lost on her.
The house was the same as I remembered it. So many rooms I had never counted them all. Once a fine house, a house that rich people lived in, but now mostly a ruin. Secret passages and dead spaces in the walls and floors. Creaks and groans from the unsettled spirits, or was it the wind? The nearest neighbor ten miles away.
The room I had slept in as a child was sealed off, so I chose the same room on the floor above, aired it out and tried to make it comfortable. I found some clean sheets in a closet and made up the bed. Old and musty-smelling but serviceable.
I hardly saw my mother for two days. I got myself cleaned up, ate from cans in the kitchen and rested. I was happy in the knowledge that nobody knew where I was. Let them find me. Just let them try.
One evening I was sitting in my room looking out the window with my gun resting on the sill. My mother crept up behind me. I heard her breathing. I reached for my gun and pointed it at her without thinking about what I was doing.
“My god, but you are jumpy!” she said.
“Maybe it’s better if you don’t sneak up on me.”
“We need to have a little talk.”
I sighed and put the gun back. “I don’t think we have anything to talk about,” I said.
“You need to know some things before I die.”
“Are you going to die?”
“I’m older even than you think. I was fifty years old when you were born.”
“Yeah? The less said about that the better.”
“The house is yours when I cross over.”
“Is that because you love me so much?”
“No, it’s because you’re the only one left. I’d rather it belonged to you than to a stranger.”
“If you’re dead, you won’t even know.”
She sat down on the bed and put her hands on her knees. “I knew you’d come back,” she said.
“So you think I’ll go on living here after you die?”
“You have to carry on.”
“Carry on what? Being the resident ghoul?”
“It’ll take somebody of my blood.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Do you remember that trapdoor in the basement?”
“The one you were always telling me to stay away from?”
“There was a reason why I didn’t want you to go near it.”
“You were afraid I’d fall down in there and drown? Wasn’t it full of water?”
“No, it’s never been full of water. I just told you that so you wouldn’t be over-curious.”
“What was down there, then?”
“Come along with me. I want to show you something.”
One of the last things in the world I wanted to do was to go to the basement with my mother, but I slipped on my shoes and followed her. She stopped in the kitchen and picked up a bowlful of what to me looked like food scraps and garbage with a rotten tinge.
When we came to the basement door, she handed me the bowl of slop to hold while she fumbled with the keys. The door swung open on its squeaky hinges and I followed her inside.
The house was built into the side of a hill, so the basement sloped downward. She went to the farthest side, nimbly dodging the crap that littered the way. She seemed to be able to see in the murk better than I did.
“Haven’t been down here since I was about twelve,” I said.
At the trapdoor, she waited for me to catch up with her. “Now listen,” she commanded. “You won’t be able to see anything, but you can hear.”
She opened the trapdoor and poured the contents of the bowl down it.
“You use it as a garbage dump?” I asked.
I didn’t know what I was listening for, but soon I heard it: a low growl followed by the definite sound of chewing.
“Do you hear it?” she asked.
“What is it?”
“It’s a gulwart, one of maybe only five or six in the world.”
“What’s a gulwart?”
She closed the trapdoor and we went back upstairs. In the kitchen, I sat at the table with my back to the wall. She filled the kettle with water and put it on the stove.
“What’s a gulwart?” I repeated.
“It’s an animal,” she said.
“You have an animal living under the basement floor?”
“Is it like a mole or a gopher?”
“No, much larger than that. Much more ferocious.”
“Is it a kind of lizard?”
“I don’t think so. I’ve only seen it once and that was just its eyes and the top of its head.”
“And you feed it garbage?”
“Kitchen scraps, but sometimes other things, too.”
She had a coughing spell and when she stopped coughing she said, “You might as well know the truth. I sometimes have to feed it a body, preferably a live one. A dead one will do, though, if it’s recently dead.”
I laughed. “I think you’re playing a joke on me.”
“Did you ever know me to play a joke on anybody?” she asked.
“So, let me see if I’ve got this straight,” I said. “You kill people and feed them to the gulwart?”
“The gulwart kills them.”
“Who are they?”
“Oh, people who come snooping around where they shouldn’t. Sometimes hunters who come into the woods to kill my animals.”
“An occasional bum or two. Sometimes people who have committed crimes and are hiding out in the woods. They all deserve to die.”
“And this you do all by yourself?”
“Your brother Kerwin used to help me until he hanged himself in the attic.”
“You never told me Kerwin killed himself. You said he died in prison.”
“I thought it best to keep the truth hidden.”
“You fed him to the gulwart?”
“His dead body, yes.”
“And you want me to pick up where he left off?”
“I want you to carry on after I’m gone.”
“Feeding the gulwart.”
“That and making sure nobody ever knows about it. The last thing we need is to have people snooping around.”
“What if I say no?”
“I said no at first, too,” she said.
“Why don’t you just kill the thing, whatever it is?”
“I would never do that. It knows the secrets of my heart. Of yours, too.”
I thought for a minute and wished I had a cigarette. “The thing must have burrowed in under the house,” I said. “If you stop feeding it, it’ll go away.”
“It’s been there for hundreds of years,” she said. “It won’t ever go away.”
“Like a family curse?” I asked.
“Make me one promise,” she said.
“You know I’m not good at promises.”
“Be here when I die and feed my body to the gulwart.”
“How about if I just call the funeral home and have them come around and pick you up and get you ready to go into a grave like a normal person?”
“That won’t do.”
“Who will feed my body to the gulwart when my time comes?” I asked.
“That’s a problem you’ll have to figure out on your own,” she said.
When my mother died, it was in her sleep with a tiny smile on her face. I was happy she had a peaceful death. I wrapped her in sheets, read some Bible verses over her because I thought that’s what she would have wanted, and took her down to the basement and fed her to the gulwart.
On a spring day the bad men from my past caught up with me. I had gone for a little walk in the woods. As I was coming around the house to go back inside, they were just standing there looking at me. There were five of them. Piper, the leader, was pointing a gun at me.
“We all pay for our sins,” he said. “Now it’s time for you to pay for yours.”
I knew they wouldn’t shoot me on the spot because if they did they wouldn’t get what they came for. “How are you boys doing?” I said.
“We’re just fine now that we’ve found you,” Piper said.
“I never knew I was so popular.”
“You know what we want,” Piper said.
“What makes you think it’s here?”
“It better be here, or we’re going to peel all your skin off and feed it to the hogs.”
“Well, come on inside, all of you. We can’t talk out here. It’s going to rain.”
I held the door for them as they came inside. Piper kept the gun pointed at my back the whole time.
“Sit down, boys, and make yourselves comfortable,” I said.
Balbo, the former boxer, hit me in the gut before I had a chance to re-close the door. I went down and couldn’t get back up again for a few minutes.
“There’s plenty more where that came from,” Balbo said.
“Come on,” Piper said. “Let’s not hurt him until we get what we came for. Then you can kill him all you want.”
“How about a drink?” I said. “There’s plenty of liquor in the house.”
“Got any food in the house?” Howard asked.
“Sure,” I said. “I’ve got lots of food. My mother recently passed away, so it’s just me now. Why don’t you fellows just relax and I’ll grill some steaks and we’ll get this party going?”
“Got any scotch?”
“Sure, I got scotch,” I said. “I’ve got scotch, bourbon, vermouth, wine, beer. Anything you want. I’ll make a pitcher of Manhattans. How will that be?”
“Go with him,” Piper said to one of the other men. “If he tries to get away, shoot him.”
“Oh, I won’t try to get away,” I said. “I promise.”
I had become a pretty good cook from all the years I lived alone. I grilled some steaks, baked some potatoes and whipped up a salad. I put the food on the table for them. In a few minutes they were asking for more steaks.
It was the liquor that got them, though. They were all lushes. I kept the liquor flowing. I set the bottles on the table so they could help themselves.
Outside there was a thunderstorm brewing. Every time there was a flash of lightning, Piper looked at the window and flinched.
“Nothing like a good thunderstorm,” I said. “I ordered this one special for the occasion.”
“We’re not going back tonight,” Piper said. “We’ll stay here until morning,”
“Glad to have you,” I said. “I’ve got plenty of room and I don’t get that many guests.”
“Shut up, you!” Balbo snarled.
“Yes, sir!” I said.
In that way, with their judgment impaired from the liquor, I was able to get them down to the basement and to the gulwart one by one. They were stupider and easier to trick than I ever gave them credit for. By morning the thunderstorm was over and I was thug-free.
I was grateful to the gulwart and I was beginning to understand what my mother had meant about not wanting to kill it. I would stay around for a while and see what happened. The five bodies, I’m sure, would keep the gulwart satisfied for a while. A long while, I hoped. In the meantime I would keep feeding it garbage. I had even stopped being afraid to go down there alone.
Allen Kopp lives in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. He has had over a hundred short stories appearing in such diverse publications as A Twist of Noir, Bartleby-Snopes, Danse Macabre, Skive Magazine, Sleet Magazine, The Release Magazine, Penmen Review, Santa Fe Writers’ Project Journal, Superstition Review, Creaky Door Magazine, Wilde Oats, Abandoned Towers Magazine, Dew on the Kudzu, Belle Reve Literary Journal, Midwestern Gothic Literary Journal, Short Story America, and many others. His Internet home is: www.literaryfictions.com