The House Call
It was almost ten on that wet and stormy evening as Dr. Charles Goodman pulled his old battered Ford into the overgrown driveway, which was three miles outside of town, and half a mile from its closest neighbor.
Dr. Goodman who had quite recently graduated from medical school had always longed to be a doctor, ever since he was a child; even then he realized that the town’s only physician, Jeremiah Green, was far behind modern times. When he heard that Dr. Green had finally decided to retire, he considered it serendipity and promptly invested all the resources that he had into a modest property and modified the downstairs into a surgery.
However, upon his arrival, Charles discovered to his dismay that old cantankerous Jeremiah Green had reconsidered his decision to retire — at least for the time being. Now Charles had to make the most of what ever business he could muster. It wasn’t much, as small-town folk are always very reluctant to change unless they are forced to.
A house call... I can’t believe I got talked into making a damned house call, he contemplated as he climbed out from the warmth of the car and into the cold downpour. He pulled his raincoat tight about him, And on a wicked night such as this to boot.
All at once the coal-black night sky was streaked by a powerful bolt of lightning. A roaring round of thunder seemed to shake the heavens themselves. Charles, somewhat startled, glanced up at the large Victorian house and managed to glimpse briefly the gargoyles perched high up on the roof. Their terrifying faces appeared to be mocking him. Scowling in disgust at his overactive imagination, he hastily walked over the crumbling cobblestone pathway to the cover of the entranceway.
Wiping the rain from his eyes, he studied the oversized mahogany front door for a moment. Finally suppressing his trepidation he shrugged his shoulders and rang the bell. Haunting chimes instantly echoed throughout the house and once more rattled his frayed nerves. Rampant images formed in his avid imagination as waited for a response; images created from the multitude of wild rumors about Mrs. Higgins — the house’s owner — that had prevailed throughout the small town ever since he was a young child.
“Old Witchy Higgins,” they had nicknamed her. That had been almost twenty-five years ago, and she had seemed ancient even then. None of the children would dare venture close to her house, afraid that she might catch them.
In a few moments, he heard the door being unbolted and the door unhurriedly creaked open... He found himself trembling. He took a long, deep breath before he was finally able to speak, allowing himself time to examine carefully the seemingly frail, smiling old lady that was now in standing front of him.
‘Utterly harmless,’ he concluded to himself, ashamed that such an educated man as he had been so very vulnerable to childish superstitions.
“Good evening,” he said with a new-found assertiveness, “I am here regarding Mr. Carrington.”
Mrs. Higgins’ expression suddenly transformed from a gentle smile into a warm welcoming grin. “Please, please come in from that horrid rain and cold,” she urged, ushering him inside. “What a truly dreadful evening this is.”
Charles obliged and soon discovered himself in a dark hallway which must have been almost seventy feet long. The paneled walls were covered with dozens of wonderfully detailed oil portraits.
“Please take off your wet coat and I will take you directly to Mr. Carrington.” She pointed to a coat stand. Her voice was buoyant and sounded as if it belonged to a much younger woman.
“You see, it was really most very naughty of him,” she continued. “He fell out of the tree while trying to escape. He is such a mischievous boy, you know, and the poor dear hurt himself rather bad, I am afraid. This way please. He is just through here.”
‘A cat!’ Charles thought in dismay, ‘she has called me out for a stupid cat.’
Mrs. Higgins led the now bewildered doctor along the hallway, and as he cautiously walked along he could swear that the meticulously painted eyes in the paintings were desperately trying to tell him something.
All at once Mrs. Higgins swung about and there was a sudden flash.
“What on Earth?” Charles yelled as he rubbed his now dazed eyes.
“Just a photo my dear...You see I am a painter and I like to paint from photographs. They are a sort of keepsake you see, a way I can forever remember your wonderful act of kindness towards my beloved Mr. Carrington.”
They arrived at the end of the passageway which met the grand double stairway. Mrs. Higgins stopped.
“Up here?” Charles queried, wishing now he had never come.
“No, down here,” Mrs. Higgins replied as she pulled open a door underneath the stairwell.
This is a new low, he thought as he stared down into the dark and ominous cellar.
“That is right,” Mrs. Higgins enthused as she rubbed her hands together with excitement. “Mr. Carrington is injured down there. There is no electric light, I am afraid... But here, use my flashlight.”
Charles wanted desperately to turn and leave but he saw how hopeful Mrs. Higgins' eyes were.
This cat is probably her only companion. She might die if anything happened to it, he thought, trying to sum up all his courage. Charles smiled at the old lady and, reluctantly, turned on the flashlight and began to descend the steep stone stairs. The flashlight was very dim, and a disgusting, pungent smell of rotting flesh filled his nostrils.
There must be dead rats down here that the cat has killed, he reasoned.
All at once there was a hideous shriek, and he became aware that something large was rapidly moving towards him. He frantically shone the flashlight upwards just in time to catch a glimpse of an enormous claw. It ripped at his cheek, and he hastily attempted to race back up the stairs.
“I thought it was a cat down there!” he screamed in horror. Sweat beaded upon his bloodied face as he tried desperately to clamber back up the stairs.
“Now whatever made you think Mr. Carrington was a cat?” Mrs. Higgins giggled. Her faded eyes were sparkling. She slammed the door shut and bolted it.
“Feeding time, Mr. Carrington,” she cooed lovingly. “Come and get it!”
* * *
Mrs. Higgins, a month later, was proudly hanging her new painting amongst the others in the hallway when she heard a familiar rumbling from under the stairs.
“I think I should order a pizza delivered,” she whispered to herself and began to cackle uncontrollably.
Copyright © 2006 by P. S. Gifford