In this creepy story, Annabeth learns that her step-mother is hiding a terrible secret.
Annabeth hated Cheryl.
There was no sense in trying to call it anything but what it was. Hate. Her step-Mother sat there at the table, smiling and chatting with her father about all the wonderful things that had happened to her while at work. Annabeth sat there, brooding, pushing food around on her dinner plate, tolerating the need to sit in the same room with this terrible woman. The alternative was starving.
“Beth,” Cheryl said to her out of the blue, making her jump in her seat, “how was school today?”
That’s not my name, Annabeth wanted to shout at the woman. How dare she sit there next to her father in her dead Mother’s old blue dress with her blonde hair all done up in a perfect ponytail and smile like nothing was wrong. She couldn’t even get Annabeth’s name right.
But that wasn’t why Annabeth hated her.
“It was fine,” she mumbled, because she knew that if she didn’t then her father would jump in and have to take sides between her and Cheryl and she didn’t want to have to put him in that spot.
“That’s all, just fine?” Cheryl said, with a cruel smirk.
With a sigh, Annabeth put her fork down. “Can I be excused?”
Across from her, Annabeth’s older sister gave her a look. It was the don’t-rock-the-boat face that Zoe used so often these days. Her sister had accepted the new marriage and their new step-Mother easily. Of course, Zoe was in college now and she was hardly in the house – ever. It was Annabeth who had to put up with Cheryl being here, living here, kissing her father, moving into this house just three weeks after mom died…
She glared back at Zoe. “I’m not hungry.”
Her sister rolled her eyes, and then tilted her head in the direction of their father. She could almost hear the words. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t make waves. Don’t ruin this for our dad.
Their father, the humble and clueless John Abrams, finally leaned forward as if to interrupt the mental conversation between the sisters. “It’s all right, Annabeth. If you want to go up to your room and start your homework, go ahead.”
That was so not what she wanted to do. But, the choice was easy. She’d take calculus over sitting here with the woman who stole her Mother’s place.
Getting up from the table she saw the way Zoe’s eyes rolled at her. Too bad. Their Mother had died just a few weeks before this woman came waltzing into this house. How could no one else see her as the intruder she was?
She brought her plate to the sink and set it there, looking up at the wall over the counter at the pictures of their family. Her Mother was in a lot of them, smiling at her with a face so like Annabeth’s. Pretty, with dark curly hair and eyes that…
…winked at her.
Annabeth jumped and dropped her plate to the floor, where it shattered, sending shards of porcelain and pieces of broccoli everywhere.
“Beth!” her step-Mother snapped.
“It wasn’t my fault!” she insisted, pointing at the picture of her Mother…that was the same as it always had been – her Mother’s face frozen in place.
Of course. It couldn’t have moved. It was just a picture.
“That’s okay, Annabeth,” her father was saying. He stepped up behind her and put his hands on his shoulders. “I miss her, too.”
“Do you?” she said, before she could think better of it.
His hands stiffened for a moment, then withdrew. “Yes,” he said. “I do.”
Then he turned and walked out of the kitchen, probably going to his study where he spent most of his time now. With a heavy sigh Annabeth went to get the broom to clean up her mess.
Zoe stepped away from the table now, angrily throwing down her napkin, her glare settling on Annabeth again. “I cannot believe you.”
And she went off to her room, leaving Annabeth alone with her step-Mother.
She cringed as she began sweeping the floor, because she knew what was coming next.
“Why do you hate me?” Cheryl asked softly, walking over to stand behind Annabeth.
“I don’t hate you,” Annabeth mumbled, hoping the lie wasn’t too obvious.
“Yes, you do.” Her step-Mother said as she placed her hands on Annabeth’s shoulders and began to squeeze.
“Liar!” Annabeth snapped, ignoring the pain in her shoulder, dropping the broken plate in the sink, dustpan and all. “You knew my dad before mom even died. You hated her! I know you did!”
“Beth…,” Cheryl said.
The dustpan flew out of the sink, flinging tiny shards of broken plate and chunks of food at Cheryl. Cheryl flailed as she tried to protect her face, but a shard of the broken plate cut her on the cheek.
Cheryl she lunged across the floor, dripping blood, and grabbed Cheryl by her arms and began dragging her across the floor.
“You,” she hissed, “are an ungrateful little brat!”
“I didn’t do it,” Annabeth protested her innocence. “I didn’t do it!”
Cheryl shook her, and then pushed Annabeth to the floor, but it was enough to bring tears to Annabeth’s eyes. Her Mother never would have done this to her. Her Mother had loved her.
This woman didn’t know the meaning of the word.
“I’m your Mother now,” Cheryl grated out through clenched teeth. “Your other Mother is dead, she abandoned you when she killed herself. You must obey me!”
Annabeth couldn’t help it. She broke down in tears of rage. Her Mother had died suddenly, unexpectedly, and left a giant hole in the family. A hole this…terror had burrowed her way into. She’d never been sorry about her Mother’s death.
And Annabeth hated her for it.
“Now clean this mess up,” Cheryl commanded with a wave of her hand. “Then go straight to bed. I’ve had enough of you tonight.”
The lights in the room dimmed and the house seemed to groan for a moment.
Cheryl stood up, looking around her. “Oh, this house. I can’t stand this house – your Mother had awful taste.”
Annabeth gaped at her. She hated this house too? Would she make her father move? Sure. Of course she would. First she took her father away, and now she was going to take her home from her, too.
“Why don’t you just go!” Annabeth screamed. “Just go!”
Cheryl took her by her arm again, digging her bright pink nails into Annabeth’s arm. Annabeth screamed on the inside, but refused to give Cheryl the satisfaction of crying out. Annabeth could tell how much Cheryl wanted it to hurt. “I am your Mother now. I will make the decisions for this family. Not you. Do you understand me?”
On the other side of the kitchen, the basement door opened, slamming against the wall.
Annabeth tore her arm free of Cheryl’s grip, not allowing herself to show how much it hurt, wiping tears away from her face with the back of her hand. “I suppose that’s my fault, too?”
“That stupid cat,” Cheryl grumbled, fisting her hands together at her chest and seething. “Why can’t all just do as I say. You will regret crossing me, just like your Mother did!”
“Wh-what do you mean,” Annabeth asked. The way her step-Mother had said that…what did she mean?
“Go get your cat and bring him back up here,” Cheryl ordered her.
Annabeth hesitated. She had never liked the basement. It was dark and dirty down there. Boxes were stacked up everywhere and things skittered in the corners that might have been spiders or something worse. Her Mother had always made it all right to go down there. She always made Annabeth feel safe down there, by holding her hand and talking to her. Nothing to worry about down here, her Mother used to say. Nothing to worry about except your own fear.
But since her Mother died, every time Annabeth went down in the basement, all she felt was alone. Cold, and afraid, and alone.
“I’m not going down there,” she told her step-Mother.
“You will go down there,” Cheryl said angrily, “if I have to drag you down there myself.”
Taking Annabeth by the wrist, Cheryl made good on her threat and hauled her, nearly off her feet, to the open door of the basement.
“Cheryl, no!” Annabeth struggled against her step-Mother’s hand, but her grip was like iron.
“I am your Mother now,” she said, her voice deadly calm. “You will do what I say. And,” she added, whirling Cheryl around to face her at the top of the basement steps, “you will call me Mother.”
Cheryl smiled cruelly and said, “We’ll see.”
Down the steps they went. Annabeth had to keep up or risk tripping over her own two feet and falling face first down the stairs. At the bottom, Cheryl shoved Annabeth ahead of her, into the room. “Now find your cat. I don’t want to be down here all night.”
Annabeth froze. There was a sudden, overwhelming cold that gripped her as strongly as her step-Mother’s hand had. It seeped into her through the cement floor under her feet and from the air around her. She rubbed her hands up and down her arms, watching as her breath misted in front of her.
“Oh for the love of God,” Cheryl screeched. “Look. Just look!”
She had Annabeth by the arm again, dragging her around the basement. It was a long space, as wide as the house, with metal shelves of paint cans and cleaners and junk standing in the middle.
“Where is that cat?” Cheryl demanded after a few minutes of searching. “I cannot believe this. I did not go through everything I went through to get your father to marry me, just to have you ruin it all!”
Annabeth’s heart stopped. She’d never heard Cheryl talk like this.
Something bad had happened. Was Cheryl responsible for her Mother’s disappearance?
“Gah!” Cheryl finally snapped in frustration. “Whatever. That cat can starve down here for all I care.”
From under the stairs, from behind the brick wall, a scratching sound started.
How did the cat get in there?” Annabeth wondered. The wall was solid, from side to side. No holes. No way in or out.
Cheryl’s jaw dropped, and she began to mutter gibberish under her breath. She backed away from the wall, and then bolted up to the top of the stair case.
The scratching came again, this time louder.
At the top of the stairs, the door was closed and locked. Annabeth watched as Cheryl tugged and yanked on the doorknob and then desperately pounded on the door with her fist.
Thump, thump, thump.
Annabeth looked at the spot where the noise was coming from. The scratching turned to pounding. As she watched, the wall began to shift. A few of the bricks pushed outwards, and fell with a thud onto the floor.
Cheryl gave up on opening the door, and began to descend the staircase, oblivious to what happening with the wall.
She called down the staircase to Annabeth with renewed confidence, “You awful, awful little girl. Thought it would be funny to play a prank of me, did you?”
Annabeth, standing between Cheryl and the brick wall, stammered, “I.. uhh.. you need to..”
Cheryl cut her off and said in a silky smooth voice, “I think it is time for you to disappear, just like your Mother.” Cheryl picked up a hammer lying on a nearby workbench and slowly moved towards Annabeth.
Annabeth stood still, stunned at this revelation about her Mother.
“There’s something behind the bricks,” Annabeth told her, backing away from Cheryl, hoping to distract her.
Cheryl’s eyes became wild, darting from Annabeth to the crumbling brick wall.
Annabeth finally made the connection. She now understood that Cheryl planned for Annabeth to join whatever lie behind the brick wall.
Cheryl, with a clenched jaw and eyes full of hate, raised the hammer in the air and lunged towards Annabeth.
With a loud crash, the bricks gave way and a decayed hand shot out of the darkness. Long, pale fingers with impossibly sharp fingernails sunk into Cheryl’s arm. Cheryl gasped as a grey body in a torn and dirty dress crawled its way out of the hole in the wall. A woman. A woman with a once pretty face that looked so much like Annabeth’s.
“Leave my daughter alone,” the dead woman said to Cheryl, in a cold voice. “You killed me and locked my body away, making my family believe I had committed suicide. You robbed me of my family.”
She started to pull Cheryl into the wall, into the tight space behind with her. Cheryl screamed, desperately trying to pry the dead fingers out of her arm.
When Cheryl had been pulled into the space behind, Annabeth watched as her Mother’s hands collected the bricks, one by one, and pulled them back into their spaces, sealing the hole.
The police came to investigate Cheryl’s disappearance, but Annabeth knew better than to tell them what had happened. That was a one-way ticket to a Mental Hospital. The police did, however, find Cheryl’s diary, where she documented in detail how she killed Annabeth’s Mother. Her family was never the same after that. Zoe went off to college, and her father continued to wallow in a confused depression, but at least her Mother had freed their family, and gotten revenge.